Pulling off on the side of the road, it could be argued, was a little dangerous. I was on a freeway just north of Detroit, in a lot of traffic. When I merged, I would have to merge fast. I didn’t care. The car I was driving was coming up on 100,000 miles. I wanted to see the odometer turn and stop at the exact moment when all the zeros aligned.
I was driving a rust-colored 1972 Camaro. It was four years old, already going to real rust around the door handles and a couple quarter panels. The brown vinyl top was discolored, spotted with peeling lesions.
Why would you buy a car with a vinyl top? my wife would ask me a few years later. By then she was at 130,000 miles.
I needed a car.
But couldn’t you have, you know, found a better looking car? That vinyl, I mean. So cheesy.
It looked good brand new on the lot. And I needed a car.
You could have shopped.
I didn’t shop. I needed a car.
At a crossroad in farm country with high corn, a totally blind, open intersection, on an October morning in 1971 the car I was driving to the local community college was struck on the right door by a van traveling 35 mph. My car then was a VW bug, not much more robust than a beer can on wheels. It was totaled. I was nearly totalled too. Three months later, still sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for my busted legs to mend, I was handed a check for $8500 by a claims agent for the other guy’s insurance, compensation for my pain and suffering and for my wrecked car. For some reason it didn’t occur to me (or, oddly, to either of my parents) to suggest that we negotiate another zero of two onto that figure. A few months passed until, back on my feet at last, I went to Burt Watson’s lot in town with my dad. I bought the 1972 Camaro, put five grand in the bank, and felt like I’d come up in the world.
Four years later I was doing a slow roll in that car on the paved shoulder of I-75. Almost, but not yet in full stop. I wanted to see all those zeroes clean and even and perfect, and I still had .7, then .8, then .9 miles to go.
And there it was: 00000.0.
These were analog days. Cars had AM radio dials, not displays; gauges, not icons on screens. There was a needle to tell you how fast you were doing, in miles (not kilometers) per hour.
I stopped the car. The odometer was totally zeroed. This was once in a lifetime. It seemed likely that none of the hundreds of drivers speeding past me, none of the tens and hundreds of thousands of drivers in all of Detroit, had experienced what was happening to me right now. It was happening, and I was by myself. I put my window down, thinking I ought to do something to mark the occasion. Someone should see this. Maybe a driver would think I was in distress and stop to offer help, and I would say, No, but will you just look at these zeros! And he (or she) would be justly amazed. Today I would grab my phone and take a picture. But no, I just sat there. I turned on the radio and listened to Orleans sing “You’re Still the One.” What I was doing actually seemed kind of foolish. I was tempted to move on with my life, but then I thought, No, let’s give it another 20 seconds. This is only going to happen once.
You won’t mark any such occasion in the cars they make now. In that car’s generation, miles were counted in the 10,000’s. Those five places (with a 0 to the right of the decimal) were like a manufacturer’s shrug: Well, she won’t last forever. You’d get into a clunker on a used car lot, look at the odometer, and think, Huh, only 45,000 miles. But maybe it was 145,000 miles. Maybe not. Today mileage is counted in the 100,000’s. Manufacturer’s wink: She’s made to last. Theoretically, in a car today you only get to see 000000.0 once. In practice, that doesn’t happen, because your new car has been rolled off the assembly line, driven around the lot, maybe even driven from one dealer to another, in one city to another, sometimes from one state to another. It’s new, yes; but it’s not 000000.0. To achieve that moment, you have to be in the delivery room.
I figure I’m in rare company. There ought to be a club that issues a certificate or a lapel pin or a plaque. You made it to The 00000.0 Club.
Okay, I said to myself that day, putting it in D and pulling back out into traffic, that happened.