Austin, Texas is a town where about nine of the 40,000 University of Texas students drive Volkswagens with Kennedy bumper stickers. Everyone else drives big cars very quickly. But I was only going 15 miles an hour when I wrecked my Texas friends' 1957 Chevy.
The day after my 18th birthday, I had decided to visit the Oranges, friends of my family, who had moved to Austin. A week before the crash, I climbed off the bus, dazed and dirty from a three-day ride from Boston. The place looked equally like Dallas and Texarkana to an outsider-wide, flat roads and a dingy Trailways station; except the four cheery Oranges. Arnie and his kids, were standing outside the depot, peering anxiously at the tinted bus window. I hauled myself up from my cramped position in the back seat, marched out of the bus, and managed to knock the breath out of Arnie, Dave, Dan, and Liz.
Liz had turned into a genuine Texas belle, with blue gook on her eves and Sun-In on her hair. At 15, she practically lived in one of the family cars-the big, gleaming '57 Chevy, which awaited us at the bus depot. Arnie hopped into the driver's seat and started the engine as Liz babbled about giant Texas scorpions which apparently awaited me in the bathtub. Between the bus station and the Oranges' house in North Austin lay six miles of dry Texas land, minus the cacti and split by the freeway. The road had six lanes heavily populated with loud, fast Camaros, Continentals, VW buses, and larger vehicles. The side street the Oranges live on is wider than Mass. Ave; in fact, their driveway is wider than Mass, Ave.
Liz, I soon found out, wasn't the only convert. Arnie flew out to Denver every week or so to look for oil and stayed in a condominium he and his business partner had bought there, and David drove to EI Paso every Monday to work in a Boy Scout camp. To get to the movies they drove at least three miles, and even though the Safeway supermarket was about a quarter mile from their home, they never walked. Liz thought nothing of flying to Shreveport, La., to visit friends from her temple youth group.
In fact, a week after I got there, Arnie was in Denver for the day, Dave was in El Paso, Dan was at work in a pet shop, and Liz needed a lift to the airport. Since my father is somewhat paranoid about teenagers on freeways, I had never driven on one before that week. I went over the directions six times with Liz after explaining to anyone who would listen how nervous I was.
Liz spent half an hour looking for her car keys among the radios, bathing suits, and cosmetics that dominate her bedroom. After following's tricky detour, we emerged safely onto the highway and took the very first exit for a good Texas load of gasoline and enough French fries to feed the family next door for a week. Liz was a bit nervous about the last left turn before the airport, since she's too short to see over the dashboard of the Chevy. The parking lot was filled with cars, and there were no taxis. Everyone in Texas drives.
Pac-man proved entertaining for a half hour, and then we ran into the airport's only trouble spot-the gift shop. Liz, after convincing me not to buy my sister a pink straw cowboy hat, a silly-looking plastic sculpture of a cowboy, or a coffee mug with "Texas Longhorns" stamped on the side, hugged me good-bye and went off to her plane, not to be seen in Austin for days to come.
Following the arrows along all of the little ramps leading out of the airport frazzled me, but I found my way back to North Austin. Once back on my own two feet, I dove for the closest beer and a stationary couch. I do not like to drive.
The next morning I awoke when the cat landed on my chest at six a.m. I let her out, had some Captain Crunch, read a book, watched Dan go off in the Plymouth to play racquetball, and decided it was time for a nap.
I woke up when the phone rang, flattered to find that the call was for me. Wendy, a friend of Darn's, wanted to go roller skating that afternoon, and could I drive over and pick her up? Sure, I said, reveling in my temporary possession of the '57 Chevy.
That beautiful machine stalled right after I pulled out of the driveway. Flustered, I started it up and drove on slowly, hoping it wouldn't stall again. Suddenly, across my path I saw a car making a left turn and remembered in a flash that while there are lines of traffic in New England stopped at red lights, the Texans are more efficient, using four-way stop signs, one of which I hadn't noticed because I was worrying about the motor stalling My right foot braked; there was a crunch of metal against metal and a thud when my left arm hit the dashboard. What would my father think? What about the lady in the other car? What about the Oranges' cat?
My victim climbed out of her Pontiac, yelling something about the missed stop sign. Maybe it would have been better if I hadn't been born in the first place. I burst into tears in spite of myself, asking her if she was all right and she said, "Yeah, but my CAR has a concussion..."
Then the neighbors, who had gathered outside, became quite concerned about my mental health, offering me tea as I told them what a stupid fool I really am. A decade passed before a cop arrived to fill out forms and bestow a traffic citation and a bill for the tow truck. He drove me back to the house, asking me how long I'd be in town and what I was doing that night. "Feeling guilty," I answered miserably.
The phone conversation long-distance to Colorado was the best half-hour course on philosophy I've ever had. Amie is the nicest person west of the Mississippi, and he said cars are toys are not to come between friends. My parents reacted with admirable restraint. Dad said he hoped I felt like the dumb shit I was.
The ensuing week was, I hope, as close to hell as I'll ever come: phone calls to the police department, the insurance company, and Amie's lawyer. Big guilt. We got the paperwork cleared up in a week, and the other woman's damages were covered by the Chevy's liability insurance, I'd pay for the repairs to the Chevy, and the population of Johnson High School, a.k.a. the Classic Chevy Fan Club, would never speak to me again.
Then came the call from Universal pictures. A fact-flnding miseion had yielded the tidbit that the Oranges owned a '57 Chevy, and could the film company rent it for the movie version of the Broadway show "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"?
If we learn from our mistakes, the two weeks in Texas was an eightcredit course. At least Universal Pictures screwed up too. There's no such thing as a little whorehouse in Texas. Everything in Texas is big, and when you make a mistake there, it's usually a whopper