Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Brown-mobile

1972 Chevy Belair
I got my first car when I was twenty-four.  It was an eight year old 1972 Chevy Belair.  My dad had bought it new and the sales receipt was still in the glove compartment.  It had cost $3200.00.  By weight, that would have been just under a dollar a pound. 

My brother called it The Brown-mobile. It was 19 feet long, a little over eight feet wide with a glistening mahogany brown exterior and black upholstery.  It had a 250 horsepower V-8 engine that sucked up a gallon of gas every 13 miles. It's only discernible luxury beside power steering and brakes was a working AM radio.  The Brown-mobile lived most of its life just 120 miles west of its birth place in the Mo-tor-City.  It slept in the garage of our big brick-face colonial home on Minges Road or in the parking lot of Battle Creek's Kellogg Corporation. Unfortunately many a brutal ride through the salt brine of southern Michigan winters had taken their toll, and by the time the Brown-mobile came east, she was looking older than her years.  

I imagine my dad would have given me the car, but I insisted on paying him two hundred bucks to cover the trade-in value.  The Chevy's rear quarter panels were completely rusted out so in order to pass inspection I had to rivet flexible sheet metal over the largest holes and then fill the rest with triple expanding insulation foam.  With a finishing coat of some wicked smelling body fill, a dozen sanding discs and a couple cans of spray enamel I was able to get registered and licensed in state of Pennsylvania.  I was pretty proud of myself.  I was also about to learn there was more to a car than the steering wheel and accelerator.

First off, there is nothing quite like turning the key only to hear a tic-tic-tic-weeeeee sound come from under the hood.  If all your money happens to be in the gas tank, you pray that it is something simple, like maybe a corroded battery terminal or a spark plug wire.  You try the key a few more times and then all you hear is the tic tic tic.  So you reach down by your left knee, pop the hood release and then get out and go around to the front of the car where you spend a few tense moments trying to free the secondary spring latch.  When your probing finger tips finally get it right, you hoist the huge roof up and peer inside. Okay, there is the battery... and the cables... everything looks okay, so what next?  You go back to the driver's seat, turn the key again and watch the dashboard's idiot lights flare on. Then you try the headlights.  You walk back up front to find they are glowing brightly, so you know you've got juice and the problem probably isn't the battery or the connections.  Damn.  This is a real problem. 

Now if you happen to be driving a standard transmission and you're on a hill, you can always get the car rolling, stick it into first gear and pop the clutch.  If you've remembered to turn the key on, the car will usually jerk to life and you can tool on home.  Not so with an automatic transmission. There is no clutch to pop.  For that matter, if you happen to have a '72 Belair that weighs 3800 lbs, just getting it to roll forward is a major feat.   As fate would have it,  when my starter failed I was parallel parked on a flat, residential side street.  No choice but to abandon ship and go in search of a pay phone. I found one a couple blocks away and called my girlfriend Barbara.  We'd been going out about a month and the shine was still on the coin.   She was happy to blow off her lunch break and come to my rescue in her pretty little Honda.  

I'd borrowed a thick nylon rope from a guy who lived across the street and by the time Barb arrived, I had it tied to the front end of the Belair.  She pulled up in the space ahead of me and before she had time to think about it, I had knotted the rope under the rear end of her car. The disparity between her dainty Japanese Accord and my rusting hulk from Detroit was comparable to a tiny tug boat hauling an oil freighter.  Towing me those few miles to her house was no easy task, for without the motor running the Belair's power steering and brakes didn't work.  Cornering was a bitch and stopping was down right scary.  But we made it.  Then together, blue-eyed Barbie and I managed to muscle the monstrously large sedan into the narrow car bay of the shed behind her house.  If you can't love your car, you gotta love your girl!

In relationship to rides of today, the Belair was a really straight forward piece of engineering.  A battery, a coil, a starter, the big eight cylinders with spark plugs and wires leading to the distributor cap; a radiator, an oil and air filter, a reservoir for windshield wiper fluid.  I learned all about these parts because I ended up replacing nearly all of them the first year I had the car.   There was no computer software to tie into diagnostic equipment, no weird plastic covers or cowlings to hamper you from throwing on a set of jumper cables or pouring in a quart of oil or transmission fluid. But that still didn't make rusted bolts come loose any easier and it sure didn't stop grease and dirt from dropping in your eyes when you were squinting up into the works trying to ratchet off some half concealed nut. 

The starter on the Chevy was a big clunky steel cylinder that weighed a ton.  At least that's how heavy it felt when I was flat on my back trying to muscle the thing into place from underneath the chassis.  I'd bought a rebuilt one at the Gary's U-Pull It, a junk yard south of town.  Like the rest of the Belair, mechanically it was a pretty simple design. A bolt passed lengthwise through the center of its heavy cast iron body and threaded into the motor's engine block.  There was a big gear inside it that would spin forward when you keyed the ignition.  It would engage another gear inside the motor and crank the engine over.  The toughest part of replacing the starter was figuring out how to lift it out and then shimmy the new one in past the axle and frame supports. Barb helped me as best she could, holding a drop light and handing me the box wrenches I'd swiped from my old man's tool kit.  The garage was dark and narrow, a two bay set-up built in the 1930's.  Barb's rental agreement  allowed her one side of the building.  The other was used by the landlord to store his canvas covered twelve cylinder Jaguar.  

The Jag was a sleek piece of road gear; a sexy thoroughbred fallen from heaven into the same stable that now housed my old hag from Mo-town.  Barb had ridden in it once on a trip with the owner into New York City.  She said the adventure was great fun, particularly when they would "bottom out on road kill."  Barbara appreciated cars.  She had a brother in Texas who owned a BMW repair shop. "So clean," she told me "that you could eat off the floor."  Her goal after the Honda was to own a Beamer.  Me, I didn't know from cars.  I really had no desire even to own one.   But I had become a salesman that fall and I had to have a car to get from client to client.  

Back in college, I could barely afford room rent let alone a set of wheels.  After I graduated I went to work for a dairy farmer a mile up the road from my folk's summer place. During the work week I'd either drive the farmer's tractor home or walk the dirt road over the hill to our house.  My mom spent most of the summer in the country, so she would let me borrow her Buick if I had some special errand to run.  I didn't have a girlfriend that summer and all my college buddies were off working in the city, so being mobile was never much of an issue.  Instead I stayed home and saved my money. At the end of October, I collected my pay as one big check, booked a British Airway's flight to Europe and spent the next two years playing my guitar in the Paris Metro, busking for a living.  No need for a car there!  

When I came home in 1981, I was forced to join the American economy in a real way.  My older brother was living with my folks in their New Jersey condo, so there wasn't any room for me and they weren't about to underwrite their musical hobo's housing anywhere else.  So I chose  to move to up-state New York where a buddy of mine had an old Victorian house he'd rented with a couple of university students.  I started out crashing on a couch in the upstairs hallway, but soon moved in with the girl who was renting the back bedroom. Sometimes a guy has to do what he has to do.

Things were pretty touch and go there for a while there.  In Paris, I'd made decent money playing music, but there wasn't any way to do that in Binghamton, NY.  Gigs were too far in between and they paid shit,  so I put a fake resume together and registered with the NY State Employment office as well as the local Ethan Allen Placement Agency.  I was borrowing money, thumbing rides around town, and doing pick up work.  When you've got nothin' its all about the chicken or the egg and which comes first.  You need a car to get a real job, but you need money for a car and then more money for gas and food and rent.  So you're forced to rely on your wits and that often involves taking advantage of people you befriend.  It sucks.  Very few with money seem to remember those lean days if in fact, they ever had to experience them.  My Dad, who supported himself through the Great Depression and later worked his way through college at night, wanted me to get a good sense of that reality.  I'm glad he did. 

Like the old timers say, those years taught me the value of a dollar.  They provided a lesson in the false notion of entitlement that privileged kids often leave home with.  So many of us expected an expense paid lift into a cushy job where we will be able to replicate the lifestyle achieved by our parents.  Seldom do we acknowledge that over fifty percent of the world lives on less than $700.00 a year.   We lose track of the fact that fate often thwarts equality and that our good fortune has as much to do with the luck of being born in the right place at the right time as any great plan on our part.  The future is never certain and we are not special.  We should not only be grateful but we should be willing to limit our appetites so we may share our prosperity when we have the opportunity.   

I finally was offered work selling airtime for a local radio station.  It was a real job.  The employment service would take a commission for the connection and the agent would insist I borrow a proper sports coat, shirt and tie for the first interview.  In fact, she sent me home to correct my wardrobe before giving me the employer's address.  Mary Delmar was her name; a large woman, in her fifties, who tried on more than one occasion to seduce me. She was so overtly predatory that it made me nervous to sit in her office as she lauded me with sugary compliments.  Now that I am her age, her memory is a sign post never far from my own lustful desires. 

My first WQYT paycheck (and yes, QYT stood for quiet music, the kind once played in elevators and doctor's offices) was used to make a partial payment on the Brown-mobile.  I also placed a deposit on my first business suit at Hykes Aisle of Style. The "Aisle" was  a long thin room with suit racks stacked floor to ceiling.  Bob Krummenacker, the salesman at the desk next to mine, had recommended the place.  Bob had a different three piece suit for every day of the week.  He also spent an exorbitant amount of office time making preparations for his upcoming wedding.  He had plentiful to-do lists in neat leather-bound organizers and they made a powerful impression on my rather chaotic ADD mind.  I figured wherever big Bob shopped was good enough for me.      

I was built to wear a size forty suit but the proprietor of Hykes Aisle of Style put me into a size thirty-eight and convinced me it fit.  It was a beige tweed, the absolute worst color for a freckle face with auburn hair.  He also sold me a baby blue cotton shirt  to go with it.  Instead of a tie I may as well have hung a sign around my neck that read ASSHOLE.  I think I wore that suit everyday for the first two months of my new career.  The rusted out Brown-mobile and the beige Hykes Aisle of Style suit.  No wonder closing those first sales was so incredibly difficult!  

From day one, my life as a salesman was a direct conflict with my... how should I put it... my Buddha Nature.  I had stepped onto what the pot-bellied sage called the meat wheel of material life; the Chevy... the job... the payments, the sales budgets, the meetings and of course, the after hour alcohol and sex whose tent folds concealed the road the Brown-mobile and I were on.  It would take me another six years before I realized the ladder I was climbing was leaning against the wrong wall.  And that, my friend, is why the earth is round; so we can never see too far ahead.  


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