(previously published 2010)
I was younger, more joyfully naïve. I didn’t look at my watch, or check the weather. I was teaching college, living on my own, and burned through my short paycheck before the month ran out. Glee.
Somewhere within the blur of those days I told a student I wanted an old car. My alt-punk roots, bred on the milk of the era before disco, looked to the inherently cool boxy rides of the early 60s as the antidote to the boring family orbs of contemporary sedans. This student said he knew of an old Plymouth Valiant, with the highly durable Slant 6 engine, clean, and with low mileage. It was his grandmother’s car, bought for her by his grandfather, garaged for decades; she drove it a few times and then stopped. (When I used to tell this story, I would say it was his grandfather’s car. Now that I’m older, I don’t care if it was a grandma car. It was still cool.)
I said I’d buy it sight unseen. In a few days the car was parked outside of my school office, down a short unloading zone covered by pine needles. I think I paid less than $600 for it. I couldn’t get over how cool it was AND how affordable it was. I drove it for a month, joyed over its push-button transmission, the low clack of its engine, the way it would wildly fishtail around corners. I drove it all over the Northeast, from CT to Philly, from NYC to the Jones Beach.
Then one day I got my winter-wool sweater caught in the door. I pulled on my sweater and the door mechanism broke, locking the door shut, leaving a chunk of my sweater somewhere inside. Later that evening, as I was easing into a parking spot to check the damages, my turn signals failed. It cost me over $1500 to fix both issues.
So what that my car now cost more than I thought it would. I still loved it.
A year later I was living in NYC. I was driving on the BQE, turning off from the LIE when my brakes failed. Pressed the pedal all the way to the matt, pure silence of gliding along without the engine but not slowing down. The car rolled up a hill, and slid down the next. I pushed carefully on the pushbutton dash, shifting down gears to brake the car, then quickly flipped the joystick style emergency brake with a “whack!” I had the car towed to the street outside of my apartment. It cost me another $450.
In NYC they have this routine called “alternative side of the street parking.” The idea is the city needs to clean the streets with truck-style street scrubbers. The brave citizens, who cannot afford private parking spaces, have to shift their cars from one side of the street to the other at least once a week, to leave room for the street cleaning trucks.
I couldn’t afford to fix the brakes. I figured I’d save up for a few months and in the meantime I’d push my car back and forth. Youth. My roommates heroically helped me push the Valiant from one side to the other month after month. In the rain, snow, and the rain again.
One night I heard some light clinking sounds out on the street. I went to my building door, opened it slight enough to see what was going on, but it was too late. The external details, hubcaps, trim, roofline, headlights, taillights, bumper, everything that could be stripped from the outside of my car was stripped. No! I yelled into the shadows. No! I went back to bed, covering my face with my hands.
The next morning as I exited my building, walking to the subway on my way to work, another Valiant drove up, and tailed me for half the block. I stopped and turned to face it. This guy parked his car and handed me his card. He happened to be a Valiant collector, saw mine on the street, and would pay me $1000 for it. “Slant six engines never die,” he said. His card advertised his asbestos removal business, “The Best-os Asbestos Destroyer.” I said, “Ok. $1000, and you can have it.”
We agreed to meet the following weekend, he’d bring a tow truck, and we’d move the car to a lot he had. He asked if I wanted to tag along as he had other Valiants and maybe, if I was interested, we could work on rebuilding another one of his cars. He said, “Maybe you give me $500 and I’ll store this car for you and we’ll work on fixing it up?” My stomach sank, I knew this was going to end badly. But I was in his car, my car was on the tow truck, I went along for the ride.
When we arrived at his lot there were at least two dozen Valiants, all in different states of repair. I asked him what his plans were for all these cars. He said he was going to corner the market on the Valiant, to fix them up slowly in order to get the highest dollar in the collectors market. His goal was to buy up all the Valiants he could find, keep them, and sell one when he needed the cash. All those cool cars just sitting there, in a lot under the rain, rusting helplessly. On my right was a pile of aluminum trim, shiny bumpers, and headlights that were obviously the missing parts from my dear Valiant. My heart sank deeper. I now knew for sure he wasn’t a good man and I was in a bad place. Take it easy, I said to myself, no fast movements, and you’ll get out fine.
As his crew unrolled my Valiant, sadly naked, wronged from the stripping it received the week before. He turned to me and said, “So what do you say? $400 for the Valiant.”
“No,” I said, “I want my $1000.” His crew stopped, turned to look at me as if to say, Dude, he’s the destroyer, the best-os Asbestos destroyer, don’t be stupid.
“Well,” he said, “its on my property now and I have to go to work, so you can arrange to have your own tow crew come here to get it next week sometime, but that will cost you at least $500. So, I’ll be fair. Let’s say $500. I’ll buy it from you for $500.”
Ill, ashen, irritated and stuck, I said, “ok.”
“Great,” he said as he reached into his pocket. Then he reached into his other pocket. Then his pants pocket. “Man,” he said, ”I’m sorry kid. I don’t have any cash, no check.
Will you take an IOU?”