COAL: 1987 Pontiac Safari: What’s She Gonna Do, Crash It?

 I have mixed feelings about the years I drove this car, between age seventeen and age twenty, and the stunted and backfiring progress of my life at that time.

That I have a single photograph of this car is a miracle. The car disappeared from my life in 1996, long before the advent of ubiquitous consumer digital imaging. Not that we lacked cameras! I owned a camera from the age of seven – a Kodak Instamatic using 110 cartridge film and a fixed focus with a telephoto slide, and I used it to take pictures of buildings and family on vacation. I had a Polaroid 600 for my ninth birthday, and one of the first ten fiercely expensive exposures was my father pale and drawn with walking pneumonia sitting on the redwood outdoor furniture on the deck outside the kitchen. Ron Pollack, who had the camera store in Monticello on Rte. 42 near the Monticello High School, gave me a Kodak fixed focus 35mm point-and-shoot for my bar mitzvah in 1988, and from that camera, which shot dozens of rolls of film until it melted in 1997 on the package shelf of my Oldsmobile, I have a single exposure, from 1995, of the Pontiac.

We hardly ever took pictures of our cars, because cars were substrate, tools, essential mobility, the source of heartache and irritation, but not not admiration as objects in themselves. They were central to our lives but they were not at the centers of our imaginations.

Moishe Kleinberger’s Mobil Station, at the only traffic light on the Quickway between Harriman and Jamestown.

In 1987, the service station in Parksville was owned by Moishe Kleinberger, the Baron of Parksville, who also owned five other businesses on the four corners of the only stoplight on the Quickway between Harriman and Jamestown. Moishe deputized his younger brother to run the repair shop. The 1980 Caprice Classic wagon my parents had purchased at Malcolm Konner in Paramus was pushing closed to 130,000 miles, and I remember the problem was “the lifters”. What were lifters? I had no idea about the anatomy of the pushrod 305 Chevrolet engine in that Caprice, let alone what lifters were, and the younger Kleinberger quoted a engine overhaul price to my mother for fixing the problem that put the kibosh on the idea of keeping the car.

A hunt for a new wagon began. It would not be a minivan, because my mother, five foot two and a 110 pounds soaking wet, was extremely suspicious of the structural integrity of “vans” and was much more confident in sedans. She had a subscription to Consumers Reports and there was a bidding war between a blue 87 Caprice in Montgomery and the Safari, which was being sold at the Colandrea Pontiac in Newburgh, NY. I remember sitting in the back seat of the ‘80 Caprice with my two younger sisters, in the Colandrea parking lot, windows rolled down on a warm late summer night, while my parents finished bargaining. I think it was thirteen thousand cash? To celebrate, Dad took the five of us out for Italian at Guida’s in Newburgh. I remember the tartufo for dessert – the little candied cherry inside the chocolate ice cream bombe.

Purple, wood stream, mauve interior. Cruise control. Four speed automatic transmission with overdrive. Six-way adjustable driver’s seat, never high enough for Mom. Air-conditioning. The AC Delco stereo radio without cassette deck. Full-size spare tire, secret compartment next to the rear gate. Seats eight. EIGHT.

I first drove the car on my sixteenth birthday in 1991, without having a learners permit. Dad encouraged me to take the wheel on a birthday visit at my boarding school (five days, home on weekends), and I drove the car about a hundred feet from one of the lots behind the Upper School towards the Quad. I was unfamiliar with everything about steering, braking, or accelerating, and drove the car one hundred feet forward and twenty feet off of the road uphill onto the fancy landscaping and shrubbery. Driver’s Education with Mr. Clarke would not come until the spring of my junior year in high school, and time was not found for a weekday visit to the Sullivan County DMV for the learners’ permit for weeks to come.

Thanksgiving came, no permit. December crawled into Christmas break and a trip to Italy and Switzerland, no permit, and then, January 5, 1992, came the great American History paper catastrophe. I was two days late handing in a paper – on abolitionism before the Civil War – because it was due the day we came from break, and I had spent the last two weeks in Europe not doing schoolwork. We arrived from the airport back to school at 7pm on a Sunday night. I was planning to stretch my two page draft, to full length in a marathon overnight session, but Dad realized as I was unpacking that I had not finished all of my school work before the trip, as promise, and flipped out. I was banned from driving until my senior year. No learners permit until the summer.

The punishment backfired. I could have had my license in the spring and driven myself to summer jobs, but instead, my parents had to continue driving me. I worked at Camp Kennebrook, a chi-chi sleepaway camp in Bethel the next summer, and Dad had to drive me to work every single day sometimes an hour out of his way. Of course I waited hours after work to be picked up. Later that summer, I started picking up volunteer shifts at the public radio station in Jeffersonville, another thirty mile round trip to nowhere for Dad, and the obligation only got more onerous. By late August 1992, on Sunday mornings alternating with Tom and Carol Foresta, I started hosting The Morning Muse, which was two hours of unprogrammed classical music from station sign-on at 5:55am until Weekend Edition Sunday began downlinking. Glenn Woodell would spell me at ten am with his show tunes and film music all queued up on 33’s and 45’s.

By then, I had my learners permit and was taking drivers ed, and driving to my Sullivan County appointments with Mom in the Pontiac or Dad in the Oldsmobile, and all through the fall, every other Sunday morning at 5am, I would wake up, use the touch-tone to call the computer at the radio tower to turn on the transmitter and record the power levels, wake Dad, and we would head out to Jeffersonville. Sometimes Dad would take me to the empty parking lot at Apollo Plaza for parallel parking lessons, and that’s where I learned about wet brakes and drum brake fade.

When my grandmother moved back to Florida for her last winter, my mother joined her for weeks on end, and the Pontiac sat unused in front of the house. My driver’s test was scheduled for the middle of February. The first try, I took the wagon, and the examiner directed me to parallel park in a too small space between Judge Hanofee’s Cadillac and a snowbank on Court Street in Monticello, and I backed into the snowbank. The retest was three weeks later, and I passed, parking in the same space. That time, I was driving the new ‘93 Lincoln Continental dad had as his second lifetime professional corporation lease, from Marty Braunstein’s Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Liberty. Marty’s wife Marsha was my first grade secular studies teacher in Hebrew Day School.

Finally, wheels!

There were some cold days in the Catskills after Pinatubo blew. I remember one Sunday predawn subzero morning trying to start the carbureted wagon, and thinking to rush the warm-up by racing the cold engine, as the freezing air from the vents stank of unburned gasoline. Mom screamed and I learned something new about car ownership.

I started driving myself in the Pontiac to the radio station and to work in the preseason at the camp on weekends. I wasn’t allowed to have a car in the boarding program, although the day students all did, and the first time I drove myself to my high school was graduation day. Two weeks after graduation, I lugged my friends Ritesh, Joe, and Tom, along with their double bass, a Rhodes piano, and fretless twelve string guitar, out to the radio station for a Studio B jam session with Dave Dann.

I noticed that I could not floor the engine going uphill. The accelerator could be pressed to the floor, and the engine would not notice. The maximum speed I could accelerate to uphill was about forty-five miles per hour, and I would open up the speed on the preceding downhill stretch to preserve momentum. This was a metaphor for life.

My job was running the food concession at Kennebrook that summer, and there was a hot English blonde on a temporary work visa helping me, and I tried to take her out several times – always getting shut down. By the time the concession shut for the night and all the teen campers were asleep, it could be close to midnight, and I would drive home, smelling like vanilla ice cream and chlorine bleach, down the country roads.

Late in the summer, my friends’ and I had a two hour block from ten to midnight on a Saturday, for freeform radio, which we called Jeff Horse. Halfway through the Annihilator, the Monty Python, and the Spalding Gray, another friend prank called the station and said he had received an FCC official complaint. Oh, how Dana laughed after I shat my pants. We had a midnight drag race, me in my mom’s Safari and Jason’s in his dad’s Firebird, and I almost overtook him on the blind curve outside of White Sulphur Springs..

The Pontiac was still Mom’s and she was recovering from mourning her mother’s death in May, and I would go to college without a car. But I drove myself there, the wagon loaded with my computer, clothes, boxes of books, bookshelves, carpets, while Dad took my sisters and mother in the Lincoln.

I did not drive for most of a year, and I came home from a catastrophic freshman year (dual major Biology PreMed/Communications, the fall was twenty-one credits and a 2.4 GPA, the spring was eighteen credits and a 1.8 GPA, and I pulled a C and an F in the summer marathon inorganic chemistry double course)., I started using the car to work at the radio station again, then, I picked up work stringing for the Times Herald Record in Monticello from Dave Figura, who liked that I was a Cornell kid from the Communications program in the Ag school, and he sent me out to cover town meetings and little news items outside the crime and politics beat.

THR front page

My front page story.

First tire change – a flat in the Record parking lot in mid-November 1994. Tris Korten, who was doing the crime beat, helped me change it before I drove out to the Town of Eldred monthly meeting.

First skid off the road into a ditch, outside of Livingston Manor as I was driving in a snow storm to a Livingston Manor school board meeting. I hit the brakes to avoid a deer and oh, dear, lost friction at fifteen miles an hour, and ended up in a ditch. I walked to a nearby house and called Mom, who called Sam The Thief, who had the AAA franchise in Liberty, and I was moving again, without damage in an hour and a half. Lesson: Don’t hit the brakes suddenly in a rear-wheel drive car with rear drum brakes.

1987 Pontiac Safari

The only picture of the car I possess, over there behind the Cadillac.  James and Howard scowl in the parking lot of the defunct gaming store.

First uncontrolled skid – Route 17B heading north to Bethel from Monticello past the Raceway “I forgot something at the office” and I jerked the wheel over for a quick U-turn, only I was doing thirty, not five. Ooops. SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Ended up facing one hundred eighty degrees around – the direction I had planned to be heading in, but I was in the Bernie’s parking lot. Okay, I needed to be a much better driver.

I bought the car from Mom in November of 1994 with money I had earned from the newspaper, and took it back to school that summer, when I retried the honors chemistry class I’d bombed the year before. I kept the car parked next to Dickson Hall and drove it seven times that summer. Once to Hamilton to pick up my friend James for a visit to Ithaca, when the radiator blew on the Thruway in the high summer heat. The car had actually overheated several years before and fried a wiring harness, and had been the subject of a telephone call to Bob and Ray Magliozzi on CarTalk in 1990.  Click and Clack recommended selling the car after the first overheating.  I managed to get the car to a garage, quickly returned to service with new radiator, and we finished the roundtrip to Hamilton.

I moved back into my old ecology dorm, the only dorm with private bathrooms and ensuite air-conditioning. I remember driving the 140 miles from Ithaca to Loch Sheldrake on October Sunday morning, to a defensive driving class at the Sullivan County Community College, in one hundred minutes. Defensive driving! I was such a stupid twenty year old.

First (and second to last to today) speeding ticket: on the downhill in heading into Mountaindale in front of Glick’s Chevrolet Thanksgiving weekend 1995, I hit 73 in a 55 on the Quickway, and a state trooper gave me a ticket which I ignored. Ignoring the ticket bit me back the next summer when the car was murdered.

I moved from the dorms to a summer apartment on the first floor of a house next to the Hillside Inn – a notoriously seedy motel on Stewart Avenue right next to West Campus. The  There were five coeds staying upstairs.  I worked as a “night rambler” for the Cornell high school summer college experience program.  After curfew, I changed the cores of the locks on the entry doors to the now demolished Class of ’18 and Class of ’21, and then I would hide in the bushes and stalk high school students trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. It paid five dollars an hour, and I slept until noon.  I had the hots for one of the coeds – a woman named Melissa who was also a rising junior, like me.

The first weekend in July was a board-gaming convention in Columbus, Ohio.  I offered to drive, but my friend Ken had a much more fuel efficient minivan.  But there was a much more dangerous complication – the State of New York had suspended my license because I had ignored the speeding ticket! (Twenty.) I could not drive the car until Mike Keiser answered the ticket for me in Town of Thompson Court, and that would be after the weekend.  So I had a brainwave – what if there was an emergency and the car needed to be moved? I gave the keys to Melissa. “To Move In Case of an Emergency. As we left town, I admitted to misgivings, and my friend Peter said, “What’s she gonna do, crash it?”

I returned from Columbus and the car was twelve inches shorter.

Peter ate a bee in penance in my kitchen.

Melissa had taken the car joyriding, gotten drunk, had the  keys taken from her by a Chinese student named Tai Tan, and the next morning, Tai Tan was returning the car to the apartment house when she lost control of the car and broadsided a Cornell F-250, doing $20,000 in damage. The front end was destroyed, except for one headlight pod. The hood would not open. State Farm totalled the car for $2700, and I bought it back for salvage for $250. The frame was bent – I remember keeping the steering wheel at a ninety degree angle to compensate, and drove it back to Liberty at the end of the summer and parked it behind my father’s office, where it waited for a scooper to come save and rehabilitate it.

The first buyer returned it because the title had been burned for salvage, but the second buyer whisked it away for $750 dollars. I was now an assigned risk, and I had $3500 for a new car. That car would smell of cigars.