One of the great parts of growing old is knowing that everybody in the room listens intently to the ridiculously delicious stories we tell about ourselves. At least they don’t look like they’re pretending. The stories I’m talking about are those filled with exaggeration and hubris, the most familiar one being about how we had to walk three miles to school through snow and ice, uphill both ways.
I often wonder about what kind of stories today’s kids will tell when they enter geezerhood. Will they tell about slogging those same three miles we had to walk? Probably. It’s unlikely that they’ll tell any good stories about buying their first cars. After all, now you can pick a car out an internet lineup, pay electronically, and have the thing delivered to your driveway.
Where’s the romance in that? Where’s the fun? There’s no travel involved. It’s hardly a tale to be told over and over, and there’s no room for embellishing any part of the story.
My curiosity about buying a car online was satisfied by hearing about the process from a friend. (I was afraid to look for myself lest I hit a wrong computer button and then having a 1964 Camaro delivered to me.) Anyway, my friend discovered that the experience is quite good, but you pretty much pay an arm and a leg for the convenience. It’s cheaper to buy from a dealer.
My first car purchase entailed an overnight train ride from Chicago to McCook, Nebraska, and a two- hour ride to Imperial, Nebraska, in the very car I had come to purchase. My grandmother drove, and I was about to learn that the car had never been driven faster than 30 miles per hour. I did the math. McCook and Imperial are 60 miles apart.
I spent a couple of days in Imperial, a non-descript rural community of about 1,200 people—exactly the kind of place a 16-year-old boy likes to spend his time—and when I was about to leave, I paid a non-negotiable price of $300 (in crisp twenties) for a 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. It featured an under-powered four cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. It was sort of a gun-metal gray and basically looked like a box of Saltines with windows. To call it a “chick magnet” is an understatement if ever there was one.
I don’t remember what the speed limit on Route 6 was in 1967, but I pushed it, leaving a trail of burnt carbon hovering across three states—Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. I wouldn’t be surprised if that trail of smoke is still hovering above the Midwest.
It was a wonderful car in that it would carry my entire drum kit and still have room for five passengers. I was working in a quintet in those days, and I became the band’s chauffeur.
Cut to Cleveland. The band moved into a house, along with several others who didn’t pay rent. One day, my much beloved car started doing something in the engine department that didn’t sound right. One of the guys hanging around the house seemed to know something about cars. He told me it was the carburetor and that I should go to a parts store and buy a kit to rebuild it.
Having this job done by a professional was out of the question. Funds were limited to say the least. The entire household in this crummy part of Cleveland lived on Kraft mac and cheese. One of the guys, a guitarist named Duck, was good at pilfering cans of tuna that greatly improved the quality of our 19-cent dinners.
I went to the auto parts store. I was the only guy in there who was wearing a collared shirt. It was almost as bad as being the only man in an obstetrician’s waiting room. Every woman there hates you.
I meekly told the clerk what I needed. As he was ringing up the sale, he assured me that rebuilding a carburetor was easy. Maybe it was the collared shirt.
I removed the carburetor from atop the 4-cylider engine and took it to the kitchen table. Following the instructions to the letter, it only took me about twelve hours to complete this “easy” task. I had three tiny pieces of the kit left over. My friend who seemed to know about cars advised me to re-install the carburetor and see what happens.
I kept those three little pieces in an envelop in the glove compartment. I never did need them. The car performed about the way it did before I heard whatever it was that led to what, in retrospect, was a fairly traumatic mechanical experience.
If I haven’t already, I’ll someday tell you about time my 1973 Pinto station wagon ran out of oil in Malibu Canyon.
Perplexed by this, I asked Geri where the oil could have gone. That’s when she called me “dipstick.”
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Rock ‘n Roll Mac ‘n Cheese
This was our deluxe version of the classic pasta dish. The recipe was widely used by rock bands on their ways to stardom. Or not (the stardom part).
1 box Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
3 Tbs. minced red onion
1 can (5 oz.) tuna, drained
Make the Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese according to package directions. Saute red onion in some butter. Add tuna and cook until warm. Stir into mac ‘n cheese. Put on a Grateful Dead record and enjoy.