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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Samurai Junkman

At the tender age of 30, even though I was working as a Kelly Girl without benefits, I had decided it was time to break down and buy a new car.

I had never owned a new car before. I had a thousand-dollar Volkswagen that I’d kept for ten years and then sold for $1200. Then I had a $1200 Rabbit that I abandoned shortly after the master cylinder blew out while I was speeding down a steep grade in West Virginia. Not having any brakes, at the bottom of a hill I flew through a stop sign and plowed into a corn field. Then I got another used bug, a convertible, that was fond of rocketing out the oil pan plug, immediately draining all the oil onto the street and illuminating a red light on my dashboard. I was lucky to have never been fined by the EPA, nor did I ever file an environmental impact statement.

Then I bought, for $700, a rusted-out 4 wheel drive Subaru, which was brown. The hatchback, clearly taken from junkyard skeletal remains, was blue. I couldn't deal with driving a spare parts car, so I ended up spray-painting the hatchback almost the same brown as the rest of the car. Although it did get me in and out of the snow, every time I shifted gears, let my foot off the gas, or turned off the ignition, it would emit a sound similar to a cannon blast.

As a temporary Kelly Girl, I was earning in the single digits per hour, so economy was at the top of the list of must-haves for my new car. And four wheel drive. I lived at the bottom of a hill on a dirt road. I could be trapped for days in the winter.

It would have made sense to buy a Jeep, but that was cost-prohibitive. I needed something less than the cheapest four wheel drive on the market.

Enter the Suzuki Samurai, which looked like a shrunken-down version of a Jeep CJ. And like the Jeep CJ, it was convertible. Well, at least the top came off. Buying the Samurai would, I concluded, make me look like the tough, rugged, Marlboro Mannish stereotypical Jeep driver, but on a smaller scale. As my friend Jack told me, “You want to be butch, but you don’t want to be that butch.”

So I drove 150 miles to Maryland to the closest Suzuki dealer. I had my checkbook, and I wasn’t leaving without a black-with-a-black-top model. If I were going to be not-that-butch, I wanted to be the butchest of the not-that-butch.

I went into the showroom and asked the first salesman/leech who approached me if I could test drive a Samurai. He got the keys and sent me on my way. It was a little sluggish, and maybe a little loud, and it had sticky vinyl seats. But it didn’t explode or shoot out the oil plug or lose the brakes, so I was sold. I went back to negotiate.

Samurais, at the time, believe it or not, were a hot-ticket item and selling like hotcakes. The arrogant leech/salesman flat-out refused to negotiate because I wanted your basic stripped model. No pin striping, no air conditioning, no radio, no power steering. Just the car. He said if I would consider adding on options, he could find some wiggle room there, but that would still have been more money, so I agreed to pay the asking price, which was $7000-something. He ran the credit check, and drawing up the bill of sale said, “Oh, I forgot to ask. Do you want a back seat with that? It’s $500 more."

I took a spatula and scraped my jaw off the floor. What car company considers the back seat a luxury, or worse, optional equipment? In the end I bought the back seat, and anyone who ever sat in it would grow to hate me for it.

I was saddled with a car payment for the first time in my life, and I didn’t like it at all.

But I did have my first new car! For the first week I was so proud of it. I brought it home, gave it two coats of expensive car wax, cleaned the windows, and Armor-Alled the black vinyl top, the seats, the dash, the gearshift knob. During the second week of ownership, it was announced by Consumer Reports that the Samurai, with its short wheel span and top heaviness, was a severe rollover risk. Demand plunged, as did the prices.

My little dream car quickly deteriorated into an unpleasant driving experience. When ever you sped up and got into fifth gear, the cheesy vinyl top would flap and slap, sounding like high-speed applause. I had put in a radio-cassette player and powerful speakers that could barely be heard at full blast with all that flapping going on.

On careful inspection, I sadly realized that the majority of the car was made out of what normally comes on long rolls in which to wrap food. The doors, thin and tinny, made a clank noise when you shut them, like a teaspoon tapping an empty tuna can. Clearly, the metal on this machine was nothing more than Reynolds Wrap. The plastic windows in the vinyl top were weak and deteriorated quickly, so they were pretty much Seran Wrap. The vinyl upholstery was brittle and made a crunching sound whenever it was stressed, especially in winter. In other words, Cut Rite waxed paper. The “carpeting” was pretty much the consistency of kraft paper.

The weak engine was made by the Ideal Toy Corporation and was formerly used in the Karmann Ghia Motorific car. I took it on one long road trip that required navigating through some rather steep mountains. The car could not even climb to the top of an overpass in fifth gear. It would stall or shake until you downshifted into fourth or third, and then the engine would whine while the vinyl top applauded. Climbing over the Blue Ridge mountains, I was left in the dust by passing tractor-trailers, Vespas, and grandmothers on roller skates.

A special feature on the car: When you drove through gusty winds, the car magically turned into a box kite.

On most convertibles, you undo a couple of latches, press a button, and in seconds you are driving with the top down. The Samurai was a little different. Each time I wanted to put the top down, I would have to hire a mechanical engineer for two hours to help me get it off and again when I wanted it placed back. There were snaps and slots and Velcro loops and zippers. It was important to have a supply of Q-Tips on hand for cleaning out the gunk in the slots. Eventually in the summer I would just leave the top off and stick a big beach umbrella in it while I was at work, and that, for the most part, kept it relatively dry until I got it home and parked it safely in the garage.

It was not by any means a comfortable car, especially if you were a passenger in the back seat. Every time you hit a bump (and by “hitting a bump” I mean “running over a cigarette butt”), the rear passengers were sent flying skyward, so seat belts were more than mandatory. They were life-or-death. In summer, the vinyl seats demanded your sweat. If you wore cutoffs and went shirtless (which 30-year-old, not-that-butch kind of men tend to do in summer), extracting yourself from the seat was often a painful experience which yielded a sound similar to Velcro being separated. Only if you were lucky did you get out with all your skin still in place.

Nevertheless, mechanically, the car stayed the course. I had to replace the muffler twice, and someone stuck forks in the rear Seran Wrap windows and broke in and stole my stereo twice. It would have been just as easy to get in by unzipping the back window, but I suspect the thieves didn’t have ready access to a mechanical engineer. As long as it got me from point A to B, I was fine with it. I faithfully crawled under it every 3000 miles and changed the oil, and I never had any engine or transmission problems. I drove it for 10 years, or 100,000 miles, whichever came first.

By then I had a permanent job and was making three times as much as my Kelly Girl job. I was growing older, and I was tired of chipping my teeth whenever I went over a speed bump, so I went shopping for a newer car. I was over the new car obsession and ended up with a two-year-old vehicle.

It was a 1995 Suzuki Sidekick. It's shown in the picture, above, between the Samurai and the Motorific Karmann Ghia.

Some not-that-butch guys never learn.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Deleting the Dead

The electronic lady who prompts me from our voice mail system told me yesterday that I was about to run out of message space, and she strongly encouraged me to delete some of the Forty! Seven! old messages that I had been too lazy to review over the past several months.

This, of course, required me to listen to all of the Forty! Seven! messages, or at least the beginning of them. I ended up deleting all but three of them. The ones I kept were from people who are dead.

I don’t know why I can’t bring myself erase them. The messages were from good friends, and one of them died just months ago. Maybe it seems like some final act of betrayal to delete them to make room for messages from the living, most of whom are strangers since it was my work voice mailbox. Yet, I can’t press that number 3 button on the phone, knowing I’ll be unable to hear their voices again. I find it odd, and just a little bit macabre, because I don’t intentionally go back and play their old messages to hear them speak again. That is, until the electronic lady tells me it’s time. And then it's surprising, because I have forgotten I've intentionally not deleted them.

Many years ago, in an early version of Microsoft Windows, there was an applet called Cardfile, which was nothing but a digital version of a Rolodex. Instead of flipping through tiny pages of real Rolodex cards, you would click your way through virtual pages to find the contact information of anyone you put in there.

It was during this timeframe that my beloved Aunt Dorothy died. She lived to be 95, and whenever I went to visit her she would always make a cheese ball, nut rolls and her famous calico beans. Because I have never been a very good file clerk, her name was alphabetized under “Aunt” instead of “Dorothy”, and hers was the first “card” that appeared whenever I opened the Cardfile program. Seeing it after she died would always make me a little sad (and hungry), so one day I decided to get rid of the virtual card. I clicked the button on the screen, and a dialog box appeared that read: “Delete Aunt Dorothy?” with Yes and No buttons underneath the question.

Microsoft no longer includes Cardfile in its operating system, and frankly I’m glad. I felt resentful that some computer was throwing salt on my wound. Well, no! I thought, I don’t want to delete Aunt Dorothy! Why is that left up to me to make that decision? I pondered a couple of things: If I deleted her, I thought, I would soon forget about her jovial cackle and hard Pittsburgh accent. And of course, the cheese ball, nut rolls and calico beans as well. If I didn’t delete her, would that bring her back? In the end, I kept Aunt Dorothy, although I cloaked it under a card with merely the letter “A” on it, so she wasn’t the first one to appear. That was stupid, because every time I saw the “A” I knew what it stood for, and what it was covering up.

Today, with a Contacts section in every e-mail program, when you delete a contact, it just goes away without a requesting a confirmation. That’s the way it should be. This does not mean that computer programmers are becoming kinder and gentler, otherwise why would they have created autocomplete?

Just about any e-mail application now has autocomplete enabled to reduce your keyboard strokes. For example, in composing a message to Other Bill, I just have to type a “B” in the “To:” box, and his complete e-mail address pops up for me to select. I just hit the Tab key, and the software fills his in his address automatically, saving me sixteen keystrokes.

But dead people show up in the autocomplete list when you begin to type in something that looks like their e-mail address. They are easily deleted without any sass from the computer, but most people don’t know how, and the dead remain as reminders. I recently deleted from that list someone I never talk to anymore (a CPA who used to do my taxes for me—badly!) She disappeared completely after I highlighted her name and hit the delete key. The computer didn’t ask me, “Are you sure you want to delete That Lousy CPA?”

These little unthoughtful computer annoyances are nothing compared to physically cleaning up after the dead. In my 54 years I have never had to clean out the belongings of anyone who died. My mother took care of my dad’s clothes and other possessions. Later on, my sister handled my mother’s affairs. Other relatives and friends who have died, naturally, had their spouses or children take on that depressing deed. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to throw out Other Bill’s “Tuff Guy” t-shirt that was given to him by a friend who died years ago. How do you go through someone’s belongings that evoke so many memories when you’re already suffering such crippling pain? I’d have to hire someone to do it, but someone who would do a lousy, incomplete job so it wouldn’t look like anything was missing. The only person who could half-ass that task would be Other Bill, but he’d be deleted. Maybe That Lousy CPA would offer to botch that chore, just as she had my income taxes.

As I age, the impact that death has on me has diminished. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve sat through scores of funerals since the 1980’s, or if the Prozac just works well. I still hate being the one who has to click the mouse or erase the voice of a close friend. Maybe funeral homes could recognize significant revenue by offering a digital deleting service. For a stiff fee, they could delete every recording and every computer account and all of the family’s autocomplete entries.
Before I die, I want to turn over my passwords to a trusted friend who could freak people out by sending humorous musings from me on what it’s like being dead via e-mail and Facebook. I would write several years’ worth in advance. My Facebook status could be changed periodically.

For example:
  • Bill Wiley is dead, but really, it’s not that bad. A little dark. I could do with a flashlight.
  • Bill Wiley is just visiting hell. Honestly, it’s no worse than Orlando in August. In fact, it’s better. People here are so much more interesting than your typical Disney tourist, with the exception of Mom. She is still complaining and criticizing. I sure am glad I brought that Get Out of Hell free card. There are a lot of people just walking around trying to find their lost car keys and glasses.
  • Bill Wiley just found his first Siamese cat, Mr. Ling, playing Deathville.
  • Bill Wiley got his first look at God today. She looks a lot like Moms Mabley. That explains a lot.
And then an alert reader could collect them and publish them in a bestseller. They could call it Heaven is for Real.

Oh, that’s been done, you say? Damn. I am always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to becoming another Jacqueline Susann.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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