There's little doubt that the best thing to do when you're in college is buckle down, study hard, and try to get the best grades possible. For better or worse, I was not one of those focused students at the age of 18.
What I was interested in was raising hell, particularly if it involved a beater car. But there's only so much you can do in your buddy's '87 Mercury Topaz (especially since he needed it to drive himself home to New Jersey at the end of the semester), and I was too young to pick up a rental car.
That left few options, but I found what I needed one day as I was driving a borrowed car just outside of town: a pathetic, primer gray land yacht that was well past its prime. It was just the kind of redneck special I needed to get myself — and the friends who let themselves get roped into my scheme — in all kinds of non-injury trouble.
(Disclaimer: No matter who you are, you should neither drink underage nor buy used cars from toothless idiots. This is a story meant to serve as an example of what NOT to do in life. Also, the cars shown in these pictures depict what our car was supposed to look like. The one we had definitely didn't look like that anymore.)
I attended college in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a smallish town that begrudgingly hosted what was then known as Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). The town had little to offer a hyperactive 18-year-old boy who'd spent his childhood in a bland (but very safe/nice) Washington, D.C. suburb. The antique shops and antebellum homes lining its streets are lovely, but as a freshman, they held little allure.
My friends and I could never seem to think of enough ridiculous things to do to keep ourselves entertained. Sometimes we went out in the middle of the night and cleared entire rural roads of their signage (with my grandfather sending me newspaper clippings about people who had been thrown in jail when someone got hurt in a wreck on a signless road). Other times we turned the dorm's candy machines upside down and emptied them of their contents. When we lost that relatively creative streak, we tended toward alcohol fueled rampages, destroying nearly everything in our paths. I can't say that many of us accomplished much academically, but if furniture had feelings, it would have been scared of us.
At any rate, one of these boredom-spurred episodes involved the purchase of a car. In retrospect, splitting the cost of a car amongst friends isn't such a great idea, but in our un-evolved young minds, it seemed like the perfect way for us to take our destructive talents to new and more interesting levels. It would, in any case, allow us to transport our debaucherous activities to other locales, namely James Madison University. JMU was our Shangri-La, where we knew that the members of that school's female population were much nicer to look at than those at Mary Wash, and, it logically followed, much easier to talk into sleeping with us. Of course, we never considered that most of said female population wanted nothing to do with a bunch of barely post-pubescent drunken maniacs, but that was beside the point. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
One afternoon as I was driving a friend's beat-up F-150 through an equally beat-up little town just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, I saw it. My heart skipped a beat — I knew I'd found it. I slammed on the brakes of the truck and turned, practically on two wheels into the parking lot of Steve's Used Cars. "Parking lot" is a liberal use of the term, as it was no more than a weedy gravel patch between a dilapidated house and an even more shabby-looking trailer. The uncut grass in front of it was matted down by the semi-regular traffic of jalopies from one end of the yard to the other.
I should take a moment to explain that the "office" for Steve's used cars was in the aforementioned shitty-looking trailer, and that the staff of this car lot seemed to be closely associated with the adjacent house, which sported a hand-painted sign reading "Madame Loretta's Palmistry." (I deduced the connection from the regular comings and goings of big-haired women between Steve's and the palm reader's). Rumor had it that your palm wasn't what was "read" there, and by the look of the handful of ladies smoking cigarettes and leaning in various tired poses around an off-kilter aluminum screen door, I wasn't too surprised.
But at that moment, I was much too excited by what had initially sparked my interest to care about camaro-haired women selling themselves to the lowest bidder. My eye was on one four-door 1977 Mercury Cougar with a $400 price tag painted conspicuously on the windshield (who knew they came in four-door and wagon configurations?). About 18-feet-long, it was primer grey with a peeling maroon vinyl top. The wheels were adorned with dirty wire wheel covers from a Pontiac. The shape of the body was a perfect example of what went wrong in Detroit during the latter half of the 1970s. It had the long snout, short rear deck look down pat, but the rest was Oakland pimp biopic meets Captain and Tennille.
To make matters worse, it was in terrible condition. But a poorly maintained, horribly designed car really tapped into a theretofore untapped redneck sensibility (what could be described as an utter lack of sense in most circles) which had been burgeoning within me since childhood (but that my parents had ignored as an impossibility). The bland, white collar suburban neighborhood in which I grew up was adjacent to one of Northern Virginia's great white trash havens. What did my parents expect other than a certain curiosity towards and romanticized view of a lifestyle that seemed so free of expectations and internal critique?
To me, a derelict '77 Cougar made perfect sense; its awfulness is what made it so cool. So I could scarcely believe the luck of my find, reasoning that if my three best friends and I all pitched in and finagled a lower price, this would end up being a pretty affordable adventure.
My attention snapped back to the decaying pile of steel sitting quietly before me. Awestruck by this pathetic, but somehow beautiful machine, my eyes gleamed with desire. This piece of shit was perfect! The drivers-side door groaned as I opened it to stick my head inside. I inhaled the musty, gasoline/cigarette-permeated odor of many years of neglect. "Ahhhhhh!" My gaze was met by tattered upholstery, a sagging headliner, and to top it all off (or bottom it off, rather) a huge rust hole in the floor pan where a backseat passenger would normally rest his or her feet. To my way of thinking, this was an attractive feature, as I knew I would be able to do some serious haggling with the lot's proprietor.
The real cultural experience began as one of the "salesmen," taking note that I had entered his lot and was actually checking out one of his tired looking cars, ambled outside. Any doubts I may have had about this place not being an utter shithole were erased when this man stepped from the office trailer. Clad in a soiled camouflage jacket, an equally grungy pair of work pants and a camouflage trucker hat that looked like it had accompanied a tunnel rat to Vietnam, the man cheerfully exclaimed through his messy snaggle of brown teeth (or what used to be teeth, the remains of which were mere stumps) that his name was Forrest, and that he would answer any questions I had about this'yer vee-hicle. I didn't have any questions about it; the car's appearance had already done the talking. I was ready to take it for a spin.
Heading out onto Highway 1, I drove the car briskly up the hill in the direction of the next town. Forrest smiled nervously and fidgeted his knobby fingers as the engine knocked loudly under the strain of my heavy right foot. The car drove just like it looked. The steering had the precision of a marshmallow's edges, its growling cougar hood ornament swaying lazily to and fro as we cruised along. The suspension clunked and clanked, never fully recovering from any one bump in the road. Cornering assumed the death defying thrill of cliff diving, as even low-speed turns felt as if they were turning the car on its side. At intervals, the engine raced as its ability to make the wheels turn came and went at the whim of its dying transmission.
Seeing that somebody had only put about $3 of gas in the thing — presumably to keep anyone from driving it too far away from a good set of tools, or within reasonable walking distance of the car lot — I guided us back to the office. As the oil smoke settled, I could see a dark-haired lady with a concerned expression — also sporting a poofy, hairspray stiff doo — peering at us through the grimy sliding glass door of the office trailer. I explained to Forrest that I would have to consult my friends and that I'd be back later that evening.
Racing back to campus, and already almost half an hour late to geology class, I could scarcely contain my excitement. I couldn't wait to tell the other guys! When class finally ended, I rushed to the dorm to tell them. One of the guys greeted the great news I'd just shared with a bit of skepticism. "I dunno," my friend Joe, the crappy-Topaz owner, said guardedly, "I already got a car."
"Yeah," I said, "but we could use this POS for road trips to JMU and shit. And sorry, but it's way cooler than your stupid-ass Mercury Topaz!"
Jersey Joe, as he was called, had endured the misfortune of being raised in a Central New Jersey suburb, which to my thinking seemed to have significantly reduced his testosterone levels before he'd even hit puberty. The other two members of the crew, another Joe and a guy we all called Psycho Dave, were much easier to win over. Having been raised in the same (equally testosteroneless) Northern Virginia suburbs as I, those two saw eye-to-eye with me on the merits of decrepit redneck beaters.
As far as Jersey Joe's lack of faith went, for those who know me, once I get an idea about wanting to do something into my head, no matter how foolish, I'm difficult to dissuade. I ended up talking the good talk, got him on board, and we were off to Steve's Used Cars that very night.
Steve's and Madam Loretta's were a flurry of activity as Psycho Dave, Joe #2, and our doubting Thomas compadre from the Garden State accompanied me into the sales trailer. An acrid blue cloud of cheap cigarette smoke hung densely in the air, and the faux-wood paneling was stained a sickly shade of yellow from a decades-long buildup of nicotine tar. The worried-looking lady with the teased-up dark hair (dyed for sure) sat behind a battered metal desk, anxiously shuffling greasy fingerprint-covered papers from one stack to another.
The heaps of paper, somewhat disheveled themselves, were the only kind of order present in the cramped little room. She fetched Forrest for us and he took us outside so that my fellow poor decision makers could take a closer look at the faded cubic zirconium gem I had stumbled upon. Joe #2 couldn't keep the grin from his face as he took in the sight of this perfect marriage of inept Detroit engineering and years of redneck ownership. He was the one who test-drove it this time, his demonic laughter audible only when the din of rod knock and other failing engine parts subsided for a few seconds here and there.
Back at the lot, we got into the farce of pointing out the car's deficiencies in order to lower the price substantially.
"Hey man, the fuckin' defroster doesn't work!" Joe #2 chimed. He was well versed in the niceties of jalopy haggling, having bought one with his brother while they were in high school. Forrest guffawed apologetically and disappeared behind the trailer with a tire iron in his hand. We heard a few loud crashes, some crunching noises, and muffled cursing. Peering around the side of the trailer to get a better look at what was going on, we saw him sitting in another old car he had stashed back there. The thing was covered with a pretty thick layer of wet dead leaves, so we couldn't really see what he was up to.
Five minutes later, he emerged from behind the trailer with a toothless grin spread across his face and the heater controls from the immobile vehicle he had just left held triumphantly in the air. After a few quick jabs with the tire iron into the dash of our soon-to-be ride, and a couple of quick twists with a rusty pair of pliers, we had heater controls that worked. Never mind that they were the wrong size and dangled from the dash, suspended only by a few wires. The rust hole in the floor was fixed temporarily with a greasy pizza box, but we reasoned that this problem could easily be fixed with a tray pilfered from the dining hall on campus, along with a roll of duct tape I'd seen in one of the maintenance closets in our dorm. Forrest stood back with his hands upon his hips and eyed his handiwork proudly.
With a final price of $250 agreed upon, we offered a down payment of $200. A brand new pair of white cardboard 30-day tags was affixed (with wire ties, of course) to the rusty license plate brackets on the car. We sped off into the night, spewing oil smoke and laughter in our wake, no doubt making it difficult for Jersey Joe to see as he followed us back towards campus in his Topaz.
"Hey, let's call thing 'The Beast,'" Joe #2 said with excitement when were were back at our headquarters. All were in agreement. What better name for the new party car than the nickname of our favorite cheap beer — Milwaukee's Best? We decided to throw an empty 24-pack box on the floor hole as a kind of christening artifact.
The ensuing weeks of ratty car ownership were filled with what one would expect from a bunch of 18-year old boys who had spent $50 each on a car. We tore around town, never bothering to insure or register it, emptying cigarette butts and beer cans through the hole in the floor. We ran it into anything that we reasoned it could hold up against — trash cans, dumpsters, small trees, mailboxes, orange highway barrels. It didn't matter to us, the car took it all in stride. The point was that we were able to experience the sheer bliss of watching things explode all over the hood of the Beast without repercussions.
I even took a girl on a date in it on one occasion, watching with sadistic glee as she clutched the rotten sides of her seat, a horrified grimace plastered on her face. Needless to say, she didn't opt for another date with me.
More adventures ensued, including a certain ill-fated late night off-roading adventure at the Redskins training camp in Ashburn, Virginia and a high speed chase on I-95, but that's a different story for another time. Suffice to say, we wreaked havoc with that car, and ran the already failing piece of machinery so hard into the ground that it made its terminal tow truck trip — courtesy of the Fredericksburg salvage yard — before the 30-day tags had even expired. It was a magical time in the lives of four teenage boys, and one of the defining episodes of an academically unremarkable collegiate experience.
Next time, I'll give you the details of how we actually did it in.