This is some real-life inspired fiction. While there is much about this that resembles my life, it is far enough from the real truth that it would be an unrecognizable accounting for anyone who was present to the era for me. But the car was real.
The Best Car
I avoided getting my driver's license at sixteen. There were several factors that contributed to that delay – I didn't want to take driver's ed at school, and quickly quit the Len Scaduto course in which my father enrolled me; I knew I wouldn't have regular access to a car, at least not until my mother replaced her rapidly aging '86 Ford Tempo with something reliable; I had no means of income for gas or insurance, and I was thoroughly uninterested in working to acquire money; I had friends who could and would drive me places – but none of them were the real reason I didn't get my license. I avoided it because having one would have meant I could be pressed into service at any moment, wholly subject to my father's whims and his imagined state of health. I bore witness to my older brother being awakened in the middle of the night – anytime from midnight to four a.m. – for a not so emergency trip to the hospital because our father had a headache and wanted drugs to make it go away. By the time I was old enough to understand his need for injectable medication to combat his maladies I was also aware that he was being administered doses that would kill a regular, healthy person. Moreover, he needed such treatment at irregular times; whenever was worst for everyone else would perfectly fit his schedule. My father lived a life that was, without question, wholly about himself.
Living in fear of having a strange dictate – to drive my father to the hospital or his doctor's home, which meant that he would be getting a dose so large that it couldn't be recorded without alarming hospital staff – was something that I knew was abnormal. Every part of it, really. I have to assume that most children, even in the heady years of adolescence with a need to establish independence from their supervisory adults, would not be alarmed by the call to be of service. Children are supposed to love their parents, sons to love their fathers, and so there should not have been a reason for my very real need to not be made to serve as courier to wherever the drugs were stored. Still, there it was. I knew that if I could avoid the license I couldn't be forced to take him, and I should then have been able to get my license without any need of driver's ed once I turned eighteen. I drove occasionally without a license, in the parking lot of the apartment complex and once to a job interview – a job in which I lost all interest once it was clear they wanted me to work forty hours a week while I was still in school – so I wasn't wholly unfamiliar with the operation of a motor vehicle.
My father only tried to get me to drive him to the hospital once after my brother moved on to college. He woke me up at one a.m. and told me I needed to get dressed and take him for some relief. I was told that he had waited hours before deciding it was so bad that he couldn't possibly sleep, apparently unaware of the fact that if we had left at 10 p.m. we could have been back to the apartment by 2 a.m., and that would have allowed for some sleep. Waiting until one was essentially a type of sleep deprivation, so long as one allows that the thirty minutes of sleep I may have gotten to that point would effectively be worthless. To this day I think of it as a kind of terrorism, and I had no desire to bend to the will of a terrorist. I told him that he had plenty of options other than me. He could call a cab – roundtrip fare would have cost less than twenty dollars. He had a friend in the building next door that he could have called and she probably would have taken him. If he felt so bad that he had no choice but to go to the hospital, he could call for an ambulance – we had learned that the insurance United provided would cover the cost of the ambulance if he spent at least a night in the hospital and be a little more than one hundred twenty five dollars out of pocket if he didn't – and spend the night there.
Whatever it took to allow me to try to get some sleep, something that never came easy back then, that is what I suggested. He pleaded his case for about fifteen minutes upon which time he must have realized I was not going to drive him; he had no winning counterargument to "I am not driving without a license" and so he simply went back to bed. When I saw him the following afternoon, he was fine. More than that, he never got so sick that he needed to be taken to the hospital or his doctor from his headaches. His condition was, as I suspected without any cause, was wholly dependent upon his ability to have others service it. I did not want to be tethered to it, made to serve without any attention directed back at me, and thus I decided to similarly rely on others when it came to needing to be driven places. To be fair, if I couldn't get a ride I would usually walk or ride my bike. I appreciated the efforts others made for me, but I was sure as hell not going to be helpless without them. And I wasn't going to make it all about me. Not always.
That was a lesson learned while without a license. In an effort to retrieve a hastily mailed letter, I got a friend to drive me to its intended destination where I could steal it from the mailbox. When it wasn't there, I told him we would have to try again the next day. He smiled and said, "Not going to happen. You had your chance to get it. If it that important, find another way to get there before anyone gets the mail." Well, there was no way I could walk or bike there in time unless I ditched school to do it. I missed a lot of days of high school, but never so I could commit a crime. The letter got delivered, and the consequences of it fell much more lightly than I would have thought. Still would have liked to have had the chance to get it back before it was read, but that is a bell that cannot be unwrung.
The only reason I ended up with a driver's license before I turned eighteen was that my father got demoted at work and couldn't afford to keep us living where we were. In actuality, that pay cut served as his chance to hand me off to my mother while – unbeknownst to anyone – he started squirreling money away for a Harley. He went to live out in Winfield and I was shipped up to Oak Park. Rather than transfer to the local high school – mine was so familiar with my brand of bullshit that I got away with most of the things that would cause them to expel other students – it was decided that I should finish where I started. The first week my mother drove me to and from school every day, three hours sucked right out of her day; she tired of that by Tuesday. The second week I was allowed to sleep at a friend's house but not really fed, and that was about as bad as anything I had experienced to that point. The next week school was on break, but it was also when the road work for my driver's ed started.
Knowing that I was to be moved twenty five miles north, there had been a real push to get a license in my hands. I cruised through the classroom sessions, and the school decided to cut how much practical experience I needed because I would often be inaccessible. I had four days of driving over two weeks time before the school said i was ready to get my license. What did they care? The check had cleared months ago. I didn't feel especially confident, but I knew that I could not rely on a mix of commutes from my mother, accommodating friends, and simply not going to school to make it to graduation.
My father cleared a day so he could be there when I took my test. He had some work he had to do on the car, an '84 Subaru GL Wagon – the last of the non-boxy wagons – that had been handed down from my brother. The red wagon had been replaced with a blue one, this time a stick, which made it somehow more masculine in my brother's eyes. They were both little station wagons, so I can't imagine either dripped with masculinity. And he traded the near burgundy red one for powder blue. I didn't care, because what I needed was a car that would handle the sixty to seventy miles a day that I would put on it. My father gave it a tune up, replaced the brakes, and properly inflated the tires before I arrived. The car was at our old apartment where my father continued to rent garage space. He wasn't going to abandon his collection of tools, but he also couldn't bring himself to package them up and not be accessible. His tools were different from his son.
He drove us over to the facility in his Jeep Wagoneer. I'll never understand why he didn't want me to take the test in the car I would actually be driving, but in retrospect I imagine it was a sense of ownership that he needed to impress on me. He would be fully in charge because it was his vehicle. Anyway, there was almost no wait at the testing facility. I got one question wrong on the written – I don't know which and it still bothers me that I don't know – and sat patiently waiting for a chance to go out on the road. I was assigned a man who looked like he could have been my guidance counselor's ugly, angry older brother, which meant that he was thoroughly unpleasant all the way around. He started off by barking "Horn singal!" at me, which apparently meant that he wanted me to sound the car horn to prove that it worked. I lost points there, in parallel parking, and the three point turn, but was still set to pass. Unfortunately, when I pulled into a space to park I was about a foot into the neighboring space. So that was a fail.
What to do? I had a car sitting and waiting for me. I needed a license so I could go to school and graduate and do something with my life. Jesus, without the license I might have to actually finish at a different school and meet new people. The horror of it all. Normally – or so we were told – I would have to wait a week before any possible retest. Fuck that. My father and I pled my case, my need for a license. Never mind if I might actually be a danger to others on the road, I had places to go and a means to get there; I just needed a license in case I got pulled over. A younger, less angry man came out and agreed to let me retest right then. I passed with no problems and got the damn laminated piece of paper.
My father took me back to the garage. He had to run a quick errand, but he would meet me up at the school and make sure I made it to my mother's in one piece. That was fine with me. I was young and stupid and eager to prove that I could handle unsupervised driving even though I had almost no experience and absolutely none with the car with which I was entrusted. I pulled out of the parking lot and was pulled over about a minute later. The officer said I had failed to signal and I pointed out, very politely, that I didn't signal because it was a bend in the road and there was no other way to proceed on it; who the hell wouldn't know where the car was going? He grumbled a little and told me to "be more careful".
About a quarter of a mile later he pulled me over again. "I ran your plates. You aren't from around here. Your car is registered up in Oak Park." To him that meant I lived near black people and therefore crime. I must be some kind of criminal. I pointed out to him that I had lived in his sad little retail-reliant village for four years, my father maintained his garage there and it was where I had to pick up the car. Furthermore, I went to the high school about five blocks west and one block north. I showed him my school ID. I had every right to be there, but officer asshole wanted to prove something. He grumbled again and then said he was going to write me a ticket for the illegal turn. I laughed at him and said something along the lines of suing him for wrongful prosecution – or something similar I could have borrowed from Ghostbusters – and waited for my ticket. About a minute later he came back and gave me license and told me to get back to where I came from. At least I didn't get that ticket.
My father showed up about thirty minutes after I got to the school. We headed north, me following him because despite making the trip innumerable times I had never paid attention to which streets I needed to use. Somewhere after I exited on 1st Avenue I lost him. Shit! I crept along, terrified both by the prospect of being lost and the other, more confident drivers flying by on my left. I made a wrong turn on Madison and thought for a moment that I had crossed the border with Chicago – instead of it just being Forest Park – because of all the signs for liquor stores and bars. I got myself righted and made it to my mother's. My father showed up about twenty minutes later. He decided to stop and get something to eat. Not a lot of concern about it, either.
From that point on, the car was mine. I owned that car – actually, my brother owned it until it spent a winter in an O'Hare employee parking lot letting its underbelly get salted away – and made myself powerful among my friends by being able to drive places. More than that, I had to drive places. I took the opportunity to give pretty underclass girls a ride home, girls who never would have spoken to me otherwise, and learned the dangers of treating parking lights as headlights. I got to spend almost every Sunday with a girl I was in love with – never mind that she was dating my close friend with whom I would help work stuffing Sunday Tribunes on Saturday night – because I had a car and he had destroyed his. The car allowed me to feel as though I were a real person and not subject to the threats and whims of others.
It was, without question, the best car I will ever have. It isn't just about its primacy. I kept a bag of clothes in the back so that I could spend the night wherever I wanted – there wasn't any insistence that I needed to be home. With the seats folded down it was like a miniature covered pick-up; it certainly could carry a heavier load than my best friend's truck. While I was aware that it could also double as a fantastic 'fuck wagon', I had nowhere near the confidence to test it out in such an endeavor. My relationship with that car was about me, and I don't think I would have wanted to invite anyone else into something so intimate and risk how I felt about the beast.
And it was a beast, a might monster hidden in a partially rusted out and neglected body. That wagon drove over a tree and a mailbox in one motion. It didn't even damage the car. Never mind that that tree was about six inches in circumference at its thickest or that the ground was so saturated with rain that the wheels sunk three inches into the ground, tearing up the lawn like it was only an ephemeral covering for the soil. It took some hasty work – and a pair of baseball bats wedged under the rear wheels – to free the wagon from that muddy mess. As I drove my friends away from the scene of the crime – conspicuously close to where I had tried to steal a letter only a few months prior – me grinning and they in near panic, I excoriated them for not keeping their eyes on the road. They knew my attention would be elsewhere, yet not one of them said anything until we had already laid waste to the tree en route to the mailbox; some twenty five feet of non-road and none of them felt the need to say a damn thing.
We were muddy, and scared, and exhilarated. My car – utter perfection in a compact, unassuming form – had inflicted damage and remained unharmed. It was beyond perfect for the feelings of an empowered adolescent; it was freedom to do anything, yet it never occurred to us that there was much more to do than use the car to drive. Driving was both a necessity and an expression of freedom, and we were free. When relating this story to the acquaintance who lived near the scene of the crime, she could not keep herself from bursting into a near hysterical laughter. Apparently, all her neighbor had said when seeing the damage the next morning was an exasperated "teenagers".
That wagon drove a thousand miles one weekend trying to keep a relationship together, and not one in which I was directly involved. It made a trip to a Boy Scout camp just to rescue a friend to see the premiere of Jurassic Park on the big screen – but the friend blew me off – on my birthday. It made two trips out to Iowa City while I was scrambling to get courses and a place to live, and three more while I was there for a year (not attending those courses). It was my means of being something other than trapped. My father was disengaged from my life for the most part and there would be no threat to be his driver as he saw fit. My mother was content enough to let wander around with it so long as I kept her marginally informed and made appearances at home.
That '84 Subaru GL Wagon in near-burgundy will forever be the best car I will ever have because it was the only one that gave me a sense of freedom, a sense that I was something other than trapped and small. No other car – and most that followed were absolute pieces of shit – can be that for me again. Like the car, life has worn me down. Instead of freedom, a car has become a responsibility, a necessity to travel to places not accessible by the CTA or Metra. The subsequent cars became the beasts that bore me to and from work, which immediately lessens the value one can assign to it. It was the freedom to continue to go to the school where I had a small band of intensely close friends. It became the means to access pretty girls in high school, and if I had any confidence back then it could have been so much more. It became to embodiment of what I wanted to be able to see in myself. Small but tough, reliable, versatile, and efficient; with over one hundred fifteen thousand miles on it, the wagon still got about twenty seven miles to the gallon. Neglected for a winter, it was destroyed.
I would like to say that the lesson is that one cannot neglect oneself in a similar manner. That is how time gets away from people, they get busy living the workaday and miss the moments that we think should define us. It isn't, though. I simply miss being able to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle and know – or be astonished by – it survive a run-in with a sapling and a mailbox and be no worse for wear. I want it to be the metaphor for how the seemingly small shit that comes down on me like rain is nothing that I can't overcome, with nary a scratch (or smelling fine if I want to be consistent in mixing my metaphors). I know better, though. The little things are the ones that will kill you. They will eat you away, piece by piece when you aren't paying attention. They will die like that wagon, a victim of the services that made the lot accessible to those moving their cars in and out on a daily basis.
That wagon is the best car ever because at the time I was driving it, I was still full of potential and promise. Never mind that it was well past its prime, it was new to me. It was the vehicle that could help carry me forward, but it died an inglorious death. And whenever I notice that its promise is gone, I feel somehow despondent over how I have accorded myself. I have recaptured none of what I felt with that car. That freedom is somehow gone forever. The road is dark. The trees are tall and healthy. The mailboxes are wrapped over in brick and mortar. There will be no second coming of that old hope, but the smallest remnant of its flame resides within me because I had experienced it and done so well.
Even if, in the full accounting, it was just a car passed down to me because my brother had moved on to something better.