Getting Somewhere

Railroad track in Maine
Photo by Alina Sparacio on Unsplash

I had just passed Auburn Lake and was coming up on the Chickadee Restaurant when blue lights flashed in the rearview mirror. My cheeks flashed hot like a sunburn. My stomach clenched. The police officer must have been hiding at the rest stop, radar in hand, eager to catch speeders in the exact spot where the limit dropped from fifty miles per hour to thirty-five, right where the road narrowed from two lanes to one.

Everybody knew cops waited there, but I had simply forgotten. With all four windows rolled down, the radio blaring and my long blonde hair whipping in the breeze, I was too excited about the end of summer to notice the black-and-white cruiser tucked between the pines. But I did what I was supposed to do, what I’d learned in high school drivers ed. I blinkered, then pulled to the shoulder of the road and turned off the radio in my car, a ruby-red Ford Escort my father helped me find a few weeks earlier. My first car. With a black louvre in the rear window to make it look sporty. To make it look fast. Maybe too fast.

I sat in the driver’s seat, waiting and watching cars fly by on their way north through Androscoggin County, a corridor of western Maine known for its factories and forestland. Some drivers slowed to see who’d been pulled over, but most kept going, thankful it wasn’t them this time.

The officer stayed in his cruiser, no doubt calling in my license plate to the station. He wouldn’t find anything. Nothing of consequence, anyway. I was nineteen years old, home for the summer after my first year of college and working in the shoe factory where my parents worked. Maine was full of shoe factories back then. Shoe shops and paper mills. I could never get a job at the paper mill, though, on account of my grandfather getting fired there many years before, supposedly for coming to work drunk. Paper mills paid better, but our patriarch’s termination left a stain that would persist for generations.

No doubt the policeman would discover my driving record was clean. At the shoe factory, I clocked in before sunrise, clocked out at 3 p.m., too exhausted to cause trouble. Before that red car became mine, I rode in with my mother, then rode home with her again in the afternoon. The rest of my day involved laying in the sun or playing lazy basketball with friends, then passing out around nine o’clock only to wake up and do it all over again.

That summer, the summer “Runaway Train” played on the radio a hundred times a day, I was saving up to buy textbooks for next semester—and, of course, a car. My own ride. My ticket out. Because back then, the only thing I wanted, the only thing that kept me going at the factory, was the blistering desire to be someplace else.

I dreamed of becoming a journalist, of writing news stories in a place where exciting things happened. Future-me strolled into the newsroom, briefcase in hand, with an assistant fetching me coffee and my phone already ringing by the time I stepped into my private office. Future-me wrote stories that changed the world. She wore nice suits and earned a salary. No more timecards or hourly work. No more minimum wage. People warned me I’d never find a job like that, not the way things were going in the news biz at the time, but I didn’t care. It was a dream, and dreams don't always make sense. After high school, I enrolled at the University of Maine, a two-hour drive up the interstate. I’d taken only two journalism classes so far, but I got an A in each one.

Now, as the summer waned, I longed to be back on campus. Back to classes and study sessions at the library, to hockey games and dorm parties with friends. Back to going where I wanted to go without telling my parents where I’d be. Every time “Runaway Train” played, I turned up the volume and sang until my throat ached. Like the singer said, I felt like I should be getting somewhere. So what if I didn’t get a job at a newspaper? Anything was better than picking shoes.

At the factory, I worked in the warehouse. My parents were out on the production line, stitching and gluing shoe pieces together. There, the work stations were sweaty and crowded. In the warehouse, things were more spread out, though it was dark and dusty. Not a single window in the whole place, so we never knew if it was rainy or sunny. Conveyor belts ran through the warehouse like mini highways, rattling constantly. You heard them all day long and then later in bed when you tried to sleep. My job was picker, meaning I filled orders for customers in Martha’s Vineyard, Connecticut, Long Island. Places I’d only seen on TV. Pushing a giant metal rack, I combed the aisles for women’s white leather sandals, size 8, or men’s chocolate bucks, size 11. When the rack was full, I wheeled it to the packers, who boxed up those fancy shoes and shipped them to their even-fancier owners.

Once, I rounded a corner too fast and my metal rack began to tip. In a panic, I reached to grab it. The foreman, Tiny, had warned me: “Your rack ever starts to fall, kid, let it fall.” I should have listened. I should have let it go, let the crashing sound reverberate through the concrete walls of that dingy warehouse. Instead, I tried to grab it, and it landed on my toe. For weeks, I limped in pain, hating my job even more.

Almost daily, one of the warehouse men made some kind of nasty remark. A mustached guy named Larry said he wanted to handcuff me to his bed. A guy I recognized as a referee from little league events around town grabbed my ass during a power outage. The women weren’t much better. Charlotte, a packer, called me Barbie. She jeered when I mixed up the colors of tasseled leather loafers. What’s the difference between chocolate brown and dark brown? Fuck if I knew. Who wore tasseled loafers, anyway? My professors, that’s who.

After the ass-grabbing, I went upstairs to the administrative offices to tell our boss what happened. Right away, I knew Mr. Alexander didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to eat his vending machine sandwich and drink his vending-machine coffee in peace. He wanted to go over the shipping numbers on his dot-matrix printouts.

When I finished explaining, he leaned back in his swivel chair and said, “At the end of the summer, you get to leave. These guys will be here forever.” Basically, that meant leave them alone. It meant shut up and deal with it. So that’s what I did. I ignored their creepy glances and lewd comments. I fake-laughed when people made fun of me for screwing up. Then I punched my timecard and sang that Soul Asylum song, counting down the days until I could run away. Until I could punch out for the last time, walk out of the warehouse into the too-bright sunshine and drive off forever, just me and my red Ford Escort.

As the cop approached, I sat up straighter in the driver’s seat. He asked for my license and registration and I handed him both without saying a word, though I was beginning to worry. How much was a speeding ticket, anyway? A hundred dollars? Two hundred dollars? Which textbook would I not be able to buy next semester? Maybe political science. Maybe statistics.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked.

I made myself contrite. That seemed to be the only way out. “Yes, sir.”

He took my documents and walked back to his cruiser. Alone again, I lifted my legs away from the vinyl seat. Sweat had made suction cups out of my thighs. Droplets crept down the small of my back. How much longer would we be here? Would my dad find out about the ticket? Was he going to be mad?

Earlier that summer, I’d asked him if he would help me find a car. He’d said yes, and we went for a ride down Route 4, the same road where the cop was pulling me over. We stopped at dealership after dealership and looked at used cars I couldn’t afford. Jeep Wranglers and Mazda Miatas. Pickup trucks with cargo beds. Like new! Low miles! We struck out and drove home.

On his next day off, we tried Route 133. This time, we found the Escort sitting in an old man’s yard. A sign on the windshield said $1,500, a number within in my price range. We test drove it down the road and around the bend. It was small, comfortable, with an automatic transmission. I didn’t know how to drive a stick. That lesson would come later, in college, with a boyfriend named Don in an empty student parking lot.

The car drove like a dream, though I had little to compare it to. Up to that point, I’d only driven my dad’s Ford Granada, which caught fire one day on my way to school. Another of his old cars needed rope to keep the passenger side door attached. Every time we went around a corner, Dad yelled “hold on!” and whoever occupied the front seat grabbed the door handle and hoped for the best.

We took our test drive a little further, past hayfields and farm stands, through dusty four-way intersections. At some point, my dad asked, “Is this the one?”

“It is,” I said. My arms and legs tingled.

Back at the seller’s house, Dad offered a thousand dollars. The man scoffed. Dad went up a hundred. The man laughed again. My lack of a poker face must have given us away. Eventually we settled on $1,400. Dad and I went back the next day with cash in hand, all my summer earnings up to that point, and the car officially became mine.

I don’t remember if I got a speeding ticket that day by the lake. Probably not. I got a lot of warnings back then. I used to think the officers were going easy on me. Giving me a break. If I acted polite, if I apologized, they’d let me go. But now I know about privilege. I know blonde coeds get chances other people don’t get. I know how to look like you come from money even though you don’t and that presumptions about class get you out of trouble even though they shouldn’t.

Another thing I didn’t know back then? That in only five years, the shoe factory would close. Its owners would shut it down and move operations to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in favor of cheap labor, leaving three hundred Mainers out of work. My mother would go back to school. She’d become an administrative assistant and a realtor, but only briefly. It’s not easy selling homes in a small town where the factories are closing. Eventually she’d quit real estate for a job at the new Walmart thirty minutes away, first at the jewelry counter, later in men’s apparel.

My dad would find another factory, this one making upholstery for automobiles. Who knows, maybe he made the carpeting in the car I drive today, a gray Honda CR-V, nothing fancy, nothing fast. He’d work there until he got sick, until Parkinson’s rendered his body weak and unreliable.

Other things would close too. That speed-trap rest area. The Chickadee Restaurant. The paper mill would limp along with a skeleton crew. I’d work one more summer in that shoe factory before graduating from college and moving away, finally, to work at a newspaper in Rhode Island.

And that red Ford Escort with the sporty black louvre would run and run, until one day it would die on the side of the road.

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