The span from the summer of 1991, when I graduated from high school, and mid-1995, when I got my first real grown-up job, was a jumbled time car-ownership-wise, and confusing to look back on and try to sort out from memory now. I was at home for part of that time, so the Camaro was still around for the first year or two; the Tempest was in the picture for a while, as was its replacement, the 1966 Beetle of which I've written previously. But exactly when everything entered and departed during the first couple years of that stretch is now a bit of a blur.
For most of my first stint at the University of Maine, the 1993-94 school year, there was Gojira, a 1985(? I think? They were basically unchanged from 1972 to 1987) Chevrolet pickup with moonshot mileage that had made the rounds of the family. It was originally my aunt Dot's, then I think my grandfather had it for a while, and then Dad, and then me. It was originally black, but Dad was going through a phase where he painted cars. He repainted our old green Malibu, but for some reason replaced the metallic green it originally was with a sort of flat house-paint green, and he hadn't sufficiently cleaned up after sandblasting some bits of it, so it had a startlingly abrasive non-skid finish. He also painted my grandparents' blue '87 Pontiac a different shade of blue. Then he had some of the blue paint and some of the green paint left over, so he mixed them together and painted the pickup, which ended up being an interesting color that was hard to identify for the blank on the car registration for. I think we ended up calling it green, but it could just as easily have been called blue.
("Interesting" is usually a backhanded dis when it comes to car colors, but it really did look nice.)
Anyway, Gojira was pretty beat up. One day that winter, I was parking in the commuting student lot on campus, way the hell out past the Pillars of Hercules by the performing arts center, when along came a kid in a shiny new car. I can't remember now exactly what it was, other than it was a very expensive German convertible—either a Porsche, or an SL-class Mercedes-Benz. Graduation present from prep school, no doubt. Whichever, the kid driving it was trying to Arrive in a jaunty and casual manner, but it was winter, so what he actually did was slide into the side of my truck.
He leaped out in a panic, visions of tripled insurance premiums and parental wrath dancing in his head, and we surveyed the damage. He'd hit the side of the truck's bed, right in front of the wheel well, with the bumper of his car. The car wasn't even scratched, and I couldn't tell which of the various dents on the truck was the new one—he'd basically just rearranged them a bit. So I told him never mind, be more careful, and he was so grateful I think I missed an opportunity to recruit my first world domination minion by letting him leave.
I took Gojira with me the next spring, when I dropped out of UMaine to take a job doing tech support for a now-deceased PC-clone manufacturer, but an aging Chevy pickup was not really a suitable vehicle for that sort of employment. A bunch of people I knew worked there, and it's hard to carpool with a pickup; plus, although still running well, the engine had >250,000 miles on it and was starting to use an inconvenient amount of oil. Rather than rebuild the engine, my father persuaded me to accept the gift of my grandparents' old Pontiac and return Gojira to him.
(There is a postscript to the Gojira saga, a little cautionary tale about good timing. Shortly after he got it back, Dad was under the truck replacing the hanger bearing on the drive shaft—yes, GM's stellar drive shaft engineering was still in effect in 1985—and happened to bump against the fuel tank—which promptly disintegrated, dumping a few gallons of gasoline on the ground and, presumably, him. Evidently it was so rusty by that point that only the inertia of its various constituent rust particles was holding it together...)
I drove the Pontiac for an uneventful year or so, until the time came when I had to have it inspected. There I ran afoul of one of the scourges of life in that great Commonwealth, the predatory inspection mechanic, who fails your car, puts a sticker on it saying so, and tells you that to pass the one permitted reinspection, it needs thousands of dollars' worth of work that—by law!—he must, conveniently, be the one to perform. (I haven't lived in Massachusetts for many years. I can only hope that this is no longer how the law works there, because I have seen a lot of outrageously crooked shit in my time, but that earns a big slice of the cake.)
Fortunately, for once in my life I hadn't left something to the last minute, so there was still a week or so left on the previous year's inspection sticker. I don't remember exactly how, but I somehow managed to talk the guy into not taking the still-valid one off and slapping the FAILED one on, went away "to get the money together" for the repairs... and, while the old inspection was still valid, traded the Pontiac in on a new car.
Well, almost new. The car I traded for was of the then-current model year, 1995, but it had been purchased once before, by someone who had it just long enough that they had to sell it as a used car. Evidently whoever it was had decided, just a bit belatedly, that a Dodge Neon Sport Coupe was not to his taste after all.
Yes. I bought a first-generation Dodge Neon. Willingly. On purpose.
It was the first car I ever bought from a dealership and the first time I'd ever financed anything. It was all jolly exciting. And it was probably a huge mistake, like you make when you're 22 and really shouldn't be out in the world without adult supervision, but what the hell. Good decisions don't make for interesting stories.
And actually, I quite liked the car. It was a sort of metallic royal blue, and the Sport model came with body-color door handles and mirror covers (which is a small thing, but makes a substantial difference in the look of the car), alloy wheels (they weren't quite as ubiquitous back then), and the more powerful of the two available inline-4 engines (which had all of 150 horsepower, but, hey). It was a two-door at a time when that sort of thing was becoming increasingly rare in non-sports cars. It rode well, handled acceptably, and the manual transmission was fun to drive (and really necessary if you wanted to get the most out of that little engine). No, their reputation notwithstanding, I would contend that my Neon's problem was not that it was a bad car.
My Neon's problem was that it was cursed. Not cursed like Christine, it didn't want to hurt anybody, but cursed like it had been built over an ancient burial ground. Bad shit just happened to that car.
Here's an example: One winter morning, only a few months after I got it, I was walking toward the car to go to work when a station wagon* came mushing along the side street it was parked on, slipped on the slushy snow, and banged into the side of the Neon. The thirtyish woman driving the wagon glanced over, clearly aware that she had just sideswiped a parked car, and then, without missing a beat, drove on. I had to chase her on foot—me!—to the next corner with a main road, where she had to stop for a red light. And then, in the classic Massachusetts tradition, she copped an attitude with me because her kids were going to be late for school.
Lady, I don't give a shit if your kids never go to school again in their lives, you just hit-and-ran my car.
A little while after that, someone with a lot of time on his or her hands and a screwdriver went down the block puncturing everyone's curb-side tires, leading to the bemusing discovery that another of the Sport model's features was a rare-size tire that cost about twice as much as normal ones. (I am not accusing station wagon lady of this cruel and pointless crime because that would be petty, but she was awfully pissed off about getting caught.)
In the spring of 1996, I took a job out in California with a company that paid for my relocation, so some men with a truck came and took all my stuff out ahead of me. They would have taken the car, too, but I decided to drive out with my father, in a sort of reprise of the big summer road trips we used to take when I was in high school, so we loaded up the Neon and hit the road. We went the normal way out to Chicago, then got off the Interstate and used a guidebook to follow as much of old U.S. Route 66 as we could find.
It was a nice trip, and the Neon didn't give us any trouble until we reached New Mexico. There, just as we were passing through Albuquerque**, the air conditioning failed.
It was April, which doesn't sound so bad, except that, well, we were in New Mexico, with Arizona and the high desert of California still to get through. I wanted to find a Dodge dealer and get the damn thing fixed, but Dad had a flight to catch at the other end and was afraid we'd have to wait for parts or something, so we pressed on.
Tempers grew somewhat shorter in the Neon after that. Because of that, we skipped the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. I'm not going to say the high point of the southwestern leg of our voyage was thus the Chinese restaurant we ate at in Barstow, because we did see some cool stuff (such as the classic car dealership in Kingman, Arizona, and the frightful but very beautiful mountain stretch of old 66 between Kingman and Oatman), but things were a bit subdued thenceforth, in an effort to avoid escalating tensions to levels that would result in actual homicide.
So, the trip finally finished up with nobody dead, Dad flew home, and there I am in California, being confronted with weird shit like having to prove my citizenship to the DMV and the authorities caring more about the car's emissions profile than whether it's actually safe to drive (although living in Massachusetts should have at least pre-primed me for the latter), and being issued one of the only license plates I've had that I was ever able to remember (3PMD331, no idea why that's stuck in my head all this time when I couldn't begin to tell you the number on either of the cars I actually have right now). It was a strange time. And it was about to get even stranger.
TO BE CONTINUED...
* For younger readers: A station wagon was a kind of car with an enclosed rear seating-slash-baggage area instead of a trunk. They still exist, but aren't called that any more. Nowadays, manufacturers give them all-wheel drive; make them taller, uglier, and worse to drive; call them "crossovers"; and charge about 20% more for them than a normal car for no evident reason.
** Provide your own "Weird Al" Yankovic reference here. Remember to use your inside voice.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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