Dan lives in the same retirement community as my mother. Whenever I see him I strike up a conversation. He’s a talker and a character, and so am I. I can’t remember exactly how we got acquainted, but I think it might have been on a long elevator ride. Neither of us is the kind of fellow who lets a hundred seconds pass without filling up the gap with conversation.
It was months before I found out that Dan was the owner of the ’61 Chrysler Imperial I had been admiring in the parking lot out front. One sunny Fall day I had seen him emerge from behind the wheel of the car, but by the time I had parked and gotten inside, he had been long gone.
Finally, just the other night, I bumped into Dan on the way out of the place. He’s a tall man with short hair grey hair, the bent nose and weathered face of a boxer, and a hint of Jimmy Stewart in his voice.
“Hey Dan! How’ve you been? Nice Thanksgiving?”
“Fine, fine. And you?”
“Never better,” I said.
“Where’s your coffee?” he asked. He had noticed long ago that I almost always have a cup of coffee in my hand, and he liked to tease me about it.
“Fresh out. On the way home I was thinking of stopping by Stir Crazy Cafe over on MacArthur Avenue.”
“On the way is it?” he asked.
“I can make it be,” I said. “So that’s your Imperial out there? Sure is a beauty.”
“You like that do you?” he said. “Everybody stares at it and makes comments. It’s so big it’s silly.”
“But it’s a work of art. All cars look alike these days,” I said.
“That’s right. Cars today fall into two categories: door stops and suppositories.”
“Why is that, you think?”
“People don’t want to be individuals anymore,” he said. “They all want to fit in and be like everybody else. Nobody wants to stand out.”
“You might be right about that,” I said.
“Did you check out the steering wheel?”
“No, I didn’t. What’s special about it?”
“It’s square,” he said. “Go look in the window, you’ll see. They didn’t have tilt wheels in those days. So they squared the wheel so that you can slide in easier. And it has a push button transmission too.”
“You’re kidding!” I said.
“Nope. I got the old steering wheel in the trunk. Had to replace it. It’s in bad shape, just junk. You want it?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Can’t imagine why not,” he said, deadpan.
“You know I was born in ’61, the same year as your car.”
“And I thought you weren’t playing with a full deck,” he said. “I guess I was wrong.”
“What was that?”
“A full deck? You’re fifty-two. Fifty-two cards in a deck?”
I laughed. “Ah, I get it,” I said. He had at least twenty years on me but his wit had a keener edge. I should’ve said ‘Dan, you’re a real card’ but I didn’t think of that quip until the ride home.
“You like cars?” he asked.
“Not especially. I just like art, and I love it when art and function overlap.”
“I’m a car guy,” he said. “You know, a buddy of mine had that car. He was moving and he had to get rid of it, so I took it off his hands. This is the last year with the fins. In ’62 they took ’em off. I often thought I’d like to have one of each model — the two-door coupe, the convertible, and this one, a whole set. Never got around to it.”
We talked a bit more and then parted company. Dan went to the wall of mailboxes to get his mail while I went outside. By the fading light I peered into the window of his Imperial. The car was immaculate inside. And there, in front of the wide majestic metal dash, was a beautiful square steering wheel. It was rounded at the corners, a graceful sculpture with a perfect chrome bar at the bottom used to sound the horn. I tried to take a picture but the glare of the window wouldn’t allow it. It seemed to me that the horn would not have honked but rather sounded, like the trumpet of Gabriel on the day of judgment or Heimdall’s horn at Ragnarok. Every part of the vehicle appeared to have been made my artisans, by Michaelangelos and Leonardos.
I got in my truck and headed off to the coffee shop. Dan and his Imperial stuck with me. Maybe next time I’ll ask Dan to drive us to the coffee shop.