It sat in front of my house like a huge, gray monolith, taking up enough room for three parking spaces. As much a battleship as a car, it would have fit right in with the mothball fleet of old naval ships that were left to rot after World War II. 223 inches long; 80 inches wide. Let that sink in. That’s eighteen and a half feet long, almost as big as that huge, overcompensating truck you cuss when you’re trying to squeeze into a parking space at the local grocery store. The apex of sixties overindulgence, the 1966 Oldsmobile 98 was built on the same platform as the biggest Cadillacs. But this was 1978, and it’s glory days were over. What was once the peak of luxury was now a used-up, faded and worn-out 2-ton anchor pulling my already compromised reputation in the neighborhood further into the gutter. After the gas crisis of the early seventies, it was easy to pick up one of these 9 mpg highway tanks for just a few hundred dollars. That made them appealing when gas was only 69 cents per gallon. But its time had passed.
I purchased a 1976 Ford Econoline van, bright orange with tinted porthole windows, brown shag carpeting, dark wood paneling, and a matching mahogany-colored beanbag chair. It was a good choice for a swinging bachelor in the era of disco music and outrageous fashion. Now I just needed to get rid of the metal monster left sitting and ignored at the edge of my driveway. But how to find a buyer for a tired old gas hog that was far past its glory days?
I taped signs up in the windows, advertising the car for sale and ingratiating myself further with my neighbors. I waited to see what interest this sparked. Nothing happened. I placed an ad in the local Pennysaver, a small sales paper that was in all of the gas stations and convenience stores. It was cheap, just like the car. I asked $200 for the car. It ran all right, most of the electronics worked, except for the air conditioner. Air conditioners never worked in used cars in those days. I waited for the phone to ring. Still, nothing. Insert your own cricket noises here.
A couple of weeks went by. I happily drove my van around, making trips to the clubs with my band. I was now able to carry more equipment and that pleased everyone in the group. I began to despair of ever selling the Olds and started considering whether or not to sell it to a wrecking yard. Then one morning I received a phone call at work. Someone was interested in the car! I arranged for a longer lunch break and left for my house. Shortly after my arrival, a young man knocked on the door. He looked still in his teens, a little nerdy and struggling with skin problems. He nervously kept pushing his glasses up on his nose while asking me about the car.
“Is it still for sale?”
I looked at the dusty, gray slab out front, the windows still covered with fading signs.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “It is.”
Grabbing the keys, I led him outside. Jumping in the front seat, I mentally crossed my fingers, hoping the battery wasn’t dead. I hadn’t started the car for a few days. But luck was with me, or so I thought. The engine fired right up, sounding strong and ready. I drove out of the neighborhood to the main drag where we could build up some speed and I could show off the vehicle’s raw power. It still ran like a champ. The kid was impressed. I pulled over at the entrance of a restaurant parking lot so he could take a turn behind the wheel.
“Oh, it’s okay. I already know I want the car,” he said. “My grandmother is giving me the money, but I need to show her the car first.”
I looked at my watch, pressed for time, and headed back to the house.
“All right, here’s what we can do,” I told him. “You take the car to show your grandmother and get the cash. I have to go back to work. I get home around 6:30. You meet me here with the money and I’ll give you the pink slip.”
He excitedly nodded his head and I gave him the keys. Starting up the car, he pointed at the gas gauge. The needle was on the empty line. He had no money until he could get to grandma’s house. I gave him two dollars. That would buy almost three gallons.
“There’s a gas station right up the road on the corner, just past that little Italian restaurant where we stopped,” I said.
I zipped back to work, thinking of all the nice things I could do with that two hundred dollars. Maybe I’d get a new stereo for the van or some new clothes for my nights on stage. I would look good. I answered a call around four o’clock.
“Is this Timothy Allwein?” a voice asked, mispronouncing my last name as everybody did when they didn’t know me.
“It’s All-Wine,” I said. “What can I do for you?” I was in a good mood.
“Do you own a 1966 Oldsmobile 98?”
I experienced a sinking feeling. “Yes, I do,” I responded.
“Would you come get it out of my restaurant?”
I told my boss there was an emergency and I had to leave. He was not happy, but he never was anyway. I jetted across town to the little Italian restaurant near my home. I pulled into the same driveway entrance where I had stopped earlier that day. For the first time, I noticed how the driveway into the small parking lot sloped downhill, with the restaurant nestled at the bottom of the hill. And there at the bottom of that hill, to the left side of the restaurant door, was my big, gray tank of an Oldsmobile. I recognized the rear end of the car, that massive trunk that would easily hold six bodies and their luggage. But all I could see was the trunk because the rest of the car was hidden inside a nice booth within the establishment. They weren’t open for business until 5:30 pm, but they were more than willing to let me in. I slowly walked in the front door. I moved around the front of my vehicle. It had crashed through the front wall of the restaurant, all the way up to the windshield. The fake brick facade had done no real damage to the car. You can’t really scratch up an old primer-gray vehicle. It just can’t look that much worse. Even the headlights were fine.
The owner was polite, even kind of pleasant to me.
“You want a beer?” he asked me.
“Yes, please,” I answered.
We sat and talked. I gave my insurance information. I later found out that the kid didn’t make it to grandma’s house, which was my guess. He apparently ran out of gas and rolled up to the driveway of that cute little diner. He left the car without setting the parking brake, without even putting the transmission in Park. You see, he really didn’t know what he was doing. He was fifteen years old, with no driver’s license, but he had a dream. A dream of having his own car, even if it was an ugly old behemoth. He walked away from disaster unscathed, so did that Oldsmobile, and so did I. My insurance company was not so lucky. The restaurant was closed for a few weeks but reopened. It’s long gone now. So is that car. And karma has paid me back with a flooded comic book store of my own not so many years ago. But I am still here to talk about it, over a beer, just like I did with that restaurant owner, whose name I can’t remember. He was a nice guy.