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On operating one's automobile without grandeur.
sideways in the light
I once urinated on a single overhead cam engine directly in front of the Rockville Pike entrance to the White Flint Mall at the height of rush hour with an elderly former calendar model in the passenger seat covering her eyes with a program from a Residents concert.

It was 1987 and I had a 1979 Fiat Strada, which I adored for its strange joys, like wonderfully tight handling, peculiar aesthetics, and having the key on the left side of the wheel, but it had a few quirks, like needing to be push-started a little too often and occasionally bursting into flame.

The drive from Rockville to my apartment in Bladensburg was the commute that’s made me turn down a profitable life ever since on the basis of my rigid anti-commuting rule, because, on the return trip, it was an hour-and-a-half-long series of six-inch angry lurches down Rockville Pike and then onto the DC Beltway Inner Loop, and it was particularly bad for my Fiat, which, when running hot, would clearly demonstrate the problem of putting a fuel line across the hottest parts of an engine. The engine would heat up until gasoline would actually start to boil in the clear plastic inline fuel filter, which would then pop off like a champagne cork, spraying gas everywhere, and the gas would hit the exhaust manifold and go up in flames.

I had the drill down, though.

When this would happen, I’d know immediately because tendrils of flame would start to flicker up from the strange asymmetrical vent on the hood and the car would stall as soon as the carburetor float bowl emptied. I’d jump out, fling open the hatch, pull out a can of expired diet grape Shasta from a whole case of expired diet grape Shasta I had from my weekend job at the pizza joint, shake it up wildly, fling open the hood, spray out the fire, and carefully plug the fuel line back into the inline filter.

I’d done it so many times that my entire engine was stained a luminous turquoise from one of the dyes used to make terrible artificial grape soda appear grape-related. I’d close the hood, toss the spent can on the floor in back, start up, and continue my Chinese water torture commute for another hellish day.


I’d just passed Nicholson Lane, where the headquarters of the terrible Theater Vision company hunkered down in the grimy colon of Rockville (“Ha, ahm Joe Jacoby and this is Theater Vision!”) and where the last surviving Peugeot dealership in Maryland was beginning to fade away, approached the mall in that stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start misery, when appeared the frightful tongues of flickering demon flame.

"Crap, Flora, the car’s on fire," I said to my regular riding carpooling companion. She was in her late sixties, a beautiful black lady with a sort of careworn Lena Horne vibe and a mean sense of humor.

"Well, put it out!"

I hopped out, into the solid cholesterol plug of traffic in that miserable sclerotic artery, directly in front of the mall, flung open my hatch with the first horns of anger starting to sound their plaintive, hopeless cries against universal injustice, and—

I was completely out of expired diet grape Shasta. The back seat was full of empty cans, the case was empty, and I could already smell burning plastics.

"Shit, I’m out of Shasta!"

I darted back and forth, thinking in that panicky headspace of I’m-screwed.

"What do you mean, you’re out of Shasta? Should I get out?"

"No, not yet. Umm. Uh—I’m gonna pee it out!"

"I do not want to look at your little pink dick this late in the day, Joseph Wall!"

"Cover your eyes!"

I flung open the hood, looked around in a moment of flickering modesty, then pissed out a minor engine fire. This did not smell good, and clouds of fetid steam billowed. In a car directly beside me, a man muttered, “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” to which I looked over and shrugged.

My car’s on fire and I’m being resourceful, jerk.

Traffic had resumed its halting slouch towards the bedroom communities of the DC area, and the horns rose up in a Wagnerian chorus.

"Jesus Christ!" I yelled, clipping the rubber hose to the somewhat burnt fuel filter. "We can’t all have new cars, you assholes!”

I slammed the hood and hopped in. Flora Doyle, once relatively successful as a catalog model for successful black-owned businesses of the pre-decay District, was perched there with one hand holding a concert program of the Residents over her face, having pulled it out of the glove compartment as a meager social grace.

"You can put that down," I said, starting the engine. "I put it away. For the record, it’s not little, though."

"Oh, I’m sure. Still pink, though. You know, you probably ought to fix that damn thing."

"The fire thing, you mean?"

"Can’t do much about t’other," she said, and we laughed like banshees, gracefully celebratory despite our poverty.

In the end, it only cost me two bucks to reroute the whole fuel line all the way around the engine compartment to stop the fires, but we tend to put things off, you know.

To this day, I recall the scent of urine steam and rehydrated residue of expired diet grape Shasta chemicals every time I am anywhere near White Flint Mall, which seems oddly appropriate.

They were not grand days, these, but we got by however we could.

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Good story, thanks.

(In the wrong hands, "car stories" can be boring. Not this time.)

Thanks for brightening my day with this well-written gem of a story!

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