Shortly after I graduated college, I had a meltdown. Nothing serious, just your usual sort of freakout. I responded to this event the way New Englanders have for generations: I sold what I owned and bought a one-way plane ticket to San Francisco.
Remember when you could buy plane tickets from strangers just by checking the bulletin board at the laundromat? Heady times.
California and I didn't hit it off. I got there in September and by Thanksgiving I was more homesick than a second-grader at sleepover camp. I missed everything about New England. Everything that I'd always taken for granted. All the stuff I'd never really noticed was actually special about the place. Unique. Non-replicable.
I could go on at length about the cultural differences that made me (or, at least, 22-year-old me) and the Golden State a bad fit for each other. The hugging on first acquaintance. The insistence on a universally agreed-on definition of what constituted "nice weather." The dearth of affordable housing that could at least claim a touch of active haunting.
Too nice, too new, too sunshiney by half, my insufferable, know-it-all, 22-year-old self would sniff.
Not surprisingly, my rampant geographical snobbery didn't win me many friends. In my defense, I was also busy extracting myself from a romantic tangle of epic proportions -- the kind that inevitably arises when you're just old enough to be romantically viable, but not mature enough to know when to call bullshit on bad behavior -- and that was taking up a shocking amount of my mental headspace and free time. So I probably wasn't exactly Grade-A Prime Friend Material to begin with.
And that was how I found myself all alone on New Year's Eve, perched on my futon on the floor in an attic apartment, listening to the radio as the final hours of 1994 drifted by.
There was a Prairie Home Companion special running that night, and it made me cry. I ate some pizza, and cried some more. Then, after the live broadcast from the east coast was over, they played it again on tape delay, so that the clock on the radio would strike twelve at the same time it struck twelve where I was. In my unheated, unhappy, unhaunted attic apartment on Bonifacio Street in Concord, CA.
My old high school pal Tina had sent me a letter with some confetti in the envelope earlier that month, and I pulled it out at midnight, like the sad sack I was, and shook it out over my head, yelling "Happy New Year!" along with hundreds of tape-delayed revellers on the other side of the country, the side of the country where I was not.
I fell asleep with the radio on, for company.
When I woke up late the next morning, Car Talk was on. And something about hearing those braying, barking, unmistakably Boston-accented voices again made me snap. I suddenly knew, with a clarity that had eluded me for months, that I needed to get my ass back to the east coast, and fast.
I begged the graduate school I'd spurned, mid-meltdown, to take me back. There must have been a shortage of romantically immature paleontology students that year, because they did, no questions asked. I quit my job selling rocks at the Sun Valley Mall. And within a week, I was back in Massachusetts, convulsing with joy to be back in the barren, frozen landscape of a New England January that I'd been insane enough to think I didn't need.
The years that followed were better. I became more romantically mature. I honed my BS-calling skils. I learned not to make sweeping generalizations about entire geographic regions after only the most superficial of experiences.
Well. I'm still working on that last one.
And Car Talk was always there. Every road trip I went on, Tom and Ray sat in the back seat and laughed. Every Saturday morning shift in the restaurants I worked in during my 20s, they told bad jokes while I chopped tomatoes. Every car mechanic I dealt with, I spoke to with more confidence because I fancied I actually knew a thing or two about cars. And by that time, I did.
But I've never forgotten the favor they did me. Just by being themselves, they reminded me who I was. And so in gratitude, I always toss a little confetti for Tom and Ray on December 31st. Wherever I am, I wish them a Happy New Year, and thank them for turning the headlights back on and getting me home safe, all those long years ago.
Tom, I'm sorry you won't be here for the third half of my life. But I'm wicked glad you helped get me this far.
Image by Wonderlane