America, Part 3

I wrote this a week ago but never posted it. In the spirit of cleaning up my loose ends, here it is, followed by the news that you’ve all been waiting for: my choice of internet and phone provider. After bashing ATT for a year, after my eyes have opened to the ease and service and affordability that the rest of the world provides its citizens, let’s see which company wins out as I settle back into America.




From May 31, 2014:


The airport in Los Angeles is ragged. Both international and domestic terminals dim next to the glitzy welcomes in Sri Lanka and Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, plus the more likely places like Perth and Sydney and Auckland. America is wearing Salvation Army castoffs, frayed at the edges and fading in color. Its poor little brothers in the world have grown up and prospered.




We fly up the coast of California. It’s beautiful down there, the fog meeting the ocean and the Grapevine and Monterey. Down there are the forests and the smells of the forests that I know so well. Big Sur, the Santa Cruz mountains, and now the plane lowers over the bay and down there is the San Mateo Bridge and lower we go, lower still until it appears yet again for the hundredth time in my life that we’ll be landing on water. And then the land comes up to meet us and so do the words of the flight attendant: “Welcome to San Francisco.”


We gather our bags and wait outside for Andrea to circle around and pick us up. We don’t see her, and now it’s been a half hour. Unlike every other country on the planet (or at least the 18 we visited), there is no kiosk at the airport to sell us temporary data and phone plans. We can’t contact Andrea. We have no way to contact Andrea.


Then she appears, walking up to us like it was just another day. The embrace is firm and sincere, this embrace of our friend and our home. We walk to the parking garage to fetch her car but she’s lost, has no idea what the message she’s written on the palm of her hand—G3A—is supposed to indicate. We wander, at first in amusement that of all the challenges throughout our world odyssey, that this search for a Subaru in a parking garage would be the most daunting. One hour later—yes, one hour—we loaded up our bags and opened the wrong door to get into the car.


First thought: How odd to sit on the right side as a passenger, and how odd to drive on the right side of the road. But it was lovely to be so chauffeured, for us in our groggy sleep-deprived state to settle back into our thick leather seats and utter a sound every so often.


“Does anyone miss us?” Liam asked Andrea from the back seat.


“I’ll give you an idea of how much you’re missed, Liam Toner. I asked Huck [her son] to come with me to Farmer’s Market this morning, and he said, ‘No, I won’t go until Liam’s back in town. He’s the reason I go to the market.’”




We stopped at Trader Joe’s in Pleasanton to stock up on our completely empty cupboards. That was fun, to be back in such a familiar place and filling up our basket with healthy, affordable items that we’ve missed for a year. Maple pecan cereal, dried mango slices, organic half-and-half, those tortillas and that yoghurt and that package of vegetarian bacon. A trunk full of groceries for $214, cheap by Australian prices. The same with gas, which has gone up to $4.20 from $3.50a year ago, but still half of what we paid in New Zealand.


America: cheap, diverse, tattered, polluted, affordable. And remember to drive on the right side of the road, and standing on the right side of escalators, and walking on the right side of sidewalks.


Trader Joe’s helped to make us feel at home, but one more stop would make that feeling nearly complete. We stopped at Chipotle in Manteca, and devoured a burrito about the size of a full-grown man in Laos—or at least one of his thighs. It was delicious. No, it was magnificent, and all for less than half the price of the same burrito in Australia.


America, I love you.




We pulled into Gramma Peggy’s at 10:40pm. The sky above was clear and full of stars, and there right above my head was that old friend, the Big Dipper, to replace my new best friend, the Southern Cross. I took a deep inhale full of the scents of this county, and that too helped fill me up with the reality that this is home.


Inside was quiet. Peggy was asleep. We ate the cookies she’d made for us—another sign that you’re home—and said our goodbyes and thanks to Andrea, who wins today’s reward for the best friend. Soon, there was stirring in the back room, and out came Gramma herself.


There are hugs, and then there is the hug between Grandma Peggy and her sweet little grandchild, Liam.




June 2, 2014:


(I’ve already written about my first return to our house. These are just a few additions.)


This is my house. I have stepped out of my car and there it is, my house, the place that for many is the center of stillness after so much of a life adrift. Shouldn’t I feel something riotous in my blood? Shouldn’t I feel a thing that has a name, and that name is joy?


I am in neutral. No emotions are firing, and that seems both strange and sad. Right away I see work everywhere, see burdens everywhere. Paint me, stain me, cut me, plant me, scrub me, take care of me. Mainly what I see in this home is work and the money that goes into such work. And mainly I see things, too many things, too many of which seem absurd to a man who, after so much travel, now knows a secret, and the secret is that we need very little in life. That weight bench sitting out in the sun is absurd. That bag full of shoes is absurd. These five acres that are in my name down at a county office, are absurd.


I walk around the house. There is the trampoline, destroyed, its netting around the side nowhere to be seen, its padding around the circumference nowhere to be seen. There is the lawn that is not a lawn, this patch of dead yellow stalks that cannot be watered because of the drought. At least it’s been mowed. Beyond these shorter dead grasses are very tall dead grasses, acres of them, serving no purpose other than to stand tall as a reminder of death.


Ahh, there it is, still alive. Amazing. In the corner of our yard is a pine tree that was just a twig five years ago, a plain twig with just the slightest hint of green on its farthest end. That green begot another tuft of green, and after a year this sad twig in the ground became my metaphor—about persistence, about nature, about the impulse in all of life to survive. And now there it is, ten feet tall and bushy all around, the healthiest plant on this property.


I need to find something. My medical insurance will drop Dolora unless I prove we’re still married, and the only proof they’ll take is a copy of our tax form from 2012. They notified me about this while I was in a distant land, Nepal or Sri Lanka, and as surprising as this might sound, I wasn’t carrying around a copy of my 2012 tax return in my backpack. I wrote them an email that essentially said, “Of course we’re married, fools. Trust me. Just trust me.”


I guess “trust me” doesn’t work in the insurance world, so there I am in our garage, rifling through two file cabinets in search of a folder. What is all this shit? Drawers full of nonsense, drawers that together must weigh about 100 pounds—100 pounds of documents that in some tiny corner of my brain are regarded as essential.


I want them all burned. I want a fire to obliterate all 100 pounds, sending the illusion of necessity into the air as smoke and ash. I want that smoke to swirl into words for all to see, and those words will be, “The tyranny of things.”


100 pounds. Load up those 100 pounds on the side of me, a burro stumbling up the cobblestones of life, my head down to the ground with the grim duty of responsibility. That’s the image of myself I see and feel, me as a burro—much like those burros in Nepal, or even worse, those burros in the Greek island of Santorini that carried fat tourists off a cruise ship, up from the port and up to the center of town.


100 pounds of records and documents—and not a sign of Tax Year 2012. Absurdity of absurdities. A week ago I was climbing on the side of a volcano in New Zealand beneath a clear blue sky, with snow on the crown of the volcano and with my breath all steam. Nature—all Nature in its purest and most exhilarating form, and now this. Now I’m in a garage in 100-degree heat, searching for a tax form for a medical company that won’t accept my spoken words as proof that I’m married.





A word on my cars.


I own a truck. The truck is as bare-bones as you can get, a red Toyota pickup without even a bumper. The sun has faded the red paint to pink, and the crack across the windshield has spread to resemble the roadmap of a populous state, like Pennsylvania. In 1994 there was a squeak whenever I turned the steering wheel to the right. The wedge of paper towel that I inserted in 1994 to quell the squeak is still there, and still working.


The whole truck is working. Thank you, Japanese engineers, for such a simple engine that keeps working without a hitch for 22 years… and counting.


And thank you, Allen Aldridge, for babysitting my truck for 330 days, giving it a spin every two weeks and even adding a cover over the steering wheel with the design of flames. Flames, I tell you! But more than the addition of a flaming steering wheel is another addition from the mad mind of Allen Aldridge.


I’m talking bumper stickers.


The ones on there already are what you’d expect from a liberal democrat without much imagination. Obama 2004. Obama 2008. Keep Tahoe Blue. Grow Organic.


That kind of thing.


Well Allen, in his spirit of balance to the world, splattered another ten stickers across the back window: NRA, McCain/Palin 2004, Romney/Ryan 2008, Harleys!, Buy American, Support our Veterans, Vets Helping Vets, Championship Drag Racing, and my favorite of all: My God is Bigger than Your Government.


For that last one, picture a sunset over a hillside with the silhouette of a cross, shot from down below, looming above all us sinners to say, “My God is Bigger than Your Government.”



I drove the truck to a gas station with all those declarations shouting to the world. A friend hugged me from behind, and before I could greet him properly I pointed to the stickers and said, “It’s all a joke, a friend put these on while I was gone and really, it’s all a joke.”


I then drove through town. At a stop light, with a stranger behind me now painting me as a right-wing Christian, I slunk lower in my seat. If I can’t see, then I can’t be seen, right? What worked as a seven-year-old will surely work a half century later.


A day later, I peeled off all the stickers. The conclusion?


I am a coward.




A final word on the cars.


With the return of our two cars came the return of two keys. Later, I found the key to my office at the college and spun it around on the wire ring with the other two keys.


For one year we had no keys. None at all. For one year we had no possessions worth locking up. For one year we hadn’t the suspicion of thieves! thieves everywhere! that is the implicit message of keys.




One by one the nonsense returns. Call PG&E to restore power. Call CalSierra to restore garbage service. Visit AAA for insurance and DMV renewal. Renew the New Yorker subscription. Renew the subscriptions for Spotify and MLB At Bat and TripIT and Earthlink and and and….


We load it onto ourselves. We are burros. In its many forms we pack our bags and hoist them upon our backs, as if we’re bred for such loads, as if we’d be lost and confused without such weight. We’re burros, after all, not birds, and certainly not angels.




I can tell you what the Cambodian looks like. And the Nepalese and the Italian, and the Indian in the north and the south.


In diverse America it’s not so easy, though up here in homogenous Sonora there is a Type: white, tall, flabby, puffy skin that is not luminescent, tattooed, sloppy and careless in clothes, dim eyes, slurred speech. This isn’t everyone, of course. Most of my adult community at Waldorf is articulate and alert, well traveled and liberal, with eyes that sparkle and hold my gaze. Still, for the most part even these folks are white skinned, are apt to spend money on their nails, are wearing clothes of very little color and fashion, do not bicycle or scooter around but hop into very large air-conditioned vehicles that sit high up off the road.




In America, unlike the rest of the world, the price for things is not the price for things. The $39 tag on a pair of jeans has this meaning in Rome and Bangkok: You will pay $39 for the pair of jeans. The tax is already folded into that $39 price. At the checkout counter in America, a mystery number of $3 or $4 will be added to your total, the ghostly tax that dare not show its face until you get your credit-card bill.


Now, is this deception or just good marketing?


Take restaurants. In most of the world you don’t tip, just as you wouldn’t tip the postman for selling you stamps. The service in restaurants is regarded as a job, with no hidden message to tip on top of the price that is right there in the menu. A $40 bill in a restaurant in Hanoi means just that: $40. In America, add on the tip (and tax? I forget if food is taxed) and that number $40 is just an illusion, just a “look over here at the birdy” trick to extract another $10 from your wallet.


It’s all done with a smile in America. It’s all done without a peep of protest. But just so you know, it’s being done.




Two minor peculiarities—or idiosyncrasies, or peccadilloes—of America:

  1. To write the date for June 1, 2014, the rest of the world writes “01/06/14” while Americans write “06/01/14.” I have to say that America wins this one.


  1. The number on a road sign that reads “Modesto 58” does not refer to kilometers, as is the case with the rest of the world. “58” is a whole other concept of distance, a thing called a “mile” that really makes no sense at all. A kilometer is 1000 meters. That makes sense. A mile is 1760 yards, or 5280 feet. That makes no sense.


The same with measurements of liquids. There is a logic to milliliters and liters, there is no logic to ounces and quarts and gallons.


Just saying.




Enough delaying.


For a week now I’ve kept you in suspense about our Internet plan. Which one did we decide on? After sampling 19 different SIM cards in 19 different countries, what does America now have to offer.


Ok. Time to tell you that the winner is…..


That’s odd. I’m sitting here in the quiet of my home at 11:15 on a Monday morning, with Dolora chauffeuring Liam to his first soccer practice, and I look up to see a different car in our driveway. I rise up. I open the door before I hear a knock, and there stands an elderly couple with a Bible in their hands. I’ll later learn that their names are Betty and Jim, but before we part I’ll end up calling him Jimmy.


That’s a story in itself. But here I am already at page 7, so let’s wait until tomorrow for the tale of Betty and Jimmy. And I promise, tomorrow is a good day to reveal the winner of the Internet Sweepstakes.


I promise.














  1. shannon

    You are killing me Jim!!!! I’m even late for a meeting because I couldn’t stop Reading and now I have to wait!!! Blasted you scoundral.

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Hah, scoundrel I am!

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