LISTEN… GET THIS… I put off buying a car for as long as I could. Wait, you did what now? Yes, it’s completely true. Allow me to explain.
I can’t properly put it into words but I think the decision was delayed due to my fear of crashing. While some find the concept erotically stimulating it’s just not my cup of coffee. For a man so fastidious, so focused and organized I’ve got a reputation for being a tad scatterbrained. As such, I maintain a healthy flicker of fear for T.S.I.I.T.T.W.F.M. (The Singular Instant In Time That Waits For Me.) This instant, this animal, this entity has my name scrawled across its forehead in Fate’s finest Sharpie. And having burned up the majority of my nine lives doing stupid shit in my youth (climbing grain silos in the rain, dodging buses at night, drowning in broad daylight,) I’m perpetually concerned that my debts will be called in, that I’ll wind up in a life-altering motherfucker of an accident, bent and broken like a flesh pretzel with nothing more than a feeding tube, Maury Povich and the Machine That Goes Beep for company. (Actually, that’s not a bad name for a band, must remember to write it down…)
But seriously, people. Operating a motorized vehicle is no joke.
I’ve been ‘bike guy’ for the majority of my life and it’s helped to keep me lean, not to mention clear-headed. Traveling at speeds well below 20 mph has given me a lot of time to think. It’s kept me safe. Even if I’ve had to leave early for every job I’ve ever held; even if I’ve had to dress like an REI store mannequin and fit my entire day into the bag on my back; even if I knew that biking would severely limit my social (read: dating) life, I was more than happy to be ‘bike guy.’ Maybe I was (probably okay definitely) hiding from responsibility, thinking that perhaps I could just go without owning a car. I mean, lifelong New Yorkers get along fine without cars, right? Yeah, if you ignore their inability to leave the city when the shit hits the fan. Most probably definitely among these reasons would be because I’m a speed freak. At least I used to be.
In ten years of driving before ever owning my first vehicle — a delicate old ’77 VW Bus which was incapable of going more than 65 mph without trembling like a frightened crack puppy in a cold hallway — I managed to come this close to wrecking just about every vehicle I climbed behind the wheel of.
There was the riding lawn mower I drove straight into a tree when I was 19. I could have turned. I had plenty of time. But I wanted to know what it was like to wreck. So I mashed the gas down and just tackle fucked that tree, much to my neighbor’s chagrin. I flew off the seat, unharmed of course. The engine stalled out, the cowling was bent to shit and I had to pay to get it fixed. I claimed I’d lost control. I just wanted to see what would happen…
There was the rented Alfa Romeo I nearly totaled in Sicily. We were doing a dog-and-pony show, (read: staged ordinance upgrade) for the benefit of three NATO officers who’d be breathing down our necks for a solid week. Naturally, they needed rental cars. Two low-ranking friends and myself were given the task of retrieving those cars from the Catania airport.
Think on it: Three… blood-red rentals… 1994 Alfa Romeo Spiders. I’m in Sicily. I’m 23. I’ve got a mix tape full of Ministry and little-to-no common sense. You do the math.
The speedometer was pegged hard over from the moment we left Fontanarossa Airport and headed out onto the open road, E45 moving south along SS 194 toward Lentini. At one point, we were weaving in and out of traffic, passing other cars like they were standing still, like we were auditioning for the fucking Italian Job. The Alfa handled the straights like a leather-lined missile and I remember being fascinated by just how far to the right I could actually get that big red needle to go. The music couldn’t keep up with the car. They were simply two separate occurrences.
Looking back, I’m lucky I wasn’t killed. I’m fortunate that I didn’t collide with another driver, as Italians are known for turning a two-lane road into a five-way thoroughfare, complete with pull-off-and-chat lanes and a cart for the espresso. Then again, Italians are far superior drivers. They make all the best cars. (And women.)
I was so caught up in the moment — the Ministry, the metal-meat-momentum of the thing — that I misjudged a hairpin turn just south of the Lentini-Carlentini interchange, which immediately unfolded from an overpass and opened onto a scenic vista. There was a clutch of cars parked in the right-hand lane; tourists admiring the sun-soaked Sicilian view. And me, headed right for them at a high rate of speed.
With what I felt was a crashing, fiery death fast approaching, I pulled hard on the emergency brake and shoved my brake foot through the floor to avoid slamming into them. The tires screamed and shrieked, and my heart was in my throat. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. The Alfa went into a mean counter-clockwise spin, throwing dust and rocks in every direction and nearly coming up on two wheels before bouncing to a halt in the center of a dirt divider maybe 15 yards short of the group. There was nothing spy movie about it. Tunnel vision had taken over. There was vertigo and physics and I was only partially aware of the steering wheel in my hands. When it stopped and my vision opened up, I’d run through a rock bed and over the bare edge of a discarded metal guardrail in my quest to not die, and now the Alfa sat there fuming and ticking angrily. There was smoke in the air and the smell of burning rubber. The Italians weren’t coming any closer, but, not wanting to stick around for the frantic Q&A session to follow I got the engine started and stomped the gas, revving and shifting wildly in an effort to get moving. But I was stuck. The underside of the car was caught fast on a sawed-off section of rebar that probably once held a road sign reading something to the effect of: “Rallentare suo figlio di rotolo!” (Slow your roll, son!)
Point of urgency: The follow van that dropped us off at the airport would be coming around the corner in less than one minute with some semblance of authority behind the wheel, which meant a lot of complicated questions and definitely some entries for my permanent record. Fortunately, the third and more cautious of we three caught up with me first, and together we bounced the rental free. It was leaking fluid and some small — probably very important — pieces all the way back to the base, and one of the tires went limp like a weak handshake along the way. We got the wheel swapped out and closed the trunk just as the NATO posse showed up. I held my breath for five days but nobody else seemed to notice that a fine Italian motorcar was unraveling like a steampunk sweater, much to my relief. It would be a few months before I drove again, but there would be other displays of stupid. It was always just me taking my luck for a spin, revving the engine, watching the needle move toward the right. I just wanted to see what it would do…
There was a time in my life when I lived cash and carry, owning only what I could cart on my back. I honestly never thought I’d make it this far in life. I figured my own stupidity would be my retirement plan, and that I wouldn’t need to worry about owning a house or a car or anything of real value because I’d be dead. I walked or biked for most of my life, relying on the adversity to make me stronger. I took stubborn pride in doing everything the hard way.
That era has passed — although I can still pick up everything I own by myself – and I have nothing left to prove. The era of collecting dangerous stories is just about over. Trees grow, stars die and times have changed; new laws and consequences have come into play, and penalties are more rigidly enforced. I’m responsible now. The Fear and Loathing of Pretty Much Anything is a thing of the past. Pack your bags. We’re all moving to the No Thrill Zone.
Anyway, it was high time to get over the fear of myself. I bought a new car. I compared five models for best prices, respective crash test ratings (!), turning radius, fuel efficiency and legroom; nothing too fast and nothing too crazy. I researched every step of the signing process and brought along a trusted friend who knows a thing or three about cars. (And beer. And cards.) But even after all that planning for a safe respectable 2008 Honda Element, I drove away in a 2012 VW Beetle that was on the top of my WANT list, a silvery sleek thing with just a little extra under the hood. It had one prior owner who lived in Utah, babied the hell out of it and put less than 14,000 miles on the engine. It’s still under the original warranty. Seriously, I couldn’t have gotten a better deal if I’d paid a dollar for a dune buggy that I’d bought from Willie Nelson.
The sticker shock faded within a few days – after all, it’s just time, numbers and payments. I spent the first two weeks waiting for it to get stolen, kamikaze smashed by a renegade tree limb as an act of revenge for that sapling I tackle fucked with a tractor lo those many years ago, or inexplicably sudden falling apart. But no, the Beetle is a product of good German engineering. I will take good care of this car. There will be frequent oil changes and scheduled maintenance. I’ve actually read the owner’s manual.
Believe it or not, I’ve grown exceedingly cautious in my later years. I drive with a GPS and a full tank of gas. My mirrors are flawlessly adjusted. I brake gently. I have a full roadside emergency kit and good insurance. I drive with two hands on the wheel, and I’m never in a hurry…
Except for those times when the road is absolutely empty and perfectly straight, the sky is blue, and there isn’t another car in sight. Then, and only then will I turn up the stereo as Al Jourgensen and I discover exactly how far to the right I can get that big red needle.