Take Me Places I've Never Been
The D-Train #33
I love old cars. I especially love muscle cars. Giant clunkers. Boats. Little zoomy sports cars are cool, and I get why people love them, but they’re not for me. I like gas guzzlers, engine revvers, lane hoggers. I learned how to drive a stick shift on an old Pontiac Firebird, and after that, I practiced on a Mustang. And man, if you haven’t tried one, these cars have a way of getting under your skin. Carbon emissions be damned.
When I got my driver’s license, I drove my mom’s old Ford Escort for a few months, but the very first car I bought myself was a 1979 Chevy Nova.
The day that I got it, I picked up my friend Kristen. She got in and tried to roll down the passenger side window, and it crashed down into the door. I had to take apart the door to crank it back up, and after that you could never open the window again. I bought the car from a very overweight guy who had been driving it since the 70s. Because he was so heavy, the driver’s seat was crushed in from the weight of him. I had to sit on two bed pillows to see out over the steering wheel. The undercarriage was so low to the ground, that if I hit a bump while going too fast (I was always going too fast), the whole thing would bottom out. I remember driving over the George Washington Bridge one night and hitting a bump going eighty miles an hour when the entire bottom of the car went crashing into the roadway. All of my friends were screaming while I yelled over the music -- it’s fine, it’s fine, it happens all the time! You always felt one step away from death while riding in that thing, but man it felt good to make it purr.
The first night I had the car my brother invited me to his friend’s poetry reading. I left around midnight and afterwards, about halfway home, the car ran out of gas. As it turned out, the gas meter was broken and I had no idea it was running low. I pulled over to the side of the highway, but there were no cell phones in those days, so I sat alone, and waited. And waited. But in my ridiculous car, in the middle of the night, nobody stopped. I was stuck there. Nothing to do but turn on the flashers and have a seat on the hood and smoke a cigarette.
At about 3am, and almost out of smokes, a man appeared out of nowhere from the wooded area next to the highway. Hey, he said, I saw you from the road over there. Right on the other side of these trees, there’s a town. And there’s a payphone, if you need to make a call.
I had two choices. I could stay sitting on the hood of the car waiting until who knows when for someone to stop and help me. Or I could follow this stranger into the woods at 3am with the promise of a payphone. So, that’s what I did. I followed him, and amazingly enough, just like he said, right on the other side of the trees, beyond where I could see, there was a town. As it turns out, sometimes when you’re looking for a miracle, out of nowhere, a stranger leads you through the woods to a payphone.
I dug an old AAA card out of my wallet and called. The first question they asked was where was I located. Duh. Of course, I had absolutely no idea where I was. I did my best to describe where I had been, what direction I was traveling, and about how long I had been driving before I ran out of gas. But I have the worst sense of direction, and I knew it was inaccurate. I had no idea if the tow truck driver would find me or not. But I walked back through the dark woods and climbed onto the hood of my Nova to smoke another cigarette and wait, as cars whizzed by in the New Jersey night.
About an hour later the tow truck driver arrived, telling me he had a hard time finding me with the terrible description of my location that I gave to dispatch. Then he hooked up my car to his rig, and I climbed into the passenger side of his truck. I imagined that he was going to tow my car back home, but he told me he was towing me to the nearest gas station. The problem was, I didn’t have any money on me. He looked at me with exasperation. Finally, he took out his wallet and said I’m only doing this because I’m a father, and handed me three dollars. I thanked him profusely, and he drove off into the night. When I asked for three dollars of regular (we don’t pump our own in New Jersey), the gas station attendant gave me a look that said, sister, you need to get yourself on home.
My mom was a nurse, and she left for work at the hospital at dawn. I pulled into the driveway right as she was leaving for work. She looked at me with that same familiar sense of exasperation that I seemed to get everywhere I turned. Where were you all night, she asked. I went to a poetry reading with my brother and then I ran out of gas! I spent a terrifying night on the side of the highway and thought I was going to get murdered by someone in the woods! But she wasn’t listening. It was just another story.
I went inside and took a shower, and then I went to work, sleepless and spent. I was always working, even in high school. That’s what I did.
I sold that car at the end of summer when I left for college. I’m not going to lie, I miss it all the time, with an aching sense of loss.
After that, I got Earl, a shit-brown 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass. I drove Earl from New York to Minnesota, making stops in Washington, DC, Chicago, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When Earl broke down, my friend’s dad took a look under the hood and declared, you know what? Earl would make a fine beer fridge. Which was funny because when I moved to New York, I traded Earl for a case of beer. It was a good way to say goodbye and an appropriate tribute to his Earl-ness.
A couple of years ago I bought myself a little camper, a 1973 Boler. It had mice, and mold, and the electricity didn’t work, and the tires were bad, but man it filled an emptiness in me like nothing else. But my ex-husband couldn’t understand why I loved it so much, and I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just let me fucking have it. Without questioning it, without judging me for it. He would say, it’s your money, and shake his head. But the thing was, I wanted him to love it. I wanted him to see it like I saw it, for all of its endless possibility. For all of its past secrets, and all of its secret magic.
I fixed it up, and I wanted to take it everywhere. But when I got pregnant at age 40, unexpectedly, after trying for so many years, I knew I had to let it go. I sold it to a lady who drove a motorcycle and planned to take it cross-country. She felt like the right person for it. Me, with a little kid, and another on the way? I couldn’t keep her. But there was always a part of me that wished my ex-husband had convinced me to keep it. If he could have understood why I loved it so much, it might have made a difference.
I have gotten pretty good at figuring out what I need since he left me, but what I haven’t let myself think too much about is what I want. I would love another Nova one day, and I dream about owning a Plymouth Road Runner sometime. But right now, what I would actually kill for, what would feel right at this moment, is a big, old station wagon. A real Clark Griswald-type car. Sometimes, when I’m laying awake at night, I wonder, could I ever feel whole again without one? The kind of car I could pack the kids up in, turn up the radio, and just drive. If the thing breaks down, fuck it, we know what to do.
The feeling a car like that gives you?
That’s what I want.
Ps. If I can’t have the car of my dreams, at least I can have Lucinda Williams, who understands how it feels to get in your Mercury and drive. Guess how many times I played this song this week? It wasn’t a small amount.
Listen to The D-Train, The Playlist, a soundtrack for a shit show.