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Unsafe at Any Rate or How I Moved To Austin

Photo collage: dan Hubig © 2018

The first car I bought after I left home was a 1961 Corvair station wagon, the car that Ralph Nader wrote about in Unsafe at Any Speed. Even if I’d read the book, which I hadn’t, I probably would’ve bought the car anyway. A Santa Fe police officer had just informed me that I was going to need a car if I wanted to go anywhere in “his” town because hitch-hiking within the city limits was “strictly illegal.” As I found out later, it was easier to steal a car in Santa Fe than hitchhike.

Two of my hometown buddies had dropped me off in Santa Fe the day before and headed back to Lubbock. Me, I wasn’t going back. The original itinerary showed them dropping me off in Silverton, Colorado, where I would work in a silver mine for mind-boggling wages with all the time-and-a-half overtime I wanted. The idea was to put in six months or even less in the mine, then retire for a year – life was cheap in 1973 – and write my great coming-of-age novel. The fact that I was nineteen and hadn’t come of age didn’t matter. But the silver mine turned out to be underneath a lake, which did matter because I saw the job as a serious deterrent to ever coming of age or writing a novel about it.

I’d saved about $1,500 dollars in the year after graduating from high school and carried most of that in the form of traveler’s checks. I also had a Royal manual typewriter, a suitcase stuffed with t-shirts, jeans, underwear and socks and another bag with books, notebooks and pens. All I needed after my pals headed back to Lubbock – poor bastards – was a car and a place to stay. And maybe a job, depending on how long the $1,500 lasted.

On my first day in the allegedly real world I bought a newspaper, scanned the want ads and found a room for sixty dollars a month on Hickox Street. I went to the motel office and asked the cheerless crew-cut proprietor who had rented me the room directions to Hickox Street.

“You got a car, kid?”

“No, I’m going to hitchhike.”

“Good luck.”

No such luck. A Santa Fe police car was the first and only car to stop for me. The officer delivered a brief but spirited lecture on the evils of hitchhiking, advised me to get a haircut and roared off. I trudged back to the motel, making a mental note about how trudging is different than, say, skipping. But the sight of a red four-door compact station wagon parked in front of the motel with a “For Sale” sign on the front windshield put a spring in my step. Old Flattop (my name for the proprietor) just happened to be selling the car, a bonafide 1961 Corvair station wagon. Though more than 10 years old at that time, the car still retained a stylish flair – and it had a push-button ignition! I went inside to inquire.

“That’s a damn good car,” Old Flattop said in a way suggesting I’d said it wasn’t. He took me outside, pointed out the car’s rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and emphasized how well it handled (a damn lie). I got behind the wheel and pushed the automatic ignition button. The second time I pushed it the car started. I don’t remember haggling over the price but I got a good deal: one hundred bucks.

We drove downtown to switch the title. Nothing bad happened. The Corvair accelerated when I pushed the gas pedal, the automatic transmission shifted gears at appropriate times and the car glided to a stop when I stepped on the brake. It did have a tendency to sway a bit when I pushed the speedometer much past 40 mph, but for a hundred bucks I was willing to be a slow poke.

Back at the motel I loaded both of my worldly possessions into the back of the car and drove to Hickox Street where the landlady cited a lack of current – or past – employment as a good reason to deny me the room. I assured her I was plenty rich and just needed a place to write my “next” novel, suggesting a legacy of such tomes already under my belt. She quit asking questions when I paid for two months’ rent in advance.

My new pad had a bed – more like a cot – and a wobbly table just sturdy enough to support my manual typewriter and a cup of instant coffee. A guy named Hank lived just down the hall in another cheap and sparsely furnished room. He knocked on my door the day after I moved in.

“Howdy, neighbor!” Hank was tall, lean and short-haired and walked with a bit of a wobble, perhaps attributable to the six pack of Coors he carried under one arm. Tucked under his other arm was a paperback. He gave me a beer and opened two for himself. A genuine two-fisted drinker.

“That’s your Corvair out there, huh?” He handed me the book: Unsafe at any Rate “Check out the first chapter, dude.” It was titled “The Sporty Corvair: The Exciting One Car Accident.”

“Ah, gee….”

“But I bet it’ll get us to the store and back. Whatcha say?”

At the grocery store Hank stole for me a couple of steaks and a jar of peanut butter. “Don’t want to lose my touch,” he tried to explain, then identified himself as a recovering hundred-dollar-a-day junkie who had learned to shoplift as a matter of survival. “But things are getting better. I’ve been working steady for five months and been straight for six!”

Hank worked at a luxury car dealership just around the corner from Hickox Street. As the lot manager he had the keys to dozens of Lincolns, Jaguars, Cadillacs, Porsches and a Shelby Mustang. His outgoing nature, casual manner and perpetual grin surely gave his boss no clue that he’d hired a recovering junkie to safeguard his high-dollar inventory. But I could see how it might happen. Hank was personable and persuasive enough to talk people into and out of almost anything. It was easy to see him as a future car dealer, or a drug dealer. You never can tell about guys like Hank.

One evening not long after I’d moved in Hank dropped by my room to ask if I wanted to take the Shelby Mustang for a cruise, dangling the keys to emphasize how easy such a thing would be. I told him no thanks and explained how I’d already met one Santa Fe cop and had no desire to meet any of his colleagues. But Hank had it all figured out.

“Here’s the deal,” he began, and I was already changing my mind. “My boss told me all the cops do is drive by a couple of times a night and count the number of cars on the lot. If the number matches the number he gave the cops they go eat doughnuts and drive by again a couple of hours later. That’s it. All we have to do is park your car in place of the Mustang. Easy, huh?”

Hank also had the skinny on when neighborhood cops conducted their drive-by inventories. We timed our switcheroos accordingly. Parked alongside some of the most expensive performance cars in the world, my Corvair stuck out like a barnyard pig at a beauty contest but the switch-and-steal ruse worked. Every time. Aside from the Mustang we test drove a couple of Porsches, a Jaguar (too much car for me at the time) and any number of Caddys and Lincolns.

Once we got pulled over by a Santa Fe policeman who wanted to check out the car to find out “what it has.” Hank rattled off some impressive numbers and letters, explaining that, as the lot manager, he was just taking the car for a test run because, well, it was part of his job. Meanwhile, I tried to catch my breath, slow my heartbeat and look as innocent as Hank sounded. The cop winked and nodded. “Try to keep it under a hunnert, okay?” The traffic stop ended with no further interrogation or investigation and no arrests. But we decided not to push our luck too much farther.

When a few days later Hank talked me into driving him to Las Vegas – New Mexico – we took the Corvair. We were just outside of Las Vegas when Hank stuck his head out the window, listened a minute and shook his head. “Bad news. We’ve got a flat tire, dude.”

I reminded him that this was just how the car handled at fifty miles an hour and, yes, there was a little Charlie Watts-like rhythm to it, but we were rolling right along, weren’t we?

“No, listen.” He stuck his head out the window again. “You got a flat tire. Right rear, I think.”

To show him just how wrong he was I gave the car a little jerk to the left and back to the right. What this was supposed to accomplish or prove I have no idea. My Corvair went spinning in dizzying, terrifying circles down the middle of a conveniently deserted highway.

In an attempt to make the awful spinning stop I hit the brakes and pulled the wheel one way while the car was going the other way. This was my in-the-moment interpretation of “turning in the direction of the skid.” But I must have missed something in Driver’s Ed because the Corvair stopped spinning so quickly that it tumped over on its side. I slid from the driver’s side to land on top of Hank, the two of us pressed against the passenger side window and staring at the gravel on the other side.

Hank and I screamed at each other for a few seconds, and then I ascended back to the driver’s side, using Hank’s face for leverage. More screaming. I pushed the door open but when I let some pressure off it closed in a hurry on top of my head. Hank pushed me out of the way and succeeded to keep the door open long enough for us to scramble out and drop to the ground.

“That,” Hank said coolly, “was an exciting one-car accident.”

I rubbed the knot rising on top of my head. “Yes, and as you can see, we don’t have a flat tire.”

We walked around to the other side and pushed against the car until it returned to its normal upright position, but with an unsettling clatter, like a tray of silverware hitting a concrete floor. But to our mutual wonder and delight, the Corvair’s engine started on the second try. It nearly always started on the second try.

On the way back to Santa Fe we paid attention to new noises coming from several places – under the hood, in the chassis area and, yes, there was a sound like a flat tire makes. The swaying was no longer so rhythmic or predictable, accompanied now by creaks and a persistent sound of metal grinding against metal. But we made it back to Hickox Street, each of us in one piece and still friends. But not for long.

An old Lubbock buddy, Kenny Ray, came to visit me a few days after the exciting one-car accident, said he was thinking about moving to Santa Fe and what did I think about that?

“You can take my place if you want,” I told him. “I’m getting out while the getting’s good.”

We talked it over and settled on Austin as the most promising destination.

Kenny Ray was curious about the Corvair so I drove us to lunch so he could see and hear it for himself. “It sounds like it’s about to explode,” he muttered. “And you have a flat. Listen."

“Nope. No flat tires on this baby,” I assured him. “You’re not the first person to mistake the sound of a high performance engine for a flat tire.”

Kenny was set to argue the point, but it became moot when the car abruptly sputtered, backfired and came to a slow rolling stop on the side of the road. No matter how many times I punched the push button ignition it wouldn’t start again.

“This car is dead,” Kenny Ray declared. “Better it than us.”

We pushed the sporty Corvair into a shopping center parking lot and took the title from the glove box as prelude to abandonment. An hour later we were in Kenny Ray’s old Ford pickup, bouncing out of Santa Fe toward Austin. I didn’t feel hunky dory about forsaking the Corvair, which had a certain amount of character and probably deserved a better fate.

“Forget it,” Kenny Ray said when I mentioned this out loud. “That car was a hunk of junk.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “But the tires were good.”


Clay Coppedge © 2018

Clay Coppedge is a freelance writer, former contributor to the Austin Sun and a former cab driver. He lives on the outskirts of Walburg, Texas and is a proud supporter of the statute of limitations.


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