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Summer Nights and Dashboard Lights

The only thing Christopher Sacco knows about cars is that he doesn’t know anything about cars. But if you're looking for a good story about cars, he’s just the mechanic you need.

I’m not what you’d call a “car guy,” at least not in the traditional sense. Give me a wrench and pop that hood and I’m about as useful as a pair of hands in a soccer match. I’ve never done anything mechanical to a car, which makes me an easy target for dishonest mechanics.

(“What’s that you say? I need a new ‘air conditioner cushion pin’ and you’ll give me a great deal? Done. And while you’re at it, go ahead and do that ‘tire defoliation’ you mentioned last time.”)

I’ve owned two cars in my life and, after my current one goes to that big parking lot in the sky later this week, I’ll have junked both of them. (This means I’ve got a perfect record when it comes to failed vehicles. I should also clarify that my first car technically wasn’t “junked,” but rather donated. My father suggested I do this so I could write off the value of the vehicle on my taxes. I ended up using the short form to file, which meant there wasn’t anywhere for me to include information regarding a donated vehicle. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Sacco: 0, IRS: 1.)

Junking a vehicle can be a very emotional time. Some will remember all the work they put into the engine to enhance its performance. Others will reminisce about the weekends spent washing and waxing the exterior to get the perfect shine. And let’s not forget about those who get teary-eyed about the many trips they’ve shared with their car at the Taco Bell drive-thru.

For my part, the demise of a car conjures up memories of every car I’ve ever been in. Some of the memories are silly, like how my friend used to hide air fresheners under his seats so that the source of the pleasant aroma was a mystery to any women he chauffeured. Others are depressing upon reflection, like the fact that I used to be able to fill up my gas tank and get dinner at Subway for a grand total of $10.

I also recall specific excursions, like when a group of my friends and I drove to the top of a mountain in Dunellen. Five of us piled into the car my friend had borrowed from his mother; an ancient-but-well-kept Buick that was on its last legs (or wheels, depending on how far you want to take that metaphor). About 15 minutes before we reached the top of the mountain, lights starting illuminating all over the dashboard – “battery dead,” “low oil,” “get as far away from car as possible,” etc. It was like the inside of the car was decorated for Christmas. What my friends and I ultimately concluded was that the engine had over-heated from the vertical nature of our drive and that we needed to let it cool down before continuing our ascent. (Looking back, this explanation makes no sense. Can cars tell the incline at which they’re driving? I doubt it.)

So every three minutes or so, we’d stop the car and park on the side of the road until a few of those dashboard lights would turn off, thus signaling that the car had returned to, um, normal temperature. Every time we stopped on that narrow and winding mountainside road, the cars behind us would honk and their passengers would yell obscenities at us as they crept past. We didn’t necessarily blame the passersby for their vulgarity, but their aggressiveness was a bit over the top. (Did they really have to lean out of their car windows to scream? Probably not.)

When we (finally) got to the top of the mountain, hundreds of houses spread out below us, each one glowing a soft yellow due to their interior lighting. Directly beneath the platform we were standing on was a thicket of trees that spiraled down to the mountain’s base. As I looked down at that slanted forest, I didn’t realize that I would still remember it vividly nearly a decade later. Yet here I am, still conjuring up memories of the view and sniffing the air in front of my computer as though I’ll be able to recapture the scents of the forest as they combined with that summertime mountain air.

Still, the thing that has stayed with me the most is that rusty old car we traveled in. The way it almost broke down at every sharp curve. The way we barely fit in its back seat. The way it repeatedly got us cursed off by strangers. That’s the magic of a car when you’re young: Its ability to become an extra participant on your journey; its personality ultimately becoming as integral to the event as the friends who ride inside it.

I was once acquainted with a car that would stop dead in its tracks if you pressed the fog light button while it was in motion. Another one I road in had no fabric on its interior roof. In its place was a grimy looking and damp-scented powder that would rub off in your hands when you touched it. The major ailment of my first car – an electric blue 1993 Dodge Shadow – was that its “check engine” light was always on. I used to put my thumb over it as I drove so I wouldn’t be distracted. I did this for a year.

And then there was my best friend’s 1992 Cavalier. It, like every car we had access to in those days, was in the process of falling apart, but had one feature that none of the others did. It was a convertible. One night about a week before my best friend left for college, a few of us were aimlessly driving around East Brunswick in his car, the top down and the stars in plain view. I recall an overwhelming sense of invincibility as we traveled that night, one combined with the blind purity of youth and the knowledge that the only thing in the way of our futures was our own doubts about it. Maybe it was the company of my closest friends that created these feelings or the warm waves of summer blowing through the car. Perhaps it was the unobstructed vista of that clear August sky or the realization that in a week our group would be separated and wouldn’t be rebuilt until the weather had turned harsh and cold. And maybe – just maybe – it was all because of that convertible and the freedom it represented.

I guess I might be a “car guy” after all.

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