Back in about 2003, after throwing away too much money on rental cars every time I visited the States, I decided to buy a car. Just a cheap used car with enough miles left on it that I wouldn't have to pour more money into it.
Using my dad's computer, I looked on Craig's List for convertibles. Mid 90's Sebrings, mostly, but I did notice a 1989 Saab, too.
I called and left messages on a lot of phones. Some people I even spoke to. There was the totally spaced out guy in
On my way out to a matinee or something, I told my dad that I was hoping to hear back from a woman about a car. When I got back, I saw that my dad had left me a note that basically said that the woman called back and was very glad to hear that I was excited about her car, and left her number. I phoned it immediately, but when I got connected to her, I realized that she was not the Indian gal with the Sebring. She was the owner of the Saab, which I'd completely forgotten about.
What the hell, we made the appointment to see the car. It was down in one of those Peninsula suburbs that's supposed to be upper class, and in some ways it resembles parts of
I went to the door. A heavy set gal who was pushing 60, and her yapping little grey dog came to meet me. She came out to show me the car and to talk about it. She said she loved this car, that it has been so dependable and she'd take it on I-5 to visit her daughter in LA and it never gave her any trouble. I asked if it had ever been in an accident, and she said, no. I looked under the hood at the engine, which is a funny experience on a Saab, if you've never tried it. The hood opens up a funny way... sort of sliding forward and then upward. It was not easy to get back down and I barely registered the ramifications of that difficult manoeuver.
I asked her why she had to sell it, and she said that it just wasn't a practical car for her decorating business. She had already bought the big black SUV replacement. She added that she had just reduced the price, that it was really priced to sell now, at $5000. Of course, I had already done my homework and an 89 Saab, deluxe model, would only go for $5500 if it was in excellent condition and had a few less miles on it. This one was up to 90,000, and although it looked lovely on the outside, I suspected I'd have to put a little work into it. The tires looked old, right off the bat. Being a newbie, I didn't know that I would have to see a smog certificate. I did stuff like look for rust and watch the exhaust.
She said right away that the seat belt on the driver's side was all chewed up and she'd been meaning to replace it but hadn't gotten around to finding a wrecker with a good used model from that year. She sighed that her dog had chewed through it while waiting for her in a parking lot. I was amazed at the obvious strength of that dog's jaw, for this seat belt was probably gnawed half way. I wondered if it was really all that safe.
I opened the trunk, testing the lock, even though she hastily snapped, "oh, I never lock the trunk!" It was like she had a body in there, her not wanting me to mess with it. Being a prior owner of a convertible, I knew that the trunk is often the most secure part of the car, and I thought she was a bit odd for not recommending locking it. It was nice that she still had the classy little cover for the collapsed roof (when you've got it down, giving the back a smooth look). She'd had the car waxed, I could tell, and I appreciated this. I sat in the back seat and marveled at the leg room. Best convertible back seat since my 72 LeMans. But that car is another sob story.
We got in, her in the driver's seat, to go for a test drive. Both of us agreed that backing it our of her stone-sided driveway would be risky for me. She kept sighing and calling the car, "my Saab." I kept thinking, jeez, she loves this thing so much, does she really want to get rid of it?
I insisted on putting down the top, to get the feel of driving it in my favorite mode, but also to learn the roof mechanism. I got into the driver's seat. It leaned to one side just a bit, as if the seat were broken, and I made a comment, which she seemed to ignore.
As I started to drive, I kept the windows up. On a breezy bay area day, it pays to keep the windows up, to cut down on weather and wind exposure. She snapped, "put the windows down. Driving with the windows up is rude." Okay, fine. It gave me the opportunity to test all of the electric windows, and they worked fine. I tested the a/c (not working) and the heat (she immediately turned it off, saying something about at her age she doesn't need any more high temperatures). Fine. At least I did get to feel it go on. I loved driving it on the freeway, because the turbocharger really gives the thing a nice boost for overtaking or just for those long empty stretches. The cruise control was all there, but didn't work. The radio actually worked pretty well. There was a nice layout to the dashboard and the steering wheel felt solid. But the whole time I'm driving the thing, she's asking me why I'm doing this or that, as if I am going to break the thing. It was nerve wracking and, in more ways than one, the best part of the test drive was slamming that solid door once I pulled back in front of her house. Nothing like Swedish steel! But it was creepy how possessive she still was, of that car. Like she just really didn't want to give it up.
We got back and she invited me in to exchange cell phone numbers, and I met the dog with the jaws of death. It was one of those spoiled little curly mop dogs that has not been trained out of the ghastly habit of jumping on people, presumably because the owner thinks its diminutive stature renders harmless any effect of those little grubby paws, but I was glad I wasn't wearing a pair of Fogal's pantyhose.
Exchanging phone numbers, I told her that I was not prepared to pay $5000 for it, but I offered $2700, about the price of a "fair" 89. She was aghast, countered with $4000, saying in a weirdly threatening tone of voice, "I'm taking this to auction if I can't sell it on Craig's List!" (As in, you just watch, I'll get a fortune for this classic)! I did not bother to say, "auctioning your car is as bad as giving it away. You'll be lucky to walk away with a grand." Anyway, she said she would ask her husband, see what he says. I said I'd talk to my husband, too. One of us was lying.
I went home thinking, what a frickin' waste of time. I liked the car, but we didn't want to spend more than about $2500. I could only think of the agony of continuing to look at more cars, waiting for them to come on the market, going through phone tag with more people, etc.
I called my hubby, who was in Hong Kong or some place like that, and we talked about the car a bit. We decided to offer $3000, within the price range of an 89 in good blue book condition at those miles. On some counts, the car was in good condition, I thought. I called the lady back and said I'd talked to my husband and we would pay $3000 for it. She said her husband wouldn't let her go below $3500. I said I'd call back.
So I called my man again and we hemmed and hawed and decided to take her offer. When I called her, the husband answered and said she wasn't home. The man was very, very surprised when I said I would accept her offer of $3500. "She offered you that?" he exclaimed with true surprise. "She loves that car so much, I can't believe she would accept less than five thousand. Well, okay, I'll tell her." Obviously hubby of Belmont was completely out of the loop.
We arranged for me to come by train the next day, and she would pick me up at the suburban station near her house. We agreed that I would call her just before I caught the final train in the series. Taking trains from Oakland to the Peninsula is a bit of a pain. You have to ride BART for about an hour and then transfer in Burlingame, and it requires two sets of tickets. When I finally got to Burlingame, I saw that the next few trains would bypass her lowly station, but I could hop on any of the next three, and get off at a larger station in the neighboring town. I called her and told her this, and she gasped, grumbled, whined and ultimately relented, but with the rancor that would have been justified if I had just asked her to pick me up in San Diego. I told her which train I'd be catching, and that I was wearing the same pink sweater I'd worn when we first met, and she said, "I'll look for you!"
The final leg of the train ride was nice, although I was tired by then and just glad to be getting my car. The train sped right past her little suburban local stop and chuffed right to a stop at the agreed-upon larger station. Big as it was, it was sided by a freeway on the east and a long, skinny parking lot on the west. The platforms were elevated and open, and people getting off the train were way up on display. I was in the front of the train, so I was in for a long walk to either of two platform exits. I took a long look over the parking lot, spotting no red Saab, and wondering where she would look for me. The tiny, quaint ticket office near the furthest exit of the parking lot seemed logical. Taxis were getting people there, and it was the closest thing to "station."
I walked over there and did not see her. I walked around a bit, looking hard for her tomato red car, and another train came in to spew more commuters. I decided to phone her cell number and she answered with not a hello, but an "I've been WAITing!"
I explained where I was, and she said, "well, I'm on the other end of the parking lot," as if to say "come and find me." I thought, Since I have to put up with this bitch for only about one half hour longer, I can take it. and I said I'd start walking across to where she was. She certainly didn't counter offer to just step on the gas and get over to where I was. Clearly, she was punishing me for taking her car.
When we spotted each other, I waved and kept on walking towards her. She was double parked at the absolute furthest aisle she could possibly be situated and still be on SamTrans property. She held up a hand and gave me one of those finger -y waves, like saying, "toodles!" Yet she did not drive towards me. Not one inch. She sat there, engine on, just waiting for me to finish the walk of shame she'd planned for me.
I afforded a laugh when I got in, saying I had figured that the station's highest profile was the ticket office. She said in an I'm-not-the-stupid-one voice, "well, the entrance for cars is down here. Everyone comes in this way." Like I'd know that. I watched, trying not to show my irritation, as she drove toward the exit, a route going right past the station house, which was not lost on her, in a silent, simmering, ridiculous "yeah but I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew" festival of bad vibes. She peppered our drive back to her house with all kinds of other covert little insults.
When we got to her perfect little house with its own name, not one napkin or chair doily out of place, I had to cloud my mind from its evil thoughts of stomping on her hyperactive, clawing, jumping little seatbelt chewer. Sorry, dog lovers. I actually love most dogs, too. But this one was so ill-mannered, I thought perhaps it was her own offspring after mating with Lucifer himself, and I could end a diabolical genetic line right then and there.
I paid her in cash, and she handed over the forms for DMV and I noticed that she had once had vanity plates for the car. Something like IDECR84U. To her credit, she gave me a fat file folder containing every piece of paper ever connected to that car, from her first sales receipt, to (ahem) the insurance work for a wreck she was in which nearly totaled the vehicle, but she got everything done, right up to that smashing paint job. With great relief, I walked out of there dreaming I'd never hear her bitchy voice again.
I got in and drove away with the file pinned to the floor, under my purse. The wind in my hair, the open road, the... damn drivers seat really was loose, undoubtedly squeezed into crippling submission by her significant bodily tonnage. I wondered how much it would cost to fix.
I knew that I'd have to get it smogged to get my registration, so I called the Union 76 station near my parents' house and made an appointment for the next day. I cleaned the interior of the car, noticing that she'd left a pair of her gigantic lensed sunglasses under one of the seats. They looked like old drugstore glasses, and were impossibly scratched, so I just left them in the little shelf near the heater, in case I'd ever need to put some on. Who knows, I thought, even if someone someday reaches in and steals them, I won't have to look at them and think of her again.
I later found a brand new shrink-wrapped bar of strawberry glycerin soap in, of all places, the boot for the top. Nice as it was, I was not about to call her back and offer to drop it off at her perky little suburban spread.
But anyway, I drove the car in to the smog station as planned, only to have the guy give me extremely bad news when I came to get it. He said the car not only failed to pass, but it was technically a "gross polluter," and I had the legal right to get my money back from the dealer, as it is unlawful to sell a car in the state of California that makes that heinous black list. I imagined my car joining some kind of rogue's gallery of all the usual suspects: Chevy Novas and Ford Pintos and rusted out bulgemobiles from the early 50's... but a flash 1989 Saab Turbo? I was shocked. There were exactly three grease pits in the east bay area that were certified to deal with gross polluter repairs. I would have to use the car ONLY to drive to one of those or risk some kind of horrendous fine. I made an appointment to go to one in Alameda, because I liked the way the guy sounded on the phone, and he thought he could have it ready for me for a mere $1700 as opposed to a higher quote from a place in Berkeley. I kept thinking, why didn't I take the car to one of those "guaranteed to pass" places.
All of this meant phoning up the BITCH! Gaahhhhh! I wasn't done with her YET! I took a deep breath and told her the bad news and said that even though legally she should not have sold it, I would be willing to split the cost of fixing it. She sputtered and spewed disbelief, and I faxed her all the proof I had: the failed test results, the estimate from the guy with the New York accent who bragged about his great team of mechanics. She said she'd get back to me after talking to her family about it. One more phone call? Please, lady, just be merciful to both of us!
In the end, she sent me a check, and it didn't bounce, and the car was fixed there in Alameda. Unfortunately, some alley cat slept on top of the convertible top and his grimy paw prints were all over it. You know, I don't think I ever got all of his shed hair off the thing! But the car was fully mine, and I drove off with renewed bliss.
The car did have an odd thing about the trunk. It had been re-lined with a nice carpeting, but access to the back seats had once been possible, because of some funny patching and stitching back there. Not a big deal. I mean, I liked the new padding in the trunk. I was thinking of other things. I gotta say that I was a wee bit uncomfortable being seen driving such a cherry European car. I am more of a beat-up Pontiac kind of person. I have driven one of those and a beat-up 63 Rambler, too. I felt like a wannabe, truth be told. I may like the whole convertible thang, but the show-off aspect of driving a sexy, red Saab was a lot like waking up and finding I'd received breast implants. While briefly parked on Treasure Island to admire a view one night, a kind of trashy teenaged girl came up to me and said, "I just love Saabs" which just kind of creeped me out. I couldn't look people in the eye at the Safeway parking lot. The car wasn't MINE yet.
It was always a little weird having those sunglasses in the car, too. I threw them away at some point, simply because they were just an awful reminder of that unpleasant woman. If I was going to make this car my own, I had to get rid of reminders of her.
One reminder that kept bugging me was the chewed up safety belt. I got the local Saab dealer to give me a whole diagnostic, and, $3,000 later, after they replaced a faulty wheel joint and did some other stuff, they gave me the name of a repair shop that would find me a seat belt for my relatively old model. The guys at the funky little Saab place in Berkeley were very nice, and when they phoned me to tell me that they had located a seat belt, it would cost me $600. Well, I figured it would be worth my peace of mind... the seat belt wouldn't tear apart if I was in an accident, and I could stop being reminded of the Liz Taylor lookalike and her psychotic lapdog. Cha-ching, cha-ching, the mechanics of the world just kept on making out. Nontheless, I liked the funny Saab garage in Berkeley. They had about ten models in there at any given moment, including some reeeeally old ones. I brought the guys a bottle of wine to show my appreciation of their service.
I took the car into the city to see Burning Spear, but because the big reggae act was performing at Slim's, the street was kind of a questionable place to park. As I drove the car back to my parents' house, I could feel it really pulling to the right. I thought, 'don't tell me the alignment is out', and kept on driving right across the Bay Bridge. In the morning I discovered that the tire had been pierced on the side by a nail. As in, nail still sitting there inserted in the sidewall. The side, as in, vandalism. Not as in "drove over a nail." I was actually glad that the car still functioned and I was able to get all the way home, because the vandal may have been waiting and watching for me to attempt to fix the flat right there south of Market Street, and further victimized me. The fact that they vandalized a Saab kind of reminded me of the odd stigma I had with that car: I was driving the car of a rich person.
I took out the manual and put on the pony spare (or whatever you call those dinky spare tires), taking more than a whole grimy, hot hour to do it because I am no mechanic, and accosting my parents' neighbor the Mercedes repair shop owner for help. I drove the thing over to a Shell station, where they advised me to get new tires, because, even though they could technically fix the flat, they could not guarantee it, the tires were in such bad shape. I had thought I had buried Lincoln's hair in the tire groove when I checked out the car, but I must have chosen a flukey, deep section. I was crushed, let them fix the flat and released them of responsibility for adverse consequences.
But it didn't take long for me to decide to get new tires for the car. I took it to one of those franchise tire places that advertises in the comics of a prominent Bay Area newspaper, because it looked like they had some pretty fantastic deals. I kind of got into a bait and switch situation with the car, and ended up buying some niiiice Japanese tires there. The tire store also had a little maintenence department and they had a special scam, I mean, deal on oil changes for tire customers, so I took the car back there in about a week for an oil change.
The guy doing the oil change asked me where the oil dipstick was (should have taken this for a very baaaad sign) and then took FOREVER to do the work (well, okay 2 hours, but it shouldn't take more than half an hour, ordinarily). So I complained about the length of time it took on the followup survey they handed me. I was really glad just to drive it out of that place.
When I drove it out of there, I noticed that I really had trouble going up hills. By then I was close to my Saab guys in Berkeley, so I took it there. They said, this car has no transmission fluid inside! The mechanic at the tire place had drained the transmission, possibly not the oil, even! The guys in Berkeley refilled the transmission and gave me a detailed receipt, because that stuff is expensive. I took this and the car back to the Oakland nuthouse franchise for reimbursement.
I drove it right back there, angry that there was so much wasted time that day. It was as if I had gone to the doctor to remove a corn on my foot, but they amputated my leg. Indeed, they looked the thing over and admitted that the mechanic had drained the transmission fluid by accident, and they could offer me a free oil change certificate. I went ballistic at this, and demanded that they reimburse me for the original oil change and for the transmission fluid. Lots of phone calls later (who was he talking to, the Devil?), they offered me the price of the transmission fluid and a free oil change in the future, but that's like offering me a corn removal on the foot of my remaining good leg. I took it just to get out of there, and I suppose that somewhere I have the certificate. If anyone wants to exact revenge on their psychiatrist or ex-boyfriend or other evil doer by giving them this gift certificate, let me know... I will try to dig it up for you.
My husband visited from Hong Kong, and he fixed that uneven seat I mentioned earlier. All it took was his magic screwdriver! Good old Saab... Even someone stacking it on by the ton could not permanently damage that nice leather seat. The fat chick had just worked the seat loose over the years and my hubby the engineer fixed it beautifully.
I had finally received my own vanity plates, and, if anyone ever finds these in a flea market or on eBay, let me know... I'll take 'em back. Anyway, onto the car went my Wayne Thibaud palms-and-sunset "OR BALI" plates, which looked so cool under the California cursive... get the joke: California or Bali. The car was just kinda starting to feel like mine.
Anyway, I didn't really have an office space, so I was carting around these files and notebooks in the trunk of the car. One day, I found I could not open the trunk. It took me a couple of days of trying, but I was able to jiggle the key in such a way that I could unlock and open the thing after just a few minutes of jimmying. Suddenly I remembered Two-Ton-Bitch's panic at the sight of me locking the trunk. Because she, too, had had trouble with the trunk. No wonder at the stitching in the boot! She just wasn't going to divulge that bit of car trouble.
One afternoon, after coming back to my parents' from Safeway with about twelve bottles of wine stowed in the trunk, I could not, for the life of me, jimmy the frozen lock. Fearing for my perishable investment in the hot sun, I took the Turbo Tomato down to the Saab/Toyota dealership and the Saab mechanic got it open for me. He said from the looks of the lock it had been messed with before and that this one could not really be repaired fully. It was a job too expensive to do, he basically said.
After a while, I did discover a way to jiggle the key to make it open. To watch me go through the motions of this, you would think I was an obsessive-compulsive going through an insane ritual of repetition. But it would get the trunk open eventually.I babied that car, afraid of some costly repair job, afraid of getting it in an accident... whatever. I was attaching a lot of mental baggage to this car.
The funniest thing, though, was just never getting over the thought that this car was not "me." I would never buy a new car in any shade of red, for one thing. And, let's face it, a Saab has a certain kind of elite snob appeal that didn't fit with my peculiar brand of snobbery and elitism. It was really a lot like buying a Chanel suit because I needed to stop lounging around the house nekkid.
My husband drove me and my dad to Berkeley one night, to hear the Kronos Quartet. If you can dig this, the gig was inside a private house in a snazz neighborhood. This was one posh
street to park a car on. We loved the concert, left the house, and the car was gone. Gone. Gone.
The people whose home was there at our former parking space, heard us in our woes and brought us inside to use their phone to call the cops. They were a nice young couple. Turned out my dad was friends with the woman's mother.
The cop came, and, like many of the Berkeley Police Force, he was a nice guy. He said, if we don't pick up the car tonight, it will be in a chop shop and virtually gone by tomorrow. I was sad, crushed, incredulous.
The saddest part of all were all the books and records in the trunk, the cool tiki-style scarf, the diRosa Preserve baseball cap... the things I was keeping in there.
The car never turned up. We went out to look for another car and got a bad-ass black Chrysler Sebring that has never let us down. It is a better fit with me and my husband, who enjoy a low profile, slightly proletariat style. I would sometimes look at other Saabs with a certain wistfulness, but really I just was mad about the theft.
Now we must fast forward thirteen months into the future. More than a year! For at that moment, I was lounging in a ski chalet near Val d'Isere in the French Alps (I'm not a total proletariat), and suddenly my husband gasped aloud at his email messages.
"Your brother says that the Berkeley Police called. They found your Saab."
I was stunned.
Through the wonders of email and the willingness of my brother to help in this strange saga, I made sure that the cops would hang onto it longer than usual, due to my travels. For ordinarily, if you don't retrieve an impounded car, they put it up for auction. SFPD revised my deadline for pickup.
When I got back to the Bay Area, the Berkeley cops put me in touch with the boys in blue in San Francisco. All I was told was that the car was involved in a drug bust.
The cop in the city, a real crank at first, finally explained to me that the woman who had been pulled over in the car said she'd bought the car at a police auction. That didn't change the fact that she was doing something illegal (no details), but the auto theft detective told me that the amazing thing was that the vehicle had been given a new identification number, or VIN, the traceable number for every car in America. My original VIN, he said, was right there in the most obvious place, on the inside of the car door. But all other VIN locations had been scratched off: the engine block and dashboard, for example. Those are the hard places to remove a VIN, too! The idiots who went to all that trouble removing the original VIN, etched in metal, forgot to go peel off the little paper sticker on the door jamb!
Re-vinning a car takes an intervention by law enforcement, notably the California Highway Patrol. They check the vehicle before they give a new number, and it is meant to be no light matter. As full of red tape as changing your name in the old days. The cops do an audit on the old records for the car before they hand out any new numbers.
What the detective would not say in plain English, but which I suddenly realized he was inferring, was that this meant that the theft had to have involved crooked cops or crooked law enforcement personnel. Creepy! He said he'd look for patterns in this and other similar thefts... his way of saying they might nail a corrupt clerk at CHP... probably my only realistic justice.
They very, very nicely waived all the awful impound fees. My husband drove me to the impound lot, which is exactly like a jail for cars. The other guys waiting to bail out their cars were people who had parked in tow zones, people with too many parking tickets, etc. I was this curiosity there at the virtual water cooler. A stolen car recovered after more than a year? How about that!
I was sort of puzzled that I could not see my car anywhere in the massive, stadium-sized impound lot. Then I finally saw that it was in a special inner pen, nestled in amongst beemers, a jag, mercedeses and other "cult" and luxury cars. It dawned on me... they look forward to auctioning off these expensive cars and keep them in good shape, away from any harm in the general lockup, in the auto equivalent of Al Capone's jail cell.
Anyway, out it came, and the body looked damn good. Probably no accidents, I thought. Grease chalked on the windshield was "call Berkeley Police" and a case number. All very weird and exciting.
Until I opened the car door and looked inside. The stereo speakers were ripped out, the back seat had a tear in it, and the floor was littered with fast food wrappers, receipts, and junk. It smelled really bad, despite the cutesy little gel dolphin-shaped deodorizer hanging from the rear view mirror. The gal had also stuck one of those "sexy chick" stickers in the rear window. You know:
Like truck drivers have on their mudflaps.
So this was a bit of a slutty chick. I also quickly realized that, in her crystal meth-induced mania, she broke every control wand in the driver's area; you know, the turn signal, the wipers, all the little knobs and sticks... they were just limp. As if someone abused them and mangled them with too much force. Very sadly, the hydraulics of the roof retraction system were shot. I can just imagine some f***ed up person hitting the roof down button without undoing the manual clamps. It was too horrifying to even think about.
I tried to scratch off the "slut" sticker, but it wouldn't budge. I think I got about a 1mm strip taken off. If that. I had to drive that thing which announced, "sex maniac here." I hated it.
Sitting in that car, driving it to the garage where I was already keeping the new car, I just thought to myself, this car is a rape victim: still intact on the outside but absolutely wrecked and ravaged on the inside.
It was no longer my car. Not in any way obvious to me, was this my car.
I paid for insuring it one more term, and I paid a half year registration on it. But it didn't take long for me to just phone up the Red Cross to donate it to their car auction scheme. That was it.
So, that picture of me posing with the car? One rare, lighthearted moment. When the tow truck came to take the car away to auction, I looked at that thing and said goodbye to the bitch from Belmont, to the crooked Highway Patrolman, to the crack whore from San Francisco, to the strange evil spirit that occupied that car.