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Motor City Memories

January 31, 2009


“I’m a very good driver,” Ray repeated in a nasal autistic accent. When I last saw the movie, Rain Man, I relished hearing Dustin Hoffman recite the line, “I’m a very good driver,” and when he got his chance, he jerked and swerved but didn’t get into a bad accident with the help of his brother.

            My mind swerved to the Driver’s Ed days at Clarenceville High when I’d sit in Mr. Weddle’s room every Saturday morning during the fall of my junior year. This was football season and Mr. Weddle was the coach of our Trojans, one of the teams sitting near the bottom of the Class D league. I was in the Marching Band and had to watch the bloodbaths every Friday night and play my cornet covered in a heavy, foolish-looking Trojan uniform before, at halftime, and after the games. I rarely paid much attention to the game except to watch the opposing team’s score rising during the night to a typical 49-10 or 52-7.

            I felt sorry for Mr. Weddle as he trudged into class, looking tired and angry. He’d put his hat on the desk and then ask us in his typical pissed-off voice, “Okay, conviction for which of the following carries the highest number of points? A. reckless driving, B. hit and run with property damage, C. driving without a license, D. passing a stopped school bus unloading children.

            I didn’t know the answer and I didn’t look forward to going out to drive with the high school coach and two other kids on his errands, to his house, dry cleaners, or the gas station. But that’s just what I did, as he would lie back in his seat and doze off. “Goldman, the dry cleaner is on Middlebelt and 6 Mile Road. Do you know how to get there?” I think so, I would say meekly as I tried to figure out the difference between a right and left turn and where my darn blinkers were. Sometimes, he would wake and slam on the brake violently, sensing we were inches from a head-on.

            When he had me parallel park between two cars, I cut the wheel as hard as I could and pulled up slowly, carefully, until I felt a slight bang in the front end. “Goldman, do you know what you did?” No, coach, what did I do? “You hit my car, that’s what you did; do you enjoy smashing cars?” The laughter was loud and continual in the back of the car as I quickly apologized.

            Even today, my kids and wife think I don’t know how to parallel park. My daughter, Ilana, says that I’m a terrible parker. I counter, “I’m a very good parker,” as close to Dustin as possible.

            I wasn’t much better in the first year after I got my license. My dad hated taking me driving and yelled at me when I slid off the road or made a wide turn. In the first winter, I drove down Rensellor and slid in the snow, scraping the right side of another car perfectly parallel to mine. My ’68 Ford Custom didn’t have front-wheel drive, air bags, or special brakes. It was made to crash into other cars.

            I remember only the scariest moments: spinning in a complete circle three times at Grand River and Telegraph on an icy morning and not crashing into anything; standing on Coolidge and Maple in the middle of a snowstorm after a double feature movie while the car slowly slid right toward the ditch as I turned the wheel as fast as I could.

            Out of state incidents were no better: the midnight drive through the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee with two friends, the “Fog Ahead” sign barely visible, the curves along the mountainside imperceptible in the pitch-black. Rob slept in the back as Scott and I grimaced that this was going to be our last night alive. I latched onto the tail lights of a semi and kept within ten feet as long as I could, hoping the truck wouldn’t lurch over the edge.

            Or the scenic tour from LA to Palm Springs in the middle of day, in the high elevation and continual winding roads that seemed to never stop. For almost four straight hours, I looked straight, away from the beauty of the cliffs below and held on to the steering wheel for dear life, hoping the curves along the mountains would soon stop. Judy held our first child, Kyle, in her belly as I felt the unbearable responsibility, holding the power of my entire family’s lives in my sweat-filled hands.

            My auto memories are not always drenched with dread. When I went from a Wayne State University class into the parking structure on Second Street and couldn’t find my car, I worried a little, but when the parking attendant said that he saw the Yellow Custom driven away a few minutes earlier, I was puzzled: who would steal that rusted, dilapidated junk-yard piece of crap?

            Lonnie Baker, that’s who, Lonnie-escaped-from-prison Baker, whom the police found a few days later when they pulled the car over and Lonnie, with the biggest afro in the history of the seventies, pulled out the driver’s license in the glove compartment and showed the officer his mother’s name, Rochelle Goldman. The police didn’t quite believe that Lonnie was Jewish.

            I had said my goodbyes to the Ford until the police called my parents’ house, telling me to come to court and testify. They said they picked up the thief and needed my corroboration.

            I was terrified and sweaty in court, as if Raymond Burr himself was going to grill me on the stand. When I put my hand on the bible, I was hoping it was the one-and-only Torah given to Moses. I panted and prayed and felt my heart pounding in my throat as Lonnie walked by. His afro almost touched the hanging light, his eyes pierced mine as if to say the stolen car was the least of my problems.

            When his attorney asked how valuable my car was and if I spent a lot on maintenance, I said that I just had gotten an oil change and new filter. He called me a smart-mouth and made me recall when I last changed the tires. When I said I couldn’t remember, I felt like a fraud taking a lie detector test. I was that scared.

            I wasn’t that scared when my best friend, Rob, had his first car stolen at Wayne. It was becoming almost routine and he called the insurance agent when he realized it had disappeared.

His second stolen car was a bigger problem, at least for me. When a few friends and I came out of the Telex Theatre on Telegraph and Ten Mile, we knew something was wrong. There was nothing in our parking spot. I looked at the spot, turned left, looked right, and bent my knees to see if I was missing something.

            I was. I was missing my Journal from my English class. This was no ordinary assignment; it was the journal we had kept since the beginning of class many weeks earlier, the homework that was going to comprise 75% of the course grade. I couldn’t believe my luck. A stolen car was not so bad, but how was I going to get all my words back from the last 8 weeks? There were no computers, no saved documents. This was all I had written, all I had prepared for the class.

            The teacher said the “Missing Journal” stolen with a car was a first in the annals of reasons for homework not turned in. He had heard of feet stuck in toilets, dead grandmas, and dogs that ripped papers apart, but a stolen car with the entire semester assignment inside was a new one.

            The missing journal was never found. I started a new one that was incomplete but my teacher was thoughtful and gave me a B anyways.

            I sometimes wonder if the thief who stole Rob’s car ever sat and started reading my journal. I don’t remember what I wrote but it was personal and meaningful, at least to me. Did he laugh or cry or say, damn, I’m really glad I stole this car? Or did he say, what a piece of luck? I could have found an expensive radio or jewelry but instead I got stuck with the “Life and Times of Arnie Goldman.”


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One Comment
  1. Doug permalink

    I am missing your blogs Arnie……

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