A Childhood in Cars

How one young man cut against the grain of American masculinity and freed himself from car culture.

Joshua James Amberson | Everyday Mythologies | Two Plum Press | November 2018 | 21 minutes (4,278 words)

 

We became a cars-on-blocks house when I was eight years old. My mom and I lived at the bottom of a hill, in a trailer, on five acres of mostly-wooded land outside of Snohomish, Washington. We owned ten cars. Six of them more-or-less worked. Three were for parts and one—the shell of an early ’60s Ford Falcon—had come with the land.

Vehicles were, in large part, what people in Snohomish spent their money on. Kevin, my mom’s boyfriend, lived in a barely functional shack down a ravine but had a couple of cars, a work truck, and an assortment of half-working motorcycles. This was typical. My mom and Kevin’s friends generally lived in trailers, modular homes, or compact ranch-style houses and owned a broad array of vehicles in various states of disorder. While one car sitting on blocks, waiting to be fixed or salvaged for parts, was barely noticeable within this landscape, having a few felt different.

When we moved onto the land four years earlier, my mom took a second job as a substitute mail carrier. While most people don’t think about the distinction, the archetypal image of a mail carrier is a city carrier—trudging along on foot through all types of weather in a cute uniform, occasionally driving a little government-issued, right-hand drive vehicle between sets of houses. Rural carriers have no uniform, they drive from box to box, and despite, or because of, the sheer amount of driving, they don’t get issued a vehicle, which means each rural carrier has to use and maintain their own.

At first, my mom used the regular, left-hand drive cars she already owned. She sat in the middle of the old cars’ bench seats, stretching her tiny five-foot-four frame so her left foot operated the gas and brake, while she leaned to deliver mail out of the passenger-side window. But as the job began to occupy more and more of her time, she started buying right-hand drive jeeps to make the job easier. Without the United States Postal Service emblem on the side, they looked like off-duty ice cream trucks. Already infamously unreliable vehicles, they had their transmissions and brakes worked to death by the endless starting and stopping. Once, the transmission actually fell out from under the jeep while my mom was on the route. Because of this short lifespan, my mom bought them whenever she got offered one at a good price, and she let the dead ones turn into parts cars. Our driveway came to resemble an informal pick-a-part business, or the parking lot of an especially underfunded post office.

* * *

Cars didn’t fascinate me the way they seemed to fascinate other kids. I had few Hot Wheels, no remote-control cars, and was always stumped when the “What car will you own?” question came up in conversation at school. I knew the appropriate answer was a Ferrari, but I didn’t even know what a Ferrari looked like. Though I wasn’t interested in cars in general, I did get emotionally attached to individual vehicles. Cars were like really big pets. They had personalities, quirks, and particular ways they liked to be treated. My mom and I often petted the dashboards of our various cars, telling them that they were good, that they could do it. I didn’t dream of owning one, fixing one, or even driving one. But I did make friends with them. Our baby-blue 1966 Volvo was my favorite—a sky-colored tank that felt like a house on wheels. The 1966 Dodge Dart Swinger was like a powerful motor boat, and the 1985 Volkswagen Rabbit was as adorable as an actual rabbit.

My mom and I often petted the dashboards of our various cars, telling them that they were good, that they could do it.

Among the mess of jeeps, the newcomer to our fleet that I loved was an informal addition. Kevin was a landscaper and his work truck was a rusted, sea-foam green, 1965 Chevy pick-up with a wood-framed bed that he’d nicknamed Greenie. It had a big and boxy front end, small holes throughout the body, and a wealth of band stickers framing the cab’s back window. Its engine chugged and its gears ground, the effort of its journey audible and immense. When it picked up speed, the bed’s perpetual grass clippings hovered around it like a Pig-Pen dirt cloud.

I loved riding in it, especially since the passenger-side floorboard had a hole that hypnotized me with its view of the road speeding underneath us. Once, when we were on the highway to Seattle, a wrench flew out of it. It was unclear how it happened, but it seemed like the wrench had gotten caught in the hole’s suction—similar to what happened when doors opened on planes and spaceships in movies—and appeared to pause in mid-air before being swept down the highway. I turned, wide-eyed, to Kevin, expecting him to be upset. He looked back at me as if he were deciding how he felt, then gave a little smirk from under his Frank Zappa mustache and shrugged.

When I was 12, Kevin decided to enter Greenie in the classic car show. One day a year our town’s lone tourist street—the five blocks that allowed Snohomish to claim the title of “antique capital of the Northwest”—became a trove of Jaguars and Chevelles and Model T’s. The morning of the car show, he drove Greenie down the closed-off street. The classic car guys—carefully getting their cars off their car trailers, using their giant feather dusters to sweep off unwanted particles—seemed to turn in unison, horrified by what they saw. His lawn mower in the back, grass clippings hovering, Kevin proudly drove down the street, swung wide, ground it into reverse, and chugged into the middle of two parking spots.

On the display sign, he wrote up the truck’s many less-than-stunning features (“One of a kind paint job,” “Electric starting—just turn the key!”). And in his boldest and most controversial move, he played off the classic car show tradition of putting stuffed animals on the seats by connecting a garden hose to the exhaust pipe, running it through the cracked window, and slumping a teddy bear over the steering wheel.

Some people got the joke, the truck’s implied critique of the whole event, and laughed along, but some were truly angry. The whole situation felt to me both uncomfortable and exciting. Though I didn’t have a phrase for it at the time, Greenie was my first encounter with performance art. It made me consider why so many humans put so much of their time, energy, and affection into these machines, why we set aside a day to stroll along a street and stare at them. As I walked past the rows, I began to see the cars as a sort of costume, or a suit of armor. I watched the middle-aged men with their sunburnt noses, their wrinkled plaid shirts, as they got into their cartoonish metal shells and became invincible.

* * *

A year later, my mom got pregnant, and she and Kevin got married. Six months after my half-brother was born, my mom got pregnant again and my half-sister was born. Our house was suddenly very loud and very tense. My mom’s ability and willingness to give rides was nearly nonexistent. Public transit didn’t operate anywhere near us, and biking on the shoulder-less country roads was potentially deadly. Sixteen couldn’t come fast enough—I needed a car. Sixteen couldn’t come fast enough—I needed a car.

When the time finally came, I decided to be responsible. Ignoring all cool, impractical options, I bought a 1987 Mercury Sable station wagon with relatively low mileage for twelve-hundred dollars from an elderly couple my mom found in the newspaper’s classified section. Its muddy-yellow “champagne” paint job resembled the wall of a cigarette smoke-stained room. Though it wasn’t pretty, the first few months were everything I wanted. It was an escape from our perpetually exploding house—I got out of babysitting, I saw my girlfriend more, I never missed band practice. I went where I wanted when I wanted.

And then it broke down. And broke down again. And again. And again.

The car broke down at a stop light, at the grocery store, on the highway, in a friend’s driveway. Once, the steering went out while I was attempting to take a left turn out of a parking lot, and I drove straight into the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

It was an investment that barely gave me anything in return, a machine that mostly let me down.

In my family, we got our cars fixed by a guy named Fred. A few miles away, at the end of a long gravel driveway deep in the woods, he had a shop, an employee, and a couple dozen vehicles waiting to be fixed. Fred was a wide and towering man with visible scars and thickly callused hands. He tolerated me because he respected my mom and my grandpa—both of whom knew their way around cars—but he could tell I wasn’t of his world. My eyes glazed over every time he explained the car’s problems, and I was dumping money into a car no reasonable person would dump money into.

Fred was known for being the most honest mechanic around, but there was no way around it being expensive. A couple hundred dollars one month for a cooling fan, a few hundred dollars more for a new starter the next. By the time I realized it was a pattern, I was in too deep to let go. I’d invested too much.

After almost a year and a half of this, it died for good. Despite all the money I’d put into it, I was only able to sell it to a scrap yard for a hundred bucks. It was an investment that barely gave me anything in return, a machine that mostly let me down. This was my introduction to being a car owner.

* * *

By that point, most of my mom’s cars had been sold off or scrapped. She was down to one car and one jeep, and I suddenly had to borrow her car to get to school. She didn’t like this arrangement, so asked around and found a quick solution—a five-hundred dollar car for sale not far, in rural terms, from our house.

We went out on a rainy night. I couldn’t make sense of the backroads she was taking. Though it was only two or three miles from our place, country roads have a way of holding worlds within worlds, paths you would only find if you had a reason, places you would never come to by chance. We parked at a metal gate and my mom handed me a flashlight. Past the gate I could see the outlines of metal wreckage and out of that came a beam of light. The light made its way toward us, and behind it was a being who was more creature than man. Underneath a malformed Carhartt jacket, he wore the tatters of overalls, his face difficult to distinguish in the dark but clearly grease-stained. He let us in and I could see the expanse of his informal junkyard—a desperate universe made up of vehicle shells and piles of trash.

The car was hideous. It was an unfortunately pointy hatchback, the hood held down with a bungee cord, the paint a faded used-clay color. I looked inside at the ripped upholstery and then my flashlight beam landed on the stick below the broken radio. My heart began to race.

My mom was talking the talk. Carburetors, axles, transmissions—things I had a lifetime of experience vacantly nodding along to but had little-to-no actual knowledge of. I tried to get her attention, but she shooed me off repeatedly before giving in.


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“Can we talk about it?” I asked through my teeth. She excused us, and we huddled by the car’s front end as the guy aimed his flashlight into the expanse, pretending he couldn’t hear us. Under this illusion of privacy, I said, “Mom, you didn’t tell me it was a stick.”

In Snohomish, knowing how to drive a manual transmission was a sign of one’s worth. Manual cars were held as the ideal—the only true driving experience and a more mechanically interesting and fixable vehicle. I wasn’t about to admit my inability in front of the junkyard guy.

“I didn’t know,” she said, trying to hold her composure through this setback. “But it’s fine, you can learn. It’s really not that hard. And you need a car.”

“But this car sucks,” I said.

“Do you have another option?”

I didn’t say anything. She had a toddler to put to bed, a baby to nurse, and chores to take care of before passing out for a few hours and going back to work in the morning. It was dark, and we were getting soaked in the rain on the outer edge of a home junkyard.

“We should go,” she said.

We walked back to the car’s rear end.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

I thought five-hundred dollars for a piece of scrap metal on wheels was too much. But how could I make a case against it when I couldn’t even drive it? I knew the junkyard guy wouldn’t be convinced by arguments of aesthetics. So, I handed over a chunk of my savings from waiting tables and mowing lawns, feeling sure that doing so was taking me further away from ever owning a better car. My mom got in the junkyard car, and I got into her car to follow her home. On the drive, I wept. I’d wasted my hard-earned money, I had to learn to drive a stick in two days, and I suddenly owned a car even less socially acceptable than the uncool car I’d been driving.

That weekend, my mom was busy. I didn’t want to be an inconvenience, so decided to figure it out on my own. For the next week I tempted death, trying to get my hands to match up with my feet in time with the speed of traffic, the curves in the road. The junkyard car was horrifically loud. Even at 30 miles-an-hour it rattled so much it was difficult to hold a conversation. Every time I went on the highway it acted like it was about to explode. Once, while driving home on a dark country road, the bungee cord rattled loose and the hood flew up, leaving me in sudden blackness. I screamed as I’d never screamed before, barely managing to get myself together and pull over without hitting anything. When I came to a stop, I laughed at my oversized reaction, my ridiculous car, I got out, and reattached the cord.

* * *

During this time, I was coming to terms with the fact that my best friend Mike had turned from a music-obsessed sad sack like me into a car-obsessed professional wrestling fan. He still liked music and talking about feelings, as we’d done almost exclusively during our freshman and sophomore years of high school, but gradually our friendship had required that I adjust to his new interests.

I felt a little betrayed. But I also felt betrayed by most of my friends. The vast majority of the kids I knew had inexplicably become obsessed with cars. All the punks and outcasts I had thought were my people were suddenly bonding with popular kids over hood scoops and loud mufflers. While the rich kids were given SUVs and giant trucks by their parents, everyone else seemed to be dreaming of ’60s and ’70s muscle cars. In this fervor, Mike’s dad bought him a beautiful, light-yellow, 1967 Camaro and, from that moment on, Mike decided I needed to be a muscle-car guy with him.

Our days together often turned into us sitting on the edge of his bed, me half-heartedly looking over his shoulder while he flipped through back issues of Hemmings Classic Car or the vehicle section of the newspaper classifieds. He usually only talked about older cars, but one day he said, “You know what I actually think you should get?”

I was bored. I had no interest in playing another round of this game, but he didn’t care.

“A Mustang,” he said. “5.0.”

I of course knew what a Mustang was, but I had no idea what 5.0 meant.

“Is that one of the ’60s ones?” I asked.

“Nope, it’s an ’80s one.” He laughed his quick, high-pitched laugh, running his hand through his short, wavy hair. At least in our town, in 1999, the joke of the ’80s was the biggest joke there was. “But they’re actually pretty cool.”

“I don’t know, I think I’d feel weird driving an ’80s muscle car.”

“You’d have to start listening to more butt rock,” he said, laughing hysterically to himself. “Can you imagine? You just cruising down the road, listening to Whitesnake or some shit?”

During this time, I was coming to terms with the fact that my best friend Mike had turned from a music-obsessed sad sack like me into a car-obsessed professional wrestling fan.

“No way, I couldn’t do it.” My life was already lived between worlds. I played in a skate-punk band, went to folk shows with my girlfriend, and read ’60s counterculture books. I wore thrift-store army jackets over new Polo shirts.

“But seriously: pretty cool cars,” he said, refusing to let it go. “Like the best muscle car after 1973 or something. I mean, except Corvettes and shit, but those are crazy expensive.”

“So what do they look like?” I asked. I wasn’t actually curious, but I knew him and knew he wouldn’t drop it unless I played into the idea in some way.

He quickly flipped through a magazine before landing his pointer finger on a picture of a compact, solid-looking red car. I couldn’t necessarily say what made it look muscular or different than other cars, but I could see that it was in some way special.

He looked me in the eyes with the life-and-death seriousness he gave to cars. It was the kind of look before someone tells you they’re in trouble with the law, breaking up with their partner, or in love with you. “I could totally see you in one of these,” he said.

I nodded, feeling the importance he was putting on this moment. “I actually could too,” I said, my mind latching onto the idea.

* * *

It took most of the year to save enough money, but when I found a white 5.0 with a spoiler in the classifieds, Mike and I took the three-hour drive down the interstate. We met an older couple in a parking lot next to a Rib Eye Steakhouse, and I handed over five-thousand dollars in cash that I’d managed to stow away from my various jobs. I felt bad sticking Mike behind the wheel of the junkyard car, so I handed him the keys to my new car and got back into my junkyard car, leading us back to Snohomish.

We’d been driving for an hour, the light of day fading into evening, when I looked into the rearview mirror and noticed Mike flashing the headlights of my new car at me. Nothing seemed wrong, so I assumed he just wanted to make a pit stop or grab some dinner. I pulled onto a small off-ramp with a wide shoulder and, as soon as I came to a full stop, something underneath me fell to the pavement with a sharp smack. I opened my door and Mike was already out of the Mustang, talking a mile-a-minute about sparks shooting out from underneath the junkyard car. We kneeled down, looked under it, and saw a long piece of metal, still attached at the front, its backend on the ground.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s your drive shaft,” he said.

“And that does what?”

“It makes your back wheels turn.”

I paused, taking this information in. “Is that why it rattled so bad?”

He laughed. “Yeah, it’s probably been on the verge of falling off the whole time you’ve had it.”

We kneeled there in silence, staring at the piece of metal, meditating on the bad luck of breaking down on the side of the highway a couple hours from home, and the good luck of it waiting to break down until the day I bought a new car. Eventually, Mike asked, “So what are we going to do?”

I thought about it for a second. “Leave it,” I said.

“Seriously?” Mike knew me to be responsible to a fault, and I could tell he was moderately impressed by this answer.

“Yeah, let’s just grab anything worth keeping and take off.”

Most of the car’s contents had come with the car—small tools I didn’t know the meaning of, fuses for other cars—but we managed to gather a handful of things worth keeping. We were grabbing the jumper cables out of the trunk when we found a lone golf club, a driver, and looked at each other with the same thought.

In the brief gaps between traffic on the interstate, we traded off taking swings at the car. We knocked the rearview mirrors loose, dented up the body, smashed in the tail lights. I let out all the frustration I’d bottled during my first couple years of car ownership, trying to see this moment as a new beginning. I put the golf club on my shoulder, gathered the small pile of savable odds and ends under my other arm and got into my new car, leaving the old one on the side of the road, letting it find its way to a different junkyard.

* * *

Though I’d seen how people reacted to Mike’s car, nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience of owning a muscle car. I had, without any real effort at all, been accepted to a club I’d up until that point been excluded from. Guys from school who had never acknowledged my existence suddenly gave me fist bumps in the halls. Grown men saw me get out of the car and approached me as if we were old friends. Strangers regularly invited me to the racetrack. It felt good, but a part of me knew I wouldn’t want to continue telling the lie forever—that I would get tired of being befriended by people who were only interested in a machine I’d purchased. I didn’t embrace the culture, but I let people believe what they wanted to believe.

I graduated high school and moved to Everett, the closest city to Snohomish. I got a job at a hardware store, went to the community college, and made some new friends who wanted to move away as much as I did. One day, as I was walking home from one of their houses, it occurred to me that this—getting around without a car—felt good to me and could easily be my life. I lived close to my job, and my friends and I were hoping to move to Olympia, a city you could walk across in an hour and bike across in twenty minutes. I’d never entertained the thought. In the country, not having a car wasn’t a lifestyle, just a temporary unfortunate state. But suddenly it seemed possible.

I let out all the frustration I’d bottled during my first couple years of car ownership, trying to see this moment as a new beginning.

I spent the rest of my time in Everett driving as little as possible. I carpooled to school, walked to work, bussed to events in Seattle. As soon as my friends and I moved to Olympia, I took the insurance off my car and let it sit in the yard. When I ran out of money, I put it up for half of what I’d paid for it. I got calls from a wide range of car guys, most of whom wanted to trade me for other vehicles. I hung up on all of them. I was done being in their club. Finally, I got a call from a guy who had nothing to trade, a guy who actually wanted to pay me for it.

He came over in a roughed-up minivan with his mom behind the wheel. A decade older than me, he looked haggard in a way that countered his boyish face. He shook my hand and briefly introduced himself before walking over to the car, whistling and kicking the tires, looking under the hood and rattling off a list of things he saw in there. This went on and on.

“Do you want to take it for a test drive?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he said, clearly excited. “But I need you to drive.” He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask.

As I drove us around, he gave me instructions. “Okay, get the RPMs up to five grand and then switch it into fourth.”

On a straightaway he said, “Now shift down to second, floor it, and get it up through the gears as fast as you can.”

Each time I did something right he’d make a satisfied, vaguely sexual noise. I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into. Between instructions, he filled the space with an endless supply of words and, in this deluge, he told me his license was suspended.

“I’ve actually wrecked this exact same car twice,” he said, sounding oddly proud. A year prior I would have protected my car against this imminent death and told him he simply couldn’t buy it. But I wanted to be done with it. And I needed the money.

When we returned to my house, his mom got out of the van. Without saying anything, she pulled a pile of hundreds from an envelope and quickly counted them for me. As I watched, I noticed a slight stutter, a point where the count seemed to skip ahead.

“I think it might have gotten a little off,” I said. She was unamused by this suggestion but recounted and, once again, I noticed a strange, almost imperceptible hesitation. Her son counted, and it seemed to happen again. They told me I wasn’t watching closely enough and handed the stack over for me to count. They stared, eyes narrowed, jaws firm. I tried to count, but I was too overwhelmed to properly keep track. I was still just a kid. Even though I knew it was a hundred dollars short, I took the money, lost the car, and told myself I didn’t care. I believed this was the beginning of a new life. I was convinced I was finally free.

***

Joshua James Amberson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and creative writing instructor. His work has appeared in The RumpusThe Los Angeles Review of BooksElectric LiteratureColumbia Journal Online, and Tin House. He’s currently working on a book about eyeballs. This hand-bound chapbook, Everyday Mythologies, is available for purchase through the independent Two Plum Press.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath