(If you missed the prequel, you can read it here.)
We had no idea how famous the car would become when we took it from my grandmother’s driveway. After two years of living in Dallas, complete strangers would recognize us as “that couple with the car.” In my imagination, I attempt to recreate the first day we drove the car. I picture the interior of the vehicle and scan for some feature that would set the car apart. When I encounter greatness, I am always looking for some kind of weird birthmark. You can point out the brownish skin and say, “Aha! I don’t have the birthmark like she does. That’s why I’m not great.” In the case of this vehicle, there were no distinguishing characteristics. When two uncommon people fail miserably in their attempt to live a common life, there is usually a portent at the beginning of the story.
Would that it could have been a mystical experience! I wish that some bangle-armed, turban-headed lady with warts had pulled me aside at a carnival and whispered, “When you drive the car that has a coffee stain on the back seat in the shape of the Virgin Mary’s head, you will become famous for a week in Dallas, Texas.” It wasn’t like that. It was just a car, and we were just a recently married couple. The car, however, had different ideas, and it catapulted us into notoriety. The 1984 Ford Crown Victoria eventually became a car of legend, and we were taken along for the ride. In this, the Crown Vic’s first adventure, one can already spot the raw talent the car had for placing itself into the type of situations where it might make a name for itself
In 1993, I was accepted to Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University as a candidate for the Masters Degree in Music Composition. I used to play this gig in the summertime called the Broadway Theatre Project for Ann Reinking. At the end of three weeks of playing the piano ten hours a day, the accompanists would get a check for $1500.00. At the time, Jenn and I thought that $1500.00 was a mad pile of cash, so we devised a plan:
1 – Bribe friends to help
2 – Get them to help us clean out our place
3 – Place most of our belongings in storage
4 – Pack the barest necessities into the Crown Victory that my grandmother had given us
5 – Drive to Dallas
6 – Rent an apartment with $1500.00 and no jobs
7 – Pay rent with student loan money
Everything went according to plan. The friends descended and cleaned with a Dionysian fury, the kind of which can only be fueled by a twelve pack of beer. The majority of our belongings were placed in storage to be shipped to Dallas. The rest were forced into the car like cream cheese seeking out every nook and cranny of a bagel. The trunk was filled. Zachariah was seventeen months old at the time. We placed his car seat in the center of the back seat, and filled the back window with books that completely blocked any chance of seeing with the rearview mirror. On either side of Zachariah, the car was so filled from floor to ceiling that the installation and removal of a child was like a spelunking adventure. The area between driver and passenger was filled, as well as floor space on both sides of the back seat. A cooler was placed on the passenger floor so that whoever was not driving kept their legs up high. Having accustomed myself to the “high leg” style of passenger riding in the Rabbit, I felt well prepared for the Crown Vic’s maiden voyage.
We set out for “Big D” with the sorrow of leaving our friends and the excitement of a road trip rolling around the inside of the car like clouds inside a Volkswagen Rabbit. We meandered up Interstate 75 out of Tampa, and picked up Interstate 10 to start the trek Westward. After a brief respite at the rest area outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, we achieved Interstate 49 and began to wander North. At the time, Interstate 49 was not completed. We had to exit on one side of Alexandria, drive through the city, and pick up the Interstate on the other side. We took a wrong turn and passed the Interstate. After reorienting ourselves, we decided to fill our rather parched gas tank before the final leg of the trip to Dallas. We had made excellent time and were going to reach Dallas by the late afternoon after leaving the day before. With the gas tank filled, we pulled out of the station and headed along the road. We picked up Interstate 49 again, and drove the last leg of the trip.
Actually, the car rolled out of the gas station about 10 feet and died. I attempted to revive it by restarting it in a manner that resembled a Volkswagon Rabbit making a right hand turn. The engine struggled to come alive, turning over again and again to no avail. More defibrillations only showed that the patient needed the expertise of a doctor that was more experienced than myself. By good fortune, we had a membership in AAA auto club, so after a phone call, the nice lady assured us that a man from “Billy Bob’s” would be over to help us restart our car. The sun was bearing down on us at approximately nine thousand miles per hour. So, we reached into the bowels of the backseat and removed Zachariah from the cave-like structure of belongings that we had created for him. With the toys deep in the trunk, we had few choices for entertaining a seventeen-month-old child. Jenn saw a ditch lying on the side of the road in the Louisiana heat. We picked it up and used it to distract our child as the heat continued its unrelenting pursuit. True to the words we had heard from the operator, a tow truck pulled up within thirty minutes. “Billy Bob’s Tow Trucking” was air brushed on the side of the vehicle in the style of a 70s license plate that you would put on the front of your car for a test of your existential freedom. Emerging from the truck was a rather tall and ample gentleman wearing the traditional uniform of the auto repairman. His name patch bore the moniker “Billy Bob” in sewing machine cursive. Not only did we get prompt service, Billy Bob himself had come into the hot Louisiana sun to rescue two college students. I re-entered the sweltering vehicle while Billy Bob placed himself in front of the hood and began poking around. Once again, we charged the defibrillator and attempted to resurrect the patient. After several attempts, Billy Bob realized that the patient was in more serious condition than his initial diagnoses suggested.
“Wull, tsgot far,” said he in a thick Louisiana drawl. I was unfamiliar with the language that he spoke. It sounded like English to a degree, but it was an English into which someone had crashed a car. The victim survived, but her vowels were all mutilated, and her consonants had been crushed together. “’Tsgot fyooel.” “Fuel!” I thought to myself. That word sounds the same in Louisianaian and in the English that I know. OK. He’s saying, “It’s got fuel…and…It’s got fire!” He’s talking about electricity and gas. And again, he repeated his mantra, “’Tsgot far. ‘Tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’. Ah’m gonna hafta tow it to mah shop.” Despite his swift arrival and kind demeanor, the heat had already melted through the thin layer of patience we had been wearing. Reluctantly, we handed him the keys to the Crown Vic, and moved cautiously past the air-brushed sign. We crammed ourselves into the passenger seat of Billy Bob’s truck and ventured to his shop with the Crown Vic in tow.
Billy Bob’s “shop” was more of a junkyard with a building in it than a traditional automotive repair facility. He towed the car toward the building through the surrounding forest of long dead Fords. We were not very encouraged when the waiting area was neither air-conditioned nor furnished. Actually, it was furnished in a manner that I could only guess was the product of Billy Bob’s own genius. In place of the traditional orange nagahide couch that accompanies the burnt coffee and reruns of Oprah in most garage waiting areas, Billy Bob had taken an interior-decorating page from the organic architectural school. He rescued the front seat from one of the pickup trucks resting in the junkyard. The seat was bolted it to the floor of the waiting area to create a “couch” for his guests. The seatbelts were left intact. It was everything I had imagined a Louisiana junkyard would look like when I was a youth (with the possible exception of the lack of air conditioning). After making sure that Jennifer and Zachariah were buckled into the couch, I stepped outside to search out Billy Bob. I found that a fascinating one-act play was being rehearsed in front of our Crown Victoria.
A COMEDY AND A PHILOSOPHY
Billy Bob – a middle-aged automotive mechanic who has gained the respect of his peers by rising through the ranks of the other Louisiana automotive mechanics to own his own junkyard.
Bobby Joe – though slightly younger than Billy Bob in real life, he seems to be older. He has been wizened by years of country wisdom and southern folklore. Bobby Joe functions as the philosopher of the group. His role is not insight, but commentary.
Willy John– a slightly younger man who actively investigates problems and offers diagnoses which are always slightly off the mark. Willy is hoping to own his own junkyard one day.
Cooter (a mime) – Though Cooter is a non-speaking role, it is perhaps the most physically demanding. Cooter is a nervous type who is always scampering around the action. He constantly offers new perspectives but only communicates through physical gesture.
The scene is a hot Louisiana junkyard. In front of a makeshift garage and office, a Ford Crown Victoria is collecting dust. Billy Bob, Bobby Joe, and Willy John are standing in front of the car with the hood raised. Cooter is running around the car and crawling underneath the vehicle every thirty seconds or so. He usually (but not always) emerges with a glass of gasoline which he has managed to collect by a method known only to himself. When the gasoline is obtained, Cooter sniffs it very carefully and makes a contorted face. He then pours it vehemently on the ground only to disappear under the car again.
Billy Bob: Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’
Bobby Joe: Mmmm
Willy John: D’s it got far?
Billy Bob: Yup. ‘Tsgot far. Try it.
At this point, Willy John attempts to turn the key while Cooter runs up to the front of the car and plays with a screwdriver in the area of the battery. After a great spark emerges causing Cooter to leap and drop the screwdriver, he scampers away to hide under the car again.
Billy Bob: See. ‘Tsgot far.
Bobby Joe: Mmmmmm. Yup.
Willy John: Wull. D’s it got fuel?
Here Cooter performs his fuel ritual and all look on until he pours the last bit out in offering to the junkyard gods.
Billy Bob: See. ‘Tsgot fuel.
Bobby Joe: Yup. Mmmmmmm.
Billy Bob: (as if saying a mantra) ‘Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. I don’ know why it ain’t startin’
Bobby Joe: Mmmmmmm.
Willy John: You sure it’s got far?
Billy Bob: Yup. ‘Tsgot far. Try it.
This time Billy Bob attempts to start the car, and Willy John watches until Cooter again shocks himself with the screwdriver.
Bobby Joe: Yup
Willy John: You sure it’s got fuel?
Cooter again performs the fuel ritual
Billy Bob: ‘Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’t startin’
At this point, the play should be repeated over and over again for approximately two to four hours in order to recreate what happened that day.
Jennifer and I had already made our obligatory phone calls to the family to let them know our car had broken down. With our hopes of getting back on the road waning, I left the play rehearsal to find Jenn and Zach. They were attempting to stay cool on the front seat of the Ford pick-up truck in the office. There is nothing like relaxing on a car seat after a twelve-hour drive. After Jennifer and I discussed the situation, I went back out to Billy Bob. Billy Bob was by this time deep in his trance and continually repeating the mantra, “’Tsgot far, and ‘tsgot fuel. Ah don’ know why it ain’ startin’.” What does the auto mechanic do when he can’t figure out a problem? Does he wait until Saturday morning and call Tom and Ray Magliozzi on Car Talk? I’m not so sure that Billy Bob had ever heard of National Public Radio, but he did have a solution. He said, “Ah’m goin’ ta call mah frien’ Fred to come ovah heah at five. Fred’sa certifah’d mechanic. He used to work at the Ford plant.”
Certified! The word resounded in my ear. Certified! “Certified is good,” I said to myself begging the question how one comes to be a AAA approved tow truck man without any qualifications except a truck with an air brushed sign. I was also excited to meet someone who had been baptized with a single Christian name. Fred had not only escaped the ubiquitous
bi-nominal theorem to which most of the parents of Louisiana auto-mechanics subscribe, but he had also managed to obtain “certification” of some sort or other. Thus it was that we waited. We continued to watch them rehearse the play (taking special pleasure in Cooter’s antics) until Fred arrived.
When Fred finally took the podium in front of our beleaguered car, he brought the commanding presence of a Toscannini or a Stokowski. Billy Bob and Willy John remained in awed silence as the master began to sense the technical deficiencies of the mechanical ensemble. Bobby Joe continued to pulsate approval and commentary with “Mmmmmm’s” and “Yup’s” as if the change in leadership had no affect on the situation. I like to think that Bobby Joe and I are similar in some ways. I’m quite sure that when I turn the key in my car that there is some inexorable logical process that causes the entire ensemble to play together in one harmonious action. However, there also seems to be a mystical element involved. I once read about a French woman who lived over a hundred years drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. I’ve known cars like that lady, though none of them were French cars. Why does a belt wear out on one day and not another? Why does a carburetor run out of carbs on Tuesday instead of Wednesday? The answers seem to be part of some cosmic process rather than the second law of thermodynamics. Cars make Calvinists of us all. “Mmmmmm. Yup.”
After an hour or so of diagnosing errors, the Louisiana sun was crawling off toward some swamp or other, and we realized that Dallas would have to wait for the morning. Entertaining a seventeen month old child for several hours with only a pick-up truck seat as a toy was no small feat. We almost wished we had brought the ditch along. Fred offered to take us to the Motel 6 when he realized that he would not finish the car that evening. We entered Fred’s car, and after Fred had removed us from the junkyard and entered the safety of the road, he turned to us and said in a reluctant tone, “Them boys back there ain’t so bright.” Of course, this observation made me want to ask Fred whether or not he was merely “certified” as a Master of all things Obvious. Fred, however, was nice and offering help, so I refrained. “I’ll go back there and help them for a while, but I have to get home. I also have to work tomorrow. I might be able to help them again later.” Fred dropped us off at the Motel 6, and we began spending money we didn’t have. Long distance phone calls to family. A night in a motel. Fast food. There was little to do aside from distracting ourselves with HBO and waiting for the morning.
Morning came, and after more fast food, we made a telephone call to Billy Bob to investigate his progress. Billy Bob was still working (now without the aid of Fred), but he could not point to a specific problem. They had replaced a few of the parts that Fred had pointed out as faulty during his tenure as director. Another bad HBO movie and more junk food passed. I phoned my father again. He said, “They’ve had the vehicle for almost twenty four hours and can’t tell you what’s wrong with it. You don’t know any mechanics there in Alexandria. Tell them to take it to the Ford dealership. At least you know that they’ll diagnose and fix the problem even if it is more expensive. You’ll at least be able to get back on the road.” So, we spoke once again to Billy Bob, and he could not reveal any progress. We said, “Tow it to the Ford dealership.” Billy Bob only charged us for the parts that he replaced and not the labor. The parts were another two or three hundred dollars that we did not have to give. We called the Ford dealership to inform them that we had switched our allegiance from “Billy Bob’s Tow Trucking” to Ford. The Ford mechanics told us they would be happy to help us and would begin work on our car first thing in the morning. So we hunkered down for another night of punishment. A bad 80s movie was blowing in from the west on the television followed by light showers of sitcom re-runs. We began to get that feeling that you get when you live in a motel, watch HBO movies, and survive on fast food. By this time, we had spent close to $500.00 in parts, motel bills, and junk food. What we had originally thought to be a “mad pile of cash” turned out to be more “mad” than “pile”, and our three day lifestyle was pumping quarters into the slot machine of a low budget gambling cruise.
I remember waking up a little late the next day. I remember that the phone rang at 12:15pm, and I remember the laughter. I was across the room, and when Jennifer answered the phone, I could hear the man laughing across Louisiana telephone wires. The conversation, as it was reported to me, went something like this:
“Um, Missz Ro-zen-blatt?”
“Yes, this is Jennifer Rosenblatt.”
“Um, Ma’am, ‘bout how far’d you get from that gas station? Twenty feet?”
“Um…No…About ten feet…Why?”
“You were pert darn near empty weren’t ya?”
“Ma’am, this car was fulla diesel fuel. It don’ run on diesel. It only runs on unleaded gasoline.”
Actually, the transcription of the conversation does not include the uproarious laughter that was interspersed between all of the mechanic’s comments. The laughter could be heard across the room where I was standing paralyzed by the terrifying visage that had become Jennifer’s face. When called upon, Jennifer has a great gift for stringing together degrading phrases, and upon hearing the news, there followed the usual barrage of “I can’t believe you’re such an idiotic – doltish – buffoonish – can’t live in the real worldish – I mean, who fills an empty tank full of diesel – that’s why they put the green handle on it” phrases. Of course, the string of insults was summarily repeated during the subsequent phone calls to our respective parents.
My final punishment was like a medieval rite. I exited the courtesy van that we had taken from the Motel 6 and was led through the town of Hixson Auto Plex Ford for my walk of shame. I could see mechanics crawling out from underneath cars to catch a glimpse of the offender. Suppressed giggling was rampant while they pointed out the city boy to each other. The keys to the Crown Vic were handed over with complimentary smirks from men who could barely contain their laughter. They explained how they had to pump out an entire gas tank, flush the engine, and change all the spark plugs and filters. The gallows were fastened over my neck with the words, “Now, Sir, you know this car ain’t gonna run on diesel fyool. You gotta pump unleaded gasoline in it.” Somewhere in the process we wound up talking to Billy Bob on the phone again. Jennifer had the opportunity once again to recount to fresh ears the idiocy of her new husband. Billy Bob claimed that the thought of diesel fuel had crossed his mind (“Mmmmm. Yup.”). I just smiled thinking of how Cooter stole the show by sniffing the gasoline (I mean diesel).
I still contend that by some freak of nature, diesel fuel actually managed to find its way out of an unleaded nozzle. Jennifer argues that if, in fact, a regular pump was dispensing diesel fuel, the other cars which fueled at the pump after us while we were waiting for Billy Bob would have also gone ten feet and stalled. I maintain that as part of a random cosmic process, the diesel fuel only came out of the regular pump for our car. Whatever the reason, my one endeavor to do a chemistry experiment on a Ford Crown Victoria with an empty gas tank caused us to spend about $1000.00 more than we had to spare. We drove the rest of the day and arrived that evening in Mesquite, Texas, just outside of Dallas proper. Feeling the need for some sense of constancy in our lives, we checked into the Motel 6.