So, just when I think there’s nothing new to report, this randomly rolls up right in front of my workplace.
It’s winter in Brooklyn, and not much to report. As you can probably guess from the picture, I’m not exactly looking for excuses to crawl under the van this time of year.
Just hoping she starts every week, and dreaming about Van Nationals in July.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was just my own dumb luck. Or maybe the all-seeing airbrushed wizard-gods of custom vandom were smiling down on me this summer. In any case, I have to wonder if it was more than coincidence that in this, my first year of van ownership, the 38th Annual National Truck-In was held just four hours away from my house, in Greenwich, New York. Needless to say, I was there.
The history of the van convention is as old as vanning itself. Once vanners realized that there were other groovy freaks rolling around in similar—and similarly tricked-out—vehicles, it didn’t take long for them to start getting together on long weekends, converging on campgrounds to show off their paint jobs, swap conversion tips, camp out in their vans, and generally party like their lives depended on it. (And, to hear many vanners tell it, they do.) Vanners call these events “runs”. Runs can be of any size, and held anywhere, though for pretty obvious reasons they tend to happen in more remote, camping-friendly places. They’re usually hosted by one or more local vanning clubs, whose members handle all the dirty organizational details, from securing the site and selling tickets, to printing T-shirts, to making sure that the trash gets picked up and that special events happen (more or less) on time.
The granddaddy of all runs is the National Truck-In (a.k.a. “Nationals”, a.k.a. “Nats”). This is the annual nationwide van run, and tends to be the largest van-related event of the year. At its legendary peak in the early ‘70s, the Truck-In brought in a reported 4,000 vans. These days, the van count is closer to 600, but the spirit is just as big, and the people who uphold it are just as willing to get down and have a good time.
I like to think that it was with a little bit of this original spirit in mind that I mustered up the guts (and gas money) to get myself on the road to the 38th Annual Nats. And while the gods of location may have been on my side, the gods of weather certainly were not. The forecast for the weekend was temperatures of 100 degrees, followed by thunderstorms. The prospect of parking my van in the middle of some field to voluntarily endure those extremes for four days straight was less than thrilling. But if I was going to be a real vanner, I told myself, I was going to make it to this event, crappy weather be damned.
As I rolled through the town of Greenwich, toward the fairgrounds, the 38th National Truck-In revealed itself to me, a glorious cluster of chrome and metal-flake paint shimmering in the sunburnt grass, beckoning from the highway like some combustion-fueled lost city of gold. Before I even made it to the entrance road, I had already caught sight of a dozen truly badass vans, tucked every which way into a haphazard, Technicolor city of tents, canopies, blankets, and flickering beach towels.
“Vans and Panel Trucks ONLY Beyond This Point”, the sign at the front gate read. And sure enough, off to the side was a separate parking lot, reserved for any vehicle that didn’t fit the description—cars, motorcycles, and a few motor homes. The vehicle restriction may seem harsh to outsiders, but the logic behind it is simple genius: Anyone who enters the event is, by the very definition of the vehicle they arrived in, a vanner—and, it is assumed, will behave by a certain unwritten code of respect toward other vanners. This may sound like a bunch of idealistic bullshit, until you spend a few days there and realize that, within the confines of the event, no one locks their van or even bothers to shut its doors. Food and drink get left on picnic tables and go untouched (unless you count the flies). Camping equipment, suitcases, and even tool boxes sit out in the open undisturbed, for days at a time. Coming from a place like New York City, it truly was another world for me. As one vanner put it, “When you’re here, there’s just certain shit you know you won’t have to worry about.”
In keeping with the generally libertine spirit of the thing, there were no assigned spots either. “Just drive around until you find a place where you think you’ll get along with somebody,” the guy at the admissions gate told me. I arrived on a Thursday, and some people had been there for as long as a week before me. Most of the various van clubs had already shown up and arranged themselves into elaborate circle encampments, or staked out coveted shade spots against the fairground’s many livestock-stable buildings. (Empty, I should point out, of any livestock.) I found a spot on the fringe of the event, next to a beautifully preserved early-70s Dodge done in vintage hippie love-bead style, and a few hundred feet from a bunch of much younger guys with a giant tent blaring Led Zepellin, and set up camp.
As predicted, the weather was at 100 degrees and climbing when I got there. My first priority was to get some kind of shade built for myself, as soon as possible. This should have been easy, thanks to the brand new camping canopy I had purchased just for the occasion. However, there were three things I hadn’t taken into account: (1) I had put up canopies before, but never all by myself; (2) I forgot that, instead of actual stakes, new camping equipment comes with spindly little aluminum rods that are only slightly more sturdy than paper clips, and stand up to the touch of a hammer about as well; and (3) the canopy I bought was a total piece of shit. And oh yeah—just as I began to set up, the wind kicked in. The result, for the next two hours or so, was me, already sweaty and sunburnt in the blazing hot sun, running back and forth in an unintentionally hilarious Charlie Chaplin routine in which, just as I’d get one corner of the canopy halfway secured, the other would shoot dramatically into the air, then collapse. Just to add to the comedy, when I finally tightened the rope lines (for all you non-canopy-erectors, this is a standard part of the routine, and shouldn’t be anything particularly extreme), the canopy literally tore apart at the seams. Luckily I had a roll of duct tape—though I was more than a little pissed that I had to use it on a canopy that was less than a day old.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details of my setup—suffice it to say that, if you’re going to attempt a trip like this, always bring sunscreen, and make sure you have about 200 more feet of extension cord than you think you’ll need. I also learned that, if you’re going to be parking your van out in the middle of a 100-degree field, you really can’t have too much shade. This was obviously common knowledge to my more experienced neighbors around me—beside the standard reflective windshield screen, they kept every window draped in sheets and blankets. Some erected separate canopies just for their vans, and a few actually mounted full-sized household air conditioners out their van windows. (“Those people are all from Florida,” an Ohio native would later tell me, with gleeful disdain.)
Once my camp was more or less situated, I set out to explore the scene.
If you’re familiar with my previous (and only other) trip to a van run, then you already know the kind of drunk, debauched antics I got up to. (And if you don’t, you can read all about it here. ) Blame it on the extreme heat, or on me showing up alone, or maybe just the fact that (gasp!) eleven years have gone by since then, but as it turned out, this event would end up being much less about my own intoxication and much, much more about the vans.
My first hint at this came that evening. Until that point, most folks had been holed away, hiding from the sun. Now, slowly and a little behind schedule (this, I would learn, is how all events at Nationals start), some of the more choice vans rolled out of their spots and rumbled into line for the official parade through town. This was my first real glimpse of the level of show-quality custom jobs that come out for this event. Forget about newbies like me with our cookie-cutter storebought conversions—these people are the real deal, the kind of dudes (and, lest we forget, dude-ettes) who devote all their free time—and a good chunk of their finances—to creating a truly one-of-a-kind motor-vehicle masterpiece. This was their big moment to shine, and shine they did: Vintage Cragar mag rims glimmered in the dual glow of a magic-hour sunset and flickering yellow running lights. Scrappy little ‘60s Econolines rattled alongside late-model Sprinters. Wizards, spaceships, skeletons, and a harem’s worth of half-naked fantasy women beckoned to me from their airbrushed tableaus. Lowriders threatened to scrape the gravel, immaculate chop jobs bounced lazily on their hydraulics, and 4x4s towered on oversized tires. Most just cruised, the way vans do. Stereos were cranked, wheels were spun, and more than a few engines were revved. They were vehicles, in the way that, when we were eight years old, we all wished vehicles would be: loud, colorful, outrageous, and unapologetically badass.
Invigorated by this initial show of force, I ventured over to the sizable merchandise area. Like all the big main areas, it was housed in an open-sided pavilion building—the kind of structure that, during more conventional fairground events, probably houses the goat auctions. A large section of the building was devoted to the shirt-printing area, where a revolving multi-silkscreen station, manned by a couple of shaggy, very busy guys, attempted to keep up with the orders for custom 38th National Truck-In T-shirts.
Shirts are a big deal for vanners. Each van run has its own unique shirt printed up, and vanners collect and display them like trophies from a hunt. Indeed, one of the biggest raffle items of the weekend was a special quilt sewn together from vintage, time-softened van run T-shirts, the earliest dating back to 1972. And in the course of four days and nights, I never saw the guys in the shirt-printing area stop working.
If shirts are vanners’ trophies, then patches are their service ribbons—a visible, running history of the places they’ve been and, by suggestion, the shit they’ve seen. Every Truck-In has its official embroidered patch—always in the same red-white-and-blue United States shape—and many a vanner keeps a special vest or jacket around just to show off their patches. During the run, I saw more than a few hardcores walking around with 20 or even 30 patches on their jackets. For my part, I bought my first official Truck-In patch, to match the sticker and dashboard plate that came with the price of admission.
Of course, displayed alongside these hallowed items was a huge offering of, shall we say, less serious vanner accoutrements. All the usual witty slogans were present and accounted for, in both T-shirt and patch form. (“Instant Asshole. Just add alcohol”, etc.) There was also a pretty heavy selection of tie-dye clothing (not my thing, but whatever), and a wide array of general gearhead-themed stuff, including belt buckles, Hot Wheels vans, every possible manifestation of automotive logos, and lots of Rat Fink stuff (very much my thing). After a lot of painful deliberation, I settled on a “Make Mine Econoline” T-shirt, and a couple of classy patches: “2%” and “Bush Pilot”. I was really bummed that my girlfriend, who was out of the country at the time (no, really) couldn’t be there, so as consolation I bought her a patch that says, “Only a bitch like me could love a bastard like him.” (Here’s hoping you’ll be there to wear that one proudly beside me at next year’s run, baby.)
At dusk, the fairground filled with the gorgeous, smoky smell of outdoor cooking. The consensus, among all but the youngest and/or most alcoholic of the people I talked to, was that the day’s extreme heat—and the dehydration that came with it—made daytime drinking almost impossible. (Full disclosure: Earlier in the day, after my bout with the canopy, I ingested two tall-boys of Miller High Life and promptly passed out for two and a half hours, making me an unusually cheap date—had there been anyone there to date me—and also marking the first time that I officially slept in my van.) However, as night fell, more and more people came out from inside their hidey-holes, and the real party began.
A classic-rock cover band played in one of the main pavilion buildings. It was the first of three bands that weekend, and I won’t pretend to remember the band names. I will say that I thought the first night’s band was the best of the bunch; heavy on the Creedence and Steppenwolf, and light on the Rush.
I took stock of the crowd congregating in front of the band. From what I could tell, the majority of people there were couples, most of them married, quite a few with kids. There were a few pockets of people in their 20s—most notably the Next Generation Vanners, a recently formed club out of Seville, Ohio. (More about them later.) But by and large, most of the attendants seemed to be in their 50s or older—most likely veterans of vanning’s heyday in the ‘70s. I remembered the event program they’d given me when I signed in at the gate that morning, which, among other things, included a small “in memoriam” tribute to the well-known vanners who had died in the past year. It got me thinking about everything that those people must have witnessed in their lives, and the fact that, to my knowledge, no one has ever put together a truly comprehensive, first-person history of the vanning subculture. At the risk of sounding morbid, I feel like somebody needs to get it all down before all these legendary characters start disappearing on us. Perhaps at next year’s Truck-In, a few interviews are in order…
Sometime in the early, early morning, I awoke to the sound of the rain pounding against the roof of my van. This was followed by the ghostly whisper of the wind… and then the hard slap of the canopy poles against my window. I poked my head out the side door. Sure enough, half my canopy rig had come loose in the thunderstorm, and was smacking back and forth against the side of my van. I pulled on a pair of shorts and, armed only with a hammer and a lantern, stepped out into a total downpour. Somehow, half awake and fully soaked, I managed to hammer my pitiful stakes back in place again. Afterward, toweling myself off in the darkness of the van, rummaging through my bag for dry underwear, I muttered to myself, “Livin’ the dream.” And thus the official name of my van was born.
The next morning was abuzz with activity—or at least as “abuzz” as a bunch of vacationing vanners are going to let themselves be. The sun was out again, and hot as ever. I braved the long lines and questionable smells of the public showers, enjoyed the luscious novelty of outdoor bacon and eggs, and watched as, all around me, the owners of the more pimped-out vans hooked up their garden hoses, grabbed their bottles of Armor All, and prepared for the weekend’s biggest event: The Show ’n’ Shine.
The Show ’n’ Shine is the moment when—as the name might suggest—the showiest vans get to shine. Show vans are the truly immaculate, customized vehicles that are made to be shown off, rather than simply driven and slept in. And they’re the real reason to come to an event like the Truck-In. People devote their whole lives to building these vans, and it shows.
“Attention vanners,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “If you are planning on entering the Show ’n ’Shine, you should already have been there.”
“Vanner time,” my new neighbor Doug laughed, still polishing his door handles.
One by one, the show vans crept their way over to an open meadow at the far side of the fairgrounds and began lining up. For judging purposes, many were arranged by sub-classification: panel trucks, ‘60s first-generation, 4x4s, and even a couple six-wheelers. I won’t even attempt to describe all the beautiful vans I saw there. But a few demand special mention: There was “Chop City” , a chopped-and-channeled flat gray Dodge with a black vinyl limousine roof. There was the “Dragon Slayer” , which features a combined total of four airbrushed wizards, plus a custom star-shaped portal around the bed. The standout among the ‘60s-era vans was “Odd”, which I can only describe as a Dodge modified into an extreme convertible. There was a van decorated entirely with airbrushed scenes from the movie “The Neverending Story” , and two different Wizard of Oz-themed vans. Classic rock titles were a common theme; I counted a “Pearl” (Janis Joplin), “Eat a Peach” (The Allman Brothers), and two “Night Moves”. One van, in a mindblowing meta-twist, featured a full-coverage mural of… other airbrushed vans. There was even, dare I say it, a pretty cool minivan, done up with a spoiler and custom windowless back hatch. My personal favorite, though, was the “Bear’s Den”. On the outside, it’s a completely plain-looking, charcoal-gray van. Peek inside, however, and you discover that the entire interior is a log cabin, hand-built with real log pieces and complete with bearskin rug and a little flickering electric fireplace. Definitely one of the more original concepts I’ve ever seen.
Rather than try to elaborate any further, I suggest that you take a look at all the photos on my Flickr page.
The next day, the big event was the Burnout contest. For those of you who didn’t grow up around wannabe drag racers, a burnout is when the driver of a stationary vehicle, through a combination of flooring the accelerator and riding the brakes, spins his back wheels fast enough to create friction and make the tires heat up, resulting in huge clouds of white smoke. (I say “his” because I’ve never met a woman who seemed at all interested in doing this.) It’s the sort of thing that, at events like this, people pack into the bleachers to watch—and if you don’t understand that, well then you probably aren’t into any of the other stuff I’ve written about here either.
There were several fine entries in the burnout contest that day—and by “fine”, I mean completely loud and smoky and stinking like burnt rubber and otherwise reeking of guilty, destructive pleasure, much to the audience’s delight. But the standout of the day—the “burnout hero”, if you will—was a young man who goes by the name Homebrew, of Ohio’s Next Generation Vanners. (I told you they’d show up again.)
I knew Homebrew was serious when, before the event, I saw him switching out the back wheels on his red ’68 Dodge for a set of what I can only assume are his special burnout tires. When he got up to the burnout area, he lit a cigar and then rolled down all the windows on his van—a crazy move, even among hardcore burnout enthusiasts, since he was basically begging for his van to fill up with smoke. He pulled up to the line, gunned the engine, and let the tires spin. And spin. And keep spinning. Within seconds, the van was surrounded by thick white smoke. A few seconds later, the van was completely obscured. All you could hear was the sound of his engine, and the spinning tires. Then, there was a loud, sharp snap, followed by the unmistakable sound of an engine dying. Homebrew had killed his van. The smoke cleared a little, enough to see the van again, its driver stumbling out, looking like something straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie. And the crowd, as they say, went wild.
Here’s footage of the actual burnout:
There were other, decent burnouts. Then, when it was time to judge (based on the time-honored method of crowd noise), the vans were all lined up together. “What about the kid?” someone yelled. “Bring out the Dodge!” A few guys helped Homebrew push his dead van back up to the line, to an outburst of thunderous applause. It was official. He’d killed his van, but he’d won the contest.
The best, though, was yet to come. There was a lot of speculation about what exactly had killed the van—and how exactly this kid was going to make the 500-mile trip back to Ohio the next day. Someone used a chain to tow the Dodge back to its campsite. Someone else started taking up a collection for him. A small crowd began gravitating toward the van. One guy was a professional mechanic. Two others were fellow first-generation Dodge owners. Somebody knew a junkyard in the area. Somebody else started talking about old Dodge rear ends, and how many bolts it takes to get them apart. I realized that, at that moment, I was probably looking at the single most knowledgeable gathering of ’68 Dodge van experts in America.
It was late afternoon when they started working. And sure enough, before sundown, they had raised the money, gone to the junkyard, found a matching part, replaced the van’s entire rear end, and had it running perfectly by nightfall. All for no charge, without anyone even asking them to help, and with beer and smiles all around.
Because damn it, that’s just what vanners do.
I’d like to tell you that the first thing I did to my newly acquired van was to replace the interior with purple shag carpet, or to whip out the airbrush and cover both sides of the van with this:
And honestly, you’d probably enjoy this post more if I did.
The reality, though, is that before I can put any time or money into making this old girl look good, I’ve got to make sure she’s running strong. And that’s going to mean a lot of necessary but unglamorous repairs. I realize that, for most people, this isn’t going to be the most fascinating stuff to read about. However, I’m including it all for the sake of completeness–and on the off chance that at some point, somebody out there with a similar predicament might just find it a little bit useful.
The first challenge was the rearview mirror. The previous owner removed it, because he felt that it obstructed his wide-open view during his long trips between New York and South Dakota. He was thoughtful enough to keep the mirror, though. And realizing that, in my reality, having one more way to see behind me in Brooklyn traffic was probably going to be a more pressing issue than missing the occasional stunning view, I decided to re-install the mirror.
I bought a special mirror-gluing kit, figured out where the center of my windshield was, cleaned everything, put the glue on both surfaces, and held it in place for a minute. When I took my hand away, voila–the mirror was mounted. Pleased with my handiwork, I reached up to adjust the newly restored rear view–and popped the mirror right off. Apparently you’re supposed to let the glue dry before you start messing with it like a dipshit. Oops. I made a note to go back to the auto parts store for more glue, and moved on.
Next up was a much bigger problem: The driver’s side seat adjustment lever didn’t work. You could move the seat, but only by crawling down, fishing around under the seat, and manually moving it. This wasn’t an issue for the previous owner, since, as the only guy who drove it, he just put the seat where he wanted it and then left it there. But as someone who was planning on taking the van on tour with my band–which would mean several guys of very different heights taking turns driving in the course of each day–I knew that routine wasn’t gonna fly.
I found the problem right away. Underneath the seat, there are two rails that the seat rides on. Each rail has a spring-loaded catch that holds the seat in place. The catches are connected by a cable, so that when you pull the seat-adjustment lever, both catches come free and you can slide the seat back and forth. The cable had snapped, making the whole lever-catch thing useless. All it needed was a new piece of cable. Simple enough, right?
Not so much. As with so many things automotive, the fix was easy. But actually getting to it sucked. I had to get down in front of the seat, shove both hands into the space under it, and somehow thread a piece of wire through the holes on both catches. The only problem was, the space I had to shove my hands into was about half as high as my hands. After a good hour and a half of banged-up knuckles and twisted wrists, I got the whole mess to work. Good as new, though my hands would need a couple more days to recover.
The last order of business was the spare tire. Being an uptight person, I thought it might be nice to make sure that the whole spare tire assembly was in good condition before I actually needed it. Better to find out here, in my neighborhood on a nice sunny day, than on the side of some muddy road in Indiana in the rain at midnight. But again, that’s just how I think.
This was my first experience with the whole under-the-body spare tire contraption. I don’t know if that’s just a Ford thing, but it’s pretty brilliant. Basically you stick the tire iron into a hole in the bumper, crank it like a screwdriver, and the tire magically descends on a little cable from beneath the van, like one of those awkward flying kids in a production of Peter Pan. It turned out that the tire was fine, but the thingee (I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s really called) that holds it in place was rusted onto the hub. Unlike the seat, this was not a delicate fix. Nothing like the smell of WD-40 and a few whacks with a hammer to make a man feel like a man again.
While squatting underneath the van, I noticed two more problems. (Ain’t that always the way?) One of the clamps that holds the exhaust pipe had rusted through. And the leaf springs on the rear wheels were starting to peel apart. Those would have to wait. I’d done three fixes, and it was Miller time.
Speaking of the manly arts, I should point out that, if you have a white van, and you plan on spending a hot day crawling around under it and getting all kinds of dirty, an elementary school is a great place to park in front of while you do it. The kids spend a lot of time staring at you. (Probably because, here in fancy Park Slope, Brooklyn, they’re not used to seeing guys in public doing manual labor. Or at least not white ones.) And when the parents see you all sweaty and grease-stained standing next to your open van, they all do that same move where they stare straight ahead while they gently take their kid by the shoulder and guide them to the other side of the sidewalk. Thanks, lady. Nice to meet you too.
Model: Ford Econoline E-150 with Mark III Conversion package.
Engine: 5.0 Liter V-8, Overhead Valve
Exterior Color: White with teal graphics. Yes, teal.
Interior Color: Teal. Yes, teal.
Mark III fiberglass high-top roof.
Removable rear captain’s chairs.
AM/FM stereo with cassette deck.
Custom-built removable futon bed.
Television with VCR.
Rear disco-matic ceiling lights.
DC power jacks and (outdated) video-game inputs
Window blinds throughout, in beautiful (you guessed it) teal.
“Can you give me a ride home?”
It took me a second to realize he was talking to me.
I wasn’t a driver. I was a subway rider. A taxi taker. A sometimes bicyclist. Strictly speaking, the last time I gave anyone a ride in anything, Bill Clinton was still president—and not even in trouble yet.
Yet there we stood on a curb in downtown Brooklyn—James, the van’s former owner, with his old license plates in his hand. And me with my shiny new plates freshly screwed onto both bumpers. My new registration sticker stuck to the inside of the windshield. The little piece of paper taped beneath it, promising that I would get the van emission-inspected in the next ten days. We had just survived the New York Department of Motor Vehicles together. (Title transfer, registration, and new plates, all in under an hour—not too bad for Brooklyn on a Monday.) And now he was handing me the keys to the van. My van.
Ever since I was a tiny little kid, I’ve wanted a van. Blame it on all those kickass Hot Wheels toys (The flame-painted 1975 “Super Van” being one of my first and favorites.) Or on my RV-loving grandparents. Or maybe even on my early obsession with the Millenium Falcon—which was, after all, really just a spaced-out version of a custom van, complete with chessboard, “special modifications”, and secret stash spaces. (For more about the history of my personal van obsession, check out my statement on the Don’t Come Knockin’ Web site. )
Three decades later, here I sat behind the wheel of my very own full-size conversion van. And more than anything, at that moment, I felt… shock. The only thing I can compare it to is my little sister’s first Christmas, when, after a good month of buildup, she stepped into the living room, saw that Santa had piled the room with presents, and burst into tears. I didn’t cry when I bought the van. (Wouldn’t that have made for an awkward transaction…) Instead I gripped the steering wheel, turned the ignition, and felt the engine rumble up through my foot on the pedal. Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it was all coming together.
Getting a van is one thing. But learning to drive the damn thing is another. I put it in Drive and cautiously—extremely, hilariously, grandma-style cautiously—eased it out of its parking spot and into the morning traffic. I felt the frantic, urgent push of the cars zooming just past me on both sides. I was aware of every blind spot on the van, and wondered out loud if I was about to scrape into something every time my right side got too close. There was no rearview mirror, so changing lanes in traffic became a guessing game, based on empirical evidence from my side mirrors and a whole lot of impromptu praying. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and use the Force.
Now, lest you think I spend my whole life as a whimpering ball of anxiety, a little bit of explanation is in order:
I hadn’t owned a vehicle, or driven one consistently, in fifteen years. To most people in America, that must sound like blasphemy. But in the places I’ve lived—New York City for the past ten years, and San Francisco for five before that—it’s not that unusual. In fact, in both those towns, having a car can be a real pain in the ass. My daily routine, for nearly half my life now, has revolved around public transportation, or the occasional rental when I was out of town. And every time I rented a car, there was that hilarious first-day-of-driver’s-ed moment when you realize that a ton of rolling, rumbling metal is in your hands, and you’re terrifyingly aware of how fast it’s actually moving. Then all the old muscle memory kicks in, the senses dull, and within a mile you’re steering with no hands, trying to figure out how the stereo works and griping about the lack of pickup. ?But when you haven’t driven in a year or two, those first five minutes can be a real bitch.
I should also explain that, here in New York City, driving is a whole other experience. I learned to drive in Michigan, where—even in the cities—the roads are spacious, there’s always parking, and people do quaint little things like let you into their lane when you’re merging, or slow down for stop signs, or even wave you ahead of them for no good reason except their own innate sense of humility and public good. New York, on the other hand, is just too damn busy for all that. We’ve got just under 4 million cars on the streets, and, at any given time, a good portion of them are hell-bent on getting somewhere else. “Aggressive driving” might be the polite word for it. In most cases, “batshit insane” applies just as well. People go as fast as possible, whenever possible. Cutting off—sometimes the wrong way, across four lanes—is a competitive event. And parking is a fine art. Unless you can shell out $250-$500 a month for your own parking space (No, I’m not making those numbers up), you learn quickly how to park on the street. That means driving around until you find a spot, then figuring out a way to shoehorn your vehicle into the space between two others (no small feat in a full-size van), and then trying to remember what time and day of the week you have to come back and move it before the dreaded Sanitation cops write you a ticket. In the months since getting my van, I’ve learned to roll with this whole process, and even enjoy it a little bit. But that first day was pretty damn rough.
New York City has a reputation for something else: crime. Sure, it’s nothing close to what it was in the fabled bad old days, but there’s a reason they still put bars and a lock on everything in this town. It’s true that, for a city this size, the auto theft rate is shockingly low and doesn’t even make the top ten list. (For the record, the worst offenders are all out West.) But vandalism—particularly the NYC-born sport of spray-paint tagging—is everywhere. And their favorite targets? Plain white vans. Add to that the fact that you’ve got those 4 million crazy drivers all tooling around, waiting to potentially plow into each other, and the chances are pretty good that, even if you’re just parking your van on the streets of New York every night, something less than desirable is probably going to happen to it.
So, when I decided to finally buy a van, I knew that I wanted something used. Not only was it much cheaper, but I had to keep in mind that, at any given moment, one drunk idiot can come careening down the street and destroy my dream vehicle forever. Not to mention the potential for scratches, or theft, or a teenage jackass with a can of Krylon. This also meant that, as much as I would love to own a completely tricked-out, airbrushed show-n-shine quality custom van, the reality would have to be much more humble and street-friendly. My goal, I decided, was to own the ultimate “stealth” van—ragged and innocuous on the outside, but a total luxury pimpmobile within.
It was with all this in mind that I steered my lumbering new baby through the streets of Brooklyn. First, to drop James off. Then to the AutoZone, to pick up various fluids and jumper cables and the all-important coconut air freshener. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent a good half hour in the parking lot, getting a feel for her, practicing how to back her up without killing anybody, figuring out how to scoot her into a parking space without really being able to see much. Cranking the classic rock station and testing the AC. I circled my neighborhood a few times, dodging construction vehicles and managing to squeeze my way, with half an inch to spare, between a dumpster and a parked semi truck. Finally, I found a coveted Wednesday-to-Wednesday parking spot, only 3 blocks from my house. After about five attempts, I managed to back the van successfully into the spot. And then, I put it in park and I sat there. I listened to the engine rumble, low and steady. The Rolling Stones on the radio. I sat back in my green-fabric captain’s chair, rested my hands on the tilt steering wheel, and breathed deep the odor of stripper-grade fake coconut.
This, I realized, is what it feels like to get what you always wanted.