Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two Beaters: an exercise in writing about cars

In 1972, after I graduated from college, having realized that the Army was not about to draft me, I spent the summer driving a taxi (there’s some more car stories right there) and mailing out recordings of my voice to radio stations around the country that specialized in classical-music programming. It seemed logical. I had the voice for it and four years of classical radio experience. I had mastered many of the diffcult pronunciations in the genre (Mieczysław Horszowski comes to mind), and I was prepared to go anywhere to get work. I mailed tapes to stations in Albany, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston (where I already was), Portland (Maine), Philadelphia, and more. Then I called up the program director at each station to ask for an interview and an audition. I hadn’t figured out yet that, for me to get hired, one of these places was going to need to have a vacancy, and it happened that turnover at such stations was low. Also, some of them were commercial, and would expect their announcers to work half of each day selling airtime; I had no background in sales. But as summer turned to fall, I caught a break with WFLN, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. They asked me to come down for an interview, can’t promise anything right now, but we’d like to meet you, how about four o’clock a week from Thursday?

I didn’t own a car so I arranged to borrow my mother’s old Datsun sedan. It was a clunker, a diminutive, rusty, dark-red box on wheels, four on the floor. Mom had been using it for years to get to work across town, which was about all it was good for, and she’d finally persuaded my dad to get her something better. So there it sat in the driveway, lightly leaking oil. Its prospects weren’t good but then neither were mine. At that point, we were made for each other.

Are there any journeys in life quite like the questing journeys of damn-fool twentysomethings, with a change of wrinkled clothes in a duffle bag and a few dollars in their wallet (and dimes for the pay phones), an old roadmap to go by, a few directions and names and phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper? Your innocent teen years have come and gone, you’re out of the nest now but don’t quite know it yet. Your future awaits, a vast gulf, exciting and frightening, but somehow your great plan for your life all comes down to an ability to stay alert on the daunting drive down the interstate, and to get off at the right exit, and to neatly tie your necktie using the car’s tiny rearview mirror.

I had the interview at FLN and it was cordial but brief. They had no need “at present” for anyone new but, hey, Dave, thanks for coming down, and best of luck. Well, I already knew I was going to need it.

Would you have turned around then, and crawled all the way back up 95 to Boston? I would have, yes. I was the kind of guy who liked things that were safe, and known. But for reasons I don’t recall, I didn’t. Sometime before I’d left Boston, I had called my cousin Laura in Pittsburgh (my Uncle Ted’s youngest) to tell her that I was having an interview in Philly, and she had urged me to come on out to Pittsburgh when I was done, I could crash at the apartment with her and her roomies, why not? I took a long look at the map. Pittsburgh didn’t really seem that far from Philadelphia, not in the grand scheme of things. Home: I’d been prepared just now to leave home for good, for a new life in some other state. So, no. I would not go home, not yet. I gassed up and headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It’s four and a half hours from city to city if you do the speed limit, which the Datsun didn’t. It was probably well past midnight when I arrived at Laura’s apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood. Shadyside was funky, diverse, a mix of students, poor and working-class people, artists and musicians, dreamers and schemers and down-and-outers, a good place to find a cheap apartment. My memories are blurry at this point. I probably stayed a couple of days; my bed was an old couch in the living room, which I shared with one of their cats, who was sick. One evening, I accompanied Laura and her friends to a neighborhood bar. The beer, in generously-sized frosty mugs by the platterful, just kept coming. A local rock band was playing, very loud. I remember its name, Ira Carrot. The lead singer was a short woman with a big voice and bright-red hair.

I was having a good time there in Pittsburgh but this wasn’t getting me work, so now it was time to head home and regroup. Before starting out, did I have the Datsun checked over by a service station? Did I fill the tires or check the oil or top up the coolant? Did I clean the windshield? No, I did not. Partly I didn’t because I didn’t want to know what a garage might find wrong; I lacked the cash to fix it. Partly I didn’t because cars were (and are) a mystery to me. I pictured myself popping the hood for the mechanic (if I could figure out how) and standing over the engine, trying to look cool and discerning as I stared at this bewildering jumble of grimy metal. No, I just pumped more gas into the car and headed north, aiming for Erie, then Buffalo, where I would pick up I-90 for Boston.

It’s a 660-mile trip, well over ten hours the way I drove. I didn’t know this at the time, but it wouldn’t have changed my plans, if my headful of whims and guesswork could properly be called plans. Somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, dusk arrived, and with it, the beginnings of fatigue. The highway spooled out in front of me and behind, rising and falling and curving away and returning, the little engine drumming away (or was it now beginning to whine a little?). The wind from passing trucks pushed the Datsun around in its lane, and now everyone’s headlights came on, glaring through the back window, and sweeping over the windshield from the westbound lanes. As you may know, it’s a long journey across the state of New York, with few landmarks to take note of even during the daytime. For a time, I had the feeling that my car was standing still, and that the roadway and the sky and the fantastical landscapes of light and shadow to the left and right were in motion, rushing towards me and past me with an endless whoosing sound.

Somewhere around Syracuse I stopped at a service plaza for gas, and for some badly-needed coffee too, but I couldn’t find anyone selling it. This was when the restaurants at the rest stops were mostly sit-down, not take-out. Perhaps I was too tired to take in my surroundings, but I couldn’t even find a Coke machine. Finally I saw a little counter with apples on display, Red Delicious apples, local produce no doubt. I bought one and headed back out to the car, thinking that perhaps the activity of eating a crunchy apple would help keep me awake.

It wasn’t long before I felt fatigued again. I knew I was all alone and very far from home. My car and I were a tiny speck on a seemingly endless strip of tar, this merciless hard surface brushed with cold winds. I desperately needed rest. So I came up with a plan, whereby I would agree to close my eyes (while doing 55 or so) for about 20 seconds, then keep them open for 20 seconds, then close for 20, then open for 20, and in this way give my eyes a tiny break while I hurtled towards Albany and the Hudson River. It was not a terrific plan, but I had no other. The thought of barreling off the road or into the back of a truck while taking a catnap probably ensured that I remembered to open my eyes — wide! — every 20 seconds without fail. And as it turned out, it’s possible to drive some of the Thruway while asleep, just a little bit, though I don’t recommend it.

Past the Hudson and into the Berkshires, home was now only two hours away. As I climbed towards Blandford, I began to notice some hesitation in the Datsun’s forward motion, just now and again. I’d step on the gas to get up a hill, and the car would simply fail to accelerate, just sort of keep rolling ahead in a leisurely way, speed dropping steadily, until something under the hood kicked in, and it would leap forward. So now the Datsun was fatigued too, and I really couldn’t blame it, but we couldn’t quit now! I began to notice that when the car got sluggish-then-speedy like this, clouds of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, obscuring the headlights behind me for a bit. And then I noticed that the gas gauge dipped sharply toward “Empty” each time. So I was running out of gas too, and at a pretty fast rate. I gassed up in Ludlow and again at Charlton. Now I was out of money, no credit card, and of course there were no ATMs.

When I rolled into my parents’ driveway sometime after midnight, I was feeling many things — exhaustion, relief, happy to be home, sad that I was back to square one. And lucky, frankly; lucky to be alive, lucky that I hadn’t been stranded out in the Mohawk Valley somewhere. There was no good reason for my good fortune, none at all. If I thought about it, I couldn’t help feeling I was being saved for something, but I didn’t know what. I still don’t.

I have an idea that young people used to leave home on a train to find their fortune, or something like it. The whistle would blow, a high lonesome wail, and the engine would chug out of the station, the coaches click-clacking along behind, a great rhythmic clocklike sound that said, time is in motion now; you are already part of something else, you are being drawn away towards something bigger, and you are going, going away completely, right this minute, and leaving your old life behind. For us, for me anyway, it was a car instead, and I was behind the wheel of it, shifting the gears, in control of it. In control of my destiny, so to speak. Yes, I was being swept down the highway like a leaf on a stream, but I could make choices. I could start at A, and I could go to B, because I wanted to go there. Then I could choose to go on further, to C, or D, or E, wherever. And then I could run right back to A and start over again. I’m not sure whether one way of becoming yourself is better than the other.

One more story, about another car, another absorbing automotive experience. By this time, I was a father, picking up my 8-month-old from a home daycare in my town. The car was a beat-up sky-blue VW Rabbit with a sunroof that you couldn’t open; we’d bought the car at a gas station, because the price was right. So much to be gleaned from those sentences. New parents, both working but just getting by, their new son has to be jobbed out to daycare, their backup car is a shitbox that, as it turned out, shipped rainwater through the sunroof; when you hit the brake pedal, the stored-up water would come racing forward and pour down your neck.

I put Peter in his car seat and headed out on the two-mile trip home. Isn’t it pleasant, tooling along a leafy byway in your beater, just before something happens? I began to feel myself slowly sinking. I sat up straighter, but the sinking continued; my view out the windshield had become of the sky, not the road in front. I pulled over, and found that the floor of the car, long rusty here and there, had given way beneath the two back legs of the driver’s seat, and was now more than halfway to the road surface.

I remembered that trip back from Pittsburgh. Here I was again, no AAA, no cell phone, no money to pay a tow truck. I climbed back in, and managed to get home by sitting astride the emergency brake and working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with just my left foot.

What kind of father was this, I ask you! I’ll tell you what kind. Yes, we got rid of that car soon enough, but not before I took a two-by-four that was a little longer than the hole in the floor was wide, wedged it in under the back legs of the driver’s seat, and got a couple more days’ use out of that Rabbit.

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