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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Like my brownhouse:
   ghosts of events in Oberlin
Wednesday, July 18 2001

setting: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This morning Gretchen and I said goodbye to our host Jason and hit the road. We attempted to pick up faxed real estate forms at Jason's pasta factory down along the Milwaukee River, but none had yet arrived. So we just bought gas and hit the road. The station's gas pump was defective and overflowed my tank and pooled beneath my car. I'm glad we got out of there before someone with a cigarette showed up. Everyone in Milwaukee smokes.

car trouble

We hit traffic congestion not far south of Milwaukee on I-90 and by the time that had passed it had begun to rain. Periodically all traffic would come to a halt and we'd have to pay a forty cent toll. At a toll booth near Chicago Gretchen managed to stall the car and then it refused to start back up again. Gretchen turned the key and nothing, I mean nothing, happened. There was no sound, there was no life, just the whooshing of cars in the other lanes and then the sound of someone being idiotic and impatient behind us. Could it be that a stranger honking his horn can magically fix my car?
An orange-clad toll booth worker came over and told us we'd have to move the car, but then he just turned around and left us to push it across all those lanes of traffic. We were in the leftmost non-paypass lane, so cars in mid-acceleration were swerving around us for a few hundred treacherous feet.
The Punch Buggy Rust had been having increasing trouble with its starter since Nebraska, but I just assumed the problem would never get critical on this road trip. Now, however, it seemed I was wrong.
I pulled out the Compleat Idiot's Guide to Volkswagen repair and thumbed through it to the section on starters. At this point I was too stressed out to recall whether mine was a type I or a type III, and in any case I knew the starter was in a difficult-to-reach place. I half-heartedly crawled under the engine, my belly to the wet pavement, and wacked the underside with a heavy wrench a few times hoping to jar things into operationality, but I didn't have much hope. A guy with a tow truck came over and asked if I needed help and I lied and told him I'd already called someone.
Just as we were about to give up and call AAA (I'd thoughtfully signed up for AAA before I'd left), I tried the key again, this time holding it in the starting position for awhile even though nothing was happening except for a dip in the battery voltage meter. Suddenly and completely unexpectedly that puppy just started. Varrrrrroom! Feeling blessed, I eased the car out into traffic, determined not to stop the engine again until I needed gas.
And so we made it out of Illinois and all the way across Indiana, crossing I-69 near Ohio. At that point I officially completed a roadtrip loop that began back in September 1998 when I commenced my move westward with the chick who would one day be known as Bathtubgirl.
We pulled into the first service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike when we needed another tank of gasoline, and when I went to start the car the thing miraculously roared back to life. Whatever had been wrong with the starter hadn't been a permanent problem. Lots of problems with old Bugs are that way; it seems you can always cajole at least one more use out of any given flaky Bug component.
But my overzealous pumping of the gas pedal led to an entirely different problem: when the car roared to life, the gas pedal was stuck to the floor and the engine was at revving as fast as it possibly can. I had to turn the car off to keep something bad from happening.
After a few spritzes with WD-40, it seemed the accelerator wasn't sticking anymore, so we eased back out onto the turnpike.

Oberlin, 2001

Due to these two unrelated car problems, we decided to cancel a stopover in Oberlin, the place where Gretchen and I first met nearly 13 years ago. But when we crossed into Lorain County the lure of Oberlin was simply too much and we decided to risk it. So we got off the turnpike and took Ohio Route 58 south into our old college town, parking across College Street from Gibson's Grocery. A group of particularly scruffy-looking skateboard boys were lounging around in front.
Things had changed in Oberlin since I'd last been there. In Gibson's, a whole wing of overpriced retail space had been added and there was actually a rack of wines for sale. Back in the old days one had to go out of town, to Johnny's, if one wanted wine. Oberlin had once been something of a dry town.
We walked further down College Street to Harkness, the co-operative dorm/dining hall where we first met. What was this new building crammed uncomfortably in the south end of Harkness Bowl obscuring the view of South Hall?
We tried the front door of Harkness and amazingly enough, it wasn't locked, which it should have been since it was summertime and no one was there. So we walked around the place, remembering things that had happened in its historically-rich spaces. The kitchen was absolutely clean of all graffiti, as were the various ancillary rooms. The only trace we found was the inside of the door of the freight elevator. We couldn't get into the boiler room, a place we'd once shared nights back in October of 1988; someone had constructed a new wall of concrete blocks across the hallway leading to it and, unlike back in 1988, I didn't happen to have a key to the door.
We went upstairs to the residential part of Harkness and walked around the lounge and then toured the second floor, ending up first in room 201, the place where we first kissed, and then room 212, where Gretchen and I had our big falling out. I'd like to say I could feel the ghosts of those events frozen as if in amber across all those years, but something about the small bare single mattresses seemed to deny that anything momentous had ever happened here.
We toured the old co-ed Harkness showers (Are they still co-ed? Is Harkness still called Harkness?) and then left the building, mostly at my insistence. The place sort of creeped me out. To understand why, it's important to understand that after I quit being a student, I'd occasionally be arrested for trespassing when I'd go there. As late as 1994 I'd had to flee the place on foot.
We walked past Mudd Library to Wilder Hall, went through the mailroom and snack bar, feeling those ancient collegiate vibes as best we could. Returning to the car across Tappan Square, a group of Hacky Sack players invited me (but not Gretchen, as she noted) to a game. "Nah, I got to go to Pittsburgh," I said.

Click on the picture to watch a video clip
of Gretchen and me talking about Harkness and Oberlin.
(The building referred to by Gretchen as "South Hall" is actually "Dascomb.")

more car trouble

The car started up with the same stuck accelerator problem I'd encountered at the Ohio Turnpike service plaza, and this necessitated yet another round of WD-40 spraying. Now I'd begun to suspect that the problem wasn't cable lubrication but that pivots in the carburetor were sticking.
Heading south on I-71 near Cleveland (we'd missed an important exit on Ohio Route 10) I noticed that the accelerator wasn't letting up very responsively when I'd take my foot off the pedal. It would decelerate a little bit, but the process was slow and incomplete. This made for some pretty crazy idling when I rolled to a stop at the turnpike toll booth.
Later in the drive I realized I could decelerate more quickly by simply pulling up on the gas pedal. So I had Gretchen fashion me a little lasso from an electrical cord and I used it whenever I had to decelerate.

tired by the prospect of marriage

Meanwhile Gretchen was calling ahead to her brother Brian in Pittsburgh, getting directions to his place in the city. After stopping for gas at a Pennsylvania Turnpike service plaza, we headed west on I-376 into Brian's neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. I'm happy to report that we made it there without incident.
Brian is a medical resident, working insane 120 hour weeks, rarely being seen outside his blue medical scrubs. He lives in a house he owns in Squirrel Hill with his fiancé Jen.
Much of Brian and Jen's non-work-related time together seems to revolve around planning their marriage, something I find utterly exhausting either to overhear or contemplate. It's important to note that I don't come from a tradition which places much importance on the institution, or more particularly, the ceremony of marriage. Though my parents are still happily married, they sealed the deal as something of a whim in front of a magistrate in Chicago's City Hall. In Gretchen's family, by contrast, the tradition of marriage is intricate and involved. For them, marriage is all about making invitations, talking to rabbis, drafting a ketubah, registering at Pottery Barn, and talking about the details of the plans at every possible opportunity. Gretchen knows how I feel about marriage fuss and doesn't drag me into such talk very often. But since we are, you know, engaged, it seems inevitable that we'll be dealing with this stuff in the future. Meanwhile, though, there's Brian and Jen's marriage. My goodness does it make me feel tired!
We all sat on the front porch of Brian and Jen's house, Gretch and I drinking Yuengling beers and eating chips and salsa. While Gretchen and Jen talked marriage arcania, Brian and I mostly talked about medical issues such as Port Wine Syndrome. I was interested to learn that this condition is often associated with mental retardation.

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