I have a million pictures in iPhoto. (Really, 18,035 as of this morning.) I will never use them for anything, but I spend a lot of time looking at them, dredging up nostalgia that never makes it onto these pages. So I thought I’d visit that a bit.
This is a picture I took in 1991. I scanned a bunch of pictures in from film back in 2006. Looking back, I’m not happy with the quality of the scans, and I’m also not happy with how few pictures I took back in the day. The former I might be able to solve with a long trail of tears involving a thousand-dollar scanner, a few months of my life, and a pallet of compressed air cans, which would probably land me on some TSA watch list for potential huffers. The latter, well, digital cameras were not around in the 80s and 90s, so I have to deal with what I have.
I returned to Elkhart after my freshman year, broke, flunking out, and with this crazy idea that going to IU at South Bend would somehow boost my GPA and save me tons of money. A year later, I found neither of these to be the case, and I spent huge amounts of energy trying to escape Elkhart like a large spacecraft tries to escape the orbital pull of the Earth. But in the summer of 1990, I went back to living in my parents’ basement, and driving a 1976 Camaro with a V-8 that pulled down a gallon of gas every 7 or 8 miles wasn’t going to hack it for a 50-mile-a-day commute, because gas was some outrageous price like 88 cents a gallon.
I ended up buying this 1984 Turismo for $1200, and at the time, it seemed like a nice car. I mean, it wasn’t painted in primer, it had an exhaust, it ran, and there weren’t holes in the floor. The car was only six years old, and the bright burgundy interior almost looked futuristic, if any Chrysler product from the mid-80s could look futuristic. It was also a stick-shift, a five-speed, and pretty much the worst car in the world would be at least 50% better if it had a manual transmission.
I remember Tom Sample being blown away by the grey hatchback the first time I came over to pick him up. He was astounded by how nice it looked, and how he now had a passenger window he could roll down to yell at pedestrians. (You can’t un-duct-tape a sheet of plastic while driving.) Right before school started, we took a shakedown cruise to Chicago, driving the back roads instead of the toll road to save $2.20, listening to Helloween on the Krako tape deck (which was subsequently stolen the next day. Elkhart – great place to raise a family!) We both missed the old Camaro, which I’d sold for $200, because we spent many days and nights wandering aimlessly around northern Indiana, memorizing old Metallica and Black Flag and doing everything and nothing while searching to find some — something that we never found, but it was one of those “journey is the destination” sorts of things that, 25 years later, we still wish we could relive.
I pretty much lived in that car all fall. I mean, I didn’t sleep in it like 20% of the foreclosed nation currently is doing, but I’d drive to campus and back every day, which ate about two hours of my days and nights. I’d leave early in the morning to get to my 9:00 Calculus M215 class, stay all day, and usually work at night in the computer lab, driving home in the darkness. I’d eat two, sometimes three meals a day in the car, from the morning’s bagels, to a lunch packed in one of those stupid insulated lunch bags, to a late-night stop at McDonald’s or Subway on Lincolnway East.
The fall semester was this conflicted state internally, this wish I was still in Bloomington or in some big city like Chicago. I still clung onto my identity, at least in a virtual sense, by telnetting across a slow 2400 bps sytek line that connected me to my IU accounts downstate, where I’d email and bitnet with old friends, and read usenet and dick around on FORUM and try to keep the dream alive of someday returning to the main campus. And I’d cruise around the streets of South Bend on breaks between classes, wishing the city was something bigger or more profound. There’s a few blocks downtown, a brief blurb of a metropolis with glass and chrome buildings that almost made me feel like I wasn’t in the great farmlands of nothingness. I’d go to the Notre Dame campus and walk past the Touchdown Jesus library and the huge halls of science and learning and wish I was back on a real college campus that wasn’t just a bunch of housewives on the forever plan, auditing a class a year in hopes of someday moving from junior administrative assistant to senior administrative assistant at their insurance sales office or trailer factory.
And this was at a miserable time in America, which is always greatly magnified in cities with nothing but a manufacturing base like Elkhart. The economy was in the toilet, and nobody was buying RVs, which is all they produced in that city. So there were “will work for food” signs on every corner, laid off baby boomers and oldsters struggling at cashier jobs at Burger King, and more and more businesses closing or posting signs they weren’t hiring. It was nowhere near as bad as Elkhart is now, but it was definitely one of the famine states in the city’s feast or famine cycle. We were also going into a war, or one of those excuses for a war that would become all too familiar in later years. The Hummer was produced in Mishawaka at the AM General plant. They didn’t sell the civilian version yet, but they were producing mass numbers for the impending saber-rattling. Every morning when I drove in to school, I’d see HMMWVs driving from the plant to the train yard in Elkhart, to get transported to whatever military depot would eventually ship them out to Saudi Arabia. It was a surreal site, driving down US-33 and passing a column of 50 identical M998s, painted in desert camo, like something out of Red Dawn.
I put many miles on the car, although I didn’t know how many, because the speedometer/odometer was broken. That was my first clue at how badly I’d been swindled. Some stupid hillbilly replaced the Plymouth 4-cylinder with a 2.2 from a completely different Chrysler, and when none of the emissions or wiring or cabling pieces matched up, he didn’t install them. As the summer turned into fall and the cold weather crept up on us, it became harder and harder to start the car in the morning, because all of the various chokes and baffles and vacuum tubes that enable a carbureted engine to start in cold weather were missing. I bought the Chilton’s guide and spent many hours buying pieces from the junk yard, trying to Macgyver the emissions control junk so the car would run properly, but was never completely successful.
Then came the clutch debacle. One Friday night, me and Becky (the girl who followed me back to Elkhart, which is another story or book entirely) loaded up the car and headed to Bloomington. We stopped at the McDonald’s by Concord Mall on the way out, and when I went to downshift from fourth to first and make the left turn into the parking lot, I found the shifter did not work at all; it dangled loose and I was stuck in fourth gear. I drove home in fourth by revving the engine up to 6000 and inching out the clutch pedal a millimeter at a time, and by the time I got home, the clutch was fucked, burned into nothingness. I found that the redneck genius mechanic had attached the shifter linkage with rubber bands, and it had popped off. I fixed that (better rubber bands) and tried driving the car with 95% of the clutch gone and got stranded about a mile from IUSB, then spent $500 at AAMCO for a new clutch.
Things failed one by one on the car as fall turned to winter. I had to replace the battery. The brake lights would blow out every week, requiring me to replace fuses constantly. The brakes got a little weird, and there was some weird rolling sound in the front suspension, like maybe a bad bearing or something. Then the heater stopped working. Indiana in December and January is not a good sans-heater state, and I’d have to bundle up in multiple coats and then put a big blanket over me for the drive in. The heater almost worked, putting out enough lukewarm air to barely get the car above freezing within 20 minutes, but it was far from ideal.
I went to Bloomington over spring break, by myself. Their classes were in session when we weren’t, and I had some bullshit excuse, like that I had to register for classes for the fall. I had an awesome time, hung out with a lot of people, stayed with my old roommate Kirk at Collins, and put a lot of faces to usernames. I had Becky’s car, and she had mine for the week. One night I called to check on things, and she told me she had some problem with the car, that it died and would not start, so she got it towed to a Sears and they gave her this huge laundry list of problems, like that it needed a new radiator and an exhaust part and a bunch of other crap. She felt bad about “killing” the car and got a bunch of work done on it, but I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I had this strong emotional attachment to the Turismo, but it was also well past the point where junking the car and buying another would be much cheaper than fixing it.
I reluctantly returned to Elkhart, and got the Turismo back. It was much quieter and I finally had a heater (just in time for winter to be over), but on the first voyage to and from school, the radiator broke, literally ten yards from my driveway, pouring hot antifreeze everywhere. The car spent another week in the shop to re-do the repairs, and I got it back on a Thursday, for my lazy Friday commute to school. IUSB didn’t have Friday classes, or maybe they were just a half day, but I’d work all day, and every other week, I’d get one of those cream and crimson pieces of paper for $6.60 an hour times 20 or 30 hours, and I’d have to get there early to cash it and then run to Orbit records and buy whatever Thrash metal tapes Ray told me to buy.
That Friday, I hit Orbit, then drove home for a usual Friday night: renting videos, eating junk food, doing nothing until Monday. I remember listening to this band called Xentrix, some forgettable Thrash metal band from the nylon case full of tapes sitting in the passenger seat. I remember it just started raining, so I flipped on the lights and the wipers. And I remember just as I got into Elkhart, taking the left turn from Mishawaka Road to the Concord Mall, right before home, the car stalled as I was going through the intersection. I kicked in the clutch, turned the key, and the engine spun and spun without starting as I coasted. Then I saw smoke pouring through the vents of the car, and the wipers stopped. I knew I was fucked.
I coasted the car into the Martin’s parking lot, and by then, smoke was pouring from the front end. I went to pop open the hood, and burned my hand on the hot metal of the car. People started gathering, and I told someone to call 911. A grocery store bagger showed up with a huge fire extinguisher, and we proceeded to shoot the white foam through the cracks of the hood and front grille, which did nothing. I knew where this was going and started throwing things out of the passenger compartment, all of the tapes and floppy disks and books and papers, and then gave the stereo a good pull and jerked it loose from the dash.
By this time, the car looked like a plane crash, billowing a column of black smoke into the air. I heard sirens, which is always ominous when you realize the sirens are for you. A cop, parked a dozen yards away, told me to wait in his car, and tried to clear everyone away, anticipating an explosion. From the cop car, I saw flames through the firewall of the passenger compartment, consuming the interior. The firefighters, dressed in full turnout gear, worked fast. They closed the doors, smashed the windows with axes, and dumped a swimming pool full of water into the engine compartment and interior. Becky and my sister were at the grocery store, and came over to look at the idiot with the burning car and then saw it was me. I wish I would have told one of them to run in, get a disposable camera, and take a picture of the disaster.
Someone called a tow truck, and they flat-bedded the remains to my mom’s house. I arrived with a burned hand, wheezing from extinguisher dust, black with soot, smashed safety glass in my shoes, and crashing from the aftereffect of the massive adrenalin rush you get when you walk away from a burning wreck of a car.
The next morning, I took these pictures, with Becky’s 35mm. I have no idea what caused the fire, but the engine had actually melted, it got so hot. The interior was drenched, coated with soot and the carpet melted and burned, peppered with pieces of the greenish shattered safety glass everywhere. I actually got the aforementioned junkyard to buy the whole mess for $50, and within a week or two, got a diesel VW Rabbit for $500. Finished the semester with a 0.67 GPA, broke up with Becky, spent a summer working second shift and then taking 8 AM summer school classes, and managed to get the hell out of town and back to Bloomington that fall.