We got a new garage door. It came with an epic story

Hi & welcome to Situation Normal, a weekly newsletter of slice of life humor! Usually, my stories follow a simple three-act structure—setup, confrontation, resolution. But sometimes three acts just aren’t enough to contain the stories life throws at you. Shakespeare knew that, and while I’m no Shakespeare, I’ll put my five-act garage door story up against anything The Bard wrote in the home improvement genre.

Act One: Site Visit / Getting the Lead Out (March)

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Our journey to a new garage door isn’t as long, but it begins with a single click on the Home Depot website.

Soon after the Home Depot website experience, a woman named Jana comes to our house for a site visit.

“I need to take some measurements and inspect the premises so that everything goes smoothly,” Jana explains. “I’ll be your project manager for the duration.”

I should ask Jana what she means bythe duration,” but I have other questions on my mind. The previous owner removed the motorized opener, added plywood to the door, then sealed the door shut with insulation foam. I worry this is going to be a tough job for Jana’s crew, so I want to flag any potential issues before we begin.

“There’s only one hinge on the current garage door,” I say. “Is removing the door going to be a problem?”

“Not a problem at all,” Jana says.

“Really? Because the door is very heavy with the added plywood, so…”

“I’ve been in the garage door business for several years, and I know my stuff.”

I smile. It’s a relief to work with a pro, so I move onto the next item I want to flag.

“And what about that supporting beam in our garage?” I ask. “It looks like it might be too close to where you’d normally put the door-opener. Is it too close? Will you have enough room?”

“No problem at all. Plenty of room.”

“Do you want to measure? I have a ladder you can use.”

“Nope, I can see there’s tons of room. I just need to measure the door, and I’m all set.”

Jana takes her measurements, then asks when our home was built.

“Nineteen fifty-six. Is that an issue?”

“Nope.”


A week later, Jana calls.

“Mr. Estrin, we have a problem. We can’t remove your garage door because your house was built before nineteen seventy-eight.”

“Correct. You asked about that during the site visit, and I told you it was built in the fifties. What’s the issue?”

“Well… under California law, it’s just assumed that there’s lead paint on the door if the house was built before seventy-eight.”

“I doubt the door is more than forty years old.”

“You’d be surprised how long garage doors last.”

“Well, how long do they last?”

“I’m not really sure.”

I sigh.

“What are my options?”

“If we remove it, we have to charge you an extra five thousand dollars because of the lead.”

“Five grand!?”

“There are extra dumping fees for hazardous materials in this state. What can I say? It’s all that environmentalism stuff. You know how crazy this state is.”

“But you don’t know if there’s lead,” I protest.

“Or, you can remove it yourself.”

“Won’t I end up paying the dumping fees?”

Crickets. Then Jana explains in a roundabout sort of way that one guy hauling one garage door to the dump isn’t likely to raise any alarms about hazardous materials, whereas a pro hauling lots of doors to the dump will eventually run into California’s environmental protection laws. I may not know anything about garage doors, but I can read between the lines. Jana’s point is this: a homeowner can save a buck by skirting the law, but as with all illegal ventures, you’re on your own.

“But we paid for you guys to remove the old door,” I insist. “And I told you how old the house was and you said it wasn’t an issue. Now, you’re saying it is an issue.”

“There’s no issue,” she says. “We’ll waive the removal charge.”

That’s lovely to hear, but the reason we paid for the installer to remove the old door and haul it to the dump is that Christina and I lack the strength, expertise, and tools needed to DIY this shit.

“I don’t think it has lead,” I say.

“Well, it’ll cost thousands of dollars to have it tested,” Jana says. “I’m just trying to save you money. Because if you spend three grand to test and it’s positive, then you’ll spend another five grand to remove it. You ever hear the expression, ignorance is bliss? That’s deal here. That’s why most people just do it themselves.”

As a Californian living in a home built in the middle of the twentieth century, I’m familiar with the costs and protocols of testing for hazardous materials like lead and asbestos. I know those materials ain’t nothing to fuck with, but I also know testing a garage door shouldn’t cost three grand.

“If I show you a negative lead test, will you remove the door?”

“Yes, but…”

I phone the company that tested our house for asbestos when we bought it. A technician shows up the next day and tells me he doesn’t think our door has lead. But just to be sure—and because everyone needs to get their beak wet—he takes six samples from the door. As the technician works, he complains that installers like the one we hired “don’t give a shit” about their employees or the environment, and that they’re just “covering their own asses.”

I pay for a rush on the testing. The next day, our bank account is $300 lighter (a tenth of Jana’s estimate). Now, we have the facts. There’s no lead. Hurray!

“We’re good to go,” I tell Jana after emailing her the negative lead test results.

“I’m going to order the door,” she says. “It’ll take about fourteen weeks.”

“Fourteen weeks!?”

“Supply chain issues,” Jana explains. “That’s why I told you right away about the lead issue.”

Jana and I have different definitions of the “right away” concept. The way I see it, that information could’ve been shared at the time of the site visit. The way Jana sees it, time is a flat circle. But I let it slide because Jana will be our project manager for the duration, and the duration will now last fourteen weeks.

Act Two: Safety First (May)

Many weeks pass, so many in fact, that I use the old-timey metric known as fortnights to mark the epic passing of time. But eventually, the garage door supply chain issues are un-fucked, and soon after that Jana calls to schedule our installation.

“About how long will it take?” I ask.

“A few hours. After that, you’ll be all set.”


On the scheduled day, Ernie and Kevin show up to install our garage door.

“Why did you seal the old door?” Kevin asks.

“I didn’t. The previous owner did. He used the garage as his office. He was a commercial photographer, and he had one of those giant printers in here.”

I yammer on about how the garage is kind of a shitty office—hot in the summer, cold in the winter, smelly and a tad depressing year-round—when Ernie interrupts.

“We can’t remove the door,” Ernie says. “There’s only one hinge, and it has tension on it.”

“What’s that mean?”

“There’s a lot of energy in that spring—a lot of energy. If we try to remove the door with tension on only one side, the spring could go.”

“Go?”

“It could shoot off the hinge and kill someone,” Kevin says.

“Seriously?”

“It happened to my father,” Ernie says.

“Your father was killed by a garage door hinge?” I gasp.

“No,” Ernie says. “My dad is still alive. But he used to install garage doors. One time, he got a call to replace a garage door just like this one. The owner of that house tried to remove the spring himself, and it killed him. Very sad.”

It is very sad. But I didn’t know the guy, and so my mind goes to fiction. Killed by a garage door hinge is a shitty way to die in real life, but it’s a fantastic way to kill someone in a book!

“I’m really sorry about this,” Ernie says. “But we’re going to have to reschedule.”

“No, I get it. Safety first, right?”

“Exactly,” Ernie says. “What we do is find a hinge for the other side, put it on, and then we have tension on both sides. Then it’s safe to remove.”

“You don’t have a spare hinge on the truck?”

“Sorry, no. And again, I do apologize for the inconvenience.”

“There’s a Lowe’s around the corner. Can’t you just buy a hinge?”

“Well, we could, but we don’t do that. What we do is take it off another garage door from another job. We do that all the time. We’ll probably see another hinge we can use tomorrow, or the next day. Again, I’m really sorry.”

“That’s OK,” I say. “No need to apologize. Actually, I’m glad you said something. I know it can be really hard to call off a job. But I’d much rather reschedule than get anyone hurt.”

“For sure,” Kevin says. “Some people just don’t understand about safety.”

“Or, they don’t care,” Ernie adds. “They think we’re on the clock, so it doesn’t matter to us. But we get paid for the job, not the driving, so this is a couple hours down the tubes for us.”

I frown. Ernie and Kevin drove here from Palmdale, about ninety minutes away. I’d hate to be in their shoes. A three-hour roundtrip, and not a dollar to show for it.

“But you’re being super cool about it,” Kevin says.

“Hey, let’s all be safe and cool,” I say. “I just think—and I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here—but honestly, this should’ve come up on the site visit. I asked about the hinge. You guys drove all the way out here for nothing because the person who did the site visit screwed up.”

“That’s my mom,” Kevin says.

“Huh?”

“Jana is his mom,” Ernie says.

I remove my foot from my mouth and cut short my feedback about the failed site visit.

“We’ll be back next week,” Ernie says.

Act Three: Half-Assed (June)

As it turns out, Ernie’s idea of a week is more like three fortnights. But eventually, Ernie and Kevin return with a right-side hinge. It takes them a few hours to install the hinge, remove the old door, then install the new door.

“Sir, I have to apologize again,” Ernie says. “We need to come back.”

I look at the new garage door. It looks great, so I’m not sure what the issue is.

“There’s not enough space for the garage door opener because of the beam.”

I look up at the beam that cuts across the ceiling of our garage. I asked Jana if the beam would be an issue, and she assured me that it would be fine. Then again, Jana, missed the hinge issue and she blew it on the lead paint too. But in her defense, she is consistent.

“We’re going to have to order a different opener,” Ernie says. “It costs more because it’s a fancier unit, but the company is going to pay for it because we messed up. Again, sorry about that.”

For the second time, I accept Ernie’s apology. Then, against my better judgement, I ask, “Is there anything else?”

“Actually, there is,” Ernie says. “We also don’t have the stuff to add the weather stripping around the door, so we’d have to come back anyway.”

Part of me wonders if Kevin and Ernie will end up losing money because of all the fuck-ups on this job. Another part of me wonders if we’ll ever finish the garage door install. But the optimist inside me tells the skeptic to mind his own business.

“Well, third times the charm, right?”

Act Four: You’re Not Going to Believe This (July)

Another couple of fortnights pass before Ernie returns, only this time he’s alone. The first order of business is to install the garage door opener. That part goes well. Maybe the third time really is the charm. But then we hit a snag.

“You’re probably going to think we’re the worst company and that we’re a bunch of bozos because we’ve been to your house three times just to install a dang garage door.”

Actually, this is the fourth visit, but I guess Ernie isn’t counting the site visit, when I, a neophyte to the garage door game, raised a series of red flags, each of which proved to be on point.

“I’m guessing you’re going to have to come back,” I say.

“Yeah, I forgot the weather stripping,” Ernie says. “It was supposed to be on the truck, but it’s not. Again, I’m really sorry. And I don’t blame you if you think we’re morons.”

I sidestep the moron question. There’s no sense kicking a man when he’s down, and I can tell that Ernie’s morale is Limbo-time low.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I say, “but may I ask how many visits it takes to install a garage door? I don’t mean that as a joke, you know, like those lightbulb jokes. I just really want to know if our situation is typical or atypical.”

“Usually, it only takes one visit. Your situation is messed up, but again, I’m really sorry that we screwed this up. Honestly, we totally suck. That’s the issue. We’re a really disorganized company, and everyone is quitting. We’re supposed to have eight technicians, but we only have two. The guy who came with me last time, Kevin, quit and moved to Texas.”

“Kevin quit? You’re telling me that he walked out on his mom and moved to Texas? It’s that bad?”

Ernie nods.

“What’s he going to do in Texas?”

“Install garage doors.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, he said he just wanted to work for a better company.”

“But his mom is the project manager,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s how he knows how shitty this company is. Honestly, I don’t know why people hire us.”

“We didn’t hire you guys,” I say. “We went with Home Depot. They assigned the installation job to you guys.”

“Fuck, that makes sense.”

Actually, it doesn’t make any sense at all. But here we are, two men trapped inside the unaccountable—and let’s be frank, incompetent—garage door industrial complex.

“Yeah, the boss is super-stressed, and he’s stressing everyone else out, and that’s why everyone is quitting. It’s like a vicious cycle. Before COVID, we had high turnover, but nobody quit during the pandemic because everyone was afraid to out of work, but then everyone got vaccinated, and they were like, this company sucks, so to hell with it.”

There’s a lot of that going around these days. People are quitting because they put off quitting a shitty job for more than a year, or they’re exhausted, or they realized that life is short and they have better shit to do, or in Kevin’s case, they got tired of being hung out to dry by their mom. But I’m not here to talk about labor issues, or life priorities, or even Kevin’s mom, Jana, who cocked up the site visit and set this boondoggle in motion. I’m just a man standing in front of another man asking him if he can finish the garage door installation in time for the Act Five curtain. Which brings me to a pressing question.

“Are you going to quit?” I ask. “Because after everything we’ve been through, I want to see this thing through with you, Ernie.”

“Actually… I’m thinking of moving to Washington.”

My heart stops.

“When?”

“Next year, maybe the year after.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“You promise you’ll finish this job before you move?”

“I promise.”

Act Five: The Final Visit?

“Isn’t the garage guy supposed to show up today and finish?” Christina asks.

“He’s supposed to show up today, but whether he finishes or not is anyone’s guess.”

Around noon, Ernie arrives. This time, he brought the weather stripping. The whole process takes about fifteen minutes.

“Do you want to inspect it?” Ernie asks after he’s done.

I inspect the weather stripping, not that I know what I’m doing. This is my first garage door, I failed out of stripper college, and contrary to what Mr. Bob Dylan has to say on the matter, I do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

“Looks good to me.”

Ernie once again apologizes for his shitty company, then thanks me for being cool. After a spring and summer together, it’s time to say our goodbyes. Or, maybe not.

“Well, just remember the garage door is under warranty,” Ernie says. “If anything goes wrong, we’ll come out and fix it.”

“How long is the warranty?” I ask in a nervous voice.

“Ten years.”

Ten years. A decade. The thought of it sends a chill down my spine. Team Jana will be with us for the duration, which as it turns out, will last until 2031.

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But what I really want to do is direct

The barista thinks I might be a director, and I think I can work with that

Hi! Welcome to another edition of Situation Normal, my weekly newsletter of slice of life stories. We have a barista story today. I love baristas because they make coffee and they’re usually up for zany chats. Basically, baristas are like non-alcoholic bartenders, but instead of telling the bartender your story over booze, the barista gives YOU a story and coffee. That’s a win in my book. Speaking of books, you should pick up my story collection Ride / Share: Micro Stories of Soul, Wit and Wisdom from the Backseat. The book is just like this newsletter, only it’s not battery-powered.

“Are you a director?” the barista asks.

The question is out of left field, but in my experience, most baristas play left field.

“No, I’m not a director.”

The barista looks disappointed. For a moment, I consider telling her that sometimes people say I look like Francis Ford Coppola. Once, a poll worker told me I was “the spitting image” of a young Francis Ford Coppola. Another time, a friend who is a film archivist sent me a picture of a young Coppola talking to a young Robert De Niro on the set of The Godfather Part II. Looking at the photo, I did a double-take, and I actually thought, how could you forget the time you spoke to De Niro about young Vito Corleone’s motivation as he begins a life of crime? But the closest I came to directing was the time a security guard at NBC insisted that I was Francis Ford Coppola, even going as far as to write the director’s name on my visitor’s pass. Not one to let an opportunity go to waste, I greenlit a project, but the movie went to shit. Casting Harvey Keitel was a mistake, Marlon Brando was difficult to work with, and the Filipino army double-booked the helicopters we rented. On the upside, my wife made a documentary about everything that went wrong on that picture. It’s called Heart of Awkwardness: A Bullshit Artist’s Apocalypse.

“You just look like a director,” the barista says. “It’s the Dodgers hat. And the glasses. And the beard. With a beard like that, you look like you should be directing. That beard has real cinematic authority.”

Real cinematic authority from facial hair!? The scene has jumped the shark.

“Cut!”

“Cut?”

“Yeah, I think we need a rewrite here. These lines don’t make any sense. Since when do beards convey cinematic authority?”

The barista looks confused. Maybe she’s not used to people yelling cut right there in the middle of an order.

“Think about it,” I continue. “I’m in charge because of a beard? That makes zero sense.”

“It’s an epic beard,” the barista insists.

“Sure. But they don’t just put you in the director’s chair because you look the part.”

“Are you kidding?” the barista says. “That’s how Hollywood works. It’s all superficial bullshit. You’ve got the look, you should embrace it, make it work for you.”

Stroking my beard, I consider the barista’s point. Maybe I can make it work for me.

“OK,” I say. “Let’s take this scene from the top. Only this time, you aren’t wondering if I’m a director, you’re positive that I am a director, and that I made your favorite movie, except you’re so star-struck that you can’t remember my name, or the name of the film. It’s on the tip of your tongue.”

“What’s my motivation? Am I trying to get a part in your next movie? Do I have a script I want you to read? Or, am I just a hardcore fan-girl?”

“On one level, you just want to remember the name of the movie, but on a deeper level, this scene is really about feeling like an imposter.”

“An imposter?”

“Sure! You’re a big fan. And that fandom can mean anything. Maybe it’s about fandom for the sake of fandom, or maybe it’s about getting a job in the industry, or whatever. But in this moment you don’t feel like a real fan.”

“I don’t?”

“No. You feel like an imposter. Because a fan would know the name of the director and the name of the movie. And you do know those things, but that knowledge is just outside your grasp at the moment you need it most. So, you feel like an imposter.”

“Do I say any of that?”

“No. It’s all subtext.”

“That’s a lot for a humble barista to pull off in one scene,” she says.

“You’re not a humble barista. You’re a world-class actor playing the part of a barista super-fan who, at a critical moment, cannot summon their super-fan powers.”

“I dig it. But how does the scene end? Do I remember your name, or the movie? What’s the resolution?”

“Eventually, you remember my name and the movie. But that happens later, when you tell this story to friends over mango pudding at French plantation.”

“Mango pudding at French plantation. What’s that all about?”

“It’s a commentary on colonialism. Honestly, that scene probably won’t make it into the theatrical release, but you can bet your bottom-dollar it’ll be in the director’s cut.”

“Cool!”

“But in this scene you’re excited to meet your favorite director, and simultaneously upset that you can’t remember his name or his movies. You’re so upset that you feel like an imposter.”

“And what do I do about that?”

“You comp him an oat milk latte.”

“Is that realistic?” she asks.

“Stick to the script,” I say.

“But…”

“Action!”

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Vigilance outside the Omega Mart restroom

Welcome to Situation Normal, a weekly newsletter of slice of life stories!

At first glance, the Omega Mart looks like a typical grocery store. But upon closer inspection, one sees that the Meow Wolf art installation is actually a commentary on consumerism. How else to explain the products for sale?

It’s important to read the labels. While Mammoth Chunks advertises “100% wooly mammoth meat,” the fine print reveals that the product “may contain up to 30% mastodon meat.” Also, I doubt these mammoths are free-range, organic.

I lost track of time exploring the aisles of the Omega Mart.

A cereal called “Oh Those,” caught my eye. If the copy on the box is to be believed, Oh Those are the “original junk food.” But that’s advertising, and advertising is a fancy word for lies. Here’s the truth: a single-celled organism that’s a distant cousin to the gummy worm is actually the original junk food. It comes in two flavors: carbon and passion fruit.

In the produce section, I marveled at the “aspirational carrots.” I don’t know what they aspired to be, but I wished them good luck on their journey. The avocados, on the other hand, left me feeling indecisive. They came in two varieties!

  • “Fresh Avokoidos” for people who want their avocado toast ASAP and have zero time to worry about spelling.

  • “Lucky Avocados” for those punks who are feeling lucky enough to drop $77.77 on a fruit genetically engineered to spoil the moment anyone says, “guacamole.”

While perusing the BBQ sauce selection, things turned political. A product called “Freedom Glaze” in a red, white, and blue bottle, promised 12 fluid ounces of “smokey mesquite vigilance.”

Vigilance against what, I wondered? The sloppy cultural appropriation of the “Hot Hot Yellow Mustard” one shelf down? While the “new and improved Caribbean Fiesta font” struck me as problematic, the sauce still boasted its “Classic Thickness!”1

What about the “Wake Up Pard’Ner” mango bbq sauce? It says it right there on the bottle: “trouble ahead!” Plus, if the Old West gunslinger aiming his pistol at the consumer isn’t a sign that we must remain vigilant, I don’t know what is.

As I shopped for cleaning supplies, I tried to remain vigilant, even if I wasn’t sure where exactly to direct my vigilance. Then I noticed a display for “Ego Echo” glass cleaner, and I began to worry that my vigilance was actually self-indulgence in disguise.

“Is there a bathroom in this place?” I asked my wife.

“There’s gotta be,” she said, “it’s a store.”

Then she headed for the frozen food section, where it was rumored that customers who walked through the freezer doors disappeared into a surreal wonderland.2


“Hang on, buddy,” said a man wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey. “There’s a woman in there because that one is closed for cleaning.”

The man pointed to the women’s restroom. There was one of those yellow janitorial signs blocking the door.

“No problem,” I said.

A woman turned the corner, then frowned when she saw the janitorial sign.

“Ma’am, you can use the men’s room,” Chiefs Fan said. “There’s another woman in there, so just knock and announce yourself as you enter. I told her I’d watch the door.”

“Such a gentlemen,” the woman said. “I wish my husband would do that for me.”

The woman knocked, announced herself, then entered the men’s room.

“She’s not my wife,” Chiefs Fan explained. “A woman just asked me to watch the door. I guess she really had to go, so I said sure, OK, I’ll stand guard.”

“That was kind of you.”

Chiefs Fan shrugged like it was no big deal.

“It’s one of those restrooms with one urinal and two toilet stalls,” Chiefs Fan said. “That’s why I let the other woman in.”

“I get it.”

He changed the subject to the Chiefs. I pretended to care about the Chiefs, the poor play that cost them the Super Bowl last year, and the team’s chances for gridiron redemption in 2021. Then another man came to use the restroom, and Chiefs Fan explained the situation.

“Women,” the man grunted. “I guess this is equality, huh.”

Then the man looked at the men’s room door and said in a disgusted tone, “to hell with this.” Maybe he was disgusted at these two particular women, or women in general. Maybe he was one of those angry people who gets his kicks turning restrooms into gender-based political wedge issues. Or, maybe he just couldn’t stand the sight of Chiefs Fan practicing human decency disguised as chivalry. Honestly, I don’t know what the man’s deal was because he turned around and walked away.

“I guess that’s what I’m supposed to guard against,” Chiefs Fan said. “Guys like that are real assholes, and they’re everywhere.”

“Stay vigilant, pard’ner.”

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1

Some things are sacred.

2

I can confirm that those rumors are true, but I urge you to visit Las Vegas and see what’s behind the freezer for yourself.

Three strangers walk into a Jack in the Box

A story about desert pit stops, mask anxiety, and human connection

Welcome to Situation Normal, a weekly newsletter of slice of life stories! Make sure to subscribe so you’ll never miss a story.

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the dog began to get antsy.

“I have to pee too,” Christina said. “Should we stop in Barstow?”

I cringed at the thought. Barstow only sounds romantic to Hunter S. Thompson fans. The hard truth about Barstow is that it’s a dusty, grinding traffic jam of a town that sucks in motorists by the millions with promises of over-priced gas and under-cleaned restrooms. I spent a decade one afternoon in Barstow trying to wrangle a few gallons of gasoline and a veggie burrito. The experience added an hour to our drive to Vegas, but it took three years off my life. After that day, I vowed never to stop in Barstow again.

“Anywhere but Barstow,” I said.

Christina took out her phone.

“There’s a sign for a Subway,” I said.

“Subways usually don’t have restrooms for customers,” Christina said.

“You’re right. I guess you can eat fresh there, but you better pee somewhere else.”

“There’s a Jack in the Box coming up,” she said.

Christina used the facilities inside the Jack in the Box; Mortimer used the ground outside the restaurant.

“I should go too.”

“Can you get me a drink?” Christina asked.

After I used the restroom, I walked up to the counter and ordered a Dr. Pepper for Christina, a bottle of water for me, and some car-fries.1

“It’ll be about five or ten minutes for the fries,” the cashier said.

I looked around the empty restaurant. Five or ten minutes is an eternity in the quick serve business, but out here in the desert, time moves like a slug inching across the face of one of Dali’s melting clocks.

“Sounds good,” I said.

As I waited, two more customers arrived. The first man wore a mask, and after he ordered, we struck up a conversation.

“I’m vaccinated,” he volunteered, “but I can’t give up the mask. I feel silly, but it’s like a security blanket.”

“I don’t think it’s silly,” I said. “I’m vaccinated, too, but I totally get it. We’ve all been through a lot this past year.”

The masked man nodded.

“You know, at first I didn’t believe in Covid,” he said. “I thought masks were crazy, but so many people around me died of it. And my family is from Guatemala, and so many people are still dying of it there.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

I was about to change the subject to something more pleasant like the beauty of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, when the second customer, an unmasked man in overalls, joined the conversation.

“I’m sorry for your loss too,” he said. “I got vaccinated in May, but I still wear the mask half the time, which doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” the masked man said.

“Opening back up doesn’t feel like how I thought it would,” the unmasked man said. “When this whole thing I started, I thought we’d do the masks for a few weeks, then back to normal, then everyone forgets about it, you know. Then after, like, a year of this shit, I thought we’d come back with a big celebration, like the end of a war or something, but I guess I was wrong.”

The unmasked man explained that he lives in Hesparia, a small town in the Mojave desert. He drives a tow truck up and down the lonely desert highways.

“It was so weird out here for most of the pandemic,” he said. “There was nobody on the road. I mean nobody.”

“No traffic, that was the only silver lining,” the masked man said. “The only silver lining.”

“I’m glad to see people again,” the unmasked man said. “I used to avoid people, I guess. But then when we had to do that social distancing, I realized how much I needed human interaction.”

“Me too,” I said. “We’re coming back from Vegas.”

“What was that like?” the unmasked man asked.

“It was wild,” I said. “Actually, maybe wild isn’t the right word. Most people aren’t wearing masks in Vegas, so that feels wild, I guess. But a lot of people are wearing masks. The really wild thing was seeing crowds of any size for the first time in more than a year.”

“I’m not ready for that,” the masked man said.

“I want to see that,” the unmasked man said.

For the next few minutes, we talked about Vegas, the return of traffic on the roads that criss-cross the Mojave desert, the inevitable return of asshole drivers, and a palpable, nearly-universal sentiment that the pandemic has somehow permanently altered our perspective on life. Carpe diem, live in the now, etc. Sure, these are trite expressions, but damn it, after the shit-storm that was 2020, all positive lessons are welcome.

“It’s like New Years,” the masked man said. “You feel like you make a resolution to live better, be a better person, love your family, don’t take life for granted.”

“It is like New Years,” the unmasked man agreed. “But I think it’s stronger than a New Years resolution. The new normal feels different, like maybe we can all just be a little more, I don’t know, respectful of each other.”

“I hope so,” I said. “I hope that after all this pain, we’re better people and a better society.”

Suddenly, the cashier calls out three ridiculously long numbers. Our orders are ready.

“I don’t even remember my order number,” I said as I fumbled for my receipt.

“Me neither,” the masked man said.

“Ma’am, can you tell us what’s in the orders?” the unmasked man asked. “We lost track of time making friends here.”

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next week with a story from Las Vegas. Meantime, if these stories bring you joy, share them with your friends and make sure to subscribe (it’s free).

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Communal French fries to be shared among the occupants of a moving vehicle. First explained to the author by his sister-in-law, Caroline Ferguson.

Han Solo: Mall Car Salesman

Welcome to Situation Normal, a weekly newsletter of slice of life stories! If these stories bring you joy, please tell your friends.

Quick housekeeping item. On Monday June 28, subscribers to this newsletter will receive an email from Michael Estrin (slacker-in-chief) chiefslacker@slackernoir.com. Nothing is changing here at Situation Normal, but going forward, Slacker Noir will be my author newsletter. Frankly, as things have grown (yay growth!) it just makes sense to run two different newsletters. If Slacker Noir isn’t your thing, no worries; please just unsubscribe. Thanks!


I don’t know who decided to sell cars at the Century City mall. But on behalf of those mall-goers who have no interest in visiting Sephora and Anthropologie, as well as their partners, who prefer to browse those establishments alone, I want to say, thank you, Mall Gods, for providing distractions beyond ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, hot dogs on sticks, and vibrating massage chairs of dubious hygienic standards.

My distraction is a tiny three-wheel electric car called the Solo. The man selling the Solo says his name is Han, which is perfect because Han Solo! An amazing coincidence, but I don’t buy it. First, never trust someone selling cars. Second, I don’t believe in coincidences. Third, this guy looks like a Derek to me.

“What do you think?” Derek asks.

I study the Solo. It’s a single-seater, hence the name. On the upside, you’ll never argue over music again. On the downside, the Solo is too small for an R2 unit.

“Honestly, I have no idea what I think.”

Derek smiles.

“I just asked a Russian woman that same question and she said, what do I think, or what do I know?

“That’s a solid Russian accent.”

“Thanks!”

“Did the Russian woman buy the car?”

“No,” Derek says. “It wasn’t for her.”

“Who is it for? Like, what’s the target demo for a one-seater?”

“Commuters! Did you know that most commuters are solo drivers?”

“I’ve been working from home for ten years. I guess I’m not exactly the target demo.”

“That’s OK. Want to sit in it anyway?”

“Sure, but I don’t think there’s room.”

Derek looks me up and down and says, “there’s plenty of room for you.”

“Not with that dog in the car,” I say.

Derek spins around. There’s a black standard poodle sitting in driver’s seat. The poodle’s owner is busy snapping photos on her phone.

“Oh shit,” Derek says. “If my boss sees this he’s going to fire me.”

“I think these photos are going on Instagram,” I say. “If they tag the brand account, I think your boss is going to see the photos of the dog in the car.”

“Shit.”

“Should we do something?”

“Don’t worry about it. This job isn’t that great anyway.”

“Maybe these photos will help sales.”

“You think?”

“Sure! The internet loves pics of cute animals doing human stuff like pretending to drive a car.”

“Who says the dog is pretending?” Derek asks.

“Now you’re thinking! If your boss gives you any shit, just tell them the dog is a commuter.”

“A commuter?”

“You bet. Haven’t you ever seen that show Dogs with Jobs? For all we know, that poodle works at a marketing agency on the Westside, but they live in the Valley, which means the commute is brutal. Which is why, they bought—wait for it—the new Solo!”

“You’re good,” Derek says.

“I know. And as soon as that dog gets out of the car, I’m getting in.”

“So you are interested in the Solo?”

“Nope. But just like the dog, I’m doing it for the Gram.”

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Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next week a new story. Meantime, please share this story with your friends and on social media. It helps a lot.

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