I would hope that at least a few people would mutter those words when they hear of my demise, allowing themselves the same lifetime of latitude I allowed myself--be it perhaps a bit too much latitude--with language. Though the person whose passing drew these words from me had uttered maybe five words of profanity in my presence in the years I’d known her.
There were plenty of opportunities for profanity. I was her neighbor and I was the one she recruited to work on her car. She and I, and often her kids and husband, worked on it together. It was not the type of car you take to Les Schwab and where their production-line, perky mediocrity divines that a thousand-dollar set of tires will solve all problems. Thus, there was a lot of creativity involved in getting her car running and happy. Creativity is sometimes mechanic-speak for swearing at something until it works. When something is over 60 years old and from another continent, there is lots of creativity involved. This also applies to cars.
And there was the cancer. Lots to swear about there. It is what took her.
Soon after her passing, her husband called me and told me he wanted the car out of the garage for a spell. It had been years since I had moved from the neighborhood, but I rumbled back down that street to see how the car had fared through her prolonged illness. When the garage opened, the car was under boxes and other garage ephemera. Her paint had been beaten up a bit. I found myself patting her round fender saying, “There there, sweetheart.” When the matriarch of a family is dying, some things can wait for later. It was now later and here I was here to to end the waiting.
It was an emotional day. My friend’s husband, now the car’s owner, was not having an easy time watching this object with which he shared his wife’s affection being winched onto the aluminum flatbed. The kid who was dispatched with the tow truck to do the job was in a hurry, until he and I chatted. He then seemed to understand this wasn’t just another Prius with a freaked out computer. As important as this car’s place was in automotive history, its history since becoming a de facto member of this family that mattered to her husband, and to me. And now to the kid.
That was almost two months ago, and today it was 75 degrees with the kind of clouds that helps one remember that no matter how warm it is, you are in Oregon. The car and I were doing a 15 mile loop. I’d just adjusted the tappets and I wanted to get her warmed up and cooled down several times before I did the final dialling in.
It was a perfect drive.
The car cruised at 50 mph and was happy to be there. The wind filled the cab and it was still warm and I could feel it all the way down to my bare feet. They were bare because the car was too small for me to drive with my shoes on. The tappets tapped tranquilly under the bonnet, whose red expanse thrusted ahead of me to the bug-eyed headlights that were opened wide to the wide open road of the country lane I cruised. One of my arms was draped over the passenger’s seat and I ran my finger over the smooth chrome hinge that allowed the passenger door to open in the opposite direction of conventional car doors--”suicide doors” they were called. Because they opened like giant wings to catch the wind and suck an unstrapped rider right out of their seat. So goes the legend. The top speed on this car is spec’d at 79 mph. I was at 50, which is like driving my Mercedes at 95. This was a car “designed” to feel like you’re going fast, unencumbered by actual speed. The seatbelt, a particle of added-on mandatory modernity seemed outright stupid since if I ever managed to get this thing up to a speed where crashing could thrash me about, I was wedged in so tightly I would be going nowhere. Yet, there it was, clasped across my tummy, which was too close to the steering wheel.
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Thus spake David Byrne, of The Talking Heads, whose words were going through my head as I hummed this tune. The question was valid: How did I get here? How did I come to be the godfather of a piece of English finery that was more valuable than the last 3 to 17 cars and motorcycles I’ve owned, combined?
Though the owner and I were friendly, she and I were hardly affectionate. But, even after I left her neighborhood, whenever we ran into each other, we pulled the bookmark and continued the conversation about British cars. It was obvious to anyone that we both loved that car. There are those who cling to the conventional notion that objects, machines if you will, lack any sort of spirit. Those who believe that the sum of thousands of parts cannot possess something other than mere functionality.
Those who take the time to know a machine, be it an old car, or the fine Swiss movement in a watch, or the contained violence of a mechanical camera shutter, can feel that connection--that energy that makes these things more than something that can be deconstructed into the same elements that make up a human body. The owner of this car and I both connected with this car, for better or worse. We talk to it, comfort it, scold it, and defend it fiercely against all insults. Years ago, when my departed neighbor invited me to make it run for the first time, there was no mention of paying me. That would have been ridiculous. I wanted to drive it. Yes, I could have used the bucks. But they wouldn’t be coming with me into the next life, should there be such a thing when the Giant Garage Door in the Sky closes on this existence. The way an old car, running properly, feels when it’s humming down a lonely two-lane is right up there with the other things that define us as sensate humans. It celebrates the hunks of cosmos that we all share--not only with each other, but with the things we create from the images in our collective minds.
A passenger in a passing truck gave me a thumbs up as it rumbled by my to my left. I was holding him up a bit since I wasn’t going to push this car one bit more than I was. I replied with a couple honks of the horn...after I found the button hiding in plain sight on the dash...and a wave.
I’ve reached the turnaround point of my trip and start gearing down--stirring that gearshift, trying to line up the gears with the proper revolutions per minute, so as not to alarm the whole county with the sound of grinding cogs. When she idled down, I watched the needle in the mechanical tach bounce at a perfect 1000 rpms.
I keep the my friend’s driving hat in the glovebox, somehow allowing that a piece of her comes with me on these drives in what I still think of as her car. This is not my car, as no loved object is ever truly owned by anyone. I know this old beauty will go back to her family and I will miss seeing her sloping curves and perfect louvers in my shop. But that is okay. I will give back the car. I will keep the memories of summer drives so perfect that they will carry me through the next couple seasons where I will swear more at the clouds, and at the fact that anything topless will be seeing less of the road and more of the garage.