Automobiliaphila (1996)

(2007: This is a piece I do when performing “Tales” live. Some details have changed with the passage of time, such as that insurance thing — you’re not allowed to switch policies the way Hollis has.)
AUTO DA FE
Hollis the Mountain Man ponders love and the winter rat

For the first time in the many years we’ve been acquainted, Hollis the Mountain Man is not running a “winter rat.” Here in New England, where the snow, and the state-sponsored salt corrodes us all, automobiles have an impressively shortened life. A winter rat (also known as a “beater”) is usually a big six cylinder American-made car like Chevy, Ford, or Dodge. A wide wheel wheel base is preferable for weight on the ice), you can put your “real” car on blocks for the season, and drive the rust-bucket with impunity. As recently as the 1980s, one could pick up, say, a ’70s Nova for two hundred bucks, insure it for another two hundred and laugh as the salt rotted the floor beneath your feet. What the hey — it was only for the winter months.

Hollis was the longtime champ of the winter rat derby. His collection of Chilton manuals was unrivalled, and his rats were bigger, more hulking, with more weird engine pinging. He’d find them by the side of the road, deep in New Hampshire through the WantAdvertiser (the Tritownie book of psalms), or somehow, in an automotive version of destiny, the car would find him. Of course these clunkers would break down, seize up, develop an settling shimmy at 17 miles an hour, but he’d just get another one. Wasn’t that the point of the winter rat?

“My recommendation now,” says Hollis with the prim zealotry of the newly converted, “is that you save throughout the year, and in the fall, buy a new one. When you buy a $1000 winter rat, and insure it for $300, by the end of December, you have a $1300 investment that doesn’t run. Don’t forget — cars never break down in the summer. It always happens with three feet of snow, at minus ten with a 30 mile an hour wind out of the north. At night.”

“You sound sadder than wiser about this,” I say. “What about your “fun” cars — the VW
Thing, the Volvo, the Yugo, the Bel Air, the DeSoto, the schoolbus you were going to buy, convert to a trailer-home and park in the woods and live for free?”
“Dreams of youth,” sighs Hollis, meditatively warming his calloused fingertips around
a Syracuse mug filled with coffee as thick and as dark as three-year-old crankcase oil. His eyes crinkle a bit at the corners, but his thin lips are smoothly set. Won’t get fooled again, as the band of our youth says.
***
The practical problems with running a winter rat in this state have finally overwhelmed the pleasures. Used to be, you could transfer your registration from your winter rat to your summer rat. Now when you stop insurance, you have to bring the plate in. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m not insuring this for summer ’cause it’s my winter rat,'” explain Hollis regretfully.

Currently Hollis drives a Japanese pick-up truck. It’s brown, it’s two years old, it has some dented fenders, and he never has to think about it. Even when he got rammed anonymously in a parking lot, he didn’t gripe for more than a week. “My luck with cars mirrors my luck with romance,” he muses. “The less attention I pay to it, the better it is. The more I care about it — well, that guarantees disaster.” But surely it must be a pleasure to drive a vehicle that fires up every time you insert the key and doesn’t have distressing mechanical failures like doors coming off hinges or rear-view mirrors detaching.

“I’m totally indifferent to this truck. It was bought for practical reasons only,” he says
serenely. “I have lost interest in love and cars. I can’t afford either anymore.”

The real reason for Hollis’s disaffection for cars is less complicated and completely
unexpected. They break on him. He has the alltime worst luck when it comes to making a vehicle go when he wants it to. Which is utterly perverse because he hails from a family of scientists and handymen, theorists and tinkerers. He can diagnose a car problem quicker than Click or Clack, and without the damn sarcasm either. Felix the Urban Naturalist was having trouble with his Ford — on sub-zero days, the car would take longer to warm up, and then mysteriously conk out on the road. “Could be carburator icing,” says Hollis authoritatively. “Or the heat riser valve. When the engine is cold, it’s supposed to control the flow of warm air from exhaust manifold to carburator to allow proper mixing, also to allow de-icing and maintain a temperature that keeps gas from condensing on the cylinder wall. The way you can tell about that, water in the fuel filters begins to ice up.”

At this point, my contact lenses shift on my eyeballs and the world turns misty. Car talk
always makes me nervous — it’s flirting with disaster. “Most of the people I know spend $300 to a grand on a car, slap some tires on, pour gunk in the radiator to seal the leaks. If I do that, I get nothing but problems, but the minute I give a car to a friend, it runs perfectly and they drive it for the next two years.” A few years back, Hollis and his friend Andre the Lumberjack were scouting out a lot, and Andre noticed an orange Volvo sedan with tiger stripes and more than 100k on the odometer. Hollis, for once, didn’t buy anything, “but Andre offered what amounted to the change in his pocket for the Volvo, and ended up driving it back and forth across the country. I tell you, I have no luck with cars.”

Hollis’s automobiliaphilia reached a peak in the mid-1980s. “I went through five cars in a single year — a Renault Fuego, a Pinto hatchback, a vw thing, a Volvo stationwagon and a Toyota celica — a ’76, the best year for those. I received five excise bills from the town, and the registry had no clue what car I had on the road. Neither did my insurance company — they were always three cars behind. So they lost track of the excise, and when it finally caught up to me eight years later, I paid all kinds of penalties, and ultimately, for a couple of these cars, much more than I’d paid for them in the first place.” Sadder but not necessarily wiser, indeed. For Hollis, there are certain cars that are the ur-vehicles, which he covets. His favorite cars share certain features like rounded design lines, curved rear windows, big round bumpers. Late ’40s Desotos, most ’50s Chevies, the more bulbous the better. All we had to see was the rounded top of a deux cheveaux or the squat profile of a mid-’60s Volvo, to say, “Cute. A Hollis the Mountain Man car.”

“Most guys have a thing for muscle cars — ’70s sports cars with hardtops, like the kind your brother likes.” Indeed, my brother went through a prolonged infatuation with Chargers, GTOs, Mustangs, and, the sharklike trophy of Detroit’s pre-oil embargo design squad: the Challenger. Of course, he usually had some rustiferous, clanking metal beast as well. For the winter.

Nowadays, Hollis acts as hands-on Bodhissatva for his friends’ automotive difficulties.
Like his pal Rollo the Late Shift Laborer, who has driven a Yugo since the Bush
administration. “Now that car’s fine for him, because he’s driving it,” says Hollis. “If I bought that car, the steering wheel would have come off in my hands, the heater switch crumbled to dust against the dashboard, and the seat would have bucked through the floor and thrown off sparks against the road. But if anything goes wrong, Rollo just brings it up here and I fix it. It’s when I fix things of my own, that they get worse. Like, I got my Rambler–” (a hulking sedan, with a sinister chrome grin) “–and it had frozen brakes. So I put in a new master cylinder, turned the drums, checked it all. And now none of ’em brake. That’s just the way it is.”I went from two brakes functioning some of the time to no brakes working ever. At least you can move the damn thing now — you can roll it. I move it around the driveway to give the false impression that I’ve taken it out for a spin.”

Hollis warms to his subject, filled with the righteousness of the prophet of his time, equating the quixotic forces of love and cars. “Everything I’ve loved has left its scar, like the car I loved the most, Babs, the ’56 Bel Air.” We remind him of his caveat never to name cars unless you intend to put them on blocks, remove the engine and grow sunflowers in the hood cavity, and he shakes his head ruefully. “Babs, I loved, and on a cold and blustery night, that car went into a wall, threw me through the door, and then pissed gasoline all over me. And 11 years later, the three ribs she so lovingly broke in this accident have never healed. Now I have pains along both sides of my chest as I reach geriatric age. Not quite in the right place for heartache, but damn close. Car ache.”

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