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Signs You’ll Soon Be Taking the Bus
An Automotive Validation of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolutionary Adaptation

by Greg Coyle


My first car was a maroon ’67 Mercury Cougar. Before it became mine, it was parked for months in a vacant lot beside an intersection near my house. Every time we passed it, so forlorn looking in its weathered paint job and rimless wheels, my father would say, "Now that was a car." This was inevitably followed by reminiscences of dreams he’d had as a teenager about driving that exact make and model. Dreams scotched by a lack of funds and a father who believed nothing good came of giving your children anything they could buy on their own with a proper Calvinist application..

"I would’ve sold my sister to a sheik to get that car," my father said.

Me, on the other hand, I was constitutionally indifferent to cars. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted one — badly — but I knew enough about myself to know I needed one that would require absolutely no upkeep. The Cougar, I’m afraid, did not look like it would fit that bill. Hidden from my father was the reality that I cared about cars only insofar as they could deliver two things: one, liberation from my cul-de-sac, which those days seemed to be contracting right along with the universe, and two, some much-needed vinyl-seated privacy for my girlfriend and me, out of earshot of her father who carried a knife on his belt.

So, after failing to interest my father in the 1978 Toyota Corolla hatchback a friend’s mother was selling (upon winning a new car in a radio raffle), or the neighbor’s Econoline van, I accepted that the Cougar was my best chance of getting Dad to pony up. Each time we drove by the thing, I would again ask him some question about the car. Whether he knew he was being played or not, in time he so coveted the Cougar he just couldn’t keep himself from buying it.

Unfortunately, the car, no doubt like the man who many years earlier bought it new, had long gone to seed. It was held together by prayer and solder and simple inertia. We bought it from a man whose close-cropped flat-top revealed an enormous head scar, which seemed a bad omen. Immediately after buying it, one thing after another began to break down. Because I didn’t have the money nor, I suppose, the inclination to get them fixed, I embraced a much-overlooked automotive maintenance strategy: adaptation.

No matter what that car threw at me, or left smoking on the highway, I adapted. The driver’s side door no longer work? I simply used the passenger side door. The radio goes south? I brought a boombox. The car begins to routinely overheat? I kept the heater on all the time, which I was told cooled the engine. For probably 11 months my car was a balmy 93 degrees, except in summer when it was more like Calcutta in a can.

Then there were the turn signals. Anyone who knows the ’67 Cougar knows that it came equipped with these unusual turn signals; my father never tired of praising them. Rather than simply blink, the signal light spread from the inside out in series of red pulses. Very cool, but, as it happened, fraught with mechanical difficulties. The damn things completely crapped out the second month I had the car. I was told replacements could be easily found at any number of u-pull-it junkyards. Instead I chose to go with hand signals. Simple enough and a good solution, but only if you live in Phoenix, or Palm Desert. In the moist Northwest, where I lived, it meant my left arm was chronically wet. So, I took to wearing an empty bread bag on my arm on rainy days. Greg 1, Nature 0.

In fact, that’s how I felt about my relationship with the car, that there was some scorecard being kept. That this was a game of automotive brinksmanship. Who would blink first, me, or the forces of decay and obsolescence, Nature herself? I reinterpreted my laziness as a valiant defense against all those nagging daily concerns that keep us fromsleeping as late as we’d like or getting drunk in the middle of the day.

My most courageous stand? One afternoon, the windshield wipers stopped working. I parried by using that one-inch sliver of windshield right near the hood that remained mostly clear no matter how hard it rained. For nearly four months I drove like a octogenarian anytime it rained, my face low and pressed close to the class. Windshield wipers? I didn’t need any windshield wipers. Greg 2, Nature 0.

I’m older now and have learned certain things about the ruthlessness of the world. I’ve come to realize, among other truths, that adaptation does not favor all species. Some perish no matter how ingenious their response to a changing environment. The other thing I learned is there is no substitute for oil in a car’s engine.

This last lesson was underscored when the Cougar brought me to final and unceremonious halt on a section of highway 5 between Seattle and Tacoma. Smoke billowed from the seams in the hood. I phoned a friend to tow me home. After hooking my father’s dream car to the friend’s truck, I looked at the poor Cougar from the cab of the truck as we rejoined traffic. I watched it bounce behind us empty and broken and felt miserable. Then, at mile 10 or so, I watched as it very quietly came unhitched from the truck and with some momentum, run driverless off the road and plow nose first into a ditch at the side of the road.

It was the final sign indicating that I was soon to be bus bound.


Signs You'll Soon Be Taking the Bus
By Greg Coyle

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Greg Coyle is a blind religious cleric and part-time Civil War reanimator living in Portland. He writes novels to quiet the voices in his head.