(Excerpt from My First Car – Part 1: The Near Miss – Elements of Function)
“…a surprise was just over the horizon for me, as you’ll see in Part 2…”
Part 2: Boy Meets Girl
My cousin Andy was “different.” To begin, he wasn’t really a cousin. He wasn’t any sort of relative at all. Andy came into my life when I was still known as Drew. It was so long ago, I can’t remember a time when he was not part of my life. I know I was well younger than 10 years old.
Andy was cocky. When I met him, at church, his family had only recently come to America. Wearing his leather jacket over his dark colored shirt and silver tie, with his hair slicked back, my overall impression was that he was greasy and slimy. I wanted to beat him up. Every chance we had, we fought…at church…for years…Rolling around on the ground in our Sunday Best. When I later joined a youth Hockey league, we had games on Sunday mornings. It didn’t matter – I still kicked his butt for Christmas and Easter…sometimes Good Friday too!
Then, one day, the strangest thing happened…we just didn’t fight. We spent time around our other friends. We began getting together in the parking lot at the church with the priest’s son and drag racing our parents’ cars in the parking lot after crowds attending morning services had receded. We started getting together after church. We would hang out at each others’ homes, go to lunch, or go to the mall to “pick up girls”…something neither of us had any skill at whatsoever. I was short and wore thick glasses. In case ice hockey was not obscure enough, I also played water polo. I knew from a young age that I was smarter than everyone around me, but was not smart enough to realize that they might not want to be reminded of this at all times. He was taller, heavy set, with all of the charm of a scorpion and about as subtle as cracking eggs with a hammer. With all of these defining characteristics, I know it sounds like there was no way we could miss with the ladies, but somehow they managed to resist our charms…
By the time of my “Fiat Incident,” we were friends closer than brothers. He called me one Sunday afternoon from the shop of his mechanic. “Hey, Richard has a car you need to see. He’s trying to sell it.”
“What kind of car is it?”
“No. A Lancer!”
I had access to my older sister’s Dodge Daytona pretty much any time I wanted. It was an abomination. Even though it was only a couple of years old at the time, the four anemic cylinders and three speed automatic transmission that was somehow able to find the wrong gear under every driving condition made the experience of driving this car like masturbating with a cheese grater…slightly amusing, but mostly painful. And that was only under the best of circumstances, when the windows would roll down and back up on the same day, and the climate control approximated a climate that was survivable for humans. The transmission tunnel radiated the combined heat of a thousand suns at all times the engine was running or the vehicle was moving (which did not always occur at the same time). This, even though the transmission was located beneath the engine and between the front wheels, and nowhere near the actual tunnel. The suspension made the Citroen 2CV seem sophisticated and agile. When it eventually self-immolated in our driveway a couple of years later, that was considered a good day in my household. A Chrysler Laser was a re-badged version of the Dodge Daytona, and the Dodge Lancer was a 4-door version of the same sad, sorry car. Whether it was a Laser or a Lancer, there was absolutely, positively no way I was going to buy this wretched contraption.
“Ok. See you in ten.” Sometimes the things I said surprised even myself.
Arriving at the shop, I pulled into the gated lot to the rear of the building which I favored. I drove past the rotting hulks of cars I could not identify and parked in my usual spot, between the chain left behind by some dog I had never seen, a lone driveshaft laying on the asphalt, and dozens of other parts strewn about, to which I never paid enough attention to have known what they were, much less what kind of car they may have been intended for. I spotted my cousin talking to the mechanic on the far side of the lot (I couldn’t hear them, but I knew that they were talking from the wild flailing of their arms). Richard, the mechanic, was an Armenian guy whose demeanor and actions were eerily similar to those of my Greek community. I walked toward them, and as I approached, stood back a few feet. These two had the knack of discussing women in less than delicate terms that made me uncomfortable. When the flailing stopped, I approached them, “Hey guys, what’s going on?”
“Ihyevtoselldisfuckingcar.” Most of Richard’s sentences in English sounded like one very long word. I wouldn’t say I ever really got used to it, but I understood. He had a car he needed to sell. “Mywife. Beechwongimmedapussy. Wandamoney.” I understood this to mean that his wife would not be intimate with him until he sold the car (and hopefully took a shower).
I gestured in the direction of the nearest car. The multi-colored, wedge-shaped body was made of fiberglass, the lights were missing, the glass was missing (broken out?), and it had wheels, but no tires. I groaned a little as I asked, “This car?” I could see a collection of parts haphazardly shoved inside the delapidated shell. This would not go back together without a hell of a fight, if it ever did at all. But at least it wasn’t any Chrysler product that I had ever seen.
“I told you it was a Lancer! Does this look like a Laser to you, Drew?” There were times my cousin Andy’s diction was well-considered and colloquial. This was not one of those times. His attempt at humor at my expense irritated me a little.
Richard chimed in “Disma Brooklyn…I sell WIFE beforeIsell Brooklyn!” Ah yes! The Bricklin SV1! I knew I recognized it, although I had never seen one that was in such dire need of repair. It seemed like every single part that was not missing needed attention.
In retaliation for my cousin’s sarcasm, I decided to fire a shot across his bow, “Yes, you told me it was a Lancer, or a Laser…knowing you it’s probably a Ford! Where is this car, Richard?”
I placed my hand on Richard’s shoulder to herd him away from my cousin. He said, “OOOOHHHHH!!! Isno Fort!” Not a Ford. Good to know.
“Isdere.” As we stepped inside, he gestured toward a small collection of 3 cars packed into the furthest, darkest corner of the shop. My eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness, “Isda bleck.” And, of course, all three cars were black.
I pretended to understand to which car he was referring, my eyes still adjusting, “How much do you want for this car?”
“Summabeech nopayfornew brakes, nopayfornew moffel, new chock. Ifixit cloch. Aldanader. Barry. HESAY NO GOOT! I make papah! Now itmy car! I HYEV TWO YEAR!” I’m starting to get it now; new brakes, muffler, shocks, clutch, “alternator?” (maybe?) and Barry? I wasn’t who who or what “Barry” was…
“What year is the car?”
“A2? ItalianlikeMazati. Oh Farri!” I had never seen three cars that looked less like either a Maserati or a Ferrari than these.
“Nineteen eighty-two, you say? How much?” I still had no idea to which of the three cars he was referring, let alone what kind of car it was. But the fact that it was Italian sounded promising. I could hear Sinatra crooning (“…and now, then end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”)
“Can we take it for a drive?”
“HA!” Richard was off like a flash, He searched his “desk” (an old door resting on two sawhorses) and produced the key, then scurried to the bay door, which opened with a sound somewhere between a groan and a shriek. He prodded the engine to life and shifted the transmission into reverse with a cacophony of noises and what seemed like just a little too much difficulty. But once in motion, it glided smoothly enough into the sunlight, and now I finally had an unobstructed view. I could not believe my eyes. This was something special. Something I had only seen in magazines. As I approached, my mind was a whirlwind. “Could it be? I thought none of these had actually made it to the United States? These things were more expensive than a Mustang GT or a Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. Heck, they were in the Alfa Romeo Spyder’s price range – There’s no way I can afford this. Dammit!” I didn’t notice Richard had stepped away from the driver’s seat as I approached from the passenger’s side. In my typical awkward fashion, I nearly ran right into him.
“Youno wanna dri?” But of course I wanted to drive. I smiled sheepishly, trotted around to the driver’s side and slid under the steering wheel into the surprisingly supple leather driver’s seat. The Sinatra soundtrack continued in my head. (“…I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway, But more, much more than this, I did it my way.”)
It is a well known fact that the quality of the craftsmanship of the Italian cars in those days fell far behind the Germans and the Japanese. Looking back, I think that they knew this, and so they didn’t even try to compete from a mechanical or engineering standpoint. But the Italians had some qualities the Germans and Japanese did not have. They had style! They had passion! Life should be an adventure, and the Italians knew, better than anyone else, how to not let life’s great adventure get lost amid too many technical details. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” should have been the Italian National Anthem.
But “My Way” was my theme song on that day. (“…Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption…”)
I prepared myself for the cursed Italian driving position as I began to survey the controls before stretching her beautiful Italian legs and giving her a brisk workout. I checked the pedals. The brakes felt like those of any other car, albeit with the awkward pedal angle. The clutch pedal was quite stiff, and the throttle was exactly where I expected it to be from my experience with the Fiat. I pressed the clutch and shifted through all five gears a few times, noting the quirks of the shift linkage so that I would not miss a shift on the road. Then, I began to squirm about, hoping to find a position from which I would be able to nonchalantly toss her around like a real Italian would. I was determined to be the Sinatra to her Ava Gardner for as long as I would be allowed on that day. (“…Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew, When I bit off more than I could chew, But through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all and I stood tall, And did it my way…”)
“American tink drivin serios bizness. Relax.” I had almost forgotten Richard was there, and this startled me a bit. “Luk. Elbow heah hand heah.” He demonstrated, resting his arm on the door and holding the imaginary steering wheel at about the 8 o’clock position. I did what he had said. “You dri, steah wit udda han. Always leave dis han heah.” He demonstrated an underhand shuffling motion with his imaginary steering wheel. What did I have to lose? I decided I’d give it a try.”
I have previously noted that the Italian Driving Position lends itself best to drivers with long arms and short legs. My legs are as short as those of any grown man, but, with my hands on the steering wheel at the 8 and 4 positions, my arms were now long enough to reach the steering wheel with (relative) comfort. I decided to see how far I might be able to push my luck, and took this beauty “over the hill” – a route consisting of a fast section of road, with little traffic and a just enough long, sweeping turns to entertain the enthusiastic driver.
The power-assisted controls were drastically over-powered. The steering provided almost no feedback at all and merely tapping the brakes was enough to toss us through windshield. This girl wasn’t just going to simply lay down and give up her goodies. (“…I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve had my fill, my share of losing…”) This was going to require all the finesse a socially awkward suburban punker like myself could muster. I began to make small adjustments in my “shuffle the wheel” steering technique, learning to look further down the road as I set up my entry and exit from each curve. The throttle became a switch – either wide open or fully closed. Speed adjustments were made by shifting gears. The absurdly tall and unwieldy shift lever suddenly fell right in hand when shifting gears mid-corner. It felt like she was reaching out to me. I adjusted my clutch technique and began to miss fewer shifts. (“…And now, as tears subside I find it all so amusing…”) I was starting to feel as if I could do no wrong, which I realize must have been the final thought of nearly everyone ever killed by an Italian car. But the way she responded was intoxicating, with all the right touches and all the right sounds.
Like most pleasurable experiences, the test drive was over too soon. As we approached the shop, Richard startled me. Once again, I had forgotten he was there. “Eef fihunnit ees too moch, I takeit treefiddy.”
The car skidded and shuddered to a halt as I locked up the brakes on all four corners. I could not get the money out of my pockets fast enough. I’m still not sure how much I paid him for this curvy little vixen. I simply shoved wads of currency into his outstretched hand until he pulled it away.
This exotic beauty was mine! Mine! I was in love! I couldn’t believe my luck. I just wanted to drive her all day. I would wait until we were alone, of course, to take her top off…maybe while listening to “Mambo Italiano.” After all, we had all the time in the world. I’d feel her out first, get to know her and work on my technique. She was the kind of girl that wants, NEEDS a guy who was at the very top of his game. And that day, in the warm California sun, for a fleeting moment, I was that guy. I wondered where I might be able to find a fedora.