GiftS

The car that pulled out in front of me was a white Mitsubishi Eclipse and, even in the fragment of time it took to close the distance, my gearhead brain identified and filed this little tidbit away for future reference.

Part 1

Crystalline details floating in my mind: squealing tires, the feel of the brake and clutch levers through my gloves, and the absolute certainty that I was going to hit this car. It nosed out into the street, a fat, blind worm sniffing tentatively at the roadway.

I hit his left-front fender at forty miles-per, front tire shoved into the pavement, back tire squealing and scrabbling for grip.

I remember the impact, how it felt like my whole body had been struck like a gong, and the sounds of my bike, the roaring and the squealing and the crashing, all receding into distance as I flew over the hood.

And I remember staggering, trying to get out of the street. I fell a number of times before a woman put her hand on my chest and told me:

"I'm an EMT. Lie still: traffic is stopped."

The ambulance crew was less than sympathetic. Obviously, they'd seen worse than a guy trying to hold the broken bones of his hand together.

The final tally: broken scaphoid, broken carpal, and a broken toe. Not bad, all things considered, but would be two years until I could collect any money from the crash: the wheels of justice turn slowly, and I needed my own set of wheels...

It's LA, you wanna take the bus to work?

Part 2

In college, my friend and I made a pact born of ignorant enthusiasm. We of limited means would buy transportation too temperamental, too sophisticated for the layman to appreciate: two shopworn Italian sports cars. Greg opted for the mechanically simple, perpetually disintegrating, classically proportioned Fiat 124 Spider. I opted for a subtler and more complex Alfa Romeo GTV-6 that snarled like nothing else.

Greg bought his car for a song, figuring he'd work on it in his parents' garage and restore it. It was faded brown with a ruined top and tattered black vinyl upholstery, but the motor revved sweetly and made Italian sewing-machine noises. He limped it home on a sagging suspension and bald tires and it began immediately to do what old Italian cars do best: rust. The terminal diagnosis after much hard work: rotted shock towers.

Undaunted, Greg found a good shell with a blown motor and began to combine the two cars. He installed sporty (and stiff) red springs and a new top. He discovered that the seatbelt reels situated on the floor no longer reeled, so he installed new four-point harnesses that looked really cool and prevented most people from unlatching the door or rolling down the windows while belted. Finally, he had the whole thing repainted white, instead of its original silver.

To this day, we're not really sure why.

He drove the Fiat through arctic New Jersey winters, through rain and steaming summers, his beanpole six-two frame folded up like a jack-in-the-box. When he graduated and found a job, he drove two hours each way, battling rust and a steady stream of minor mechanical failures, commuting in a car singularly unsuited to commuting. One day he bought a Honda Civic Si and parked the Fiat in his driveway.

GiftS

Part 3

Greg offered the little, neglected Fiat to me more than once before I finally accepted. I felt like a bit of an ass, rejecting the gift of a free car. Plus, he threw himself into the deal as a riding mechanic/ co-driver.

The two of us, blasting across the country in a little convertible, top-down and hair blowing: what could be better?

I flew to Jersey for Thanksgiving to get the car ready. We charged the battery overnight and the car fired after a couple of turns. A little puff of smoke, then sweet, mellow Italian exhaust music. Greg changed the oil and I threw on new tires.

One of which went flat overnight.

Seems rusty old steel wheels don't seal well. That little ten-inch hole in the window of the folding top? It'll be fine. Sure, the heater doesn't work well, but bodyheat will make up the difference...

Packed light and bundled up against the chill air, we headed west, excited for warmer climates that would let us drop the top. We neglected to take a few things into account:

1. In November, most of the United States is freakin' cold.
2. That "little hole" created serious flow-through ventilation. Having all of the warm cabin air sucked howlingly out, right behind your ear makes it tough to sleep.
3. The Fiat's cruising speed is about 65mph. It can certainly go faster, but is screaming at those speeds. The Fiat might have been fine shrieking along all day like that, but we weren't. For guys in a rush to get to California without blowing up their car, this was a bit of a drag.
4. The Oklahoma weather.

When I drove across country in the Alfa, I raced the scariest black storm clouds I've ever seen, roaring along through nearly featureless vistas, watching wicked forks of blue-white lighting link the earth and sky. But I broke out on the other side dry and humming. The Alfa could do nearly 130 and could cruise all day at 90.

In the Fiat, we weren't so lucky [see #3]. Greg was driving that leg and, brave as he is, slowed to 40 to squint through the mist, rain, and pounding hail that beat the little car mercilessly.

Despite our travails, including another flat tire, we came zinging into Los Angeles in the wee morning hours of the 4th day. I slid into bed and Greg passed out in a tangle of pillows and blankets on my floor.

The top stayed up the whole trip, but before Greg flew home, we dropped that sucker and drove to the beach, giggling with exhaustion.

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