Friday, February 20, 2009

Bessie Is Rolling In Her Grave

Saab, which is owned by General Motors, filed for bankruptcy today.  From what I gather, the brand is unlikely to survive as a stand-alone company and the prospects for a sale are not bright in the midst of the current recession.  It's a shame because GM took a great, slightly kooky brand and essentially ran it into the ground.

My first car was a maroon 1986 Saab 900.  I bought it in 1998 from a friend of a friend.  Having lived in New York my whole life, I had never really needed a car.  In fact, looking back, I'm not exactly sure what it was that spurred me to buy one at that time.

I got a very good deal.  The former owner was the only owner and he had kept good care of the car.  Well, except for one strange quirk.  He used to park the car on the street and wanted to make it less attractive to thieves.  So every few days he poured a bucket of dirty dishwater on the hood.  I'm not making this up.  The result was that the car had a decent finish (for a 12 year old car) everywhere except for the hood, which looked dreadful.  But the car was cheap and ran great.  Most importanly, it had a sweet Blaupunkt stereo system with a 10 CD changer.

When I bought the car, I had never driven a manual transmission before.  I think I got about halfway across East 66th Street before I realized I had the hand brake on.  My heart rate would shoot up every time I had to start from a dead stop, which was about every 15 seconds in New York traffic.  This was par for the course for me, however.  The first time I ever drove a car, it was in New York and I pulled out into traffic on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street.  Talk about being thrown into the deep end.

Over time, I learned the ways of manual transmission.  About five days after I bought the car, I drove two friends from England up to Ithaca to visit our friend Pete.  I may never live down that journey.  On the way up, I had no idea that you had to downshift when going up hills.  I remember thinking, "Crap, this car sucks!  It has no power!"  All the while, my friends were chuckling away.  This was also the genesis of the car's name, Bessie.  As we were going up hills, I would pat the dashboard and say, Come on, Bessie.  You can do it."

That trip also introduced me to hill starts, which are basically every start in Ithaca.  There is a stretch of road just outside Ithaca that, I am sure, still has an enormous black skid mark from my panicked attempt to prevent the car from backsliding.  I don't think my friends stopped laughing for the next five years about that one.

Eventually, I mastered the art of driving a stick shift and put miles and miles on the car.  I learned a lot of lessons.  For one thing, any time you drive into a garage for a repair, it's going to be a couple hundred bucks minimum.  I learned to do the alternate side parking shuffle on Bank Street, a ritual that has to be observed to be believed by non-New Yorkers.  I park in a garage now, but I still crack up when I see all those drivers sitting in their cars at, say, 11:05, waiting for the street cleaner to come by so they can reclaim their coveted parking spot.

So many memories.  Driving people and gear through an ice storm to a gig on Staten Island.  In fact, that drive is where I first got to know Stink Rock well.

As time went on, I got a little more flush and decided to look into buying a new car.  I had loved Saabs because of their kooky styling, which was unlike anything else on the road.  Sadly, GM had bought Saab and changed the styling in, I think, 1993.  I didn't love it, but I went into a dealership to ask the guy about a new 900.  Amazingly, he talked me out of buying!  Apparently, when GM bought the brand, they stopped using the original engines, which are legendary for their longevity, and plugged in a bunch of GM parts.  The salesman told me I probably had a better engine in my 1986 than I would get in a brand new 900.  When a car salesman is trying to talk you out of something that puts money in his pocket, you listen.

Bessie met her end on September 11, 2001.  She was parked on a little alleyway off of Warren Street that I had discovered had no parking regulations at all.  (Gansevoort Street used to be like that too, which is hard to imagine now that the Meatpacking district has become so gentrified and crowded.)  I had just moved from the old apartment, on Warren, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, to a new apartment at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, two blocks south of the World Trade Center.  When the towers came down, they covered everything.  Bessie was not actually damaged, but the City decided that any cars within a certain area were too contaminated with asbestos and other toxic materials to release.  So they moved her to Fresh Kills where she was crushed.  I still have the photo they gave me of her when they brought the bag with the contents of the glove compartment and trunk.

She was a great car.  In fact, she was so well known in the neighborhood, that I would sometimes find little pieces of paper saying things like, "Hi Bessie!" tucked under the windshield wiper.  So the story of Saab's possible demise took me back to a very different time, when I used my little junker car to drive equipment to gigs and to see friends and was exhilarated to have the freedom of my own wheels for the first time in my life.

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