I suppose it’s in the nature of this kind of meme to cheat a little bit here and there. This is one of those posts. This is supposed to be a song that reminds me of someone, and it does that – my friend Michael – but it is equally a reminder of something: Michael’s 1984 white Volkswagen GTi.
Not Michael’s actual car, but an incredible simulation.
I met Michael in college. I had taken a year off after my freshman year. (A long story. Suffice to say that when you are on academic probation in your second semester due to what was most likely undiagnosed depression in your first semester, you’re probably better off not trying to take an advanced math course and a difficult physics course at the same time.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. So I’m back in school for my sophomore year, living in a tiny single room in a dorm about a mile from the campus where all my classes were. I was lazy back then – I know, can you believe it? – so I would often take the shuttle down to campus. One day, I get on the shuttle and see a guy reading Byte Magazine. I’m sort of interested in computers – heck I was taking Applied Math, which is what we had in the old days before the phrase “Computer Science” was invented by a secret cabal of MIT and Caltech grads – so I start chatting with him about it. I noticed he bore a vague resemblance to one of my cousins, and decided to mention it. “You remind me of my cousin,” I said. “He’s kind of an asshole.”
Yes, I’ll get to the car. Keep your pants on.
So Michael and I became good friends. He was the first person I knew who had a personal computer in his dorm room. (Did I mention I’m 4,000 years old?) He and another buddy and I would sit in front of it for hours playing Wizardry, cursing ourselves every time our characters would die and we’d realize it had been an hour since we’d last saved the game. Michael also had the first Macintosh I ever saw.
We shared a bunch of classes – playing cards in the back of large lecture halls – and skipped a lot more. He managed the grill in his dorm (next door to mine) one year, and we worked there making milkshakes and pizza for stoned students and laughing at the red-headed kid from Georgia who played pinball incessantly, screaming “RIPOFF!!!” every time he’d lose a ball. (There may have been something not quite right with that kid, come to think of it.) We played games in the common rooms – Michael’s philosophy of Monopoly was “Any deal not expressly prohibited by the rules is permissible.” I’m not sure, but I think he arbitraged the railroads.
And of course, we hung out with each other’s families. Michael was from a big Sicilian family in western Massachusetts, and we went out there a couple of times to visit. His mom was everybody’s mom; his dad was gruff and solid; his sisters were smart and funny; and all of them immediately treated me like one of the family.
My mother had moved to Vermont when I started school. (I tracked her down, hyuk hyuk.) As a result, Michael decided I had grown up in Vermont, and still tells people that whenever he introduces me to someone. Usually, I would take the bus up for school vacations or long weekends. But then Michael got the GTi.
I told you we’d get to the car.
At the time, my mom lived in a big, drafty black house in the middle of the small artsy town of Putney, Vermont. Michael’s car made the journey to Putney at least a dozen times during and after our college career. Most of the time, I was there as well, though there was at least one occasion when Michael was driving around New England with his then-girlfriend and they stopped in to say hi to my mom.
On one particular trip – a spontaneous road trip with my other friend Mike along – the car was given a theme song. We had planned to leave in the late morning to head up and visit my mother and hang out for a couple of days, but Michael needed to put an oil cooler on the car, so Mike and I sat around with varying degrees of patience while he did so. Eventually, we got on the road and made our way northward. I watched out for state police in case Michael’s radar detector wasnn’t enough. Michael put in a cassette and the boozy rounded tones of Warren Zevon’s voice poured out. I wasn’t familiar with the song at the time, but it didn’t take long for me to get the lyrics. We ran through the whole album a couple of times, but this song was the one that really stuck.
Every time Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner comes around on my iPod, I am instantly transported back to a sunny day, bombing up Route 5 in Vermont, with the music playing loud and Michael and me singing “He blew Van Owen’s body from there to Johannesburg” at the top of our lungs.
Michael ended up being the best man at my wedding. Turns out he wasn’t an asshole after all.