Quieting the noises

Jonah Hall:

A young man drives his squealing car across a bridge, gets off the highway, and goes the wrong way en route to a new mechanic, the address written on the back of his hand. He takes a turn into a parking lot, circles, gets back on the main street, and arrives at the garage. This garage has been recommended by the young man’s father, as well as many other people on a website that is intended to help guide people to the right businesses and restaurants and other things on which people must spend money.

He is greeted by a friendly and gentle garage man, named Robert. Robert is middle aged, has a simple earring, an affable demeanor, is drinking coffee, and is talking to a co-worker about drinking less coffee later in the day. The young man also fears too much caffeine.

This, it turns out, is a kind of teaching hospital for cars, where the doctor opens up the hood, and explains to his students (the owner of the car as well) what he sees and how it operates. An initial diagnosis is explained in detail, even though the particular sound the car is making is somewhat unique. Not your everyday kind of squeal from a Honda Civic. The young man is oddly proud for a moment of the same noise which has caused a great deal of concern and impacted the listening of many softer songs while driving over the past two weeks.

After leaving the strangely welcoming garage, the young man goes to a nearby diner, upon the garage student doctor’s recommendation. Once he enters the establishment, the young man realizes he has been here before. A couple of years ago, it becomes clear, he ate brunch foods with his aunt and uncle and cousin. This place is close to where his aunt’s best friend from college has lived for a while, but the young man remembers that she was going to move, or maybe, has already moved. Near Berkeley. Strange. Even stranger how the aunt’s daughter, the cousin, will be visiting without her parents, and instead with her new girlfriend, in only a few days. Timing and coincidence were discussed in a recent phone conversation between the young man and an old friend. And now here is an example. The uncle is no longer a literal family member. He has decided to divorce the aunt, the young man’s sister, probably because he is a grandfather now, and no kind of sports car will cure his desire to remain a free-spirited, goofy and wild YOUNG MAN himself. He fights his age and his accumulated wisdom, or at least it appears that way to the young man. He likes his uncle quite a bit. He wonders when he will see him next, sitting near the very booth at which he saw him only two years ago. Also, the uncle may have decided to divorce the aunt because she is not the easiest person to live with. It would be nice to live with the person who is the easiest person to live with. Then again, when things are too easy, they are often unsatisfying.

The young man orders coffee, water and is now deciding between omelets. The Black Forest ham sounds better than bacon because bacon is bad for you, even though it tastes so fucking good. The ham is healthier. Also, it has a two-adjective geographic description in front of it. Have you noticed that food items with place names in front of them are becoming ubiquitous? It is as if food that isn’t labeled by its original spot of creation isn’t good enough. It’s elitist language in the most obvious sense. In the Bay Area it is omnipresent. It is also enticing. Ethiopian Coffee. Niman Ranch Pork. How about Rest Area 15 McDonald’s French Fries? Or Gas Station Packaged Pastries? On a restaurant menu, how much does the Niman Ranch designation inflate the pork chop price? At least $5 would be a guess.

The omelet order has been placed: Denver. The coffee has been served and the water, which seems useless now beside the thick, ceramic mug, steaming softly, and the larger-than-usual silver cream carafe-type thing. The young man begins to read the free weekly paper. Or rather, peruse. Then he takes out one of the two books. He sips from the coffee. He likes this diner ritual. Sitting. Sipping. Waiting. He doesn’t like the car-aspect of the waiting at all. Potentially hazardous news awaits. Though he has the luxury of knowing that he can afford whatever works needs to be done, because of the partnership he shares with his lovely lady and domestic partner (in crime would be slightly funny here, but also has been used up enough, so we’ll stick with the inelegant phrase “domestic partner, though we could have left it at “lovely lady”). There really is so much to like about a good diner. The young man could do this once every week. No more, unless the experience would lose its characteristic feeling. The coffee is better than the average diner coffee. Some people take ironic joy in drinking “diner coffee.” Not this young man, despite his love of irony. Not while eating or drinking, please. Good, full-bodied flavor. No cream or sugar, not until after the homemade blueberry muffin and after the failed attempts at reading the book of supposedly interesting and sometimes rewarding essays by the well-known and hip author who lives within ten minutes of this diner/café/eatery. Not until after the news has been given.

After everything is on the table, the omelet dripping with melted cheddar on the top, the peppers and ham diced very precisely, the young man is feeling good. The dreaded trip to deal with the dreaded car issues isn’t so dreadful…yet. The phone call giving the update of exactly what the hell is squealing under the hood of the car has not come yet. The cell phone sits patiently on the booth next to him.

The waitress comes by to refill the coffee from a large thermos. The coffee is hot and satisfying on this cold and rainy day. There is the question of how many times a server should come by and tempt the patron with the coffee refill. At the beginning of the meal, when you are still anticipating the arrival of everything else, the coffee can be perfect. The first half-cup so savory, and then “Yes!” “Of course!” “Fill ‘er back up!” But by midway through the meal, do you really need more coffee? Maybe now you need some of that ice cold water you’ve been neglecting for so long. Maybe more coffee then is unnecessary.

He has the first refill. The coffee is excellent.

The young man takes two half-cup refills before refusing. Upon refusing, he says, “No thanks, it’ll make me crazy,” a bit dramatically. The second time he refuses the refill he says the same thing (to the second waitress). This time he adds a little finger wave over his head, emphasizing the crazy, slightly more dramatically. A refined British person might conclude that this young man is already somewhat crazy, that the coffee has indeed already done its damage.

The question of how long to wait before calling the garage. Did the young man give the garage the correct phone number? If you’ve waited on hour and you call, you are being insane and pushy and an asshole. They ask you for your number so that they can call you. You don’t call them unless it’s been at least four hours or something. They know cars. You don’t. Even if they’re friendly, harassing them is a mistake.

Don’t be an asshole. Don’t call, the young man thinks to himself.

After stepping back from his caffeine-fueled impatience, the young man begins to write. Already the books and the weekly paper seem less attractive. He sees this problem throughout society. He sees it every day with his 9th graders. Attention spans have grown nonexistent. It’s rare for the average American to want to read rather than watch, listen or play. Reading is now for the older generation. It is as if now teenagers are saying, “We don’t have to read. We have Wikipedia.” He was perplexed at the beginning of the school year when most of his students had never even heard of the “Spelling and Grammar Check” function on Word. The thing that allowed them to cover all their mistakes was not something they knew about. Maybe they just figured if they bother to even type something up, that should be good enough, regardless of what they’ve typed. They ability to complete one task in its entirety, before moving on to the next: rare among them, and this is in a school classroom, where they theoretically don’t have a choice, while they sneak a text to a friend, or sneak an earbud through their shirt, or just groan, “I’m bored,” at a reading assignment. And they are not to blame if this is all they’ve known, and if this is all they see around them. This internet-crazed culture wreaking havoc on his own concentration, on his own ability to be a monk, to follow each task to its conclusion before moving on…or do monks now use the internet, too?

Hypocrite. Hypocritical teacher. Hypocritical young man. Hippocrates. Hippocratic Oath. Treat the patient well? The patient comes first? Be honest with the patient? Hmm. What is the Hippocratic Oath? It fits into the box of information I think I should know. Much of which I can bullshit about, but don’t exactly know. Probably, yes, a supposedly learned individual like me, the young man, yes I should know this. I have no access to Wikipedia answers. Well, when I was writing this, I didn’t. Now that I’m typing it, I do have access. And still, what kind of hypocrite would I be if I just looked it up right now, in the middle of talking about the internet dominating our lives. If I right about the Hippocratic Oath like I know what it is, instead of like I sort-of know what it is, then I’m misleading the reader. And the reader has already been misled enough.

The Hippocratic Oath: All doctors must wash their hands before entering the operating room. All doctors must call their patients by their first names. All doctors must go to medical conferences and present their findings to other doctors and have cocktail hour and drink rare expensive wine and single malt scotch and discuss the state of their decay and mid-life crises due to lifestyle excess or the long, draining hours spent in the hospital, cutting people open and looking inside. And then after a sumptuous meal, the doctors retreat to their hotel suites, some intermingling between the sheets, many making phone calls back home, others eating expensive Snickers bars from their little hotel room mini-bars, while watching sports or moving on television. Or something to that effect.

Being a teacher of 9th grade public high school students is being a parent and a police officer and a loud, demanding coach and a repeating machine. Repeat. Instruct. Repeat. Instruct. Assert. Warn. Repeat. Assert. Instruct. Repeat. Attentions gone. Attentions gone. A teen, A tense, A tension is gone. We are learning to learn in an age unlearned. We are taking our cars to the hospital, where the doctors will stop us from squealing strangely at stop lights. We are being quieter, only by surgery. We cannot remember what we knew. Hippocrates, what should we do?


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