Gremlins and Ghettos.

This is the car I would like to think represents me.

[The following is one of my most requested stories from students. I can’t vouch for the exact chronology. Things were very difficult in those days, and my memories are clouded by a degree of nostalgia and a degree of self-preserving amnesia.]

Many people consider cars to be extensions of themselves. I’ve always wanted a really nice car, something classic and sporty. I drove a Triumph TR4A for a while. I felt good about that. But otherwise my rides have been a concession to monetary limitations masked in practical reasonings. Cars are for transportation. The least amount of cost for the required transportation is all that one should require. Right. What I would give for a Audi TTS Roadster.

However my first car, and my second home, was a 1974 AMC Gremlin. Straight six. Automatic. Decent tires. Low miles. The Finlaysons let me have it for $500. A good buy. However, even in 1978, the Gremlin was a geek at the prom in a cheap red tux and bad hair cut. So, unfortunately, perhaps it fit me a bit too well.
I was attending Pacific Lutheran University instead of Washington State University due to a last–minute scholarship from the Ben B. Cheney Foundation. But I still needed to pick up some extra work during the school year to attend PLU, and so I bought the car to make that possible.
But even with extra hours working for a construction company (Ryan Built Homes), by my second year it was obvious that I was going to need more money — quite a lot more — to stay in school. I knew that I needed to earn better money than average. But I was used to that working out. I had been taught that if you work hard and take what opportunities open to you, things come through. It was our family history, and mine was no exception. When I was still 14,  my dad took a chance on putting together a reforesting team with me,  Tony Psaris, Mark Peterson, and Brian, for Knapp Brothers Realty in Purdy. He rigged up a system where we soaked the seedlings overnight and kept them damp in burlap  pouches as they were planted. It made a difference in our take rate (the percentage of trees that actually live), and under my his supervision we earned up to $14 an hour. In 1974, that was huge. Another summer Kevin Lyle got me a job with Jess Reid working at his family’s door parts mill down in the Tacoma tide flats. I made really good money there, too. I also starting building rock walls and was now branching out on my own as people liked my work. I’ve always been willing to take chances.

This was my first car.

An opportunity opened up through a friend who worked for a corporate farm in Medford, Oregon, over the summers. The company was taking on an overseas venture helping the Libyans set up large-scale farming operations in the Libyan desert. The terms were good. The company provided room, board, and transportation. You worked a three-month on, one-month off schedule in which you received money at the end of three months to travel home (or anywhere else you wanted). And at the end of the year, you got $25,000 — after taxes — in addition to the small monthly stipend. That was a lot of money in 1978. I figured that I would work a year, see the world, and come back with enough money to finish school. I applied, interviewed, and was hired. Things looked good.

I was on the verge of departing for Tripoli, with my passport pages full of visas and my arms and ass full of  vaccinations, when the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis occurred. Libya, joining in, was put the list of places not recommended for travel or work. My flight was cancelled, our crew was put on indefinite hold, and I was in limbo.

Everyone figured the hostage crisis would end soon. But it didn’t. As the months drug on and summer came to an end I decided that I had to try to go back to school. But by now I had given up my financial aid, my talent award (for piano), and my former job. I was able to get back some hours with RBH cleaning up between construction crews (sheet rock, paint, trim). But PLU financial aid was not sympathetic. None of my financial aid or scholarships could be reinstated.

I walked out of the Financial Aid Office and down to the Business Office. I wrote a bad check for my tuition, and registered for classes before the it could clear. Then I went back to the Business Office, made up some kind of story, worked out a payment plan, and tried to figure out what to do next.

I got a short-term student loan through the credit union, and between that and my hours for RBH I  had almost enough to make the payments. But I needed a place to stay and started to ask around everywhere I knew. A  Young Life leader (Melanie, I think), who was also related to my friends Debbie and Wade Iverson, had an old trailer out in Cromwell. It sat by the main road in a field with a barn and some goats. Now and then they let people who were in need stay in it, and, fortuitously, it was empty. They agreed to rent it to me for $60 a month, utilities included. I remember bringing the late Jim Crabtree out to see it. “Congratulations, Nels,” he told me, “You have your own ghetto.” The name stuck.

The Ghetto (right) and goat barn (left). Still there.

When I was at the Ghetto, I lived off off homemade bran muffins and peanut butter. Every weekend I mixed up a huge bowl of bran muffins dough. Every month I bought an industrial sized jar of Adams Peanut Butter (crunchy) at the cash and carry. I would bake a few muffins at a time (to avoid going through them too fast and running out of food) and eat them with the peanut butter and the honey that I found along with a big bag of home-dried teas in the Ghetto’s cupboards. I  gradually worked my way through most of the bag. Chickweed (surprisingly good). Mint. Lemon grass. That kind of thing.

School started up again.

The problem with the Ghetto was that it was in Gig Harbor, about twenty miles from PLU. And I had no money for gas to drive back and forth five days a week. So when classes started, I had to sleep in the Gremlin some nights. It was miserable: cold, dank, and incredibly uncomfortable. The neighborhood was full of car break-ins, but fortunately none happened to me while I was bunking in the car. I covered myself over as best I could either in the back with the seats down, or trying to sleep in the driver’s seat. In the morning, I would head down to the gym and get a shower.

I kept going with the spare change I gathered with a trick that I had learned my  freshman year. One early morning I chanced upon the washer maintenance guy taking the dorm washer agitators off. He showed me how change washed out of people’s pockets collected under the agitators. To get at it all you needed was the right sized Allen wrench. Fortunately, my grandfather had given me a bunch of tools, including Allen wrenches, the next Christmas after the worst Christmas present ever. I took to asking different people if I could do my laundry in their dorms, and chose times when the laundry room was empty. Then, while I waited for the my wash to finish, I scrounged change in the other washers. I hit a bonanza a couple of times: more than five dollars in one washer. But mostly it was ten cents here, seventy-five cents there. Enough to dry my wash and to get a cup of coffee and some  onion rings at Dennys.

Treasure from the wash kept me goinI kept going.

I hung out at Denny’s as late as I could after the library closed, nursing my coffee and onion rings, to stay warm and out of the car. The managers generally overlooked my loitering because I tried to bring friends who usually bought food. But I was loosing weight (I eventually was thrity pounds under what I am now). Eventually Chris, a waitress, took pity on me. Every once in a while when I was on my own she made a “mistake” with a milkshake order and would drop the error off at my table. She also slipped me food that other people had left. It felt demeaning, having to eat people’s leftovers, but when you haven’t had anything to eat all day, an abandoned and untouched half of a Monte Christo sandwich looks, and tastes, pretty damn good. Another waitress occasionally brought a “left-over” steak and eggs breakfast out to the Ghetto after her shift got off. Waitresses have been very, very good to me.

As time went on, I needed to spend more nights at school. It was getting colder, and I needed to get creative to not have to spend every week night on 121st Street. I started out by spreading my books out late at night in the Ordal dorm lounge, and sleeping on the couch a night or two a week. Eventually the hall director discovered that I was, in fact, not a resident and booted me. But by then, I had made another discovery: on the ground floor of another dorm there was a storage room filled with mattresses. It was nearly always unlocked. The stacks in the corner practically reached the high ceiling, and if I crawled up on them no one could see me. It was soft. And warm. And hidden.

Be careful of who might be sleeping just over the top of the mattresses...

There were, howevwer, two problems with the the storage room. The first problem was that, technically, it was part of an all-girls wing. So gaining access without drawing attention to myself was a challenge. The other problem was that I wasn’t the only one making use of the room for something other than storage. The girls of the wing snuck their boy friends (and sometimes each other’s boy friends) in there at times. I know that because, sometimes, I was up on my mattress pile trying to get some shut-eye. I learned a lot about what people pretend in public and do in private. But I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow.

Anyway, I had to find another option for sleeping. Joe Frazier, a friend from my freshman and sophomore year, talked his roommate into letting me stay with in his Stuen dorm room a couple of nights a week (I owe Joe big time for helping me get through that winter, and also for introducing me to the pleasures of a pipe). I brought a sleeping bag from the car and crashed on the floor under their bunks. Between them on Tuesday and Thursday and the Gremlin on Monday and Wednesday nights I made it through the next semester.

Finally, toward the end of the next year, I hit a brick wall. A thousand dollar deficit on my tuition bill remained for the spring. Without any way to make it up, I started to make arrangements to withdraw from school, planning to work until I could pay off my bill and transfer to Western or WSU. I would have to change majors, but you do what you have to do.

On the day that I came into the business office to withdraw, something remarkable happened. “What are you doing?” the eternally grouchy woman at the window said,  “You don’t owe anything.”

She held out a statement. Somehow, someway, my deficit was gone. And what’s more, PLU owed me $320.

I still, to this day, do not know what happened. Maybe it was an error. Perhaps it was PLU’s notoriously erratic accounting catching up to what my balance actually was. Perhaps it was an anonymous doner. In any case, if miracles are the exact thing, at the exact time, you need to happen coming about in an impossibly unforeseeable manner, it was a miracle. I used my credit to register for my senior year.

Later, Dave, Keller (the friend through whom I had made the Libya connection) and a high school classmate (Mark Engdahl) helped get me a job at West Coast Grocery (Mr. Engdahl was a VP there). Suddenly I was a teamster earning $14.56/hr plus bennies. My money problems with school were over. Working graveyard (10:00 pm – 7:00 am) and going to classes presented a new set of challenges, but that’s another story.

None of us are really self-made. *Somebody* gave this guy a hammer and a chisel.

Now, as odd as it sounds, one of the things that I had never considered during this time was going back home. My parents would have gladly taken me in. They lived only about seven miles from the Ghetto. But I had moved out and, to me, that meant that I was responsible to do everything possible to take care of things on my own. I guess we were raised like that. My parents, once they found out years later what I had gone through, went through a lot of guilt. They wished that they had known more, and had been able to help me. But I knew then that they were in their own financial difficulties, and I knew that they were there. And that was, in the end, enough. Besides, I needed their help years later, when they saved me from utter devastation. They protected me financially through my divorce, and in the end shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to help me obtain a fair parenting plan  and to bail Susan and me out of the legal debts that were about to make us loose our home. Over the last few years, my mother has made it possible for us to pursue our careers, to overcome medical and dental disasters, to take a sabbatical, and to maintain our home with a roof and paint. The best help is help when you really, really need it. And as tough as times were way back then, I was able to get by in a way that I, somewhat regrettably, haven’t been able to do recently.

But what I learned through those times, and have never lost sight of, is the fact that sometimes plans and opportunities don’t work out and that we always need friends, family, and people of good will. It’s people who come through. I’ve had to work incredibly hard in my life, perhaps too hard at times, but I never would have made it without the people (and the universe) that gave me a break and a hand along the way. The myth of the self-made man (or woman) is really just that, a myth. It has it’s uses. But none of us really make it alone.


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2 Responses

  1. January 10, 2010

    […] Altered Focus The only thing different is the way we came « Gremlins and Ghettos. […]

  2. January 29, 2010

    […] my stint living in an AMC Gremlin, storage rooms, and on dorm floors, I scored a job as an “Order Selector” for West Coast Grocery in the Tacoma tide flats. […]