The Crown Victoria served in appropriate fashion for a vehicle named after such a noble and prudish queen. Modesty was not always possible on the icy roads of Dallas. She would sometimes spin her royal self around till she was facing oncoming traffic. After a pause, she would compose herself and proceed in a more queenly manner – behaving as if it had all been part of her royal highness’ plan.
She had a penchant for attempting to travel about with random items on her roof. Countless forgotten coffee cups slid from the top of the car and were smashed to pieces in the parking lot. Books found themselves repeatedly crushed into the concrete of Skillman Highway by passing cars after attempting to ride on top of the queen. The only one that actually survived was a notebook that contained about three semesters worth of graduate school homework. The notebook had the good sense to ride on the hood instead of the roof. I noticed it shifting positions in the saddle when I was driving about 45 mph down the road. Fortunately, I was able to stop and retrieve it before it joined the ranks of the other books and coffee cups.
Like all things Victorian, however, the whitewashed exterior hid an underside that was less than seemly. We drove the car back and forth from Dallas to Tampa several times, but never invested in the fermented motivational products that would have inspired our friends to help us clean it out. That is to say, there were objects in the car that had been at Billy Bob’s and had never been removed – even after two years. When we were preparing to move back to Florida, we found newspapers living as hermits in distant recesses of the car. They had gathered to reminisce about past events and compare headline size. In addition to the periodical eremites, several thousand new denizens from Texas had moved into the trunk, floorboards, seats, and back windowsill. It was not a clean car, but we didn’t realize exactly how dirty it was until we received the award.
Our upstairs neighbors were Sammy and Ervin. They were from West Texas. Sammy was fittingly ample for a West Texan. Ervin was nice despite the conspicuous lack of a “G” on the end of his name. They had moved to the big city so that Ervin could work at the Texas Instruments Plant. Ervin’s daddy had worked at the plant, and Ervin’s daddy’s daddy had worked at the plant. So Ervin and Sammy decided that Ervin would work at the plant until they saved up enough money to buy a piece of property and a “double-wide” in West Texas. They had a little boy that was the same age as our oldest son. Zachariah had been speaking in full sentences for almost a year. Their son, Tyler, could only manage some indecipherable monosyllabic grunts that were related to his favorite television show, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It wouldn’t have been that awkward except that when we were all together, Zachariah would say, “May we go outside and play?” and Tyler would say, “Mi…Mor…Pa…Ra…er!” Sammy would look at us in wonder and say, “Our boys are just so smart! They’re both little geniuses!” We would grin with chagrin saying, “Oh, yes. Yes.” To be fair to Sammy, Tyler very well could have been a genius by West Texas standards.
From the moment they moved in next door, Sammy and Ervin began asking us if we would like to go to the beach with them. Being in the middle of Texas, we assumed that they were using the word “beach” incorrectly.
“There isn’t a beach in Dallas. It’s landlocked.”
“No, no. We want y’all to come down to Lake Ray Hubbard with us.”
“Oh! A lake. That’s not a beach. We’re from Florida. We don’t swim in fresh water.”
That excuse allowed us to avoid “goin’ to the beach” for an entire year.
After my graduation, we decided to move back to Tampa. We had a fresh grandchild for the free babysitters waiting in Florida. When we were sure of our plans for departure, we also made a final concession to the neighbor’s request. The West Texans and the Floridians drove to Lake Ray Hubbard with cooler and sunscreen in tow. Upon arrival, we began unloading the car. I had carried a cooler down to the “beach” and looked back toward our beloved Crown Vic to see Jennifer talking with two gentlemen. One fellow speaking to her was carrying a clipboard, and the other man had a camera around his neck. He was poking his head and camera into the open doors of the car. I found this very alarming as we normally kept the insides of the car away from prying eyes. As I approached, Jenn introduced me to Michael Precker and David Leeson from the Dallas Morning News. They were assigned the task of writing an article on the recent seatbelt recall that had taken place for Japanese-made cars. The Japanese automakers had basically said that there was nothing wrong with their seatbelts. The belts worked fine in Japan. The problem was, according to the Japanese car makers, that all the filthy Americans ate McDonalds in their cars and got French fries and sodas in the seatbelt receptacles causing them to malfunction. Michael and David thought they would head out to Lake Ray Hubbard on Memorial Day as part of their search to find the dirtiest car in Dallas for a newspaper story. We won the contest in a landslide victory. What most impressed the two reporters about our car was the quality of the garbage lurking around. Beethoven symphonies, literature, women’s studies material, and an analysis of Elliot Carter’s fourth string quartet were all swimming around with old newspapers, fast food bags, a large rock, a hand drawn sign that said “Dallas or Bust” (which we had hung as a self fulfilling property before our time spent with Billy Bob and Company), and a mountain of dirty clothes. The contrast of high-brow material with trash could only have been produced by two intellectuals living in an apartment complex full of Texans on welfare. They asked us a few questions and took a very large picture of me sitting in the front seat of the car. The picture showed me looking out over the top of my glasses wearing a T-shirt that was stained with furniture polish. My hands held a copy of the Beethoven symphonies and a collection of Maya Angelo poems. As a consolation prize, they awarded us one of those tree shaped air fresheners that you hang from your rearview mirror. A few days later, the huge picture of me was on the cover of the Today section of the Dallas Morning News. I have reprinted some excepts of the article below:
“As they cruise the roads of Texas, Jennifer Rosenblatt and Kurt Knecht would never think of littering, and we all should be grateful. That is because their car looks like a garage sale being held inside a trash bin. The trusty Crown Victoria brought the couple from Florida to Southern Methodist University two years ago, and they haven’t cleaned it out since. There are generations of McDonald’s wrappers and Slurpee cups, mounds of toys and crumpled clothes, last December’s newspapers and unidentified reel-to-reel tapes. A big rock rests next to a symphonic score on the dashboard, while a Maya Angelou book and a shriveled banana peel share space under the back window. There is much, much more.
“You should see the trunk,” says Ms. Rosenblatt with a smile as she pulls out a hat from the Container Store, where – honest to goodness – she used to work. Lest you think this is cause for family friction, listen to her husband:
“It’s just a question of priorities,” says Mr. Knecht, who just completed a master’s in music composition. “An hour of cleaning out the car would mean one less hour to read a book or listen to Beethoven.”
Whatever their opinions of Beethoven, millions of Americans would agree….
Besides the general penchant for cleanliness, Dr. McDougall has other explanations for the clean cars. Because of crowded roads and good public transportation, fewer Japanese commute by car. And because the government uses frequent inspections and high fees to discourage people from keeping old cars, he says, people tend to buy new ones more often.
“We tend to take care of new things more carefully,” says Dr. McDougall, who has lived in Japan for 12 years. “I think that’s very much the case here.”
The director says his sister-in-law, who is Japanese, recently was in Boston and needed a taxi. When the car approached, she saw it was in less-than-great shape – and dirty.
“She refused to get in,” Dr. McDougall says. “She thought it might really be dangerous.”
By that reasoning, she may not even want to set foot in Dallas at all while that Crown Victoria is still around. The Rosenblatt/Knecht trashmobile seems immune to parents: “My mother told me I’m not a homeless waif, so why is my car like this?” Ms. Rosenblatt says. “When my mother-in-law came to visit, she got into the car and said “We’re going to stop at the dumpster and throw all this away. Well, we didn’t.”
It is immune to friends and even occasional misgivings about the impact on 3-year-old Zachariah and 3-month-old Avi.
“When I see my son toss something on the floor I tell him we don’t do that,” she says. “He looks at me like, `What planet are you from?’ “
Now and then, there are concessions.
“Usually there’s only room for the driver,” Ms. Rosenblatt says. “If we all want to go somewhere, I make him get up early and clean off enough of a section so we can all sit down.”
I received a phone call at 7:30AM the day the article appeared. A voice said: “This is Charles Kuralt from CBS. We saw the article about the dirty car and would like to do a story about it on 60 Minutes.” I immediately recognized that the voice was not Charles Kuralt, but Dr. Martin Sweidel, the chair of the music department at SMU.
“Hi, Dr. Sweidel,” I responded after a brief pause.
“Oh, you recognized me. I saw the article,” he said sternly.
I then realized that they had mentioned that I was a recent graduate of Meadows School of the Arts and that this might not be the image that the administration wanted portrayed. Dirty cars are neither Southern nor Methodist. Finally, the tense silence was broken, “Congratulations, son! You done us proud! We’re putting a copy in your permanent file.”
I began to wonder about how many other people had actually seen and read the article. The day continued, as most of them seem to do, and we found ourselves to be the brunt of much teasing. I would show up to a rehearsal and people would surreptitiously pull out copies of the paper and laugh. Our parents all received copies of the paper which caused more dismay.
We were late on the rent that month, so I went down to speak with the apartment complex manager about an extension. “Listen, we are getting ready to move to Tampa, and this will be our last month. Would it be possible for you to wait a few days before we turn in the rent?”
“We really don’t make excep – Hey! I know you! You’re that guy with the dirty car, right? I read that article in the paper the other day. I couldn’t believe it was true!”
“About the rent?”
“Do you really have the Beethoven symphonies and a banana peal?”
“Yes, it was the only time we ever went to the ‘beach’ here in Dallas.”
When we finally sold the Crown Vic, we cleaned her up, threw the rock in the dumpster, and drove her down to school where the transaction was to take place. I think we sold it for $300.00 which was the amount needed for food and gas for the trip to Florida. When we met the buyer, we said, “This car is famous you know.”
“Yes. It once won a contest for being the dirtiest car in Dallas. They wrote a newspaper article about it.”
“This was that car! I read that article! You were the people in that article! Well it looks clean now.”
And so it was under the shade of the oaks on the SMU campus that we finally said good-bye to the Crown Victoria. My father had given us one of his old work vans. After seeing the newspaper article, he asked us to be sure to remove the company logo as soon as possible. The van was in comparably good mechanical health. It had never had its stomach pumped because of swallowing too much diesel fuel. The principle defect that a work van presented to a young family was the lack of a back seat for the kids. Our mechanics in Tampa informed us that due to its design as a work vehicle, it would be impossible to install a normal back seat. However, they felt sure that if we could salvage the front seat of a pick-up truck from a junkyard that they would be able to bolt it to the floor. The Feng Shui aesthetic from Alexandria, Louisiana had finally managed to migrate from Billy Bob’s genius to the back seat of our van. When the seat was finally in place, it became a lasting prophetic warning: always check the color of the dispenser before you pump the gasoline.