There’s something to be said for a fresh perspective on a
problem that only a decent night’s sleep and a general sense that you’ve turned
the corner can provide. The day after I basically alienated my family, took a
Sawzall to my car and was about two seconds away from calling Charlie Sheen for
some mental health advice, I managed to put the car back together.
I added coolant, turned her on and watched the core heat up.
The venting on the car wasn’t as good as it used to be, but it was no longer
pouring a chemical that clearly noted “DANGER: DO NOT INHALE” into the footwell
of the passenger’s seat. The majority of the pieces were back in place and the
car had heat, albeit undirectable heat.
It was good enough.
Somewhere along the way, the phone rang. It was Mom,
wondering how my week of hell was concluding. I gave her the breakdown as I put
some tools away and mopped up the giant puddles of various crap from the garage
“Well,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re going to be done with
that car soon. It’ll be nice to be in a much better car.”
“It’s not a better car,” I said with an unexpected flash of
anger. “It’s a different car. There’s nothing wrong with the one I have.”
“Well…” she began. “There was that thing in Madison when it
broke down on your wife. And this heat thing…”
“Cars have problems, Mom,” I said, gritting my teeth. “I
seem to remember the blue Cadillac was no great shakes.”
My parents bought a 2-year-old Caddy one year from a
reputable dealer. Dad loved it as it had every button imaginable. One day when
he was on the freeway, it just shut itself off. He slammed it into park and
push-button started the hell out of it. It started again and he got home in a
The garage guys couldn’t find anything wrong with it. They
rebooted all the systems and told him it was a one in a million glitch.
About a week later, Dad hit the “Whoa Shit” lottery again,
as it died on him in the middle of town. He immediately went back to the dealer
and got his money back.
“Yes, but, you’ve had—”
I cut her off. “It’s a good car. It served me well and I’m
doing something different now.”
The conversation ended and I went back to doing whatever it
was I was doing before it started. I kept thinking back on it though. I was
defending a car that was not anything special. I was not happy about selling
it, even though it was the right move. I was getting away from something that
was clearly about to be on the decline.
Yet, it was mine. It was comfortable. It was just not easy
talking about it.
Fifteen years ago, I made the mistake of going to my high
school reunion. It was the dumbest of reunions: the 5-year one.
At that point, the “best” among us were just out of college
or barely married. It was really a collection of half-formed post-collegians
who were trying to figure things out in life. Add some booze, a few
ex-girlfriend/ex-boyfriend wounds to open and you had all the makings of a
The 10-year reunion was about two weeks before our wedding.
We were living three states away and frazzled from all of the “Are you sure
this is taken care of?” questions we were getting, so I passed.
My uncle died right about that time. I couldn’t get back for
his funeral, which was the same day as that reunion. If had cared enough to
make the reunion, I would have been there for the family. My aunt said she
understood. I still felt like crap.
The 15-year either didn’t happen or I missed it.
The info for the 20-year reunion showed up a few months
back. I pondered the idea of going to this thing. I was old enough to have some
stories to tell, interested in how people turned out and there were probably a
couple teachers I wouldn’t mind seeing again.
As the day got closer, I started to realize that the people
I wanted to see were among the least likely to go to the reunion. They had
found jobs on the coast or were living abroad. They were busy and involved.
And, to be fair, out of the 422 people who walked across that stage all those
years ago, I could think of about three I really wanted to run into. Not
exactly the best odds.
The people who were going to show up were the people for
whom high school was the crowning achievement.
Just like A mentioned a week or two ago, it might have been
fun to roll up there in my 1968 Mustang. I could wear a suit that costs more
than their rent check, flash the doctoral ring and regale them with tales of
the books I’ve published and such before saying, “So, I heard you work for a
fast food restaurant. How’s that going?”
And yet it all seemed so exhausting and pointless.
I also found it weird that I had no real memories of value
from that time, but instead I was spending the weekend a few miles from the
reunion thinking about how I’d likely be parting company with the Civic this
I went home to Milwaukee for the weekend to help Dad with a
card show and to help Mom figure out how to finish cleaning out my uncle’s
apartment. There wasn’t much left but it was something that had to be done.
A bedroom set, a desk and a dining room table were all that
remained when we got there. The items were all brought with him to the
apartment after he sold my great-grandmother’s house decades earlier.
Years of age and dirt had grown on them and little was
The one really nice dresser we left behind for the guy who
was being given the apartment. He was an elderly man with almost no possessions
and was so grateful to be getting this low-cost home. He ran into my father as
Dad was moving out some of my uncle’s personal effects and asked him that if
there was anything at all that he planned to throw away, could he just leave it
behind in the apartment?
Anything, he said, was better than the nothing he had.
Dad left him a couple old velour chairs that Mom noted she
didn’t want. Mom later decided the guy should have a place to put his clothes and
that she didn’t have a place for the larger dresser anyway.
We pulled the small dresser out so that I could refinish it
next summer and The Midget would have something to use when she stayed at my
The dining room set was kind of a wreck and we debated its
value for a bit.
“Was that great-grandma’s?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mom said before pausing. “We used to have every
family dinner, every holiday meal… That table was the holidays. I just don’t
I looked at what had to be 25 to 30 years of paint
splotches, watermarks, food stains and scorches on it. It wasn’t even a
“Take it. I’ll figure out how to refinish it.”
We moved all this stuff down to the truck and packed it up.
We had one last task for the day: find a TV for Uncle Ron.
The one he had died or was dying and he didn’t have anything
to watch in the new place. All the money he had would be slowly drained away by
the healthcare system, so Mom decided that before it was all gone, she should
spend his money on anything that would give him some comfort.
We bought a 27-inch flat screen and headed over to the
assisted living place. When we got inside the room, he was in bed, under the
covers, staring at the ceiling.
Dad and I are usually horribly awkward in hospitals and with
illness, so we set about trying to put the TV together. Mom went inside and
tried talking to my uncle to pretty much no avail.
After about 10 minutes, I realized we needed a screwdriver
to put the base onto the TV. Mom and Dad left to go and find one, leaving me
alone with my great uncle.
“Hi Uncle Ron. How are you doing?”
“It’s a nice day out. Glad we could swing by and see you.
Did you get outside?”
I paused. I realized this was bullshit. He wasn’t going to
talk. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to live. Still, I needed to
tell him something.
“I wanted to thank you for selling me your car. I loved my
Civic and you really took great care of that car. I’m sorry you can’t drive it
any more, but I’ll do my best to keep her on the road.”
I turned away.
“I always did what the car people told me,” he said,
breaking the silence. “I kept up with the oil changes, the tires, everything.
It was a really great car and it was really good to me. It was a good car. A
good, good car.”
The weekend blew by in a blink. A card show was interrupted
by about four or five dozen phone calls, texts and emails. I went between
having five people wanting to see the car to no one wanted to see the car. By
the time I was heading home, I had two people coming to see the car.
The first guy showed up from in town. He was clearly a
Before he did anything else, he examined the underside of
the car for rust and leaks. He rubbed the body in spots to make sure there was
no rust anywhere. He opened the hood and looked for anything that was not in
the right spot.
He noticed immediately that the seals were wearing in spots
with some minor leaking. He also noticed a crap-ton of the new parts I had put
into this thing.
He took it for a ride up and down the outlying farm roads
before coming back with a simple assessment:
“I like it, but the heat doesn’t work the way I want it to.”
I explained that the core was good, the vents needed work
and that overall, it was a keeper.
“It’s either a core blockage or it’s a vent thing or
whatever. I can fix it, but I really don’t want to.”
“Look,” I told him. “I know this sounds like bullshit, but
I’ve got another guy who’s interested and he’s coming later today. You’re here
first, so if you want it, you get the first shot at it.”
“Uh-huh,” he said with a “yeah right” smirk. At that point,
a car pulled up. A kid who looked like he was about 19 and his girlfriend got
“I’ll be right there,”
I called out to the kid as the guy’s demeanor changed a bit.
He left me an offer about $500 less than what I really set
as the bottom for what I would take for the car before he got in his car and
My dad’s brother was 18 years younger than my Dad. Grandma
used to love to tell the story about how she was about 40 and she didn’t feel
well, so she went to the doctor.
“I think I’m going through ‘The Change,'” she said,
referring to menopause as they did in those days.
The doctor smiled. “You’re going to get a change, all right.
Uncle Fred lived through his young adulthood without a
father, since Grandpa died when he was about 16. A few years after Grandpa
passed, his sister, Agnes, died as well.
Aunt Aggie had no children of her own. She lived with my
great-grandparents, worked hard and saved money her whole life.
In her will, she left Uncle Fred a chunk of money, the size
of which I was never really told. It wasn’t enough to make him rich, but it was
in the four or five-figure range, enough to buy something fairly price.
He decided he wanted a car and a lot of car lots wouldn’t
take him seriously. He was about 20 years old, loved fast cars and came onto
the property alone. He appeared to be the “anti-sale,” to use a
salesman-friend’s term: A guy who sucked up a lot of time and played with the
toys but never had the money to buy one.
A Ford dealership operated a mile or so from Grandma’s house
and Uncle Fred just happened to be looking on the lot that day when a trailer
pulled up full of new 1982 cars. One of them was a black Boss 302 Mustang.
My uncle had found his muse and he made an inquiry as the
car was gliding off the truck.
“Here,” the salesman said, tossing him the keys. “Go sell
yourself a car.”
My uncle said that made all the difference to him. He drove
it, loved it and bought it.
“The guy wanted me to own it and thought I should,” he once
said to me.
30 years later, he still owns it.
The first thing I noticed about the kid was that he seemed
to be looking for a reason to buy the car as opposed to a reason not to buy it.
He looked at all the same things the other guy did, but he got in the car
faster. He checked simple things like if the backup lights worked, if the horn
beeped and if the radio came on. He pushed buttons and moved the seat around.
It appeared as if he was trying to imagine himself in the
The car was running as we talked about price and condition
and everything else. Finally, I asked him, “Do you guys want to take it for a
The guy said he did and the girl started to move away from
the passenger’s side door.
“Do you want to go with him?” I asked.
“Well, sure, but …” she started.
“Aren’t you going to want to come with us?” the guy asked.
“Nah. I trust you. Take her for a run. Sell yourself a car.”
While he was out driving it, the first guy texted me.
“I think we can make a deal on the price you wanted. LMK.”
Bird in the hand, I suppose…
When they got back from the ride, the mentioned the heat
issue. I repeated what I told the first guy. The kid said he understood.
He then started just kind of looking at the car.
It’s a hard thing to describe, but it wasn’t like he was
looking for damage or for leaks or anything else. It was like he was looking at
someone he just met, maybe a nice girl he wanted to ask on a date. Maybe a
person on the bus he wanted to befriend. It was just a look, but so much more.
“I need to tell you something,” I began. “The guy who was
here before you left me an offer. It’s not bullshit. I can show you the text. I
told him that you drove out here from two hours away and that since you were
still here, you could have first shot at it.”
He asked what the offer was and I told him. He seemed a bit
deflated. He then countered.
“I have cash in the car.”
I smiled. I totally would have said the same thing. Maybe I
wasn’t looking for the right amount of money but the right guy to sell it to.
Maybe I found him.
“Look, you don’t have to match or beat the offer. Tell me
what you want to pay and if it’s close, you should have her.”
He came close after we finagled a bit. We shook on it. I had
sold the Civic.
While we waited for The Missus to come home and co-sign the
title, I pulled the plates off the car, gave him a “License Applied For” sign
and just generally shot the shit.
“You know I didn’t want to sell her, right? My goal was to
put a quarter million miles on her and then drive her in the parade with
The kid looked at me.
“Do you think she has another 100,000 miles in her?”
“I’d love to know for sure. Call me when you get to that
Five minutes later, my wife was home and she signed the
title. The kid put the sign in the rear window and he drove off into the
He turned left as he left the cul de sac and that was the
last I ever saw of the Civic.
A buddy of mine used to say that a mechanic can’t call a car
truly his (or her) own until he fixes one thing on her and breaks one thing on
I did both in the same day.
The Green Civic had power locks that didn’t work when we
bought it. I looked around and talked to my guys at the parts place about this,
only to find out that the lock actuators on this model were notorious for dying
I picked up two actuators and set about trying to replace
To reach the locking mechanism, you have to remove the door
panels and then reach around inside the door. It’s like a wide metal bowl with
a narrow metal mouth. A lot of possibility for cuts and bleeding.
Before I could even get to the passenger’s side actuator, I
practically snapped the inside door panel in half. A small crack in the plastic
door lining was hidden from sight. When I tugged on the panel, the crack caught
a bit on the door and a giant gash formed all along the top of the inside of
No amount of epoxy was fixing that.
Still, I pressed on and got the actuators in. I put
everything back together and had that “There! Fixed!” feeling going on when my
“Are the locks fixed?” she asked.
“Yep. And I broke the door.” I could hear her sigh.
She told me that the Midget was a bit confused with the name
of the car, since I kept calling it “The Civic.”
“I thought Daddy sold the Civic,” my child told my wife.
She asked if the car had a name yet. I told her no. You
can’t just name a car. It has to come from somewhere. I doubt my uncle named
it, but at the very least, I couldn’t just say, “Hi, car, you are now named X.”
We hung up and I looked to the left of the phone in the
garage. I had a piece of the door I had failed to reinstall on the driver’s
I pulled the panel off again, hoping to avoid a matching
crack on this side. The panel started to groan like disaster was just one erg
“Come on, Sparky, dammit, don’t do this to me.”
The panel popped free. I put it down and looked the car
over. It was the same look the kid had when he bought the car from me.
“Sparky. That’ll play.”