[1982 - Norman, Oklahoma]
I don’t need a fancy car. But I do need one that will give some credibility that I am not a hobo. A therapist would chalk it up to the cars I endured in childhood, one a tiny Volkswagen Beetle inappropriately transporting six people...the other a fungus-laden charity mobile. More recently, my very first car, purchased in 1982, the summer before my junior year of college, may also be a factor. How I’ve survived this long without one is not a mystery to me, walking or bumming rides being the family norm. It was a 1971 Plymouth Satellite and advertised as a steal at only $300 in a local shoppers’ guide. My dad, usually only a fan of the free car, doesn't seem to balk at the price but only because I will use some of my three-summer-jobs college savings to pay for it.
He volunteers to take me so we gingerly lower ourselves into the faded and aging station wagon, one of several “charity" cars my dad has relieved people of over the years. Pointing at the passenger side floorboard, my dad reminds me, “Watch out for the hole.” Looking down, I balk but enter in a quasi-straddle, placing a foot on either side. As we pull onto the highway headed toward the seller’s listed address, I feel a breeze hit my ankles. Glancing down, my feet still straddling the hole, I spy the undercarriage, rods, and metal exposed, and highway asphalt flying by. I put my seat-belt on and pull it tight mumbling The Lord’s Prayer under my breath.
Exiting the highway, we turn into a cul-de-sac and are greeted by the car pictured in the ad, just now realizing that it is not grayish as indicated by the black and white photo but somewhere between pea and Kermit the Frog green. I didn’t care though as long as it was safe and drivable and my own. Dad and I turn into the driveway, proudly displaying the car, and park. We make our way to the front door, the door opening just as my dad’s fist is raised to knock.
“You the ones that called about the car?” greets us as my dad and I nod simultaneously. The sales process is short and sweet. The man cranks the key and the engine roars to life. Good enough, I guess, as I hand over $300 cash in wrinkled ones, fives, and tens. No paperwork is exchanged but hands are shaken sealing the deal. I jump behind the wheel ready to follow my dad to the Tulsa apartment we currently call home. My dad motions me to go first so he can tail me in case a tire or muffler flies off en-route. We are making good time moving along in the light traffic when out of the blue, an elderly couple crosses over suddenly into my lane clipping the front bumper of my “brand new to me” car. The couple swerves off the road onto the narrow shoulder, me parking right behind them and my dad parking right behind me.
I immediately begin apologizing as we convene in the space between my front bumper and the older couple’s rear bumper. Not surprisingly, my tank-like car has no damage—at least not any new damage. Just the usual dings and scratches an 11-year-old car with unknown mileage—the odometer hasn’t seemed to roll over at all in my short ownership, might have. The other car, newer and expensive, has a tiny rusted scratch—its location on the bumper suspect. My dad rubs the bald spot at the back of his head usually hidden by his comb-over…an eight-inch strand of hairs, currently blowing sideways in the breeze…causing me to double-take, “Looks like an old scratch in the wrong place,” he mutters. Because of the lack of any real damage, we decide to just exchange phone numbers and continue on our ways, my dad once again tailing me.
A few days later, the opportunistic driver calls, and I happen to be the one to answer. He spouts a verbal barrage of numbers and figures at me, all the while explaining why his mechanic insists they need a brand-new bumper. My face goes pale at the thought of all of my hard-earned summer savings (less the spent $300) going to replace that bumper. Extending the phone toward my dad, “It's for you,” I wince.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” I hear, my dad earnestly nodding. “You don’t say,” he continues. Silence for a while as he listens, his face clouding with anger. “Meeerrrccccy me,” he drawls, his voice pitch rising. “I don’t know who you think you’re dealing with, buddy,” volume now rising, “DON’T EVER CALL HERE AGAIN,” slamming the phone into the receiver. Turning toward me, red-faced in frustration, he states, “Never apologize at the scene of an accident. It makes you seem at fault.” Lesson learned.
It wasn’t until two days later that I began to suspect that I may have gotten the raw end of the deal with that car, now named Dino after The Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, in the family tradition of naming our vehicles. I loaded Dino the car front and back with my scant worldly possessions to head south, a 120-mile drive, the University of Oklahoma my destination. I have a job and a roommate lined up and will not be coming back home. Just as a visitor now, freedom so close, I can almost touch it.
I meet up with a friend in the “Git-N-Go" parking lot, both our cars full of preppy but off-brand clothing, the bane of the financially strapped student. No real Ralph Lauren Polo shirts for me or Harold's little kitten-heal pumps, all the rage at this Greek-culture-oriented university. I had a funny feeling that I might own the only 1971 Plymouth Satellite in Norman as well, original but not desirable for one wanting to fit in.
We hit the open road. First, the Turner Turnpike then I-35 moving along with me in the lead of our two-car convoy, still a little anxious about possibly losing a tire or muffler. On the last stretch of highway, our Norman exit just insight, and without warning, Dino just shuts off. No chug, chug, chug to give me a heads up. Just dead silence from the engine. Seriously?
I take minimal necessities, roll up the windows, and lock the door—or did I?—before baling to continue the drive with my convoy buddy. Bumming a ride, the next morning, I arrive only to find Dino unlocked and all windows rolled down but, not surprisingly, none of my stuff has been taken...the safety net of owning generic everything. I am still scratching my head on that one.
With fingers crossed, but without much hope, I turn the key and that son of a gun cranks right up like nothing ever happened—not even a morning-after apology.
My car woes only go downhill from this point on. After this first stall out, I notice a pattern over the next year or so. Dino roars to life when started but when he heats up, BAM!, engine shutdown...no warning...and to make matters worse; I can’t put the car in park once this happens. It is not uncommon in Norman to see me sitting with my foot on the brake either in the middle of or on the side of the road.
This is the typical scenario:
A good Samaritan walks up: “Um, do you know you are blocking traffic?”
Me: “Yes,” sweating profusely, leg shaking - exhausted from holding down the brake pedal.
Samaritan, seeing the panic on my face: "Do you need any help?”
Me, plenty of experience with this by now: “If you could just give me a little push backward, I can coast into the woods...oh and can you shove a rock behind the tire. I’ve had my eye on a big one by that deer-blind.”
I am beginning to become a traffic nuisance, that weird girl with the junk car, in this tiny college town.
Just before summer, a small miracle occurs that greatly improves my mobility. Craving ice cream, my roommate drives us to Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors for a cone, her car equally as embarrassing as Dino. We are both pretty used to the routine of a car that won’t start or in my case that starts like a champ then leaves me stranded. Broken down, stranded, and humiliated.
We are standing and staring at the “31 flavors” they are famous for, discussing options.
“That banana walnut would be good or maybe the buttered pecan. Oh. Maybe both, in a cake...no…a sugar cone. Something with nuts,” I say, my salivary glands working overtime and a little drool snaking out of the corner of my mouth.
"I think vanilla,” she shoots back at me, “in a cup.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I think. Really? 31 flavors and vanilla in a cup is what you choose?
We are checking out, my treat today since she drove, when the cashier pipes up, “Don’t forget to fill out a card for the drawing. It is next week, and you don’t have to be present to win.”
“What’s the prize?” my roomie and I ask at the exact same time.
“A ten-speed bike.” Now that could be a game-changer. We are both thinking it, grabbing up cards to fill out. We fold them up tight and I say a few magic words and wave an invisible wand over mine before dropping it into the fishbowl.
One week later, the phone rings. I pounce on it, “Hello?” I ask a little breathlessly.
“Congratulations. Is this Lisa?”
“Yes,” my anticipation mounting.
“You are the lucky winner of the drawing over here at Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. You have won the ten-speed bike. Just stop by to claim your prize within the next few days,” an authoritative voice explains.
“Be right there,” I exclaimed, running to get my roommate to give me a lift. I bribe her with vanilla ice cream while excitedly explaining my good fortune. She sulks at my news, the realization that she did not win beginning to set in.
“OK, but I want What-A-Burger,” she says her lower lip pushed out in a pout. I agree and off we go.
With burgers, fries, and Tab diet sodas under our belts, I am dropped at Baskin-Robbins to pedal my sweet new ride the short distance to the modest three bedrooms, one bath home I share with two roommates. Even though the carpet is balding, and the interior temperatures range from extreme colds to sweltering heats, it is hands-down the nicest place I have ever lived, having inherited the lease from two seniors who graduated the previous year.
I step out of the car and proudly head inside to the extra-chilly air-conditioned comfort inside. It is an ice cream shop, after all. No one likes a squishy dripping ice cream cone. This is the first time I have ever won anything, and the timing could not be better as I have just listed Dino for sale in the local newspaper. I approach the counter telling them who I am, and the manager escorts me over to the billboard on wheels that is soon to be my only method of transportation. It is a ten-speed alright and is exactly the three-shade color scheme of Neapolitan ice cream—strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. It also has “Baskin-Robbins" decals in multiple areas easily visible as I am riding toward or away from potential ice cream cravers. Once again, reminiscent of when I purchased Dino the dinosaur, I didn’t care as long as it was safe and rideable and my own.
There was a little mini-congratulations ceremony of five: me, the store manager, the ice cream server person and a mother with her child waiting for a cone—the mother looking puzzled at her unfortunate timing. This is holding up her ice cream purchase and her kid is whining.
“Thank you aaaalll…” I trail off, as I shakily pedal away, not really confident of my muscle memory as far as bike riding goes. It has been at least a decade since my last bike ride and that hand-me-down bike had a banana seat, chopper-style handlebars and a playing card clipped on the spoke for the cool sound effect.
Riding instead of walking to class the next morning, my bike drew a slew of what I interpreted to be envious glances. I am fairly sure I also heard a few, “You know what would be great? Ice cream!” conversations in passing. You're welcome, Baskin-Robbins.
Receiving exactly one phone call regarding my classified ad, I drive to the prospective buyer's tiny rental house since they are without transportation. I am greeted by a joyful Latino family, the children all touching and smiling and petting Dino, the father speaking to me in broken English. I open the hood and try with large arm gestures and loudly spoken English to explain the shut-down situation while pointing at the offending engine. The father, mother, and possibly a grandmother all nod and shoving the $250 into my gesturing fist climb aboard.
I tell them his name is Dino in a mixture of limited Spanish, loud English, and grand hand gestures as the dad cranks the key. True to form, Dino roars to life, the entire family tumbling in and patting the cherished shotgun position, a place of honor for me to sit as they drive me home. A little tear tries to work its way out of the side of my eye. Slapping it away, my voice loudly cracks, “Allergies,” while pantomiming sneezing and nose blowing. Even though he was kind of a bastard, I am really going to miss Dino the car.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events -1982 Norman, Oklahoma