What about cars, anyway?

1947 Cadillac Series 62

1947 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible
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2014 is five months old, and the odometer in my car has turned about nine thousand times. I spend a lot of time in that car, coming from, going to, flirting with the illusion of arriving now and again.

Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, over and over and over once more, followed by an inevitable return to Illinois. In between, a few trips into Chicago each week for an errant open mic or showcase. The destinations change, but the routes are always the same; a homologous assortment of bars and road side diners and drive-through cuisine.

For once, last week, I made a trip that had nothing to do with comedy, at least not in practice. I went on a guys' weekend with my dad and brother to the Auburn Spring classic car auction in Auburn, Indiana. It's a long-standing tradition in the car collector community, of which I am not a member. Sometimes, I have illusions of being a classic car enthusiast, but then I get distracted by MacBooks and iPhones or God forbid a lightning bug flies past.

We arrived Thursday afternoon and walked the lot, took in the massive selection of cars being offered for auction, oohing and ahhing. Gorgeous classics on all sides, show quality and otherwise, spanning more than a century of automotive history, extended across hundreds of acres. It was a toy store for half-adult-man-children.

Right away, the pattern for the rest of the weekend emerged. My dad would say, "Look at that Oldsmobile next to that Buick!" I'd point at a car and say, "That one?" and he'd say, "No, the Oldsmobile." Then I'd say, "Yeah," and pretend I knew what I was looking at. For the most part, I had lots of fun, which is easy to do when you're mostly ignorant.

As a kid and a teenager, I was much more of a car enthusiast. I had subscriptions to Road & TrackCar & Driver and Cars & Parts magazines. I could identify cars of almost any make and model year at night by the shape of their headlights, and often entertained myself for hours during long road trips doing just that. Amid daydreams of restoring a Mercury Turnpike Cruiser or Crosley Station Wagon, I'd read Peter Egan's and Csaba Csere's columns and imagine a future writing for those publications.

Then I owned a series of beater cars, and dated a series of women who owned beater cars. Every weekend, Saturday was spent tearing apart my car and putting it back together so that it would make it through Sunday, and Sunday was spent tearing apart my girlfriend's car so that it would make it through Monday. During the week, my days were spent maintaining ice rinks and Olympias (the Zamboni alternative). For a few years, I was constantly wrist deep in grease and ankle deep in antifreeze. My knuckles to this day are a patchwork of scars and scalds from the non-stop wrench-turning.

After a while, the very last thing I wanted to read was a car magazine, and the thought of restoring a classic car made each of my particular hairs stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine. My love affair with cars went on indefinite hiatus after doing a brake job on one of those ex-girlfriend junkyard refugees. While trying to break free the caliper pin that had rusted in place after the untold parsecs the car had driven, the ratchet slipped free and my hand flew into a labyrinth of suspension parts.

While shaking the pain out of my fingers, I noticed a spreading pool of red fluid under the brake assembly, and let loose with a string of choice metaphors that I'm sure led to my neighbors moving away. Inspecting the caliper and brake lines revealed no leak or puncture, which just made me angrier; I must have damaged the lines farther in and would have to start pulling more things apart. At my tool chest, though, I noticed that the red fluid was trailing me on the floor. Turned out it wasn't brake fluid at all, it was blood from an inch-and-half long, bone-deep gash in my middle finger.

And I was relieved. It was comforting to know I hadn't damaged the rust pile, only my body was injured. Just my blood gushing out all over the place. Thank God for small miracles, right?

From that point on, my car interests waned rapidly. It was enough to be the shade tree mechanic every weekend and the rink rat maintenance man during the week. Holding a wrench became something to escape, not desire. Too much of a good thing, you know?

But that car interest is creeping back in, and there I was in Auburn, Indiana, sitting behind the steering wheels of Morris Minors and Cadillac Series 62's. I even got trapped inside a 2001 Ferrari 550 Maranello because apparently in Italy, they design door handles as super secret devices that only make sense once you've exhausted every option short of kicking out the windshield. Bad Italians, Bad!

Slipping back into enthusiasm for cars, classic and otherwise, feels correct now. Especially as a person who spends 30-40 hours a week in a car at times. There are a lot of exciting developments going on right now, with hydrogen fuel cell cars actually hitting the market this year, and electric cars coming into their own with real coast-to-coast capability from the Tesla Model S. It's about time for me to start enjoying cars again instead of resenting them.

And maybe it's just about time for me to go out and find that Mercury Turnpike Cruiser of my dreams.




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