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THE CA-LO SIGN

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

“Look for the vineyard half a mile past the Ca-Lo sign and turn left…”

Visitors who drive north from Ithaca to the tiny town of Five Corners are accustomed to getting directions from the locals based on an unlikely reference point. For there, in a four-acre field on a road off NY 34B, reposes an unintentional landmark— the collapsed, rotting remnant of some long forgotten business… a weather-beaten, worm-eaten, dung-spattered wooden sign with charred edges that hint at an ancient fire. This prominent eyesore, grandfathered in apparent perpetuity, stands surrounded and smothered by imposing plant life– grapevines, once as orderly as a military parade, long ago went pirate and wove themselves through and around the structure, seemingly drawing it back into the soil. Poison ivy and chest-high thistles keep curious boys away, as do rumors of snake nests their sisters.


Ca-Lo… “Ca” and “Lo” as two separate fragments, actually, the only legible letters on what was likely once a sign of some importance and utility… for a drive-in movie theater, perhaps, or maybe a combination milkshake stand and miniature golf course. Maybe it was a rural shopping center with a laundromat and a feed store and a place for farm families to buy school clothes. There are as many explanations as residents in Five Corners, but the gnarled heap has been there so long that no one can truthfully recall its original raison d’être.


Dr. Jayson Jensen, Ph.D., Professor of Food & Resource Economics, motored his Prius past this blighted property twice daily on his commute to Ithaca and back without ever giving its origins or possible significance much thought. As of late his mind had been busy pondering instead his upcoming appearance at the U.N.’s World Economic Summit, a forum where he would discuss his most recent published article, POST-CULTURAL PROTEIN FOR A HUNGRY PLANET. It had drawn to Jensen considerable and renewed attention— mostly positive, save for the usual blowback from the National Restaurant Association, every food writer in the English-language press, and the dozen top CEO’s of what Jensen regularly decried as the Industrial Agricultural Complex.


These were exactly the kind of enemies Professor Jensen needed to sustain and advance his career… to stay in the news…to stay relevant.


In THE END OF CUISINE, Jensen’s brash undergraduate senior thesis, he had expounded a radical re-thinking of what we eat, and why. He arrived at a perfectly nutritious and sustainable hypothetical diet of soy, insects, and various florae such as sprouts and seaweed. Flavor, in the traditional sense of the word, should only come out of condiment bottles, posited Jensen. Some initially took his work as a snide spoof, a fart in the face to the increasingly strident calls for a revolutionary re-imagination of the world food supply along with the self-parodic solutions frequently proffered by academia. His polarized thesis committee sharply debated— was this precocious kid for real, or simply trying to make fools of them? They couldn’t tell, so they graduated him magna cum laude.


In the doctoral program Jensen doubled down. Anything beyond the scope of his END OF CUISINE diet, Jensen regularly asserted, was sufficiently wasteful and environmentally deleterious to guarantee the eventual extinction of the human race. He had ridden this set of postulations right through his Ph.D. and all the way to a tenured professorship with an office overlooking Cayuga Lake. He became a celebrity of sorts, appearing regularly on news shows and TED Talks pitching his increasingly controversial dietary theories. Bloggers and other keyboard warriors, meanwhile, searched all of cyberspace for a photo of Jensen eating a Big Mac or some other career-cratering sin, but none was ever found. To the disappointment of many, Jensen pretty much ate as he preached, save for the bugs. He was a genuine ascetic who apparently neither drank alcohol nor dated.


But he was not without vanity; indeed, far from it. Which is why on this particular Friday afternoon drive Professor Jensen’s mind was focused not on a wholesale replacement of farming as we know it, but rather on the project that had taken over his garage for the past three years— a custom-built, one-of-a-kind vehicle befitting his environmentalist activism, his personal sense of style, and his growing celebrity.

There is no set of instructions anywhere for retro-fitting a 1947 MG-TC with a first-generation Honda Insight drivetrain. A colleague from the engineering department and a retired race mechanic from The Glen had doped it all out— one component, one bolt, one wire at a time. They were sternly bound by a non-disclosure agreement, ensuring that no one else would know about it until it was completed… and thereby maximizing the impact when it was.


The MG had been discovered in a dilapidated winery barn that was about to be demolished, parked there after a minor crash on The Glen’s old road course and awaiting parts from Britain that never came. Then its owner died, and the car just sat there for decades until word reached the mechanic about some rusty sports car with a number fifteen on its door. The motor, which was never very good to begin with, was completely shot. The body wasn’t much better, but the mechanic had always admired the TC’s spunky British lines, and so he bought the creaky husk for $200 and stashed it for some future retirement project.

Meanwhile, a colleague of Jensen’s in the Humanities Department had been the proud steward of a gracefully aging 2001 Honda Insight until it was reduced to two dimensions right in his own driveway by a giant red oak that had secretly rotted from within. Hauled away and declared a total loss, it naturally came to the attention of the mechanic, who knew every junkyard owner in the region. The drive-train had mostly survived, but the mechanic was unfamiliar with hybrids and he loathed working on anything with microchips. So on a whim he contacted a fellow car buff, Electrical Engineering Professor Rolf Grundig, and over a pitcher of local Pale Ale they hashed out a rough design on bar napkins to marry the two automotive corpses.


Such a project would be prohibitively expensive just for the parts, they knew, and they weren’t about to do all this work without some sort of recompense for the thousands of necessary man-hours. But who would be crazy or bold enough to sponsor such a foolish conceit? And right then they happened to look up at the Brew Pub’s TV and they saw Professor Jensen pontificating about kelp and locusts while some half-naked starlet and the equally clueless show host vigorously nodded their approval. Once the two men got Jensen’s ear it was an easy sell— the right car for the right man at the right time… snazzy as hell, and green as well… or maybe vice-versa. And now, finally, it was done. After three years of skunkworks toil, the engineer and the mechanic finally agreed that everything looked and felt perfect.


Jensen never knew much about cars, but he had come to love watching the pair work and listening to their surprisingly vociferous yet productive disagreements. Piece by piece, through countless dilemmas and creative solutions, the car gradually took shape. Jensen would sometimes sit in the garage after the men had left for the night and ponder the form that was slowly evolving. Increasingly curious, he started reading up on automotive history, the different models and years. And the more he studied, the more fascinated he became with the mazes of intricate machinery under the sheet metal and the mysteries therein that he knew he would never fully understand. He also started noticing cars on the road, and how some were so much more attractive than others. Then he’d go home and stare at his future ride some more, dreaming of the day when he would triumphantly pilot this one-of-a-kind masterpiece into Ithaca for all to see.


In the depths of his most abstract musings, maybe one gluten-free edible too many into the dark of an evening, Jensen sometimes entertained the notion that cars might actually have souls… and if so, how would these two accept their mechanical unification? Might the vintage MG try to reject its modern internals like a transplanted organ? Or, might the Honda drivetrain rebel against the terror of the unfamiliar, like a horse spooked by a squeaking buggy and then, fearing that it was being chased, blindly galloping amok and dragging it over hedgerow and stubble, smashing its imagined pursuer to bits until the noise was finally gone?


If this hybrid-powered MG were to develop some sentient sense of self, Jensen wishfully surmised, it would embrace its new configuration and express its gratitude with a smooth glide along the blacktop, relishing every dip and turn like an accomplished ballroom dancer. But cars couldn’t possibly have souls, Jensen assured himself with academic certainty, because humans definitely did not, and so how could something inanimate? Machines, after all, are merely physical extensions of man’s ingenuity.


In the cold hard light of tomorrow’s dawn on a Saturday’s empty roads, under the watchful eye of its co-creators, Jensen would find out how this synthesized contraption actually ran… soul or no soul.


But Jensen was too excited to wait until tomorrow. There was no harm in inaugurating it at night, right? Especially since they had replaced the MG’s notoriously unreliable LUCAS electricals with many yards of fresh wiring as well as modern LED headlamps that could light up a vineyard-ful of four-legged burglars from the main road clear down to the lake. And if he actually collided with one, the steel deer-guard they had cleverly incorporated into the MG’s front fenders and grille would harmlessly flick it aside like an unlucky bird.


Jensen could barely tell that he had started the thing, so quietly the twin motors hummed to life. He was confident that he could learn the manual transmission on the fly. (Jensen had been romantically envisioning himself jamming gears and heel-and-toeing his way through downhill curves, his brand-new Burberry scarf jauntily flapping in the breeze.) As that Friday’s sun sank into the distant Alleghenies and the roadside shadows lengthened, sure enough the deer sprouted like weeds in the farmer’s fields. And then, when full darkness was perhaps fifteen minutes nigh, they began to cross the roads. Where there is one there are usually many, Jensen knew from experience, and he slowed appropriately. The immediate threat seemingly over, he accelerated into a long straightaway that he knew well from his daily commute. He was finally getting a feel for the clutch. Stick shifting was fun, he thought, even if he had to quickly glance down at the little gear pattern with every change.


Had the fat buck been, say, two hundred or more yards away, Jensen could have prudently braked to a stop. And had it been immediately in front of him, the deer-guard would’ve done its job even before Jensen could react, perhaps even preserving the buck for another day. But instead it crossed about forty yards out, prompting Jensen to reflexively jerk the steering wheel hard right, a misguided impulse to drive around it.


In its factory trim, the MG would have crouched to one side and then sprung back with cat-like agility, deftly righting itself and motoring on. The original Honda, in all likelihood, would have responded in accordance with its ultra-light, front-wheel drive stance to quickly re-establish stability. And, truth be told, a driver more accustomed to manual transmissions might well have maintained an uninterrupted relationship with the pavement. But as it was, when Jensen slammed the brakes while sharply steering this experimental car– this unproven offspring of human intellect and hubris– it immediately swerved into what fighter pilots call (with morbid dread) an uncontrollable flat spin.


Jensen lost his sense of balance and location on perhaps the third lateral rotation. He lost all vision when the headlamps smashed against low branches and his windscreen shattered. He lost his sense of up and down as the car tumbled twice downhill into a meadow, with only the racing roll-bar between him and instant death.


And then, finally, he lost consciousness.


Jensen’s very next moment of awareness was of walking down a dark, unknown road with no idea where he actually was. He had a sensation of floating— not weightlessly, like on a steep roller-coaster descent with stomach in throat; but rather masslessly, devoid of physical substance altogether and hovering like a gaseous cloud as he observed himself from afar…


…almost as if watching himself in a play…

 
 

The Cayuga Medical Center stands on the outskirts of Ithaca and overlooks the southernmost waters of Cayuga Lake. Jensen awoke in its ICU, unsure where he was or how he had gotten there. Nor did he have any idea where his car was, or what condition it was in… nor did he especially care. His mind was almost completely focused on the dream, the out-of-body experience, the near-death visit to some netherworld, or whatever it was that had so thoroughly engaged his attention during most of the previous night.


As Jensen rose from his bed he inventoried his body for structural damage— no apparent battered or bruised parts or anything; the dressing that they had initially plastered across a minor gash on his upper forehead was replaced with a standard band-aid. With the hospital staff satisfied that he was physically and neurologically sound, he took the elevator to the hospital’s lobby and approached the elderly attendant at the desk.


“They said you need to go incognito for a few days,” she said, handing him a pair of cheap and very dark sunglasses. “Concussion protocol.”


Incognito?” replied Jensen. “I like that idea… It’s perfect, actually.”


Jensen signed a stack of papers and then made his way out of the hospital to Ithaca’s small but energetic downtown. After a few blocks, he stopped and looked around to see if anyone was eyeing him. Confident that the cheap shades were providing adequate anonymity, he furtively entered the Autumn Leaves used book store and headed for the cookbook section, where he was overwhelmed by the plethora of selections— MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, THE JAMES BEARD COOKBOOK, THE JOY OF COOKING, and dozens more. Where to start?

Suddenly a food-stained cookbook missing its cover and bound with cheap plastic spirals seized Jensen’s attention. Looks like a cheesy, third-rate local job, he thought… something self-published for a small-time business to sell to the summer and foliage tourists. Curious, he picked it up and found the book’s title on an inner page– THE CAYUGA LOUNGE COOKBOOK. He frantically flipped to the next page, where he found a suspiciously perfect epigraph…


Eating Well is Living Well.


Dr. Jayson Jensen, Ph.D, Professor of Food and Resource Economics, closed his eyes and clutched the battered old book to his grateful breast as if hugging a long-lost loved one.




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