In 42 years I’ve had four cars. Honest.
The first two - a Pontiac LeMans, straight out of college, then a Chevy Camaro- were gifts from my Detroit grandfather, Papa Joe, may he rest in peace. He, like most people from that part of the world, believed in trading in and trading up every two years.
On my own and living in the Ozark Mountains I buy a Nissan truck. When someone driving and not looking hits me in Birmingham, Ala, destroying the car’s frame, I limp back to Savannah and start going crazy trying to decide what to buy.
I’m not a car person. In 1992, the last day of the year, with sales galore, I go to the dealership, look around and buy the cheapest truck on the lot, an Isuzu pickup.
With close to 160,000 miles, the Isuzu is still kicking. Maybe because I never take the girl out of town. For those trips, I rent.
But that’s getting old. And expensive. And I’m starting to travel a lot. Time to make a decision. Or fly to Phoenix to get my late Uncle Harry’s Taurus station wagon, a 1996.
“You want to do what?” says my cousin, Maggie, Harry’s daughter. “You can have the car. We were going to give it away. But why don’t you just buy something?”
That would require a decision.
The cheap ticket to Phoenix from Detroit (forget the return flight) is easy. Finding out about the car is not. Maggie lives in Vancouver, her brother in Aspen.
Fourteen calls later I reach the Realtor who is selling Harry’s condo.
She will leave the key to the house in a magnetic device under the copper roof. She doesn’t know anything about the car’s condition or the whereabouts of the car’s keys or the car’s papers. Whatever.
Feeling a little bit like Thelma without Louise, I fly into Phoenix, grab a cab driven by a Nigerian refugee who arrived in Arizona 10 years ago with no English (which meant he missed the first three fights out of JFK airport), no family (“In a lottery we pick our destination cities. My brother is in Australia, my sister in Toronto. I am here”) and head for Scottsdale. I have an address for Harry’s gated community in Gainey Ranch, but no entry code or number for his condo.
When the cabbie drops me off, I think, “If he can navigate America, I can navigate Scottsdale.”
After waiting for someone to leave the development I scoot through the wide automated gates and start walking. It’s noon, about 104 degrees.
I’m alone on the street. The only other people I see are Mexicans. They’re landscaping. The houses look too big. I don’t remember this golf course. Something’s not right. I hitch a ride out and try the complex across the street, Arroyo Vista.
This is better, but all the condos look alike - the same poodle-trimmed bushes, Spanish bayonet, towering oleander, bougainvillea, traveler’s palms, yucca plants and flat roofs. The same colors - purple, orange, yellow, white. Purely on instinct, I walk up to No, 49 and, a little nervous I’ll be shot, look through the window.
It’s empty. I fish around for a key, find it (thank you, Jesus!) and let myself into the house. The a/c is on. I take a deep breath. Then I start going through the drawers searching for the car key.
The last time I went pawing through a drawer in this house I was in the bathroom looking for a Bandaid for my cousin who had cut herself cooking. That’s when I find my uncle’s Viagra. Good for him, I think.
Car keys in hand I enter the dark garage and see my new car. Just as I remember. Lots of windows. A station wagon. Nice upholstery. A boring beige, the color of champagne, the desert, my old Isuzu. It’s a sign. I turn the ignition. Nothing happens.
A dead battery. That’s the bad news. The good news? The mileage: 29,000. This could work.
After a $40 battery boost, I’m at a service station south of Shea Road, before Gold Dust Highway and next to the Scottsdale Kosher Market, where, on faith, I buy an order of roasted vegetables and stuffed cabbage for the road.
Everything checks out. I’m good to go.
With the blistering sun behind me, I point the Taurus east on Interstate 10, Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway, and head for El Paso, en route to Dallas.
Passing signs like “Zero visibility possible,” “Dust storms may exist” and “Do not pick up hitchhikers; prison nearby,” I crank up the a/c and turn on the radio. At this point in a very, very long day, country music is sounding pretty good. The “redneck yacht club,” says one DJ.
“This next set we’re going topless. I mean stopless,” followed by, “Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go rodeo.”
For variation I listen to the news of Jimmy Hoffa, which I read about the day before in Detroit, and endless verbiage about immigration policies. I change channels and on the West Texas Hotline hear a woman from Pecos trying to sell her horse: “She done good work for 14 months.”
The next day in El Paso, I have huevos rancheros for breakfast, read the El Paso Times (with a B section entitled “Borderland”) get back on the highway and in Sierra Blanca get diverted into real life - a Border Patrol Check Point.
“You a U.S. citizen?” asked the guard.
“Yes, sir,” I say, in my adult voice.
And I’m driving my new ride, car No 5. Life is good. ç
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