The Charm Of The Highway Strip
July 15, 2010 in Cars
In the late 90s/early ‘00s, I was a hipster of a kind familiar to you if you were in San Francisco, Austin or Los Angeles then: Bettie Page haircut and a vintage aesthetic modernized by an admiration for contemporary sneaker design.
Everything, all the time, was about pop music of the post-punk variety. Looking back, I can’t believe how much time I spent in clubs. If I listed all the bands I saw and all places I saw them we would both be embarrassed for me, what with all the sad bragging and nostalgia.
It was so much fun. It was all record stores, mixed tapes, show flyers, driving hours to see a show then driving all night to get home in time for work or school, beer, the most beautiful boys and the rocking-est girls, and pretty, noisy music made by the sweetest people. It was the best version of America I have ever been part of.
And then it stopped being quite so much fun. I don’t know why, but I can guess: I got old. I’m short, so I went to a lot of shows that I never actually saw, got stepped on, had beer spilled in my shoes. My friends’ bands came and went and it all seemed to get a little less special.
Which is the appropriate time to stop going to shows so much. Time to get out of the kids’ way.
I needed a change, so I took a couple months off for a road trip, to visit people, see more of America and meet up with friends at a few points along Pavement’s tour route (you corn-fed Chicago boys are fucking tall. I saw nothing of that show at the Metro). I bought a car: a 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger Special. (Special meant power steering, I think. Though it was Dodge’s two-door compact in its day, it was massive. I can now parallel park anything, anywhere, on any hill, even on the left side of the street, with only inches to spare front and back.)
I loved that the i in Swinger was absurdly dotted with a daisy, but the Dart’s most important feature was the pride of Detroit: the slant-six engine. People routinely put 200,000 miles on these efficient engines, rebuilt them and started counting again from zero; mine was 25 years old when I bought it but it passed the strict California emissions test easily. Shitty carburetor, deadly drum brakes, yes, but that engine: quick off the line, maybe a little sluggish in the middle, but smooth and fast over 50mph. Get the weight of all that steel behind it and its huge hood seemed to flatten out like a manta ray. It had just 54,000 miles on it, had been garaged its whole life and was immaculate. I recall with pride the time, at a gas station in the Mission District, a cholo in a Pendleton and a hairnet came over to say, indicating the car with his chin, “Chu gotta tough riiide.”
I bought the Swinger from an elegant little old lady, Vera Weisman (not her real name). Her daughter showed it to me in her driveway, telling me about riding in it as a kid, clearly sorry to see it go. When I returned to buy it Mrs. Weisman invited me inside.
Her house was as beautifully kept as her car. She had a ‘40s knubby bottle-green sofa with a matching chair and lamps with double fiberglass shades. I remember her huge radio most clearly, the kind I picture when I think about people clustered around, listening to War of the Worlds. It had a Bakelite tortoise shell front with Blaupunkt spelled out in cursive cutout letters.
I asked her why she was selling the car, why the mileage was so low. She told me, in her perfectly idiomatic but accented English, that it had belonged to her husband, Fred, who had recently died. Fred hadn’t liked to drive—let the kids have the gas, he would say—but he had loved his car and would pull it out of the garage, wash and Armor All it, and pull it right back in.
When I handed Mrs. Weisman the $2,300 in cash for the title she signed over, I saw something that I had never seen before. Her forearm was tattooed. Not the ridiculous dice, cards and naked-girl-in-a-martini-glass of every neo-punkabilly knucklehead of my acquaintance, but a number—five digits? six?—in blue ink.
Of course I’d read about the identification numbers forced on prisoners of Auschwitz and Birkenau. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Originally, a special metal stamp, holding interchangeable numbers made up of needles approximately one centimeter long was used. This allowed the whole serial number to be punched at one blow onto the prisoner’s left upper chest. Ink was then rubbed into the bleeding wound. When the metal stamp method proved impractical, a single-needle device was introduced, which pierced the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the skin. The site of the tattoo was changed to the outer side of the left forearm.”
I think I looked at her arm too long; it was one of those moments where I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. She definitely noticed that I noticed. I don’t remember how our conversation ended, but I left with her late husband’s beautiful car.
The thing about the Dodge Dart is that everybody had one. Built from 1960 through 1976, Dodge sold over four million of them (if you didn’t have a Dart, you may have had a Plymouth Valiant, pretty much the same car).
I immediately put 7,000 miles on the Swinger by driving, with the then boyfriend, from San Francisco to New Orleans, up the Mississippi and east to Illinois, southeast to D.C., up to New York, and back. At a campground in Arkansas, on the street in Chicago, at an oil changing place in Pennsylvania, I heard the same stories over and over. “I remember the day my dad bought his Dart.” “There’s a picture of my mom holding me in front of the car the day I came home from the hospital.” “I learned to drive in a Dart.” And my favorite, whispered to me by more than one perfect stranger, “I lost my virginity in a Dart.”
Driving the Dart was like walking a particularly adorable, friendly dog. People came right up to me, beaming, to tell me something about themselves, reminisce about their families. The charm of the Dart even over-rode the heartland hostility that sometimes greets a California license plate. People loved that car. Even assholes couldn’t help themselves.
At a gas station in Indiana, I pulled away from the pumps to a parking spot so the boyfriend could steal hot water from the mini-mart and make coffee with a filter cone and thermos cup, using the Swinger’s massive trunk as a table. As two mulleted teenaged boys approached, all smiles, I remember feeling like an asshole myself, me in my tight Lookout Records T-shirt, pig-tails and fancy sneakers, the boyfriend in his Chucks and Guided by Voices ringer T, and wanted to hide the fact that he was brewing coffee from the five pound bag of Peet’s we carried with us. Why couldn’t we just drink the coffee, terrible yes but already made, right inside the mini-mart? What was wrong with us?
But I only vaguely heard what one of the teenagers said; my ears were ringing and my awkward smile froze. My African-American Studies Masters thesis-writing boyfriend turned away from the trunk and froze as well.
I can still see the boy’s small-town haircut, bright blue eyes and friendly, open face as he told his story, eager to connect with two city kids over their bitchin’ vintage car. And I remember his T-shirt: black with “Fourth Reich” in white over an Iron Cross.
I can’t recall which of the family Dart stories he told, nor do I remember what, if anything, I said in return. I know I didn’t say anything about his shirt. I didn’t tell him about Vera Weisman’s tattoo. Maybe the look on our faces told him something. I guess we just backed away, got in the car and left.
We drove on, ending our east-bound trajectory at the Mercury Lounge in New York. The trip back seemed to drag. We weren’t as eager to return as we were to set out, looking forward to seeing fireflies for the first time and eating barbecue along the river road.
I sold the Swinger when I moved to the high-desert Southwest. Carburetors get vapor lock at high altitude and won’t start. Worse, rear-wheel drive cars with drum brakes are insane on icy roads and won’t stop.
I sold it to a Mexican kid from a lower elevation town for $1,300. I was sorry to see it go, but the look on his face when he turned the key for the first time made me feel better.