I still remember whipping my head around to look out from my window, trying to catch a last glimpse of what car had made that roar pulling away from the intersection by my house. All I got to see were four round taillights on a red, red car going down the street, with a sound not like one I’d ever heard before. It must have been six or seven years ago that I caught that four-wheeled blink-of-an-eye. If I had been a split second later to the window, if I’d been a little more involved in my homework, I never would’ve seen any of the car, let alone its one distinguishing feature – those four round taillights. Certainly I didn’t know that in just, just making it to the window in time, I had embarked on a full stop love of automobiles.
Only a few months before, while on the bike ride I took every Saturday morning across town to my friend’s house, I noticed something new on the way. Two round headlights on either side of a gaping grill, staring at me with hollow skull eyes. Every Saturday, at the intersection of Villanova and Oak St. I confronted this flat black machine, sometimes swooping around it on my bike, taking in its leaning curves. There was something to it, I didn’t know what, and that empty gaze wouldn’t get out of my head. I had no idea what it was, either. Mysterious, indeed! And like asking around to find out the name of the unknown cutie who walked by in the high school hallway, I started searching around to uncover the identity of this car.
During those weeks when I was still searching out the name of my weekly distraction, those four taillights roared past. In the coming weeks, just as the black car disappeared from my hometown’s streets, I found out that it had been a 1970 Firebird, leaving that question answered. Those four taillights, however, did not wash out from my daily thoughts. They would taunt me – I’d hear that loud, that thunderously loud noise echo closer in my ears. I’d run outside at dusk, pencil rolling off my desk and door wide open, only in time to see those glowing red circles blur indiscernible a few blocks away.
I got better at looking up information on cars, old cars, American cars, muscle cars. Finding pictures from every make and marque, from every angle, from every model year. Four, just four little round lights were my goal. I didn’t find them, not a single car. A loud red enigma could live only in my neighborhood. After school, I’d prowl the internet for clues and before dinner I’d bike around, hoping to find this thing, this thing that I just couldn’t figure out. Even when I did find it, parked on a gravel driveway a few blocks from my house I hardly knew what I’d seen. Four silver lamps on an flat, empty front. I didn’t know what I was looking for. No owner in sight, I went home.
How I found out it was a second-generation Corvair, I don’ know. In my memory, it just sort of fades in, painting a whole body around those four taillights. When I finally knew what it was, though, I didn’t stop there. That flat six had howled at me so many times, howling a challenge. Find me! Know me! Now I knew, but not just the name of a red two-door that parked in the neighborhood, I knew a machine. An open exhaust meant I’d hear it coming a mile away and I knew it. How strange it was to recognize a car the way I’d recognize a friend down the street, or a face from a photo album. Knowing, kennen, connaître, it bound together my neighborhood, my memory of staring out my window, the sights, smells, seasons and events of those months that made up my search. Knowing bound together place and time, memory and emotion to a car.
Those elements became inseparable. Walking to school, my eyes didn’t focus so much on the birds in the trees, the cracks in the sidewalk, or the leaves in the gutter like they used to. My eyes looked out and saw cars parked on the sides of the road. Silver ones, blue ones. Four doors and two doors. Oldsmobiles and Hondas. The blonde in class became the girl with the white Golf Cabrio. I learned people and places by the cars that they drove and where they parked them. That Corvair set the precedent. It’s like I see the world through cars now.
Things changed again when I picked up a camera. Not only did I hunt out cars more and more, learning the streets of my hometown to the point that I could criss-cross the whole town map in my head, but I could look at my pictures again and again, remembering how I had found one car or another, or how I felt when I rounded the corner on my bike to find…a Ford! A Honda! A hot rod! A beater! Memories swirled in those pictures. A Chevy Nova on a hot summer day. On one day I might look at it’s picture and see that baking hot pavement and remember running around in elementary school recess. On another I would remember the phone call I got later that day, a girl’s voice on the other end of the line, free for the day, could I hang out?
After my freshman year of college, hometown for the summer. Riding home for dinner in the evening, spotting four taillights by the curb, and it was almost too perfect. It wasn’t the four red circles on my mind as the shutter snapped away, but the big one my life had seemed to make. I’d gone away to college and I’d rediscovered my home. I was meeting an old friend again, shaking hands, saying hi. The owner came out, son of the man who’d driven the car around when I was in Junior High. Turns out his pa had yelled at me for walking down that gravel driveway those years ago, chased me off from looking at a ’68 Corvette project he was working on. For years after that I was very secretive about liking cars, not talking about them, not letting on that I studied every one that drove past and every one parked on the street.
Here I am now, studying the history of technology and conducting research on the history of the automobile, my parents have moved out of the house I grew up in, and nostalgia is blurring my hometown memories as much as the dust on my camera lens. Two years ago I was too excited to remember to wipe it clean. This Corvair put a hunger in me and I’m still not satisfied. I can’t really see any conclusion here, so I’m just going to go out and take some more pictures of cars.