(View the map for this chapter.)
“You can throw your shit in the back,” Steve said in a low, raspy voice without a hint of a Southern accent. He was dressed in torn jeans and a ragged t-shirt, and he had a thick neck and a shaved head. I had flown to Houston the night before on a one-way ticket to pick up the Corvette I had won in an eBay auction. It was the morning of the Fourth of July and Steve, who was selling his Corvette, had agreed to meet me at my hotel.
After my bid had won, I had wired Steve a down payment. Then I had taken out a loan for the remainder and my bank had issued me a cashier's check. There was no turning back.
I tossed my day bag into the bed of Steve's rusty pickup truck and climbed in, thinking: This guy owns a Corvette?
“How's life in Minnesota?” Steve asked after he had started driving.
“Rochester's boring, but I have a feeling my life's about to get better. How do you like Houston?”
“It's starting to grow on me. My wife and I are from Seattle, and we were reluctant to move here, but I had a nice job offer. It was tough at first because of the different climate and culture, but eventually we adjusted.”
Steve probably had lots of interesting stories about the difficulties involved in moving such a long distance, but my thought process was limited to the Corvette. “Why are you selling your car?” I asked, and thought: Shit, I probably should have asked that before placing my bid.
“I bought a newer Corvette. I guess I'm becoming an enthusiast.”
“Oh? How many have you owned?”
“Three. The first was a '73 that I bought about ten years ago. I spent more time and money restoring it than I'd like to admit, but it was a labor of love.” The glimmer in his eyes told me that despite being in a pickup truck, he was driving the '73 'Vette in his mind.
“The only problem was the suspension,” Steve continued. “The ride was so bumpy I got back spasms from driving it. So I decided to sell it a few years ago and bought a newer one: yours. That baby rides smooth as a Cadillac by comparison. Then, about a month ago, I found a good deal on another Corvette with fewer miles and a hundred extra horses. I figured it'd only cost a couple thousand bucks for the upgrade, so I went for it.”
A couple thousand bucks? Did he get a good deal or did I get ripped off?
We were driving south on I-610, moving slowly past downtown skyscrapers. The road was packed with far more traffic than I was used to seeing in the small Midwestern cities where I had always lived. Steve was driving carefully, with both hands on the wheel. I hoped he treated all of his vehicles this well.
“Is this your first Corvette?” he asked.
“Yes. In fact, I've never even sat in one.” This trip was full of firsts: Owning a car worth more than $2000. Flying on a one-way ticket. Using eBay. I wondered what else I had been missing out on.
“Well, you're in for a treat.”
Steve exited the freeway and drove into an upscale neighborhood with palm-lined streets. We rounded a few corners, zigzagging through a maze of million-dollar stucco homes with big, groomed lawns and swimming pools, and drove to the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. I recalled my first impression of Steve in his old clothes and truck. Never judge a book by its cover.
“Well, here we are,” Steve said, parking on the street. We got out of the truck and walked up his driveway. His house looked like every other one in the neighborhood, but I was most interested in the attached three-car garage. The anticipation built as I remembered that I had to drive home in whatever was inside, cherry or lemon. “I think you're gonna be real happy with what you got.” He clicked a remote with his thumb and the garage door opened. Inside, two nearly identical shiny black Corvettes were sitting next to each other, backed in and ready to hit the road.
I was about to ask which one was mine when Steve clicked another remote. The car on the left squawked twice and he dropped the keys into my hand. “You're welcome to relax at the house for a while. Or we could go for a spin.”
I was bright-eyed and grinning. “Let's drive.”
Steve opened the passenger door with a cotton towel. “I don't like to touch it, you know? I wouldn't want to get any fingerprints on the finish. I've probably put a hundred coats of wax on this baby.” It sounded like an exaggeration, but the car was shiny enough for me to see my happy face reflected from a hundred angles. I slid into the driver's seat and put my hands on the wheel, relieved that my six-foot-three body actually fit. The seat was so close to the ground, it felt like I was sitting in a go-kart. Steve carefully sat in the passenger seat and shut the door. I pushed in the clutch and turned the key. The engine roared to life.
“Let's drive around my neighborhood until you get used to it,” Steve said.
I eased the car onto the road and drove cautiously. I knew it was now my Corvette, but it still felt like I was borrowing Steve's car. He could get mad at me if I mistreated it.
“Come on!” he yelled. “It's a Corvette, damn it! Now hit the gas!”
Now that I had his permission, I put the pedal to the floor and my head slammed into my seat. I forgot to shift until I looked down and noticed we were going thirty in first gear. I threw the shifter into second, stepped on the gas and heard a squeal as the tires left their marks on the asphalt. Moments later I was doing seventy in a residential zone. I hit the brakes and looked over to see Steve smiling and nodding with approval. My body was pumped full of adrenaline and I was shaking like a junkie. Did everyone feel this good driving a sports car for the first time?
“I'm going to turn back now,” I announced. Suddenly I was anxious to hit the road for real.
“Sure thing. I figured you'd want to get on your way.”
I took Steve back to his house, gave him the cashier's check to complete my purchase and shook his hand. He left the car and asked, “Do you remember the way out of here?”
“I'll figure it out.” I clamped my hands to the wheel.
“Well, have a good drive back.”
“Thanks, that won't be a problem.” I made my way out of his neighborhood and headed north.
The only luggage I had besides a change of clothes and some toiletries was a book of CDs. I put Is This It? by The Strokes into the CD player and shouted Julian Casablancas' nonsensical lyrics to Texans in their trucks as I left them in my dust.
I avoided the freeway so I could see a bit of the Southern countryside. All eyes were on me as I passed through town after dusty town. I loved the attention and would have liked to have spent more time in rural Texas, but I had told some friends that I would be at a party in my hometown near Milwaukee in two days, leaving me with little time to dawdle.
As I crossed into Oklahoma, I pushed the car harder, flying down a rural highway, miles from the nearest town. I feel so free! Nothing can stop me now!
“Uh oh,” I said as I looked up and saw red and blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror. I pulled over, turned down the music and nervously fiddled with the steering wheel as a cop wearing a wide-brimmed hat and aviator sunglasses sauntered to my car.
“Son, you were going pretty fast back there. If I give you a warning, can I get you to slow down?”
“Uh huh,” I said slowly. I didn't fake a southern drawl, but I hoped the expression was neutral enough that he wouldn't peg me as a Northerner. The Corvette still had its Texas plates.
I abandoned my ruse and handed him my Minnesota license. He instantly saw that something was out of place. He slid his sunglasses down his nose, looked me in the eyes and asked, “Son, is this your car?”
“Yessir, I just bought it today.” I handed him the Texas title and a note that Steve had quickly scrawled stating that he had sold me the car. I didn't expect the cop to believe me – I may have had the title, but Steve's name was still in the computer system. The cop was going to throw me in the back of his squad car and haul me to an Oklahoma jail. Then he would come back here and commandeer my adventure, joyriding all around the state, hootin' and hollerin' and picking up girls in my Corvette.
The cop took the note and my license and walked to his squad car. He returned a few minutes later, handed back my credentials and said, “Well, try and keep it at the speed limit. Have yourself a good one.”
“Thanks, you too,” I said, barely able to contain myself.
I did manage to drive a little slower, but it was difficult. Soon I was in southern Arkansas, driving along the country road of my dreams, speeding up and down hills through lush forests while Jack White sang about the dead leaves and the dirty ground. Reluctantly, I eased up on the gas pedal and rounded corners at a pace that felt sluggish. The speed limit should have an exemption for a car like this.
I drove all day and into the night, finally stopping at a roadside motel near Memphis. I had put over 1000 miles on the car since leaving Steve's house. My legs and back were sore from sitting so low to the ground, but this had been one of the greatest days of my life. Even the police were rooting for me.
I woke up early and hopped on I-55, careful not to drive too fast – now that I was on the freeway, there were bound to be more cops looking for speeding sports cars. Not that I was in a hurry anymore – despite driving hundreds of miles out of my way the previous day, I was still ahead of schedule. When I reached St. Louis, I decided to stop for the afternoon.
I drove into a downtown parking garage and spent ten minutes searching for the perfect spot where my doors wouldn't get dinged. I got out, stood up straight, put my hands in the air to stretch and clicked the remote to set the alarm.
“Hey, nice car.” The voice came from behind me. I turned around to see a man bent down, examining my car's finish.
Wow, a compliment from a stranger!
“Uh, thanks,” was the only response that came to mind. Guess I should get used to this kind of attention.
I went outside and noticed a crowd of people in red shirts walking toward Busch Stadium for a baseball game. I started to walk with them, then stopped to look at the larger-than-life statues of Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Bob Gibson, some of the greatest players to ever don a Cardinals uniform. Behind the statues was the stadium, with its distinctive “Crown of Arches” that made me feel like I was about to witness a gladiatorial bloodbath.
I cared more about seeing the inside of the stadium than the actual game, so I just bought a ticket for the bleachers. Before the game started, I walked around the perimeter of the field. The structure had character and still felt fresh, unlike County Stadium in Milwaukee, which was built in the same era but inexplicably had giant steel beams obstructing the view from all but the best seats. That's why I was surprised to learn that Busch Stadium was scheduled to be torn down in favor of a new one in a few years.
As the Cardinals ran to the outfield for their warm-ups and the Cubs sat in their dugout preparing to bat, an announcement came over the intercom: “Everyone please join in a moment of silence for Ted Williams who passed away earlier today.” “Teddy Ballgame” was one of the best hitters in baseball history, and he served the US as a fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War. His passing was sad news indeed.
I sat and watched the game for a few innings, trying to strike up conversations with the fans around me. Nobody seemed interested in smalltalk. I bet they'd want to meet me if they knew I drove a Corvette. Feeling a bit lonely in this crowd of strangers and rationalizing that I still had a long drive ahead of me in the morning, I decided to call it a night and headed back to my car.
When I plopped into the driver's seat, my fantasy world sprang back to life. I felt empowered as I sped through the streets of downtown St. Louis and took the Poplar St. Bridge across the Mississippi River. I drove to the outskirts of the city and looked for a motel. Fireworks exploded in the sky, and even though I knew they were celebrating Independence Day, I imagined they were just for me. Anything was possible in my shiny black Corvette.