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The Cost of a Couch - An Adventure in Moving!
We are flying down the New York Thruway without headlights in the pitch black, my eyes glued to the red tail lights of the truck in front of us. I dare not look away from those glowing red coals, not for a second. They are the only beacons that keep me from drifting off the blacktop into the ditch beyond the shoulder. No time to wonder why the hell New York State failed to install a couple of lights along this major highway!?
What were we doing here? What happened to the headlights? Is it always this dark in the mountains of upstate New York? I felt like a bomber pilot nursing his wounded bird back to the base, just me and the big metal bird, hurling through space, no up or down, no sense of where you are in the world, just gripping the wheel and praying that you'll get this baby down safe and sound, somehow, somewhere.
I was driving a U-Haul truck. The twin red disks in front of me belonged to the tow truck that had come to our rescue. And he was speeding along way too fast, way too fast! Didn't he know I was driving a damaged rent-a-truck? Couldn't he see that I had no way of lighting the road ahead of me? Was he in that much of a hurry to get back to his shop? We had been racing down the inky black Thruway for over forty minutes now, my heart in my throat the whole time. Death lay in wait just a few yards beyond the narrow ribbon of blacktop, and if I didn't remain on the heels of this speed demon in front of me I was going over the side into never-never land.
This is just some of the price I was paying for my free couch.
It all began so innocently, just a few days ago, when my mother in law called up and told my wife her brother was giving their living room set to Goodwill.
"It's in perfect shape. It really should go to you. Why should charity get it, when you don't even have a couch of your own?"
It seemed so sensible at the time. We had just moved to Albany from Santa Cruz, California. We left a lot of our baggage behind. Wouldn't we like a free couch? And not just a couch - a free loveseat and giant comfy chair and a small bedroom dresser, too? Well, sure, why not? My wife was convinced. She was eager to inherit a new living room of furniture.
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"Nothing," my mother in law insisted, "nothing at all."
"Then why are they giving it away to charity?" I persisted.
"They're getting a new replacement set. A bedroom and a living room set both, for a really good price. And Donald doesn't really like the couch; he says it's too soft."
"Too soft? How can a couch be too soft?" But my wife Darlene laughed at my silly questions and made the decision for us.
"Tell Don we'll take the couch off his hands. All of it."
The couch wouldn't really be free unless Scotty could beam it into our living room, but I couldn't complain. I'm a sensible guy, and the thought of acquiring a whole set of living room furniture for free was hard to refuse.
I called our local U-Haul agency and reserved a 14-foot box truck for $19.95 a day, plus 79 cents per mile. I got out the calculator and figured that a round-trip ride from Albany to northern New Jersey, a total of 340 miles, would cost us $268 in mileage.
Okay, that seemed pretty reasonable. For less than $300, we could bring home a new couch, loveseat, giant comfy chair, and dresser. Not bad. Okay, it wasn't exactly NEW new, but we had been assured it was in good shape, and it was new for us. And okay, we had to devote a day to go and fetch it. But still, it was a great bargain: a new living room set for $300 and day of our time.
Then the U-Haul people told us there was a dollar per mile surcharge if you used the truck on a weekend. That meant $340 added to the rental fee. But Don and Kristie weren't getting their new stuff delivered until Tuesday, so if we waited until Monday we would save ourselves $340. Sure, Darlene and I had to take a day off from work and burn one of our vacation days, but it was worth it. For some reason saving ourselves the $340 surcharge felt like a small victory.
More good news. The weather service expected a break in the tropical storms that had inundated the northeast for the past two weeks. That break was expected to come by Monday. Excellent! The forces of the universe were lining up on our side, and things were working out just fine. Monday, then, was D-Day.
We got to the U-Haul agency at the crack of dawn on Monday, and began the rental ritual. You didn't need a special trucker's license to rent a truck. Just about anyone could get behind the wheel and threaten school children waiting for their bus. They plied us with questions and typed it all into their computer: credit card number; name and address and phone and email; hand truck rental? moving blankets? odometer and condition of the vehicle; and on and on and on.
And then their computer system went down! I swear to the God of Hertz. We had to do it all over again.
And we learned that the cost of a couch had just gone up. We had to pay $18 for one day's insurance, and I had completely forgotten about the fuel. We had to bring back the truck all gassed up, which meant 10 miles a gallon with diesel fuel currently priced at $3.08 a gallon. I did some quick figuring. For 340 miles, I figured to pay another $102 for gas. Add that and $18 insurance to the total, and my free couch was now coming in at $408. And a day of our time. And two vacation days. Well, it's still a good deal, I told myself.
Finally, they gave us the keys and we're off. I learned how to drive a standard transmission on the way home, with Darlene following in the car. The steering was atrocious and the truck took very wide turns, but I missed all the school kids and elderly pedestrians and made it back home to drop off the car.
That's when we discovered they had given us the wrong truck! May Hertz strike me down if I am making any of this up. The truck's serial number and license plate didn't match the paperwork and, far worse, the odometer was off by 4000 miles. I sure as hell wasn't going to pay for 4000 miles I didn't drive! We called them and they blamed it all on their computer system, but they told us to keep the truck we had. They took down the info, including the new odometer setting, and finally we were off. This time, for real, we were off.
It was a fine day for a ride down the New York Thruway. We made it to Don and Kristie's a few hours later, loaded up the truck with lots of laughter and a small hernia, and started back home with plenty of afternoon sunshine left to light our way.
Add $20 to the cost of a couch. I had forgotten that the New York Thruway was a toll road. I had my $5 out when we rolled up to the toll booth, but the attendant said, "Sorry sir, it's $10 for trucks." I was better prepared on the way back home. The tally for a set of 'free' living room furniture was now $428.
There is a stretch of highway where Interstate 287 meets Interstate 87 and all the connections and exits and on-ramps force the highway to rise way up into the sky on mighty girders. The wind can really catch you when you are that high up in the air, and it presses especially hard against the broad, flat, unyielding side of a U-Haul rent-a-truck.
The first gust pushed me right into the next lane, and the next gust wanted to keep pushing me right through the guard rail. I slowed to get more traction and fought the wheel like sea captain on choppy seas. I felt adrenaline rushing through me as I fought to keep us in the lane, around the curve, the guardrail rushing by, the landscape in miniature several hundred feet below us, miniature roof tops and telephone poles and toy cars far below. The gusts tried to trick me into relaxing, easing off for a few seconds before coming back in a rush: wham, the heavy sideways press competing with the forward momentum of the rental truck, and anybody's guess which would prevail in the end.
Finally the road came back to earth as we entered the foothills of the Catskills. The hills provided a limited wind-break and my adrenaline began to return to a normal level. My upper body was getting a good isometric workout today. I huddled in the right lane and the cars and trucks passed me on the left, passing much too close and much too fast. I felt the rental get sucked into the vortex of each passing truck, and the bucking cross-winds just made everything that much more exciting.
After an hour or so of poor radio reception, we pulled into the next rest stop, officially named the Malden Service Area. I was physically beat, but we only had 40 more miles to go. Darlene and I bought cups of cheap coffee at gourmet prices and sat outside sipping, musing over the dozen times we had gone up and down the Thruway to visit family in the two months since we had moved here. I was getting pretty damn tired of driving the New York Thruway.
But this time we came home with a real prize for making the trip, and Darlene reminded me that in less than an hour we would be home. Home to let out the dog; home to relax with a good stiff drink; home at last. I tried to imagine how we would arrange the furniture. I felt better now.
But the Thruway wasn't done with us yet.
I climbed into the truck and turned the key. Nothing. I tried again. And again and again. Nothing. The battery appeared to be dead. Hells bells!
The next hour was pain, just pure phone pain. Even reading about it is painful, so I'll try to be brief. You've probably been there once or twice: Phone Hell. You don't ever want to go back.
Mark from the U-Haul agency really didn't want to hear we had a problem. He passed the buck to U-Haul Central (my name for them). We called them instead, and reported a dead battery. And where were we? The Malden Service Area on the New York Thruway. Where? I repeated. Where exactly?
Nothing we said seemed to register with this gal. You're in the Malden Service Area? Yes, it's on the New York Thruway. Where is that? It's Interstate 87, around 40 miles south of Albany. Where is the nearest city and state? (What is this? Did they outsource the position to India?)
We are south of Albany, the capital of New York State. What was the name of the city of the last exit you passed? We didn't know, but I ran into the rest stop building to find out. We last passed exit 20, the city of Sugarties. Could we spell that? We did.
She told us I-87 was a Turnpike. We told her it was the New York Thruway, but she could call it a Turnpike if she liked. Did she know where we were now? No, not yet.
"It's the Thruway, it's famous, it cuts through the heart of New York State!"
She still could not locate us. Darlene all but shouted into the cell phone: "Look, find Canada. Now run a line from Montreal to New York City. That's Interstate 87. Albany is halfway between Montreal and New York City. We're 40 miles south of Albany!!"
Nope. She said the mechanic she was going to send to rescue us would know how to find us, and gave us his phone number. We called the number, and an automated message said this number was outside of our service area. Where did she send us? Just where the hell did she think we were?!?
We next called AAA. They said we had to call the New York Thruway Authority, it was their jurisdiction. The Thruway Authority said something about towing us, but where would they tow us - we were already at a rest stop. I had already asked the kid who pumps the gas for help, but he was just a kid who pumped the gas. We needed expert help, we needed a mechanic.
We called U-Haul Central again, and this time we spoke to someone who had heard about the New York Thruway. He immediately dispatched a tow-truck to our rescue. Unfortunately, the closest service provider they work with operates out of Albany, 40 miles away. It was now five o'clock.
While we waited I added something new to the tally: frustration. This 'free' living room set had cost us money and time and vacation days, and now I added emotional anguish. We were tired and impatient and hungry for real food, and now we had to wait for a truck to come down from Albany. I just hoped my dog could hold it in until we got home.
While we were waiting for help I saw a tow-truck pulling a 14 foot U-Haul truck northbound up the Thruway. Poor sucker. Rented from U-Haul, huh? Then it occurred to me that maybe that was our tow-truck, and he had rescued somebody else by mistake. That would just make my day! That would be the frosting on the freaking cake!
But shortly after a tow-truck came into the rest stop and veered right for us. Rescue! Our white knight had arrived.
He jump-started the battery, but found the alternator would not replenish the battery. We could only maintain power by keeping the engine running, and he suggested we follow his truck home to his service station. I hopped behind the wheel and we followed the tow-truck onto the Thruway, the orange sun just sliding behind the Catskill Mountains to our west.
After a few minutes I noticed that the dashboard lights were fading. I couldn't read our speed, or our fuel level. In fact, the headlights were fading too. I couldn't see the roadway. I was blind. I couldn't stop, there was no shoulder, and there was no way to get off the Thruway. The only thing I could do was keep up with the tow-truck and follow those two orbs of red light into the darkness. Oh my god. And he was speeding away from us, and I had to catch up.
And that's how I came to be flying along like a wounded B-17, with the motor roaring and the wind hissing through the cracks and the cabin in complete darkness, gripping the wheel and cursing the tow-truck driver for his speed, and cursing the darkness, and cursing the day anyone ever offered us a free goddamn couch.
It's well enough to write about it now, safe and sound at home. But when the turn signals stopped working too, I knew then we were in deep trouble. The battery was all but dead, and only the running of the engine kept us going. I prayed aloud to the tow-truck driver, "Don't pass that car, don't pass that car, don't pass that car," but he would pass the car and I would have to change lanes to keep up with him.
When a car or truck entered from the side I talked to them to stay out of my way, to not get between me and tow-truck, but sometimes I had to yield and let them enter the Thruway ahead of me. I counted on them being typical New Yorkers, unable to tolerate the slow lane, and sure enough, they would inevitably veer off to the left and accelerate in the fast lane.
The gusts had not subsided. I gripped the wheel with sweaty palms and peered into the darkness, keeping my focus on the two red dots in front of me. Without headlights I couldn't even see the white lines running down the center of the roadway. The wind would push us aside and I fought against the thrust, using the tail lights of the tow-truck as my sole guide. We were alone in the dark, floating in space. Now I welcomed the passing cars and trucks - at least they illuminated my own lane for a short while as they passed.
After a half hour of high-tension flying, we came to Exit 23 and rolled up to the toll booth. Wouldn't you know it, the tow-truck had EZ-Pass and went right through the toll booth without stopping. I had some choice words for him then, you can well imagine. Fortunately, the exit and the toll area were well lit and no one noticed that we were driving without headlights. We had no choice but to continue through the toll, and there he was, waiting on the side a little further up, our savior, our tow-truck man. All praise to the good tow-truck man!
He pulled out in front of us and we repeated the wild ride but this time the road was illuminated in some areas, and the skyline of Albany provided a silhouette to the elevated highway that ran along side the Hudson River.
In fifteen minutes we left the highway and followed the tow-truck through the streets of the city. A traffic light was about to turn yellow but I stepped on the gas and pushed through the intersection, determined to stay on the tow-truck's tail. At some point he pulled over and we did the same. We had arrived at his service station.
We had no other way of getting home other than by using the truck, so we had to wait while he pulled out the batteries and replaced the alternator. He explained that diesel trucks have two batteries because they need a lot more juice to turn over, but both of our batteries were dead. He replaced them and the alternator and in just about an hour we were free to take ourselves home. Our dog was very happy to see us, but no one was happier to return home safe and sound than me.
Our work was not yet done. First we had to unload the truck and carry the pieces into the living room. We did a quick arranging and then, finally, we were free to sink wearily into the soft cushions, tired but content, home at last. Our first impression was very favorable. We were going to be very happy with our new living room set.
I know the wiser old souls who are reading this tale have already nodded knowingly, saying to one another "There's no such thing as a free lunch." And today I bow to your wisdom, and agree wholeheartedly. To which I will add, "There's no such thing as a free couch."
That living room set cost us $428 in cash, plus two vacation days, a small hernia and a flush of the adrenal glands, hours of wasted time stranded in a rest stop that apparently didn't appear on some maps, and a literal death-defying ride through the night that was more scary and far longer than the biggest and best roller-coaster ride in the world. THAT was the cost of our couch.
And after living with it for a few weeks I found that Don was right, after all. It is too soft. But it is staying just where it is. Unless you want it. Free. All you have to do is come get it. Any takers?