Toot, Toot

An Ode to Donna Summer

The first time I heard the song, Bad Girls by Donna Summer, I was crossing the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey from New York City, in my daddy’s 1979 blue Cadillac Seville. The car had luxurious blue velvet seats that made us feel rich but meant no one was ever allowed to eat in the car. My father was a landlord and a long distance truck driver. We were not rich, but we never wanted for anything we needed.

We were crossing the bridge because we were traveling from my father’s house in Mount Vernon, NY (a suburb on the border of NYC) to my grandmother’s house in Walstonburg, NC. My father always called New Jersey the Garbage State because of all the chemical plants that lined the New Jersey Turnpike near the New York border. As we traveled through that section, he would ask, “Who farted?” and my brother, sister and I would giggle. We stayed with my father in Mount Vernon during most summers and weeklong holidays and we lived with my grandparents the rest of the time.

On those trips, since we couldn’t eat in the car, my Father always stopped to get us food at a location that had a McDonald’s right next to a Burger King. My eleven year old brother would follow my father to Burger King. I would follow my fourteen year old sister to McDonalds. I was nine. We would meet back at the car. My brother would always say we should have gone to Burger King because charbroiled burgers were better than fried burgers. I think he got that from the commercials. He went to Burger King because my dad went to Burger King. My sister would always say they should have come to McDonalds because McDonalds had the best fries. This was also in the commercials and I think it was true.

My Dad hated to stop for unplanned bathroom breaks. Before we would get on the road, he’d ask each of us if we needed to go. No, we would say in unison. He would ask me again just to be sure because I was the youngest. I would say no. I was always happy to get on the road whether going to Mount Vernon where my father, aunts, uncles and cousins were or returning to Walstonburg where my grandparents, great aunts, great uncles and cousins were. It was inevitable on these journeys that I would request an unscheduled bathroom stop and inevitable that my father and brother would be annoyed. My brother did whatever my father did. Once we got to Walstonburg, the first conversation, with my grandmother or my grandmother and uncles, was always how long the trip took and why. My unscheduled bathroom break would always get an honorable mention. The trip took about nine hours, but my father and uncles were convinced it could be done in eight. I had one uncle who always completed the trip in eight hours. He got a lot of speeding tickets though. My father never did.

Riding down I-95, my brother and I would entertain ourselves by identifying where other cars were from by their license plate and playing the slug-bug game. The slug bug game is where you pinch your opponent whenever you see a Volkswagen Beetle. My sister read romance novels. Reading in a moving vehicle makes me nauseous, so I never had the luxury of spending the trip that way. My father passed the time by driving while he talked to other drivers and truckers on his CB. They warned each other about traffic cop speed traps and most of them knew him because he was a trucker and complimented him on us, his family. His CB handle was Moonbeam. He pointed out to me any animals we passed. “Look Belinda, cows!” he would say. I would always be amazed when he pointed these animals out even though I was from North Carolina where there were a lot of farms. My father also controlled the music.

We listened to 8-tracks mostly, rarely the radio. In heavy rotation were Donna Summer, Diana Ross, the Spinners, the Coasters and Lou Rawls. I loved all their songs because of who I was with and where I was when I heard them. We knew we had gotten to North Carolina by the smell of the pine trees. From the border, it was two hours on I-95 to get to my Grandmother’s house. The scenery became tobacco and corn fields, people hitch-hiking on the side of the road, some with no shoes on, one story buildings, and imaginative billboards advertising smoked food and insurance. Sunny day, major thunder storms, slow-talking folks, loud crickets, southern hospitality and grandma.

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