Thursday, August 14, 2008

The 1976 Buick Le Sabre

NOTE: this entry is long; brought on by some happy memories yesterday, many of which happened in the Trenton area. It's time for a personal post to keep my family members and out-of-Trenton friends interested in my blog. But you're welcome to read it, even if you're not family or out-of Trenton friends.

I had an appointment yesterday morning in Princeton, and it was a nice sunny morning, a good morning for a drive, even to Princeton, for an appointment I wasn't too happy about in the first place. The ride up 206 made me nostalgic, in a contented way, though the passage of time doesn't always make sense, as memories, emotions, and sensations aren't really linear.

What made me feel this longing for the past is that there are so many changes afoot in our lives, and right now, I'm just waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Also, I used to drive up that road a lot while I was in college too; and I suppose the way the light came through the trees and hit the road just so, brought me back. I had a summer job at the Kinkos in Princeton on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring Street, while in college. The shop is gone now, as is the car I used to drive from Trenton to get there. The car was a light blue 1976 Buick LeSabre. White leather interior. Posh. Electric everything. Huge engine. Smooth ride. Low mileage, because I inherited it from my grandmother, who that year, purchased a new Buick Century. I am positive I had the better car, even though last I heard, the Century was still in operation. I have no idea, sadly, what became of the Le Sabre.

The Buick had "road trip" oozing out of it; if a car could itch for a journey, I knew this one was. I was too. So, when my semester at Trenton State College ended in May of 1989, I decided it would be a great idea to take my Buick to Canada, with a friend. We left at the very end of the month, stopped at a grocery story in Rochester, NY, and stocked up on bolonga, American cheese, bread, and Pop Tarts, which were our staples for the duration of the trip, since there was no extra money for dining out. While Canada and the US share many similarities, it was disorienting to be in a different country while so many international events unfolded: Chinese students were killed by their own government in Tiannamen Square. The Ayatollah Khomeini died. And the Maybe-It's-Too-Late-For-Sobriety Captain Hazelwood could not avoid the news if he tried (I mean, I'm all for self-improvement, but after you drunk drive an oil tanker into a reef and unload nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into a pristine habitat, there's no bouncing back from that; any personal victory you may have over alcohol will not undo that bit about causing the worst man-made disaster of all time. So hopefully Joe just accepted his flaws, and kept on enjoying the drink, but you know, not behind the wheel).

Also, the Le Sabre also ran into some issues involving the fuel line, which, in hindsight, offered just a bit of foreshadowing. While in Canada, the car started protesting, and refused to ride smoothly. Turns out, the fuel pump went, in a town called Colborne, and now, looking at the map, I see isn't far from Glen's hometown of Peterborough. A great mechanic we called "Charlie Goldtooth" replaced it, and for a good price, too. I remember he told me that he was never so helpful to folks with New York plates, but he never met anyone from New Jersey he didn't like. Take THAT, all you Corn Fed M-F-ers in the rest of the country!

My pal Charlie Goldtooth replacing the Buick's fuel pump in Colborne, Ontario

The following day, we stopped for more bologna and bread and Pop Tarts, and on our way out of the grocery store, the car started acting up again, bucking and kicking out of the parking lot. I thought Charlie and I had connected; I trusted Charlie, and now his integrity was suspect. I was crestfallen. I backed the car up, popped the hood, and took a look: I am kind of technical and geeky and have a decent sense of how things work, but I really had no idea of what I was looking at under the hood. Even though we were well-stocked with lunch meat, cheese, and toaster pastries (some of the best things in life, no?) I was depressed. But, there are definite benefits to being a not-so-ugly 20-something girl with New Jersey plates in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. At that moment, a cute Canadian man named Bruce came up and offered to help us. And, go figure, he was a mechanic, just getting off work. I told him about Charlie, and how I hoped he hadn't screwed us, or overlooked something, because he seemed like a great guy and a great mechanic. This gave Bruce something to go on, and he determined — and showed me — that the fuel filter, a little 50 cent part, was gummed up. And, again, what luck: the shopping complex had an auto body store, and he ran over to get me a new fuel filter. I was glad it was a cheap, easy fix; moreso than the pump the day before. I asked Bruce though, if maybe the filter was the problem all along, and maybe Charlie just wanted to make more money from us. Bruce, like me, seemed to trust Charlie, and figured since the filter was so gorped up, the pump was probably in bad shape, too, and it most likely needed to be replaced anyway. Though, he added, Charlie should have checked the little filter, too. Oh well. It was nice to get to know some of the locals, so it all worked out. Turns out, Bruce was fond of folks from New Jersey, too. He had an aunt in Lodi. Plus, it was always a pleasure to work on a "Yankee 350, eh."

Bruce, the off-duty mechanic who replaced my fuel filter in Kingston, Ontario

That summer, fuel line issues continued to pester me. I broke down once in the middle of the night, on Rt. 9, in Waretown. My mom came to get me, and the next morning, we got the car towed to a repair shop in Barnegat, NJ. I told the mechanic that both the filter and the pump had been replaced recently, so my problems had to be something else. I was learning a lot about the fuel line in that model Buick and was aware there was a hose that connected this part to that part, and my guess, the hose was screwed up. The mechanic was such a douche, though, and simply replaced the fuel pump — the most expensive part. I fought him, but you know how it is: I was a 20-something college girl...what the hell could I possibly know about my own car? I pulled out of his repair shop, plotting revenge, and the Le Sabre immediately bucked and kicked again. I stormed back in and told him it had to be the something else, like maybe the damn tube that connects all of the parts of the fuel system. I asked for my old, Charlie The Canadian-installed fuel pump back, but the guy in Barnegat said it was gone. Ass. But, I was right in my latest diagnosis, and the guy made the next round of repairs for free. I drove off, and felt one with the car, happy to put my foot heavy on the accelerator, and I continued to plot revenge against the mechanic in Barnegat. Nothing ever came of it, but it was nice to think about on my ride up the Garden State Parkway that afternoon.

School started in the fall, and I got myself a permit to park the Buick on campus; it was handy to have, especially since it seated about 10 comfortably, and I liked to drive it.

The following spring, I found that I had problems again with the fuel line. The Buick bucked and kicked, but it was obvious to me, who knew way too much about fuel lines at that point, that it wasn't something terribly serious. Or so I thought. Luckily — I thought — I was dating a guy, Jim, who was mechanically inclined, and he offered to take a look at the car. He determined the relatively new fuel pump installed by the douche in Barnegat was a refurbished jobbie, and was already shot. Jim got another one, plopped it in, and we were off. To Princeton for the day!

Somewhere in Lawrence on Rt. 206, I smelled smoke. Not the kind from a distant fire, but rather, a chemical fire, and really close, too. Odd, I thought, but not so odd that it should occur to me to stop driving. After all, the car had been bucking and kicking for the last few days, and it was just SO satisfying to have a smooth, open ride again. And things were going very smoothly, other than the thick, black smoke coming into the car. Jim suggested I pull over. I did, but reluctantly. And I popped the hood, and, surprisingly, flames shot out ferociously. A woman drove by, with a cell phone in hand — this was 1990, mind you — and she oh so helpfully said, "You know, your car's on fire." I nodded and thanked her, unsure what else to do, since I had never been party to a vehicle fire before, especially never up close and personal. Luckily — for real, this time —a nearby resident had a fire extinguisher and ran over and sprayed out the fire. On the surface, the car looked fine. No cosmetic damage, and all of the metal parts under the hood were in good shape, if a bit darker than usual. But all of the soft parts, the plastic and hoses, etc., were gone. Poof. Just gone. The man with the fire extinguisher drove us to a U-Haul rental place, where my boyfriend took over: he rented a truck with a hitch, and we went back to the Buick, where he hooked it up. We towed the sad Buick back to Howell, my hometown, and Jim's too.

So Jim wasn't quite as mechanically inclined as we all thought, though he had a good heart. And he was well-connected, and determined to correct his error. His best buddy was Willy the Car Jesus, who lived in nearby Jackson. Willy the Car Jesus, along with Jim, cleared their schedules to fix the car. It took a week...a grueling week...and in the end, I was told that I would "never, ever replace the fuel filter again," because of the way Willy the Car Jesus rigged things. At the time, the car was 14 years old, and the car seemed ancient to me. Not being able to maintain certain systems of the car didn't seem like an issue at all.


The car ran well, and came with me back to school again in the fall, when a group of friends and I decided that we were annoyed by the old "Welcome to Pennsylvania, America Starts Here" sign on I-95. Our thought was that:

  1. Pennsylvania was the SECOND state admitted to the union; a full 5 days after Delaware got the ball rolling.
  2. Pennsylvania was the EIGHTH state to ratify the Bill of Rights. An interesting aside: many of the early signers rejected Article II, the right to keep and bear arms.
  3. Pennsylvania is LANDLOCKED.

So there's nothing about Pennsylvania that started anything; Pennsylvania certainly did not start this country in a patriotic, philosophical, or physical sense. And Pennsylvania pretty much still sucks mightily to this day, especially since all Pennsylvanians drive for shit, and with so many of their soccer moms over here in my neighborhood buying heroin. Things have to suck pretty badly over there if all their soccer moms are addicts, right? And why does that state require only one license plate on their cars, anyway? Damn, I hate that.

Maybe I was a bit of a geek (and maybe I still am), but at least I was a proud geek. My friends and I wrote to then-PA Governor Bob Casey, and asked him nicely to take down the offensive sign. We wrote to then-NJ Governor Jim Florio, and asked him to defend New Jersey's history. Casey thanked us for the amusing letter, and Florio suggested we never leave New Jersey, so we wouldn't have to look at the sign again. It's always so nice to be dismissed. The exchange did land me on Jim and Lucinda's Christmas card list for the next few years, and nothing impresses friends and family like displaying Christmas cards from the governor, even The Most Unpopular Governor Of All Time. Go ahead and laugh. I bet you never got a Christmas card from Jim and Lucinda.

So, we had no choice. We had to take matters into our own hands. We did some reconnaissance for a few nights and decided we could alter the sign to make it read "America Farts Here" by using some high-end spray mount (I worked for the school paper, and knew a lot of artists, who all claimed "spray mount is FOREVER." We made our giant "F" to place over the "ST" of "Starts," and figured that we'd need to build a three-man ladder with three tall guys — which we had; the guy on top would slap the F over the ST, and we'd be on our way.

Things don't always work out as planned though. We did pile 16 college students all dressed in black in to Le Sabre* that night. Some of whom, I found out later, had bags of rotten produce. We pulled up to the little rest stop near the offending sign, and people fell out of the car; we all ran down the hill, and someone started humming the theme to "Mission Impossible." The three young men had not practiced their ladder, but did okay, nonetheless, climbing on top of one another. You'd never know this from zooming past those signs at 60+ miles an hour, but they are much higher and much bigger than you'd think. The letters, too, are more enormous than the imagination is able to handle in an abstract way.

Eddie, who was nearly 7 feet tall — but very thin — was at the top of the human ladder. He called down: "I can't reach the 'STARTS.' I can't reach the 'STARTS!!' What should I do??" The human ladder below him was buckling a bit, so he made the snap decision to just slap the F up there, as high as he could, and the boys tumbled. The gals with the rotten produce threw it at the sign, and yelled, "FUCK YOU, PENNSYLVANIA," and we all ran back to the Buick and crossed the Delaware as quickly as we could. I'm not too snobby to admit this: I peed my pants that night. I peed them good.

We returned the next day to see the fruits of our handiwork...and by and large, I'd say the endeavor was a flat-out failure. The sign read:

Welcome to Pennsylvania
America Starts Here

But the splatter from the tomatoes was VERY obvious, at least. My mom came to visit me the following week, and she wanted to see the sign. Because she was never much for following the rules, she got a good laugh out of it, and I know she was proud of me.

The stray F remained for about a year, which is a long time, but certainly not forever. The artists claimed the paper and foil gave out first due to the weather: spray mount IS forever. Period.


I started my career as a newspaper reporter at a small family of newspapers in Ocean County. I worked with a funny girl who liked to listen to Paul Harvey on the radio; Paul Harvey is inexplicably still alive and still talking on the radio, two facts I did not know until a minute ago. Paul Harvey is kind of an institution on his own, and I admire that about him, but he always struck me as a bit too conservative and old-fashioned, and a tad bit judgmental, but I listened to him every day with my coworker, anyway: "Hello Americans, I'm Paul Harvey," he'd start out. I've been kind of discouraged by the commercialization of our country; product placement bugs the shit out of me. And in a sense, Paul Harvey is guilty of this as well, and yet, I can let him off the hook for that: his sponsors were companies he believed in. And Paul Harvey believed in Buick. He talked about Buick all the time, at least in the early 1990s; Paul Harvey told Americans that Buick was the Number 1 car in customer satisfaction. Paul Harvey told Americans that if they own a Buick, they would be very inclined to buy another one. I loved my Buick. It was comfortable, and held so many people, and best of all, the Yankee 350 (eh) made it one fast automobile, and I liked driving fast. A lot.

Paul Harvey is so very, very old.

Most likely, my reasons for loving my Buick were not the same reasons Paul Harvey and the bulk of his listeners loved their Buicks. And as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s, I was making — no freakin' lie — $8 an hour. My father, as you can imagine, was thrilled to have sent me to college. I had a cousin a year older than I am, who didn't go to college, and was making nearly $60,000 that year. I heard about that a lot. Which sucked.

But, that Buick! And all those memories that came back yesterday, just because of my morning drive up Rt. 206. I see kids in my neighborhood with similar cars these days, and I know, I know, I know, that my Le Sabre could still be on the road. And maybe it is, even with an unmaintainable fuel filter thingy, somewhere. Stupidly, oh so stupidly, I used the Le Sabre for trade-in purposes in 1992. On a Chevy Cavalier. Do not judge, okay? I was making $8 an hour, for crying out loud. A new Buick, even the shitty Skylark (or was it the shitty Skyhawk? Maybe both were available at that time), was just out of my financial reach, as was just about everything else.

Late in 1992, I was living in Beach Haven, NJ. And maybe you recall the big nor'easter that year. It happened to hit on my birthday. Below is a little bit of footage I found on the interwebs (I didn't take the footage...just found it this morning online). I was aware this storm was coming, but I thought the term "nor'easter" was cute and harmless and kind of silly, and therefore I had no concept of what a nor'easter could do to a little shore community, or what a nor'easter could do material possessions, or the lives of the people living in those communities. It happened to be a full moon at that time, too. Before there was any precipitation or major wind, the tide rose and rose and rose and rose. Silently. The bay and the ocean met. My street became a salt water river; the water levels were up to my armpits. It was wild...just wild. And then, it occurred to me: My car, I thought. My car! It was completely underwater, and the salt water quickly ruined it. A total write off.

Flood and fire are total opposites, except they are both rare, and so extreme. It worried me I had both in my life in such short order, and yet, I was young, and found it exciting, too. But what I ultimately realized is that the flood of 1992 totaled the Cavalier, a piece of shit car; but the great fire of 1990 did not total the Le Sabre. To be fair to the Cavalier, salt water is probably worse than fire, and the ocean is vast, and many cars far superior to my Crapolier were totaled in that storm as well. But still, cars are not made like the Le Sabre anymore. It felt good driving Glen's car up 206 yesterday, but not Le Sabre good. Glen's car will only hold maybe 6 people, and that would be very uncomfortable. It bears New Jersey tags, and has made multiple trips to Canada, but its guts do not yield a Yankee 350, eh. It is probably more reliable than the old Buick, and there is something to be said for reliability, especially after the run I had with cars through my early driving years. But there's something so life affirming about knowing your car can be resurrected after a devastating fire; and Glen's car, in the same unlikely scenario on Rt. 206 with flames shooting out from under the hood, I'm sure, sadly, would be done.

Before summing up all of this babble, I just want to say that despite the fond memories of my 1976 sky blue Buick LeSabre, I didn't run out to buy another Buick, once I was out of the $8 an hour pay range, though I did dabble in other GM cars. I do tend to be loyal to certain brands, but not so much to automobile brands, since there are so many variables in the outside world — like flood and fire and other drivers and a shitty economy and ridiculous gas prices — and we ultimately do not have nearly as much control over our own lives and possessions as we'd like to think. Even though I realize just how insignificant we are in this universe, does not mean I'm interested in driving around in a total shitbox. I do have some ego, some esteem. For the last 10 years or so, I've had the same Ford F150, and I love it possibly as much — if not more — than the Buick; and because I was a bit careless — in retrospect — with the gift that was my Buick, I'm not letting my truck go any time soon. It's been a great vehicle, but I don't drive it much these days, partially because I don't need to, and also because gas prices are ridiculous. The point of this is that while I have a soft spot for MY Buick, it's not like I'd jump at the opportunity to be Buick's spokesgal these days. I'm older than I once was, but not old enough to drive a vehicle into the plate glass window of a grocery store, and that's pretty much Buick's target crowd, no? A Buick is a decent car, by and large, but has a completely questionable customer base these days. No offense to old people, but maybe they should be banned from buying cars with big engines that go from zero to plate glass window before they can realize their foot was on the gas pedal, not the brake.

After my appointment yesterday, I slowed at an intersection, and put on my right turn signal. A car to my left — based on the lack of signals — intended to go straight through the intersection. I took one look at my fellow driver's grill and instantly recognized it as a Buick. I looked at the driver, and he was maybe Paul Harvey's age. I swear I don't have anything against old people. And I am normally a very courteous driver; and that pisses off nearly everyone who drives with me. But oh well: I let EVERYONE go first. Generally, I simply enjoy being in the car much more than I like to arrive at my destination; so I just don't care if there are a million cars in front of me, or not. But I looked over at that old guy in the Buick, and noticed he had a stop sign, and I didn't. I had the right-of-way, and decided to take it, and quickly, too, in case he was a fiesty old guy. Maybe if he had been in any other type of car, I would have waved him on, but I suppose, at my core, because of the fond memories I have of my Buick, I can't stand how old people have hijacked the Buick. Buicks aren't exactly high performance, racing vehicles (except for the Grand National, I suppose), but for a consumer-end car, they are generally made well, and have a lot of cylinders and horsepower, and other doohickies that make them go very fast. And old people drive them like they're stuck in jam. That is disrespectful to the engine, it's a waste of innovation and technology and money, and I just can't let that go ahead of me. Screw that noise.


* I deleted the "the" before the "le" on purpose since "the" and "le" mean the same thing. I contemplated deleting every "the" before every "le," but it seemed SO pretentious and Franco-philish. I am an American, and I am from New Jersey, and you better not have a problem with my more-or-less deliberate redundancy.


Greg Forester said...

I always wondered if Paul Harvey was still alive...those Canadians look very Canadian, like Glen.

Mr. Cleän said...

1. Sometime within the past 2-3 years, Paul Harvey signed a TEN YEAR contract with the company that syndicates him. His rationale was "I don't have any other plans," or something similarly brilliant in it's deadpan-iness. Paul Harvey rules.

2. According to today's "newspaper column," Larry Parker drives a Buick. That is all.

Joe D'Aquila said...

Wow! $8 an hour?
If only!

Lori said...

I am so with your driving style. Let the other guy go first and, yes, I stop when the light turns yellow, I don't gun it. Pisses people off. Does that make me anti-social?

Elise said...

My big memory of Le Sabre involves a Wolfe Hall middle-of-the-damn-night fire alarm and temporary relocation to the car, where I believe a good deal of Wolfe 3 was spending the night.

Chrissy said...

Lori: yep, it might make you anti-social, but so be it. Just being in a car can be so wonderful, that speed and destination and all of that just don't matter.

Elise: That was a fun night, but total bullshit. That dorm was closed for HOURS, in the middle of the night. That Buick was awesome, at least for a decent-sized group of us.

Bonus: who wants to play a little game? It's the "Let's try to guess what kind of Buick LA Parker drives" game. My guess -- Larry drives a relatively sporty, large, 2-door model (like the Riviera); something with JUST ENOUGH bling to make him look cooler and hipper and younger than he is, but something that does not scream "ghetto." I suspect he is a mama's boy at the core, and anything too tricked out would meet solidly with her disapproval.

Anyone else want to take a guess?

Mr. Cleän said...

Wolfe 3 whatever... Travers 5 was da shizz-nit!

Larry Parker drives a 1990 Buick Regal with a primer-colored front passenger side quarter panel.

That is all.

Bill Hawley said...

I remember the night we defaced the "America Starts Here" sign with the photo-mounted F differently. I was the one who placed the F on the sign. And I remember standing on Beau's shoulders. I do not think he was standing on anyone else's shoulders. It was my 21st birthday, and I'd had a bit to drink. Legally!
I had a 1975 Buick Le Sabre during college. (My father was always buying whatever big-ass car our neighbor, Mr. Brand, was getting rid of.) After I'd had it a while, it got so I couldn't unlock the driver's-side door and I couldn't lock the passenger-side door. No one ever bothered it, though I was worried someone might, especially while it was parked at the Laneco store on Olden Avenue, where I worked as a cashier.
Off-duty mechanic Bruce was a hottie.

Chrissy said...

Bill, I was only trying to protect you in case you wanted to forget that night, so I changed your name and some details! Sorry!

I loved it when our Buicks were parked outside Robinson's place at the same time. No room for the Hyundais!