You know it’s going to be a messed-up day when you can’t find the screwdriver that starts your car.

The thing was a Datsun and it looked like something that had fallen out of the sky. The steering column had been hacked to pieces and that special screwdriver had to be inserted into the key slot to get her going.

In a pinch, you could get by with a butter knife or a sliver of beer can folded up just right. Anything, really, except an actual key.

But that was nothing. More concerning was the passenger side door, which had been crushed in a wreck roughly a hundred years before. The door wouldn’t stay shut on its own, so you had to wrap a bungee cord a couple hundred times between the handle and the emergency brake.

Even with all that, a speed bump or a traffic cone (back then, traffic cones would jump right out in front of you) could cause that door to fly right open. Everything you had on the passenger seat – you know, school books, church literature, the works of Emily Dickinson – would fly out of the car and flap across the freeway like an acid-crazed flock of birds.

But that was nothing compared to what was going on with the floorboards. What was going on was that there wasn’t much by way of floor or boards. Some fool had tried to weld a stop sign down there, but it didn’t hold. Every time you drove through a puddle, it was like a cold shower to the lower half, chasing dirty thoughts out of even a teenager’s head.

A fine car, was the Datsun, but it couldn’t hold a candle to my classic Ford Escort. It was a wagon, you know, with paneling on the sides and a luggage rack on the roof. Can you say babe magnet? Because I couldn’t. Not with that car. The Escort screamed I AM ONLY 19 YEARS OLD BUT I VALUE FUEL-EFFICIENCY AND CARGO CAPACITY MORE THAN MY SOCIAL LIFE. ALSO, I COULDN’T AFFORD A MOPED.

That was the only thing screaming inside the Escort, if you get my drift.

The Vega was no prize, either. It was jet black with a deep red interior. Like a disco on wheels, not that anybody noticed. They didn’t notice because there was something going on with the valves or the pistons or wherever it is that reeking blue smoke is manufactured.

When that Chevy Vega rolled across the downtown, the downtown disappeared within an oily haze. It was like 19th-century London everywhere I went. Smokier than a bingo hall.

To offset this embarrassment, I shelled out a few bucks to have POE on my license plate. Very brainy. Intellectual stuff. Only, the dimwits I hung around with back then couldn’t read so well and they kept asking me what POO meant.

I ditched the plate and the car. It was an insult to the great writer and I have no doubt that the hole in the ozone would be three times as large if I’d kept on trucking.

Meanwhile, in the Land of Cool, one of my more well-heeled friends drove a sweet Trans Am. It had a Hurst shifter, a PA system, (imagine if I had one of those now? I wouldn’t bother writing a column. I’d just drive by your house late at night and deliver my thoughts out loud. Wouldn’t that be special?) and expensive tires that he wasted no time at all ripping to shreds in the high school parking lot.

Another buddy worked three jobs so he could afford a Subaru X-Something-Or-Other. He jacked it up and pimped it out in various ways so that when we drove down the street, people stopped to stare and occasionally applaud. They didn’t bury their faces in their shirts like they did when the Vega was in the neighborhood.

Back then, cars had personality. What you drove became an extension of what you were or wanted to be. The speed freaks kept tweaking their engines until their cars moved so fast, they couldn’t so much as go to the corner store without fish-tailing the whole way.

Some thought size was more important than speed. They would drive behemoth Buicks or colossal Chryslers, cars so big, the guys who owned them had to take cabs to get from one end to the other.

There were racing stripes and custom-painted flames back then. There were monster grilles and fins, blinding mag wheels and nostril-flared hood scoops. A guy was only as cool as what he drove. You could take a pimply outcast with a bowl haircut, 85 pounds with rocks in his pockets, and he was Fonzie if he got his hands on just the right Camaro.

And sure, you still see some of that today. But driving a really bitching car has become more of a quaint hobby or mid-life crisis than a way of life. Today, automobile companies are folding outright or succumbing to political pressure to survive. Cool is on its way out. Things like fuel-efficiency and crumple zones are in.

The coolest cars will be those that run on turnip juice, not those that go from zero to 60 while the horn blows “La Cucaracha.” The race is on, but it’s not to see who can get to the checkered flag first. It’s to see who can replace the combustion engine with something less Flintstones-era.

All of which makes me feel much better about the shuddering wads of metal I drove back in the glory days. I was ahead of the curve, you see. It’s not that I wasn’t cool but that I realized in an unformed way that a man’s value and sophistication cannot be measured by the car he drives. A man’s value and sophistication is measured by … I don’t know. Something else.

I was cool in spite of the Vega, is what I am trying to tell you. That nerdy Ford Escort was my way of saying, “I am confident in myself. I don’t need a hot ride to bolster my sense of machismo. My machismo is a machine in itself.”

Am I right, ladies? Kim? Becky? Pam? Anybody want to vouch for me here? No?

Fine. Take the bus.


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