Last Storage Trip from Beijing

I stepped outside on Christmas Day 2019 to a gloriously foggy morning. I was overjoyed. Fog is my favorite weather.

“Ah, that’s right! Michigan has weather! This is why I moved back.”*

It was about 5:30, cool but not freezing.

I had arrived to Detroit Metro Airport on Christmas Eve from Beijing, where I’d been living for more than three years. I was done with China now; this was my first day back home in the US. I was making the Trek to the Storage Yard, with all that entails. I had to get my Deuce and a Quarter and begin the long process of resetting up my life here. A tiny studio apartment I’d already leased, sight unseen, awaited me 80 miles away in my hometown of Port Huron. I had the hotel room paid for another night so there was no pressure. I could take it easy and enjoy this walk, take in the sharp air, walk through the foggy darkness. Hardly any cars were out. Everything was still and quiet but the crunch under my feet. After more than three years of Beijing’s toxic air, phlegm-covered sidewalks, and human masses, this was heaven. Tian.

I passed the Bob Evans restaurant that sits among the strip of chain hotels. Perfect. I would begin my first day back in America by having a classic Bob Evans breakfast. Jump right into modern plastic Americana, which I have perversely come to love over years of living abroad.

The Trek is part of my elaborate routine for airport transportation. I keep two cars at the storage yard, four miles from the airport. I would get the Buick, head back to the hotel, take a hot bath, drink coffee. After a while I would head out to a shopping center to get some food and other basics, and find one of my bank’s ATMs to get some US currency in my wallet. I’d only brought $40 with me from China, and half of that was gone already. I would need enough to pay the new landlord the rest of his money. He’s an old guy who prefers cash.

Two miles of walking in the mysterious swirl. “Coalescing reality.” I was thinking about the major pathways before me. (I’d been watching a lot of physics documentaries on YouTube around then.) Probabilities. I was at one of those points. I had a job offer in Turkey, I was two interviews deep for a job with CNN in Atlanta, and I had trusted people advising me to just stay here and run my own business. There is plenty of work for marketing writers, they were saying. Each option was equally exciting.

Schrödinger’s cat. At this moment I was in the fortunate spot of having all three realities before me. Or none. Or something else.

Emerging from the fizz. Quantum probabilities ever falling away and merging, winnowing down to form reality at every slice of time. I could feel it. I was moving through the field. I walked through the foggy darkness, looked down at the grass under my feet, the play of streetlights through the mist.

I was truly enjoying myself. If I’m in outer space thinking such thoughts, it means I’m having a peak moment. My mind is free to soak. No pressures in the way.

It would quickly turn on me, as it always does.

Particle field

When I got to the yard, it was a miraculous feeling, as always, without cause since it nearly always becomes a scene of suppressed panic.

This time, things got off to the best start I’d ever had out there. I had the car untarped and off the jack stands, the battery connected, in record time. I was almost disappointed that I’d be in and out of there so quickly.

I just had to get the engine warmed up and let things circulate a bit before leaving. I turned the key in the ignition. It jammed. Stuck in the “RUN” position. The key wouldn’t turn forward to start the engine nor backward to turn off accessories.

Some instinct had begun to tell me not to turn the key forward so quickly. I’d noticed that the turn signal stalk felt mushy when my hand brushed against it a minute earlier. But the instinctual pulse wasn’t fast enough to outrace the habitual one of turning the key.

It was the air. I knew it even though I’d never heard of anything like that, never thought of anything like that, and most people would say it’s near superstition to think so. The fog I loved so much, the chill in the air… everything was just the right consistency. I would swear by it. If it were just one degree warmer or cooler, the conditions wouldn’t exist to gum up the works inside the lock cylinder on my steering column. It’d been in there for 40 years. A film of tiny dust particles and oil covered the surfaces of the works inside. The particle field around it in this foggy soup had just the right properties. Right above freezing, when water molecules in the air are almost, but not quite, ice. Thickening but not brittle. An icier film would have broken under the metal’s pressure. Less viscous water would have simply flowed out of the way. The soup had foiled me.

I looked over and saw the hands of the analog clock in the dashboard weren’t moving. I very gently pulled out the dial used to set the clock and gave it a slight, tentative turn. The small, comforting sound of the clock’s gears could be heard crunching away again, confirming my suspicions.

I worked at the key, trying to get it moving, carefully so as not to break it off the key, which of course it eventually did.

Now I was fucked. The other car, a 1985 Dodge Diplomat, had no battery.

I’ve learned through many of these situations that it pays to think about the close details. What’s really the problem? Is it the key? No. It’s the spark to the engine.

I would have to hotwire the car. This is not something I’d done before, not intentionally anyway. But I accidentally did it once from under the hood when trying to organize and route wires running between the alternator, starter, and ignition. I somehow touched the right wires and with a large spark in my face the engine started to turn over. At that time, I was in the middle of a major project that had required taking off the dashboard. I was sure to take notes on which wires did what and drew scribbly diagrams of the junction box in the firewall between the driver’s area and the engine bay. I had the foresight to take special note of the ignition wire so I could trace it to the area of accidental hotwiring, having an inkling I would urgently need this information at some point in the future.

That point had arrived. Emergent reality. The 8×11 legal notepad I’d used might be in the trunk. That didn’t mean this would be easy. The info in it was written at a time when I had a lot of supporting knowledge at the forefront of my mind. I would have to work through all that again to figure out my own notes. I wasn’t confident I could do it. It had been nearly four years since I’d done any serious car work. I was rusty.

Notes in the trunk from four years earlier helped me figure out how to hotwire my car.

I also wasn’t sure if it was worth doing. Say I get it started. What then? I wouldn’t be able turn it off because the key would still be stuck in the RUN position. That means I’d have to un-hotwire the car too.

At the very least, I would be out here for a long time. In the end it still might not work, and the time I could have used to come up with a different plan, like getting a friend or relative to pick me up, would have been wasted.

But it was Christmas. I couldn’t interrupt anyone’s holiday for this. I had the hotel for another night.

I looked in the trunk and the notepad was right there, in a storage box full of tools and automotive chemicals. I began trying to understand my handwritten notes from 2015.

I identified the wire, traced them, cut them, touched them up, got that spark in my face again, and the engine turned over. It didn’t start, but I didn’t expect it to yet. Whenever I come out here to grab this car, one part of the process is getting fuel into the dried-out carburetor. It takes some patience. Pump the accelerator as soon as the car is untarped, go off and take care of something else, come back and crank the key to get the fuel pump moving a little, hit the gas pedal a bit more, hit the carburetor with a few sprays of starter fluid. Go away, come back. It’ll start.

It would be hard to do all that from under the hood. I rooted around in one of my toolboxes full of spare electrical pieces and found a tiny toggle switch. There also was a white wire long enough to reach from under the hood to inside the car and back again. I hooked the wire to the switch and used this rig to start the car while pumping the gas from the driver’s seat.

The switch was so tiny that I couldn’t handle it without risking touching the ends of both wires at the same time, which I feared would hurt. I ripped off a piece of thin cardboard from some trash and affixed the switch to it using a fastening point and nut at the bottom of it. Now I had enough leverage, if I was careful, to hang onto the switch while I flipped the toggle without bending the cardboard.

I took a breath and hit the switch while furiously pumping the pedal. A fire broke out at the carburetor.

The car was still trying to start. I forgot that I had to turn the switch back off, just as you have to release the key once a car starts. In my haste to hit the switch back, I fucked up my cardboard arrangement. This was a fumbling mess.

I got out and looked at the carb. Everything seemed fine. The fire was out. This has happened in the past and isn’t as bad as it sounds. I keep a fire extinguisher under the passenger seat though.

I gave it another try and started to have some success. There was another fire in there at some point, this time seemingly from farther toward the front of the car, but it was only for a second.

Once I got it running, the next puzzle was how I would turn it off. I disconnected the battery at the negative terminal and to my surprise the car kept running. So I disconnected the positive and to my greater surprise it still kept running.

This reminded me that, as much wrenching as I’ve done, I’m still a novice. I have never studied exactly how alternators and batteries work. I know the battery starts the starter. Isn’t it also needed to feed spark into the distributor? Can the alternator do that on its own? Apparently it can, but for how long?

It finally dawned on me to just pull the distributor wire off its terminal. The car shut off.

This presented me with another idea: to add another wire-and-switch rig running into the car so I could also shut it off from in there. Why, I’d really be rolling in style then. My car turns both on and off.

The problem here was that all I had left for wiring was a mess of thin wires with alligator-clip ends. They were not nearly thick enough for the power, but they only needed to last a day, and I had a lot of them. I could cut the distributor wire and daisy-chain these wires, alligator end to alligator end, all the way in and back out again. I didn’t have another toggle switch but I wouldn’t need one. When I wanted to turn the car off, all I’d have to do is unclip one of them ‘gatuhs.

I got this all rigged up and ready to test. I hit the toggle to turn the car on, and the wires fizzled and popped off the switch connectors. The switch was fried too. The toggle wouldn’t even move anymore, frozen in place.

Forlorn jet sounds overhead. True to form, this storage yard routine, right through till the end.

I would have to abandon my plan to use the ‘gator-clip wires. If the switch couldn’t take the heat, neither would the wires. They could have caught fire while I was driving. There was also the high risk of the clips coming apart while driving on the expressway. I would have had to roll the car into the shoulder, reattach, re-hotwire.

The main white wire was still good though. I resigned myself to a reality of limping home with as few stops as possible and having to hotwire my car many more times before it was all done.

It had been fun until this point. Indeed, I was in high spirits when I saw the absurd hotwire toggle switch work. This is just the kind of shit I revel in. But by now I’d been out there for three hours. Daylight had arrived at 8 a.m., a reminder of the pressing passage of time. The only thing I’d eaten was a small Greek salad at about 5 a.m., leftover from a pizza delivery order the night before. The hotel wasn’t providing its usual breakfast buffet today because of Christmas, the clerk told me when I checked in.

I reminded myself that I had all the time in the world. There wasn’t a bunch of activities to squeeze in before heading back to the suck of Beijing. This was the homecoming I’d hoped for: outside, crisp air, no one around, working on my car.

I unraveled the mess of alligator wires and put them away, while keeping the long white wire that had been attached to the toggle switch in the car with me. My new key, as it were. I placed it on the passenger seat, bending it and precariously holding it upright with a pair of pliers so the end wouldn’t touch anything. I left open a spot in the insulation of its partner wire under the hood. To start the car, I would just take my hotwire out and hit that spot every time I needed to.

When I drove out of the yard, I had to shift into reverse to leave my spot, roll down the window to enter my gate code, and use the turn signal to exit the facility. Everything still had a touch of that fragile feeling that got me into this mess.

Vexing parallels

The next conundrum was getting gas into the car. I preferred not to keep the car running while gassing up, but even less acceptable was the idea of hotwiring my car at one. I didn’t dare drive into a station and start sparking live wires from under the hood.

Fortunately, there was that gas station next to the hotel. They even share the same piece of continuous concrete parking lot. All I had to do was walk over there with my emergency can from the trunk. It’s very small and my car is very big and fuel-inefficient, so this would take a few trips, but it could be done.

That would have to come later. The first order of business was to eat. My plan had been to use the car to visit a grocery store since I needed to start stocking up for my new life here anyway. That was less tenable now. The idea of repeated hotwiring set me ill at ease. Something might fry out. I was barely making any of this happen as it was. Wise not to push it.

Back in my room, I was about to walk to Bob Evans when I thought I should call first to see if it was open. It wasn’t. No pizza delivery places were open either. Other places nearby were closed. Driving back from the storage yard, I’d noticed a Big Boy restaurant and a McDonald’s were open. I walked to the Big Boy and got a dried-out breakfast buffet.

On the way back to the hotel I stocked up on junk food, protein drinks, and beer from the gas station. Here I am, stranded in this soulless world of airport hotels, restaurants, and gas stations on Christmas Day in America, I thought. How in the world did I arrive at this point? I’d been more capable at moving and feeding myself in China than here.

Now for the gas. I walked next door with my red plastic can, swiped my card at one of the pumps, and got two gallons of gas. I walked back to my car, emptied it, and turned around to do it again. I went to the same pump and swiped the same card. “See cashier” appeared on the screen. I try a second card. Now it says the transaction can’t be processed.

Inside the station, the clerk says it’s a security thing. “We’re by the airport; if you use the same card too many times, within like 24 hours, (the bank) might block it,” she said.

Here we go, I’m thinking. This is the kind of bullshit you have to deal with in the US. Credit cards don’t work where you need them the most — at a fucking airport — because of corporate bureaucracy.

I pay cash, get gas, and get out.

Back at my hotel room door, I hold the key card up to the reader. Nothing. A housekeeping staffer is standing there at her cart.

“Am I crazy?” I say.

“Do you have the right room?” she asks. It’s not a bad question. I have been upside down for days now.

At the front desk, a clerk confirms it’s the right room and fixes the card. This has happened to me before; the card’s magnetic strip gets thrown off by the quantum cosmic swirl. I just was too out of it by now to realize it.

But what the fuck — three cards in the past ten minutes have given me troubles. “Just like the locks!” I rage inside my room. “What’s with all these parallels??”

I was ready to have a grand mal freakout. The jet lag was hitting me hard. I had spent my last week in Beijing staying up later and later and eventually waking up in the afternoons to reverse my sleep polarity. But it was hitting me nonetheless.

Neural fit

I’d woken up that morning at 1:30. The day started with my suitcase locks jamming up, a perfect echo of what was to come. I’d never used the suitcase before this trip. It has two TSA combination locks on it, but I wasn’t able to set them before leaving Beijing. During the flight I worried that it would spill open. All it would take is the right sliding motion across the latches and the whole thing would pop open.

Well, I’m up. I might as well use the time to set those locks finally, I thought. I made some coffee, turned on American TV, and got to it.

As soon as I set the left one, it jammed. I turned to the right one, set it, and it worked, but then it too jammed as opened and closed the latch to test it, and perhaps gain some insight on how to unfuck the left one. Just like that, within seconds, my metal suitcase was closed and locked up tight in a hotel room at 2 in the morning. I hadn’t been there 12 hours yet.

A quick look at a YouTube video showed me how to pick the locks. Within half an hour, everything was fine.

Then the same thing happened with the car, and then three cards within 10 minutes gave me problems.

Locks, cards. Parallels. My brain felt like a tumbleweed, a knotted-up stringy mess…

Setting those locks was on my final list of things to do at my apartment in Beijing, but then the DiDi driver showed up half an hour early. This is a hard thing to complain about when air travel is in involved, but it made the move a mad scramble right up till the last second. Even after a month of preparations, it still came down to the wire. I thought I was lining up to have 10 or 15 minutes at the end to take it in the moment, have one last contemplative look at my apartment, my bunker of two and a half years. Jesus, can I get ten fucking minutes?

As usual, I was sweating through a move in China, loaded with luggage and rushing to meet the driver.

My final 24 hours there were gray with smog. The previous morning started blue and clear; I had the window open to let in fresh air as I cleaned. At some point midday, it turned. I looked out and saw that a front of smog had come in. I’d sold my air filter the day before. My apartment was full of smog air and I had no choice but to accept it as I huffed and puffed around the apartment getting things in order, getting furniture hauled away. The smog was bad enough to leave a metallic, almost gritty, taste in my mouth. The few hours I slept were ones of breathing toxic air.

I looked wistfully out of the DiDi car window at the smoggy air. I may hate this city, but damn it, it was my home for more than three years. The car drove north on the 2nd Ring Road, into Dongzhimen, near the Public Security Bureau’s Exit & Entry Administration office where foreigners have to go for official visa matters. A place of anxiety and bureaucratic surprises and giving up of passports. We passed the spot where a former coworker lived in my first days here, the guy from one of the Carolinas, the only black anchor the main Beijing studio has ever had. He was leaving China as I was coming and let me take a bunch of household items and little necessities from his apartment for free, much of which I in turn had just passed on to a coworker, still for free.

I had ridden a bicycle many times in this area, in times of stress, in times of merry grocery shopping, loading the bicycle basket and weaving through cars and motor scooters, fending off SUVs and delivery guys as I made my way home with goods from the fancy import store.

The airplane ride was one of the best I ever had. The plane was only half full at most. For a long-haul international flight, that’s almost unheard of. I’d never seen these flights between Beijing and Detroit be anything but 100 percent full, or close to it.

It was cheap too. Two months earlier, I happened to check flights home around that time. I wasn’t really planning to leave China yet. I planned to stick it out until spring, but my job was about to go through a round of shuffling at the end of December, and that would force me into another full-on effort of careful behind-the-scenes maneuvering. My producer and I had just gone through this two months earlier. We pulled off a small miracle in getting management to do things that hadn’t been done before, convincing them to let me work under her wing for a particular show I liked.

We would have to go through all this again, and I didn’t have it in me to fight for a job that, in the bigger picture, I loathed. The Hong Kong protests had been raging for months, and CGTN was very much falling into its authoritarian state media role, with all the predictably noxious coverage that entails.

So I looked at plane tickets. The first date I checked was Christmas Eve. Fares were far less than they normally were, but only on that day. For Christmas and any other days around then, the fares shot up by hundreds of dollars.

Before I knew it, my hands and fingers had clicked and typed their way through and I had a one-way ticket home. That meant I had to write a resignation letter. Before I knew it again, that was done and sent. It was like my body had taken over. “Enough of this shit,” it had resolved.

I spent those final two months in uppermost spirits. Topping it off was that wonderfully empty flight, a row of three seats all to myself. My cars were waiting for me, an apartment was waiting for me. This was one of the best points in my life.

Fate was unfolding before me. Things were falling into place for the business that my friends were encouraging me to try. Meanwhile, the offer in Turkey was there. And the phone interviews with CNN had gone well; we reached the stage where a manager was asking me about starting dates.

But at the end of the second one, I said “Ana Navarro” instead of “Ana Cabrera”. Navarro is an annoying talking head on the channel. Cabrera is the host whose show I’d been interviewing for, one of the few on TV who doesn’t grate on my nerves or seem like they’re made of cardboard.

I made this mistake in the last sentence of the phone call. I’d emailed my interrogators a jokey printed-out photo of Cabrera with “I’m Ana Cabrera you f-ing idiot” scrawled in Sharpie on it to let them know I was aware of the mistake and hopefully add some levity. This was a rash act, however. The idea came to me when I woke up eight hours or so later. It was what woke me up, in fact. I jumped out of bed and did it quickly, thinking it was brilliant, never pausing to consider that I was only snowballing the matter. They were in the thick of the Trump impeachment coverage and most likely would have forgotten about it if I hadn’t brought it up again. They probably thought it was bizarre.

Well, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Probably not a place I should be if they’re that uptight. The thought crossed my mind, getting a glimpse of the stateside version of CNN at the hotel, that it was for the best. The tenor of the channel made it impossible for me to watch for more than a few minutes at a time.

Off I went to stew in the fizz of probabilities for my walk in the fog.

Hours later, I was a withered tumbleweed.

“If I had just waited an hour, slept another hour, dithered on something, that lock in the car probably wouldn’t have jammed. If I’d gotten one thing done a half hour earlier at any point in my last month in Beijing, I would have had time to set the suitcase locks.”

The depressing people at the gas station, at the Big Boy. Droopy-looking motherfuckers. Looking like they long ago stopped putting thought into the clothes they wear.

“Fuck this country!… Ah, here I go, not here 24 hours and I’m already ranting like I did about China in Beijing, like I did before I moved out of this place. Christ, I thought there’d at least be a honeymoon period.”

I’d been pushing hard nonstop for months. I would have to push even harder in the months ahead.

The shit started as soon as I got here. New phone didn’t work at the airport. They never do. There’s always something. I had to switch the SIM back into my old iPhone, available for use only because I had, for fun, replaced the shattered screen after I dropped it at the Lama Temple a few weeks earlier, just to see if I could do it. The repair took half an hour.

That could have been the chunk of time that fucked me when the hour of the DiDi driver arrived, the thought occurs to me.

“This is why writers are insane. We make too many connections, too much meaning. Fucking neurons!”

Stranglebrandt rides

The plan for the next morning was to get one more can of gas, load up the car, hotwire it, and go.

Before that, I would have my much-deserved goddamn hotel buffet breakfast in America.

While hotwiring the car, I again faced the problem of having to throttle the engine a bit to get it started. This time though it could be done by hand from under the hood. The throttle on the carburetor is on the left side of the engine, and my open hotwire point was on the left. I had to stretch across with both arms to do both at the same time, forcing my head downward toward the engine. When I hit the wire, the carburetor backfired in my face. This is especially startling when you have a sparking wire in your hand. I only hoped no other hotel guests were looking at me through their windows.

But it was done. I steadied my hotwire in the passenger seat and hit the expressway.

I had four critical stops to make: the ATM, the auto parts store where my new lock cylinder was waiting for me, my storage unit (in my hometown, not to be confused with the storage yard by the airport), and my new apartment to pay the landlord. I didn’t relish the idea of turning the car off at any point during the 80-mile drive home. I could use a drive-up ATM to avoid it for that stop. Then, a friend back home agreed to drive me to the other places. I could drop my car off at his place, where I also could work on replacing the lock cylinder.

But on the way, I dimly recalled that the bank branch I had in mind doesn’t have a drive-up ATM. More importantly, I doubted their machines would let me withdraw the thousand dollars I needed. I hadn’t used this new debit card yet, and had had problems with the previous one, as I do with many cards because my overseas living triggers banks’ security systems. That meant I would need to turn off the car and go inside the bank. When I got there, I parked in the back, opened the hood, pulled off the distributor wire, closed the hood, and headed inside. I had an oversized black leather briefcase loaded with laptops, hard drives, my passport and other vital documents that I dared not leave unattended in the car. I got the money and walked back, opened the hood, then the passenger door, pulled out the long white wire, and hotwired the car.

I was apprehensive about doing all this, but had little choice. I can’t stress enough that it’s the look of this car that made this whole operation look worse than it was. The former branch manager at this bank location nicknamed me “Stranglebrandt” after seeing me pull up in it some years earlier. Coworkers accused me of storing dead hookers in the trunk.

1979 Buick Electra 225 ("Deuce and a Quarter")
The Buick

But an old man walking by was the only person who seemed to notice. It was probably a good thing that it was the morning after Christmas; hardly anyone was out.

By the time I got to town, I felt less awkward about leaving the car running while I ran into the parts store. This left me in the clear for an easy stop at the storage unit to grab blankets, pillows, and my steering wheel puller tool.

I had the lock cylinder replaced by late afternoon. I paid the landlord and slept on the floor that night in the nest of blankets and pillows.

In three days, I was to surprise my family at the annual Christmas dinner, being held a bit late this year. Only two people, my uncle and his girlfriend who had arranged the apartment for me, knew I was here. Now, with this delay, I feared I’d be too gnarled up with my own concerns to be gregarious at the gathering. Then, the day before the event, my cousins’ dad died of a heart attack right after their holiday dinner. They did CPR on their own dad at their Christmas dinner. They and their wives and kids would be at this other gathering too. How would it look for me to pop in and say “surprise” right after all that?

But to the contrary, everyone was relieved to have something to get their minds off things. My surprise arrival was good news to offset the bad, portending an auspicious year ahead.

*Beijing has two kinds of weather: clear and smoggy. Otherwise, it has little precipitation. There’s a short rainy season in summer, little to no snow in winter, and rarely any clouds the rest of the year. I rejoiced whenever I looked out my window and saw cloudy textures.