Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Rise and Fall of My Red Car

The short life and quick death of one man's favourite automobile.

It was July, 1999. The car salesman looked at my credit history and other information, and came up with a financing figure; we went out into the lot, and he said I could have any one of a row of cars indicated by the sweep of his arm.

I picked the red one. Because it was red.

I've worked in radio since 1986, and this summer of 1999, I had been driving the radio station van for some time, the first time I was offered a "company car." It was the sweetest transportation deal I'd had since my days in mom's stroller. The station needed me for certain hours of the day, hours my wife needed our single car. The station, really needing my services, offered up the use of one of the station's vans 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yes, 365 days a year. I think maybe once in those three years, they may have asked to use it for a remote broadcast one day while I was on a week's vacation, but it was promptly returned, and for all the world, it was as if it were my vehicle. If it needed an oil change, I took it to the dealer and they did it for free. If the muffler fell off, it was repaired for free. It was a sweet goddamned deal. You believe me now, right?

Well, the time came when I got a much better offer than that job -- but the job was in Albany, New York, an hour south of my then-job, and also my family's apartment. But of course, working at a different radio station, I certainly wasn't going to get to keep the van. So I bit the bullet, went to the car dealership, and that was how I ended up with my red car.

And time, as it is wont to do, passed.

"It's zippy," comic book artist Barry Windsor-Smith told me, as he settled into the passenger seat. It was now five months since I acquired my red car, and it was, in fact, the next to last day of 1999. I was in Kingston, New York to interview Barry, and we were driving to get something to eat. He called my car zippy. I thought that was pretty neat.

"It's shiny," said James Kochalka, musician, cartoonist and self-proclaimed superstar. It's now August of 2000, and I've driven to Burlington, Vermont to interview James my new comics-related website. We're on our way to a pizza shop, where he will spontaneously burst into a verse of "Even the Clouds Get High" to the amusement of the assembled patrons and workers.

It's nice to know that a year after purchase, it's still shiny. I like my car.

In 2001, I get another job, as radio consolidation makes it clear my now 2-year-old job is about to evaporate. The new one, at an NPR-affiliated public radio station, pays more. It's unfortunate that so much of this extra money is going to pay for the two cars my wife and I have, including about $35.00 a week in gas for me alone. But I like my job, and I still like my car, and it's still somewhat shiny.

Early on the morning of September 12th, 2001, I dream that a terrorist attack has left Albany without power and I am driving down Central Avenue into the blacked-out city, terrified of what it might hold. Something eerily similar happens a couple of years later, when a massive power blackout kills all power on the east coast. I remember my dream. In the dream I am driving my red car.

In early April of this year, my wife and I learn we only have three payments to go, and the little red car I picked out of the lot back in the Summer of 1999 will be all ours, free and clear, in just three short months.

During the second week of April of 2005, I am driving my children home from school. Every day for the past five and three-quarter years or so, the red car has pulled up to the curb and brought them home. On this particular day, my daughter is talking about the school's anti-drunk-driving program, and notes that if she never drinks and drives, she'll never be in a car accident.

I'm prompted to share with my children one of the few things I've learned in my 39 years on this planet: "You can drive completely safe and never drink and never do anything wrong, you can obey every rule of the road and still, all it takes is one idiot coming out of nowhere to wreck your car and very possibly kill you. So be as careful as you can when you drive (neither of them will for at least another five years, I mentally note), but remember that you are only 50 percent of the equation of any car accidents you might get into."

A few days before the end, my entire immediate family was in the car as I mentally reflected on the past six years, and how the car would soon be ours, free and clear. I looked at my wife in the passenger seat, and said "You know, that seat you're in is probably the only car seat ever sat in by both Barry Windsor-Smith and James Kochalka." She smiles. She's heard this before. I'm just so proud. I like my car, and in a very real way, I love both Barry and James. Their work means the world to me, and they both have been kind and generous to me, to whatever minor efforts I've made on my little website -- they're great people, and they both sat in my car, and I think that's kind of neat. My wife smiles. She's heard this before.

On my red car's final day, I was thinking about driving to Syracuse. I went so far as to write down directions to the biggest comics shop there. But the morning wears on, and I decide maybe I will go tomorrow. Instead, my friend Marshall comes over and we watch Spaced, and we laugh some. My wife is having a bad day, trouble with her family. I am not sensitive enough to her problems today, and there's some tension. I decide to leave the house to get away from it, and I drive Marshall home. Marshall sits in the same passenger seat that has hosted Barry Windsor-Smith, my wife, James Kochalka, my son, my daughter, my buddy Mick, who else has sat in that seat? A lot of people I care about. I know it's not normal to think about it this much, but I do.

I drop Marshall off at his house, and I decide to go to the record store. Maybe there's a DVD I can buy that we can all watch tonight; Saturday and Sunday are the only days my entire family gets to be together. Maybe I'll buy a movie. My cell phone, as always, is clipped to the sun visor over my head.

On the road in front of me, I note that traffic has come to a stop. I brake, and come to a stop behind a black car. I look up into the rear view mirror. There's a car coming up behind me, and it's coming up fast.

The crash seems to take many long seconds. Time seems to slow down, but only a bit. As I am slammed in to, I note my car start to skew to the left. I note that I am lifting up into the air. I wonder in no uncertain terms if my body is going to be scrunched into positions that are going to make the rest of my life difficult. I wonder...and for a split-second, I think nothing at all.

My car is positioned wrong. My arm hurts. There's been a crash. What happened?

I get out. I am in shock. I go to the car of the woman that slammed into my red car. She gets out. She is okay. She asks if I am okay. I tell her I think I am. I ask if she has a cell phone. She does not. I go to my car to get mine. It's not there. I look again. It's on the floor on the driver's side. The impact must have dislodged it. There's a dog in the car of the woman that hit my red car.

My car was pushed into the black car. It has minor damage, a woman was driving it; she's okay. We both have called 911. Sirens are blaring in the distance.

My phone rings. It's my wife. "I can't talk now, honey. I've been in a car crash." I tell her I am okay and where I am. She says she's coming. I hang up. Paramedics are here, asking questions. No one is hurt. My neck is a bit stiff, and there's a bump and a bruise on my arm -- I think it hit the steering wheel -- but no one needs to go to the hospital.

My family arrives. The woman who hit my red car seems dazed. She asks my wife and kids if they're all right, thinking they were in the car. She says she's sorry, she feels so guilty, she only glanced away for a second. "A second is all it takes," I say, and I mean to be kind. I am not angry at her. After we give statements to the police and a paramedic takes my vitals (as the only person with any sort of injury), I hear a firefighter at the scene talking to the woman who hit my car. He's asking her if she wants them to call her a cab. I walk up and offer her a ride home. She is visibly moved by the offer, but says she's caused me enough pain. I tell her I'm not seriously hurt, and we'd be happy to give her -- and her dog, I forgot about the dog -- a ride home.

We pack the dog into the back of my wife's wagon, and the woman gets in the back seat with my kids. I sit in my wife's passenger seat. My wife drives. We take the woman home, and she tells us that she is alone, her children are away on vacation. I make her promise to call them, because she seems very upset ("I feel so guilty," she keeps saying), and I am a little worried for her in the state she seems to be in.

I tell her to call me if there's no one else to talk to, and if she is feeling upset. She hugs me, she hugs my kids, she hugs my wife, this woman who killed my red car. As we drive away, I can't remember the last time I felt so sorry for another human being. She seems so alone and vulnerable. I hope she'll keep her promise and call her children.

As my wife pulls back out onto the road from the woman's driveway and points us toward home, I breathe deeply and reflect on the passenger seat I am sitting in, the passenger seat of my wife's car. No one famous has sat here. I look at my wife and say "Damn, I am going to miss that car." She smiles. It would have been six years in July, that I had that car.

I picked it because it was red, and for no other reason at all.