(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)


Nashville, TN, Sept 20th 2002 - - I recently returned from a harrowing 40-hour journey to Staten Island and back to buy my new car, a 1989 Volvo 240 DL, silver with black interior, a stately ride indeed for a ol white bluesman.

It was the silver and black part that got my initial attention.  Plus the fact that Volvos are tougher than year-old turnips, yet present a ne sais quoi...a dignity, perhaps, befitting and humble, yet worldly and sophisticated image.

I have taken to performing a lot of leaps of faith lately, and to that end I bought the car on eBay, sight unseen.

(WARNING: This feat was accomplished by a man who is blessed, pronounced with two syllables.  Do not try this without cosmic supervision.)

It is only my second eBay purchase, my first being the laptop I'm now writing on. I couldn't find a car I wanted here in the Ville for money I had, the locals believing as they do that THEIR car is worth about three times Blue Book, so I climbed onto the web.  I don't think I would jump off that cliff again, ą la Butch and Sundance.  But what followed was an adventure.

Here is basically what the ad said: "I bought this car from my sister-in-law, who bought it from her father-in-law, who was the original owner.  It runs great.  It looks great.  The only thing wrong with it is a rust spot the size of a half dollar on the trunk lid. Oh, and the left front turn signal lens is broken.  But the bulb still works."  I looked at the description.  I showed the description to my date, Peppermint Patty.  I agonized. She agonized.  We agonized together.  I watched the ad for a couple of days.  I made a bid.  I watched the ad. Now I was committed to the car.  Someone outbid me. I agonized some more.  Sometimes on eBay, as a way to relieve bidder anxiety, you can "Buy It Now" for a fixed price.  I bit the bullet and Bought It Now.

The guy said he would only take a money order or cash. Well, I'm stupid enough to buy a car on eBay, but no way was I gonna just fire off hundreds of dollars I couldn't really afford to some guy I'd never met for a car I'd never seen.  Besides, having committed to buying it, I had to get it home.  This meant a Soulful Trip was in the offing.  Having allocated most of the money I had to buy this enigma, I had to find a cheap airfare.

Here's a tip: Do not try to find cheap airfares on the Web.  I have tried over and over and over again, and I always end up doing what I ended up doing this time:  calling an airline, in this case, Delta.

Calling an airline for a ticket is Russian roulette; luck of the draw.  You will probably get a right cow on the other end whom you put in mind of her first husband, that pig, no matter how pleasant you are, and who hates you and therefore will only find you the four thousand dollar non-refundable fare from Nashville to JFK. But you may get a warm, pleasant, gently humorous feminine voice that simply has to belong to a brunette beauty who only came to work today because maybe it would be YOU who called, and you DID, and who is so excited because you're going to go buy a mystery car, and who will find you a fully refundable one-way ticket for one hundred fifty-six dollars to MacArthur Field in Islip, Long Island.  I got the brunette.  We discussed marriage. Her name is Sara with no h.

* * *

My flight left Nashville for Atlanta at 6:45 a.m., after I had twice removed my shoes, once at security and again at the gate, for inspection in case the soles were made of C4 explosive.  They're letting guys named Achmed on the plane left and right while they got blondie me taking off my shoes.   But maybe it was because I was dressed for a trip to New York. I love New Yorkers, but going to New York with lots of cash in your kick you don't want to be too prosperous-looking, so as not to attract muggers.  Maybe I was dressed down to such an extreme that, to the security guys at the airport, I looked like a dude with nothing to lose.

What it probably was, though, was that, not wanting to be accused of racial profiling or anything socially ugly like that, they picked out the one guy they could find who looked the absolute most like he's lived here bracketed in the majority (or so it would appear) all his life and who looked like he really wanted to get alive and in one piece to where his ticket said he was going. That is to say, in other words, me.   Or maybe it was just the Grateful Dead T-shirt.  Anyway, they inspected my shoes, although they're pretty unexciting footwear to say the least, twice.

* * *

I flew into Atlanta on a 757 and thirty-five minutes later left for Islip on a little Canadair jet full of Long Islanders, all talking Nyew Yowuk.  We got into Islip, and for five bucks a van driven by an Italian guy named Bobby took me and four other pilgrims to Ronkonkoma Station, where I bought a ticket to Penn Station.

Train comes.  I get aboard.  Lots of Police Academy kids on this trip, it being a Friday afternoon

'Hey, they got a bathroom
on this train?
I really gotta pee'

and they going home for the weekend.  The academy is on Long Island. Well, Central Islip, Brentwood, Deer Park, Wyandanch, Pinelawn, Farmingdale, Bethpage, all go by. I'd bought a Gatorade at Ronkonkoma, I really gotta pee.  I ask one of the cop trainees,"Hey, they got a bathroom on this train?  I really gotta pee."

Looks at me like I'm crazy. I see "Detection of Crazies 101" flashin through his memory pan.

"Of course there's a bathroom on the train.  Where are YOU from?"

"Nashville, Tennessee."

"Uh-huh.  Well, it's in the next car back, I think. Don't they have bathrooms on the train in Tennessee?"

"Hell, man, we don't even have a train."

Shakes his head, like, Jeez, don't even have a TRAIN? Whatta buncha shitkickers.   I find the bathroom, lifting up the seat with one of my explosive shoes.

Hicksville, Westbury, Carle Place, Minneola, New Hyde Park, Floral Park, Bellerose, Queens Village, Hollis go by.  Back from the bathroom, I'm sitting across from...I think it's a guy, kinda hard to tell, but a pleasant enough person although a little Gothic perhaps. Super-long fingernails, sharpened to points, painted black.  Piercings, tattoos.  A Goth in Gotham.  His cell rings, the ringer tune being some dark, moody piece I've heard in horror movies.... dahhhh, dah dahdahh.

"Wha-at?  Ma, I'll be there about two-thirty.  Jeez, I don't know, the train's late, one of the tracks is messed up or somethin'.  You want I should pick somethin' up on the way?" Answering his phone, the little end of the antenna, looks like a diamond or somethin has fallen off.  I lean over and pick it up off the seat, hand it to him.

"Thanks," he says, distracted.  "Okay, Ma, I'll BE there. Jeez.  OKAYyyy.  Bye."

"What time does the train get to Penn Station?" I ask. He pulls out a schedule, looks at it.

"Looks like it's supposed to be there now.  I change in Jamaica.  That's next.  You'll probably get there in about twenty minutes.  Okay, I gotta go.  Where you from, anyway?"

"Nashville, Tennessee."

"Uh-huh.  Okay, well...See ya."

Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Woodside, all go by. The suburbs have a sameness to them that is numbing, but they have been becoming increasingly urban since Carle Place or thereabouts.  Now the train enters a tunnel and even I, from Nashville, Tennessee (uh-huh), know what this means:  we are going under the water to Manhattan. The Long Island Rail Road train gets into the bowels of Penn Station, we must be forty feet down in the bedrock.

It is dark and dank and hot and smells of diesel fuel and ozone.  I follow my fellow commuters up the stairs to another level, a little brighter.  Up more stairs. Up an escalator we're coming into some bright light... Suddenly we emerge into Penn Station proper.  A jazz band, guitar, bass, drums and tenor sax have set up and are playing fusion stuff, sounds like Bethlehem Asylum only thirty years too late.  I am definitely not in Nashville anymore, Toto.

I go up another escalator and, in the middle of a swarm of humanity, I am suddenly on Thirty Fourth Street across from Macy's.  The sky is a bright blue, the weather is unbelievably beautiful, the noise is magnificent.  As are the women.  I am overtaken by the love for Manhattan that I feel every time I am here.

From out of nowhere I think, Fuck you, Osama.  This is MY town. And I suddenly know that before I get on the Staten Island ferry to go see the Volvo, there is another place I will go.

* * *

It is easy to find Ground Zero. Just go to the hole in the skyline.  It's also near the Staten Island Ferry.  I take the N to Whitehall Street. There are lots of other tourists (uh-huh) here with me in The City today.  I follow a bunch of them off the N and we proceed to GZ. Ground Zero has, in the 361 days preceding, been leveled and sanitized.  There isn't much to see, really.  An expanse of turf strangely out of place down here in Lower Manhattan, surrounded by still-standing bulwarks of Democracy and capitalism.

Though I never cared for, and still don't, the sheer arrogance reflected by the building of the World Trade Center, and esthetically found the buildings ugly, my blue-collar nature yet always appreciated the fact that there were real guys and women who actually put the sonsabitches up there: formers, ironworkers, electricians, plumbers, crane operators, carpenters, rockers, painters and punchout men. So that my anger toward the craven asshole who directed and financed the destruction of the WTC comes from my construction-worker past: to see something that took so much work knocked down as a gesture pisses me off.

But my pride in the heroes, my sorrow for the victims, not all of them Americans, is felt as an American reborn.  And my resolve is not necessarily to bring retribution, for who's to blame, but to do what I can, to say what I can, to see that this kind of mindless fervor is never directed toward us again. There have been selfish errors in terms of long-term strategy in the positioning of ourselves in the global economy, and those errors continue, but that is stuff for another time... in the meantime, tears down my face, I'm thinkin Fuck You Osama.  I turn away, back to my own little oil-driven mission.

* * *

One thing you just gotta always do in New York City is eat a hot dog from a cart.  I have my Sabrett's just outside the Ferry Building.

   "I spent the last of my last ten cents
On a nickel bag of candy
   And if I had just ten more cents
    I think I'd take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry"
                                  FRED NEIL ca 1966

The Staten Island Ferry doesn't cost ten cents anymore. It's free, the nice lady at the information booth tells me, and at five o'clock, still not having gotten in touch with my Seller, except once by e-mail so I could check the VIN number...I don't even have his phone number, but I have his address, in case I wanted to send him my money order (yeah, right). Anyway at five o'clock the ferry comes and I get on, Freddie's tune in my head, and fifteen minutes later I'm on Staten Island.  I've never been here before.  At least on the land.  I'd ridden the Ferry countless times back and forth and back and forth a long time ago, trying to figure out what to do, where to go.

I get off and try to find someone who'll tell me which bus to take to E. Maine Avenue, a street no one seems to have heard of before.  Staten Island ain't Martha's Vineyard; it's a bigass place.

'Hey, Man,
I bought your car
on eBay'

I still haven't resolved what I'll do if the car turns out to be a real piece of junk.  Where to go.  What to do.  Thirty years later I still dont know shit.

I hustle up the street and find a phone, call home. Patty has left a message for me that the guy called and left his number.  I call the number.  Guy picks up.

"Hey, man, it's Panama.  I bought your car on eBay."

"Oh, yeh," he says.  "Where are you?"

I tell him where I am.

"Oh, you're on the Island already?" he says, "well, I got a little problem."

Oh, shit, I think.  Here it comes.

"I'd come down an pick you up, but the wife's not home and I'm with the kids."

"That's the problem?  Hell, tell me which bus to take an I'll catch it."

So he tells me and I go find a bus stop.  Bus comes.  I get on.

"How much is the fare?" I ask.

"Dollarfifty," the driver, young black guy, says.

I pull out my wallet, extract a couple bucks.

"Is there a bill acceptor on the bus?" I ask.

"No.  Exact change.  Where you from?"

"Nashville, Tennessee." I know what's comin next...

"Uh-huh.  Well, just sit down.  Where do you want to get off?"

"Victory Boulevard?"


Bus pulls out. Bus gets to Victory Boulevard. I get off.

"Thank you very much," I say.

"Uh-huh.  Bye."

I hoof it down the street.  Find E. Maine.  Find the house.  Knock on the door. I have resolved on the bus over here that, if the car even starts I will take it, having no desire to go back to the City and catch a dogbus all the way back to home. And I can't rely on getting Sara with no 'h' again if I call Delta.

The Seller comes out.  We look at the Car.  The Car is somewhat less pristine than I had been led to believe, but I see nothing I can't deal with, bodywise. And, true to his promise, there is indeed a half-dollar-size rust spot on the trunk lid.  And a busted-out turn signal lens.

He starts it up.  It runs.  It runs good.  Here, Jesus, Gonesh, whoever, I think, take it and run with it.  And fork over the money.  I don't even look under the hood. What a jerk.

"You going back home tonight?" the Seller asks. "I can show you the way to the Goethals Bridge into New Jersey."

It does cross my gray matter that this guy is really anxious to get me out of town.

But I say, "Okay."

And I follow him to the onramp of the Goethals Bridge. He waves goodbye.  It is just now getting dark, about 7 p.m., when I hit New Jersey.  Hell ensues.  Just about every light in the dashboard comes on or goes out.  Or flickers.

Here I am in the middle of NewfuckingJersey, which is all concrete, no telling where the actual road is 'cause everything's paved, and I'm in a strange car with lights saying "Check Engine" and "Oil Pressure" and now the blinkers don't work, and the automatic overdrive light has come on, which means that the automatic overdrive is off, go figure, and I just passed a sign that says "Stay Out of This Area.  If You Must Come Into This Area, Do NOT Get Out of Your Car", and I gotta pull over beside some fuckin NewfuckinJersey warehouse in the gloaming night. I'm starting to feel like one of the loser characters in a Tom Wolfe book getting caught up in shit over which he will have absolutely no control.  I'm fucking panicking here. And what's worse, I can't even get the hood to release so I CAN "CheckfuckinEngine" for Chrissake.  I pull up a little bit, get out, and look back to where I was just sitting.  There is a puddle the size of Lake Erie.  I look under the car.  Oil is vigorously dripping from the Front axle, having been blown back under the car by the fan. I am pissed.  I am pissed.  I am pissed not at eBay, nor myself, nor even the Seller.  I am pissed at the fucking hood release.  I wrench at the sonuvabitch an miraculously...the hood unlatches.

Now, in the growing dark, I can get my little stage flashlight out of my fanny pack and look in there.  It is a sea of oil in the engine compartment.  I've been had, I think, but I ain't gonna sit here in this hole and be eaten by fuckin New Jersey werewolves or somethin.  I'm gonna get some oil and put it in this sonuvabitch and I'm gonna drive it Southward 'til it falls apart.  And I'm gonna do the ultimate evil to the asshole who lied and brought me all the way up here to buy this piece of shit car...I'm gonna write him a scathing letter.

I get some oil, and after going North on the New Jersey Turnpike twice, I finally get turned around headed South, blessed South.  South on the NewfuckinJersey Turnpike until I'm ready to puke.  I check the oil level every rest stop. Hmmm.  Well, it IS goin' down, but slowly, and it's STILL the Arabian Sea in there, but maybe there's hope. I gotta get South, and I don't wanna go through no Wilmington Delaware bullshit, either, middle of the night, no tags, no blinkers, nothin any respectable car should have.  I head West on yet another Turnpike, the Pennsylvania, toward Interstate 81 South, which will take me all the way to Knoxville.  If the car makes it.  If I make it. I've been up now for forty hours, having been too excited and anxious to get any rest but two hours or so the night before.  And by now I'm covered in oil.  Miles of darkness and hours of worry go by.

I get off the Penn Turnpike at Carlisle, home of the Indian School, reminded of my Pawnee carpenter friend Lloyd Cummings, who learned his trade there.  Then I get on Interstate 81, every Southern boy's dream, a road to Home.  I pass or am passed by a dozen State Police cruisers this whole trip, but I use The Force: "These are not the Droids we're looking for..." and they go by.  I drive through the night and that little ten-mile-wide neck of Maryland into the little twenty-mile-wide spur of West Virginia and into Virginia. At just before dawn, at a little truck stop at Exit 323, meaning 323 more miles of I81 through Virginia to Bristol, I pull over, look under the hood, look under the axle, check the oil, crank back the driver's seat, say my prayer and go to sleep.

* * *

I have parked facing West, but still, somewhere about ten in the morning I wake up bathed in my own sweat and the oil that has become symbolic of my failure to behave in a mature and prudent fashion in shopping for a car. I get out, making old man groaning sounds, and look under the car.  Pretty big puddle, but only what has dripped off the engine's exterior during the night, so probably no crack in the block, at least.  Which means maybe oil seal. Crank or cam.  Maybe.  I apologize

Will the Car
make it
up the Blue Ridge Mountains?

to the ecology gods for my sins. I look under the hood, check the dipstick. Same level as when I checked it a few minutes after stopping last night, so Car only slings oil when running. Probably seal. The day looks brighter.  Seals can be replaced.  A lotta trouble, though, which is probably why the Seller offed it.

I add a little oil, go wash up as best I can in the men's, trying to be oblivious to the stares occasioned by this greasy sweaty filthy apparition coming into the small gas station cum grocery store this morning.  I look in the mirror.  Yep.  Look like hammered shit, just as I feared.

Back in the Car, in the daylight, I familiarize myself with my encapsulated environment.  I have owned a Volvo before, and this Car, although 13 years newer than my first had been, nonetheless looks pretty much the same, which was another reason for buying it.  Volvos never go out of style because there is none to begin with. Before I drive, though, I will try to solve some problems.

Why, for instance, does the automatic overdrive, which will save me tons of cash if operable, not work?  First things first:  check the fuse...hmmm, little ribbon on the Euro fuse seems intact, but what if...I pull it out and BINGO! I can see that the fuse, although not burned through, is corroded at one end.  Lean out of the car and grind it a little bit on the pavement, closest thing I got to sandpaper, get a little shine there on the end.  Put it back in, start the Car, put it in drive, the arrow comes on to show that the car is NOT in overdrive, go figure, push the little button on the side of the stick and voilą! the light goes out.  So overdrive happening.  Trip South, if I make it, will be cheaper anyway.

I set out through the Virginia morning.  Mostly where I've been is flatland, even the part of West Virginia that I've driven through which sticks down off the Eastern panhandle is relatively flat.  I begin to sense elevation, know I'm gonna be going through the Blue Ridge Mountains soon. If anything will kill the Car, it will be these next three hundred miles.  I have been maintaining a steady speed of fifty miles an hour.  Now, with the overdrive alive and seemingly well, I juice it up to sixty.  Today I stop every hundred miles to check the oil.  Sometimes the oil temp gauge goes out.  I get out and jiggle the wire until it comes back on.  The temp gauge will tell me when my engine is in serious trouble, so I don't want to lose it.

About noon, I know I'm truly getting close to home, because I see redtails wheeling above in the crystal sky and, halfway through Virginia, the first kudzu vines swarming over the hillsides.  Ahead, I see the Blue Ridge, which I climb without incident.

I get to Wytheville, Virginia, then closer and closer and closer and I'm going through Bristol, Virginia, then Bristol, Tennessee, same city, different states.

I stop for gas at a little store outside Bristol, Tennessee, and, parked beside two Thelma and Louise characters, eat a can of Vienna sausages, drink a bottle of Gatorade, put more oil in the Car and light a shuck for Knoxville.  I'm pretty sure I know what the Car needs: new seals and attention.  The temperature has stayed down, I've lost no water, and I've only had to put two quarts of oil in over seven hundred miles.

I get to Knoxville, cruise toward Nashville.

I get home at 9:30 pm, 948 miles and twenty-six hours after the New Jersey madness, get a hero's welcome from Patty, take a shower, sleep through Sunday.

Monday morning I degrease the engine compartment and tear down the front of the engine, Tuesday I buy a new camshaft seal at NAPA, put it in.  Put the timing belt and its ancillary friends back on and fire up the Car.  No oil comes out.  I celebrate.

By Wednesday night I have restored the blinkers, the brake lights and the automatic doorlocks and gotten my thirty day temporary tag.  I have driven it since, about twelve days since I bought it, with no hint of trouble.

WHY YOU SHOULD ONLY BUY A CAR ON EBAY IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING: There is only one way to explain why my purchase on eBay was successful:  blessings.  As it happens, I know a little bit (only a little) about Volvos, having owned one before, and, as I say, they changed little from about 1976 to about 1995.  The dreaded engine leak depicted in this story was one that I was able to deal with, but only because the problem was relatively near the outside workings of the engine.  Had the problem been inside the engine or in the transmission, for example, I would have been screwed, because I know absolutely zilch about that kind of stuff.

But an oil seal is relatively nothing, if you know what one is and if you can read a repair book. It was a crazy, stupid, foolish thing to do, and fraught with peril as they say, but given the exquisite condition of the stately silver Volvo, Dealer BlueBooked at 3600 dollars, bought for 1200 and repaired with a five-dollar part and some cussing and sweat and dirt, I'm glad I did. But it was a sore temptation of Car-ma, so to speak, and I would never do it again. I didn't get around to writing the scathing letter.  ##



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