Smash

In 1991, when I graduated from college, I moved to Michigan for the summer. I felt very grown up cruising out of New England, diploma in hand, in my first real car.

I was proud of my silver Chevy Cavalier. It was the first car I ever signed for, and I had grand plans to make the $135 payments myself. It cost $6400, and it had about 40k on the odometer. Air conditioning and an automatic! Back then, such luxuries were far from standard, especially in the kind of car a 21-year-old could own.

To complete my first-car experience, I had ordered vanity plates too: MLSTNS, which stood for Milestones, a Miles Davis album that I really liked. Milestones was also the name of a magazine I wanted to start someday (what else is an English major going to do?).

In the end, the car—and the magazine—would prove to be short-lived.

Two friends and I rented in a single room in a split-level on Starr Drive in Troy. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor, stayed up late watching Saturday Night Live, and ate peanut butter and fluff sandwiches to save money on food.

The young woman who rented the room to us was very uptight—to avoid oil stains  in her driveway (imagine how offensive this was to me!), she made me park my car on the street. Just a few weeks after we were there, one night, a teenage hoodlum broke the right rear window of my Cavalier and stole a dozen of my cassette tapes.

Think about that. Who in their right mind would ever break into a car to steal cassette tapes?!

Clearly, this person didn’t know that this high-quality audiotape technology would be less than irrelevant in a short while. Stupid kid.

I was devastated, but recovered from the thoughtless vandalism. I went to a glass shop and got the window fixed. But the great cassette tape escapade was just a precursor of what was to come.

A few weeks later, I was driving down a back road in Shelby Township (what the heck is that, anyway? Who ever heard of a township?). Suddenly, I noticed a Plymouth Voyager coming toward me. The van was in my lane, pointing in my direction, so I slowed down. But it got closer, the driver didn’t swerve.

I remember trying to process this information—it didn’t make any sense. I’m on the right side of the road and you are supposed to be on the left! But the van did not turn. I didn’t swerve either because I kept thinking the driver would see me and jerk her steering wheel in the same direction. In the end, she didn’t. She hit my sparkling Chevy Cavalier—and me—head on.

Stupid kid.

I mean her, not me. (The fact that I could have probably avoided her is beside the point.)

A teenage girl was driving the van—she was fiddling with the radio and not paying any attention. What an odd experience, to get hit by a car—a sudden, forceful impact, the sound of metal screeching, and a sharp pain across my chest. The girl was horrified. As she should have been.

My car was undriveable, totaled. So the girl drove me to her house. Her mother was very concerned and sweet—she made me lunch, took me to the doctor, and paid the doctor bill. Ultimately, I was fine. Six weeks later, I flew home. I had in my pocket a check for less than $6000—what the car was now worth after a month on the road. I don’t even think I made my first payment. But at least I understood the concept of insurance.

At some point after the car was long gone, I received my permanent MLSTNS license plates in the mail. I never even got to take the temporaries off.

I realized a few weeks later that I had been listening to the soundtrack to Pretty Woman when the accident happened—and I never ejected the tape. Yet another lost cassette from my collection.

This story is not all crushed Cavaliers and broken college dreams, however. The ending is this: One of my best friends from college, K., lives in Rhode Island. Later that year, K. was in East Greenwich, having lunch at Friendly’s. Her friend knew the waitress who was serving them, so she introduced the two women. K. heard the waitress was new in town, and the woman said she was from Michigan.

K. said, “That’s funny—one of my friends lived there this summer. She went there to work but then got in a car accident and her car got totaled, so she had to come home.”

“What kind of accident?” the waitress asked, intrigued.

“She was on a back road, and some girl was playing with her radio, and hit her head on.”

The girl’s eyes grew wide.

“Head on?”

It turns out that the waitress was the girl who hit me. She had just moved to Rhode Island with her parents.

Ha! She thought she could escape her careless, radio-playing past by moving to one of the tiniest states in the union. She was wrong.

Today, 20 years later, I still wonder if she took my cassette tapes too. If it weren’t for the advent of iTunes and iPods, I bet I’d find Pretty Woman in the back seat of her car.