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 cable in question.

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.

One rusty-ass spare tire.

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.

Another satisfied van owner.

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Model: Ford Econoline E-150 with Mark III Conversion package.

Year: 1995

Engine: 5.0 Liter V-8, Overhead Valve

Mileage: 101,230

Exterior Color: White with teal graphics. Yes, teal.

Interior Color: Teal. Yes, teal.

Features:

Mark III fiberglass high-top roof.

Removable rear captain’s chairs.

AM/FM stereo with cassette deck.

Overhead storage.

Air conditioning.

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.