Sagebrush in Chicago

Sometimes I think of my brain as more of a committee than a single entity. I picture a large group of them sitting around a big table. There’s Lazy Tim, half asleep; Comedy Tim, constantly making up the most god-awful jokes; and Logical Tim, trying to make sense of a bewildering world. Some seats sat empty for a long time before finally being occupied. Hard-Working Tim took years to finally show up. And some seats that were long-occupied are now standing empty. When Sexy Tim ran out of testosterone and had to fade away, all the others gave him a nice, little going-away party but it was pretty obvious they were relieved to no longer have to deal with all the trouble he caused.

There is one guy who has always been politely listened to but then usually ignored. This is Idea Tim. When solutions to small problems are needed he’ll sit there with a blank look on his face and contribute little or nothing. But then, every two or three weeks, a light will come into his eyes and he’ll jump up and wave his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he’ll yell, “Buy or rent a vacuum-dredging machine, mount it on a truck, and spend the summer in the Colorado Rockies prospecting for gold!”  Or, “Cast cabinet knobs and handles in the shape of unicorns and rainbows to sell for little girls’ furniture!”

The others all put up with him because every now and then he does come up with a good one. If he hadn’t jumped up last fall and yelled, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! How about a blog?” you’d be wasting even more time on Facebook than you already do.

Unfortunately for me, those times when things go haywire and some good, solid, crisis thinking is needed are the times that Idea Tim is at his looniest. Instead of “Okay, with a little belt-tightening, hard work, and self-denial we can get through this,” it’s “I’ve got a can’t-miss scheme that’ll make big money and get everything back to normal in a week.” Here’s a case in point.

In 1977 I was living in Denver, I’d just quit working for an outfit called Code Signs, and I was doing some freelance sign-painting on my own. I was renting a room in the back of a house which included a parking space for my old VW van. On some weekends I’d drive up Laramie to visit friends. One Sunday evening I was driving back to Denver through a snowstorm. Just outside of Fort Collins I heard a loud “Bang!” from the engine compartment. I managed to wrestle the van over to the side of the road. And it refused to budge an inch further.

When you love old cars but can’t seem to remember to perform routine maintenance – like changing the oil – you end up frequently walking for miles through cold and darkness. I finally got to a phone and called my friend Joe who, bless his little heart, drove up from Denver and towed me back home. Steering a car attached to the end of a ten-foot chain behind a pickup truck that is going sixty miles an hour down the freeway is an experience I am happy to say I have never had to do again.

Back in my little bedroom, staring at the wall for hours, I wondered what I was going to do. The engine in my van was blown. I had about a hundred and fifty dollars to my name and it was going to cost $600 to replace the engine.

Up in the Committee Room in the back of my head, things were dark and gloomy. Lazy Tim had excused himself to go to the bathroom and never returned, Upbeat Tim was slumped in his chair looking mournful, Hard-Working Tim was idly picking clumps of sawdust out of his tool belt, and Logical Tim was shooting paper clips at a spot on the wall. Suddenly, Idea Tim sat bolt upright, jumped to his feet, and waved his arms.

“I got it! I got it!” he shouted, “There is sagebrush growing all over the prairie around Laramie, right? There are so many you never really notice them. But if you look close up, they are really beautiful and fascinating plants. Plus they smell good! All I have to do is rent some old jalopy, drive up to Wyoming, dig up about a hundred sagebrush and stick them in the back of the car. Then I drive to Chicago and sell them for six bucks apiece. It’ll be enough to get the car fixed.”

And I was sold! It was perhaps the most hare-brained scheme I had ever come up with but I was ready to give it my best shot. I found a newly-opened business there in Denver called “Lou’s Rent-A-Dent” that specialized in renting older, previously-owned cars. I caught a bus there and talked to a roly-poly bald guy who talked around his cigar. He was the eponymous Lou.

Lou steered me to a five-year-old Dodge Dart that had been converted from burning gasoline to propane. Perhaps because of the weird fuel set up, he gave me a hell of a deal – seven dollars a day, no mileage charge, and he would take a post-dated check for a deposit. I accepted his offer, wrote him a check, and was off to the sagebrush prairies of Wyoming.

On the way, I stopped at the University of Wyoming and after asking around I was directed to a professor of Botany who knew a lot about sagebrush. He was highly dubious of my plan but said there was a slim chance it could work. I took this as a firm endorsement.

“There are three kinds of sage in this area,” he said, “Black Sage, Big Sage, and Silver Sage. Of the three you’d have your best chance with Silver Sage. It grows up around Medicine Bow.”

My disappointment at having to drive 60 miles out of my way was tempered by the Professor telling me that of the three varieties, Silver Sage was the only one known to survive a bare-root transplant. This was wonderful news, as I had become concerned with how I was going to fit 100 sagebrush plants with dirtballs around their roots into the back seat of a Dodge Dart. The trunk of the car was almost entirely taken up by the added propane tank.

I left Laramie early the next morning with a back seat full of bare-root sagebrush plants in four black plastic garbage bags – 25 to a bag. I was headed to Fairfield, Iowa, 800 miles away. I thought I could get there by 8 o’clock, where I could find my friend Glenn, who was a student at a little University there, and get him to put me up for the night. Then the next day would be an easy 300-mile jaunt to Chicago where my long-time friend Patti would make me up a little cot in the basement. I had talked to Patti and made arrangements but had been unable to connect with Glenn. But there were only 700 students in this little school, how hard could it be to find him? Damned hard I found out.

I came driving into Iowa on the heels of a massive cold front that had dropped a foot of snow and had driven temperatures down to only a hair above doodly-squat.  The journey that was supposed to take 12 hours stretched out to 16. I hadn’t factored in missed exits, spending long, nervous stretches looking for truck stops that sold propane, and allowing time to empty my bladder and fill my stomach. When I finally came cruising into Fairfield, the big sign on the Bank said it was 12:15 and 14 degrees below zero.

I drove around the university campus hoping for some sign of life, but everything was as cold and dark as the inside of a well digger’s glove. I couldn’t sleep in the car and I couldn’t afford a motel. I was about to go find the local police station and ask them if they could put me in a cell, Mayberry-style, when I noticed a University cop car making its rounds.

“No, I can’t tell you where a student’s room is,” the patrol officer informed me. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

After I had explained the rock and the very cold hard place I was between, he took pity on me and told me there was a wing of one dorm that wasn’t being used, but the heat was being left on enough to keep the pipes from freezing. He could open a room for me but as for the rest, I was on my own. I thanked him profusely and was soon asleep on a bare mattress, still fully dressed, and snuggled under two garbage bags full of sagebrush.

In the morning I found Glenn. He got me into the cafeteria for a nice breakfast. Then we discovered the Dodge Dart wouldn’t start. Luckily, he knew someone at the motor pool who came and took a look and said that the propane had gotten too cold and until the whole car had warmed up well above freezing, there wasn’t enough vapor pressure in the tank to start the car. It took the rest of the day to tow, push, and grunt the car over to the motor pool garage where it would spend the night. I slept on Glenn’s dorm room floor that night and the Dart was ready to go the next morning. Glenn insisted on paying me for one of the sagebrushes and was installing it in a pot as I left.

Things were looking up! I had sold my first sagebrush and Patti was expecting me in Chicago. She had warned me on the phone that there was a serious snowstorm forecast for the city and I should hurry.

So there I was, driving into Chicago at the beginning of the worst blizzard in ten years. I found Patti’s Father’s house on the South Side, East of Cicero just as the wind-driven snow was getting almost too thick to see. All night it kept up and by the next day there was more than two feet of the white stuff on the ground and nothing was moving. Chicago was snowed in.

I spent the next day catching up with Patti and yelling at her father. He was a genuinely nice person but deaf as a post. I also designed a little tag to be tied around each of the sagebrush plants. The tag featured a cartoon cowboy holding a potted sagebrush and next to him was an explanatory paragraph:

“This is a genuine Wyoming Silver Sage. It is a desert plant so be very stingy with the watering can. Like the people of Wyoming, it thrives in adverse conditions. So when you mist your other plants, throw a little crushed ice at your sagebrush. When you talk to your other plants, cuss at your sagebrush.”

By the following day, the snowplows had cleared most of the main streets and I set out to sell my plants. I had a list of every florist and every wholesale plant dealer on the South Side.

Of the ninety-nine sagebrush I had with me, I sold a grand total of zero. Over and over I heard, “We only buy from people we know and have a track record. Sorry.” The few who I could get to even look inside the bags said, “These things are either dead or dying.”  All-in-all, as Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek said, “It was a magnificent catastrophe.”

Once again, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had only enough money left to either pay for the propane to get back to Denver, or to pay the rental fee once I got there, but not both. Patti then suggested that if we were to drive back to Denver together, she would pay for the fuel. Two months earlier, her father had had a health emergency and she’d flown back home to Chicago to take care of him. Now that he was feeling better, she could go back to Denver and pick up her car and some personal stuff.

Early the next morning I sadly dropped my bags of sagebrush into a dumpster in the alley before turning the Dart around and heading West. We took turns driving, sleeping, and telling each other long stories. We drove straight through, stopping only for propane, bathroom breaks, and food.

It was around noon the next day when I pulled the Dodge Dart into Lou’s Rent-A-Dent. Not knowing what was going to happen, I waved to Patti, who had followed me with her own car, screwed up my courage, and walked into the office. And I didn’t come out for a long time.

After I had been in there for more than twenty minutes, Patti began to get worried. Perhaps, she thought, Lou had lost his temper and punched me out. Or possibly he was making me sit there and wait for the Police to arrive. Finally, just as she was wondering whether or not to pick up a tire iron and bust me out as well as trying to remember what a tire iron looked like, I came out of the door.

With a sheaf of typing paper in my hand, I got into the passenger seat. She looked me over for bruises and, finding none, asked, “Are you okay? What took so long?”

“Sorry about that. He was a little taken aback that I’d driven it all the way to Chicago and back, but since I hadn’t violated the contract there was nothing he could do.”

“And that took nearly a half an hour?”

“Well, no. I told him I was a sign painter and I thought he could use a sign. He agreed and the rest of the time we spent making sketches and talking about prices.”

 I showed her the sheets of paper. On them I had drawn an approximation of the lettering on his business card and a cartoon of a sexy blonde woman leaning on the fender of a car. In each iteration the blonde’s breasts got larger as the scoop-neck top she was wearing got lower. In the final one with a red check on it, it was difficult to see how she could stand upright without falling over.

“How much will he pay you?”

“A hundred dollars for a full-color scale drawing. If he okays that, then $700 for the sign.”

“So after all this, you ended up with enough to get your car fixed after all.” And I did.

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