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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Adventure, Part IV, or Joseph K. Rents a Car

The amazing thing about the San Francisco airport, to me, is that I ever managed to find my way out of it. The signs posted never tell you to turn here; the place you wanted just drops away, and you’re left to wander endlessly like the Flying Dutchman. Had it not been for the kindness of a succession of strangers, I’m pretty sure that I would still be looking for the tram to the car rental agencies, already semi-legendary and entirely doomed.

And yet, get to the car rental agency I did. The agent asked where I was headed, and I told him San Rafael. He winced and said in the voice of one who had seen too much, “Oooh. It’s rush hour. Traffic’s pretty bad. It’ll take you at least an hour.”

I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but I’m from Atlanta, G-A, where it sometimes takes an hour to get out of the driveway and into traffic. Getting over 30 miles through the middle of a city at rush hour in 60 minutes is our equivalent to teleportation. Savoring my smugness, I gathered my belongings and the various folders and documents he had assembled for me and found my way to the parking garage to get the car.

Now, perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but in my experience of renting cars, a particular vehicle was always either driven up or pointed out. That was the car that had been determined by some higher power that I should drive until I returned it with the gas tank full some time later. But that’s not how these Northern California free spirits worked. As I walked out into the parking deck, the guy who passes out the cars said to me, “What are you getting? A medium?” (I swear. He didn’t say “midsize.” He said “medium” like I was ordering a coffee. And then I looked up at the sign dangling from the ceiling. It said “medium,” too. I wasn’t in Oz anymore.)

So, he points to a selection of vehicles and says, “Just take any one of those.” No higher power. No computer matching of driver to ride. Just my questionable knowledge of automobiles and color preferences to guide me. A vague, Kafkaesque feeling burbled up inside me. Which would it be? I am a foreigner. An alien. I must be as inconspicuous as possible. But wait! What’s this? A red Grand Am? Hot spit! I want one!

I got in the car and put my belongings in the passenger seat. I turned the key, and it started, purring like the proverbial kitten. Like ice cream melting in a microwave, I could feel myself change. Or maybe it was like Kool-Aid in the freezer, because I was getting cooler by the second. The windows were open, so I pulled on the switches to power them closed. And nothing happened.

I pushed down on the switches. Nothing. I tried them separately. Zero. In a matter of seconds, my self image went from the “James Bond” setting to somewhere around “Mortimer Snerd.” I turned off the car, gathered my things, and proceeded to a nice, almost invisible vehicle a couple of spaces down.

It wasn’t a Grand Am. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure what model it was. It didn’t say on the front or the back. I got in and looked at the glove box. Nothing. So I looked at the steering wheel. Apparently, I was driving a Chevy Airbag. Fortified with this knowledge, I started it up, checked the power windows to make sure that they worked, put it in gear, and sallied forth to meet my fate.

Tomorrow, Part V: You Can’t Get There from He—Oh, Wait, Yes You Can


Robert G. Margolis said...


Is that...the Joseph K.? A.k.a., Joseph the K. or, to his close friends and informants, just plain "Special"? He and I were schoolmates together, at the Kafka School for Remedial Conformity, back when were growing up together in small-engine, aspiring
two-car-garage Amerika. It was the Amerika today's best Nostalgia Tank brains are daily inventing for public consumption, Len, and countless people who weren't there, or even born yet, or asking whatever happened to it.

As I recall, "Special", he never paid much attention in our ancient mythology class (he used to snigger at Homer, called him "Blind Troy Boy", and called his hero "Odious"). Though he did, once, get forcibly removed, by armed hall monitors, from one class session for claiming itwasn't a "lone gunman". We all just laughed nervously at that, thinking "Special" K's vivid imagination had let Homer's description of Polyphemus get to him. That "lone eye" thing and all.

"Special" the K., he saw things Norman Rockwell had never painted. And that, sometimes, made him quite a trial to be around. For example, he claimed that TV was invented to alter and control perceptions. He talked a lot about, what he referred to as, "the system". He said it like it was a bad thing, when we all knew your car couldn't run without one!

Ironies abound here, Len. Joseph K., when I knew him, adamantly refused to learn how to drive or even ride in a car. He said it was the government preparing the populace for further regimentation (like staying between the lines) or becomming tank fodder in future wars. And here you tell us that not only did he fly in an airplane (long after, as "Special" predicted they would, the government bailed out the airline industry that couldn't survive on its own without a war), but he also drive a car while accompanying Odysseus on the kind of journey Joe K. used to make fun of Homer for writing about!

Joseph K. was wrong, after all, Len. That "system" he warned us about, it really does work!

Len said...

You know, up in Canada, they used to say that "Joe K. is a joke. Eh?" Of course he was all wrong. Wrong about what? Well, that is not the point. We have documents. Witnesses. Proof can be found, manufactured. No, proof is not to the point, despite its presence in pudding. And his friend, Greg! What a pest! He really bugs me. What he needs is a change. If anyone wants me, I'll be in the castle waiting for the trial to begin. If there is a trial. Or isn't.

Robert G. Margolis said...

I am reminded that Joseph the K. called himself "the fifth beetle"--either he meant "beetle" like his friend Gregor or a later generation design of his friend Adolph's car for the Volk.

However, his friend Gregor was not a "beetle" nor did he experience a "metamorphosis", both of these are mistaken and misleading translations of the German we learned at the Kafka School of Remedial Conformity.
It occurs to me that maybe Adolph misunderstood Gregor as well and designed his car based on what he mistakenly thought Gregor was.

Maybe the rent-a-car Joseph the K. drove, in your story, was a descendant of that car for the Volk. Maybe Joseph the K. was driving the fifth beetle!

Robert G. Margolis said...

And so it was: Joseph the K.--Amerika's very own "Special" K, Odysseus, and Sallie Forth, their siren gal pal Friday, riding in their rented fifth beetle, were on a road trip, and they just couldn't resist following the route so many movies before them had followed in entertaining Amerika. That's right, though they'd only just met, they formed an amateur detective agency, right there on highway, keeping their heads down, as they drove, to avoid having them ripped right off their necks by tricked, tranced and mutated motel residents whose lower bodies were vicious dogs that barked ferociously at everyone who passed by. These love-maddened maddogs were the self-appointed guardians of the Bridge.

Ancient mythology was a heartbreak a minute, the way the gods, who, when it came to love, didn't know any better than humans, fell in and out of love, often under the influence of some spell or potion. Which meant, the three already had a case. Helen's latest Troy Boy had left her. Helen was Mr. Zeus' daughter, and her episodic love life seemed poisoned by the Fates themselves. They were on their way to match wits with the Fates and to meet with a Mr. Zeus of Olympus Construction (specializing in mountain retreat getaway homes for the uber wealthy--"Above The Clouds, Above The Crowds: Homes Mere Mortals Cannot Afford"). First they stopped at Circe-City, the discount electronics store, where the bought a state of the art siren song jamming device; that way, they could keep the top of the fifth beetle down, Sallie Forth could have the wind in her air, but without the danger they would lose their way by taking any exits of no-return or that they'd be tempted to give up their quest for a song.

They stopped to eat (and to avoid being eaten) at The Hart Crane Memorial Rest Area. It had a spectacular view of the Bridge. Just beyond the Bridge, a World of Big for the Sake of Big loomed up, making each of them, subconciously, question the scale and proportion of their lives and of how they'd lived them until that moment. The closer they neared to the Bridge, the louder, more intense, more insidious the whispers became: "Jump, jump, jump…" Why did the World of Big want so desperately to kill its newest noveau admirers, and before they'd even had a chance to learn how to accept their newly scaled smallness and to fit in? The answer to that unvoiced question, said Joseph the K., his face taught with grim determination and sensing the fear of his companions, was with Mr. Zeus who, that very moment, was in his castle and enjoying his grandchildren as they popped in and out of his head.

But first, they had to cross the Bridge.

Anonymous said...

We missed out on a Red Grand Am just so you could make the windows go up? Sheeesh... details, details. What about the kick a*s, rock and roll 'tude that is required to make time with the very special ladies of San Raffy? I just know that the waitress at Chili's saw me pull up in the '96 Camry and it was over before I walked in the door. What I didn't know was that I could blame you. I feel better already.

Hammy Sagar