The end of my innocence and my first car

I was driving down a dark road just south of Fort Worth, Texas one Saturday night back in the fall of 1997. I had just bought my first car, which was a 1970 Ford Galaxy. I had purchased it for $700 (after talking the seller down $100).  I saw the car while I was walking home from college to my very small efficiency apartment that I rented for only $260 a month in Arlington, Texas. It was my first year on my own and in college at the age of 20.  My brother-in-law, we will call him Steve (since that was his name). I assume it still is though I haven’t seen him since him and my sister were divorced a decade later.

My bro-n-law said all I had to do to pay him back was Finish College and get the best job I could get.  It’s too bad I never actually “paid him” back since I was promoted at work and left college a year later. Thus making the same mistake that probably over half of all college graduates do and strive to be successful without going to college (not that this is impossible).

Like most college dropout who make this decision, I had no idea what I was getting myself into; thus starting a cycle of bad decisions that lasted nearly two decades.

By now you are realizing I am a later bloomer since I bought my first car at 20 years old. That was the last of the muscle cars. I could have fixed it up, though mechanical inclination was not my strong suit. I drove the car for a couple years before I walked into a sales trap and traded it for a 1997 Dodge Neon. Thus begin my experience with debt, as well as a life that continued going downhill for the next several years.

I may be a late bloomer but obviously I am very resourceful. As I mentioned above, my first apartment only cost $260 a month; $275 with a small student discount. As I write this, over twenty years later, that same apartment is just over $600 a month for only 352 square feet. Yes I am also good with numbers. There is a correlation with people who think life is hard being the same people who don’t like math, but that is another story in and of itself.

Since most apartments were going for $400 and up for studios and one bedrooms, had I not found this deal, I would have continued living at home with my parents. Both of them were around 60. My mom had had a stroke six months after I graduated from high school (a whole year before my first drive down that dark road in South Fort Worth).

This may sound like the beginning of a horror story, but trust me it’s not. I am laughing already because I know the ending all too well. I have not shared the story since it happened. No doubt most of my family has already forgotten it. But then again we never really “forget” anything.

So I am a very resourceful late bloomer who was selfish enough to leave home a year after his mom had a stroke, and then dropped out of college a year later. By now it should be obvious that I am not a saint. I am not totally heartless. I know I should have stayed at home and helped take care of my aging parents. But she would have no doubt ended up in a nursing home anyway as she was too much for most of us to take care of because she was too demanding.

I hope my inherent depravity didn’t scare anyone off by now. This is also my first short story, so I hope if I don’t scare anyone off, at least I don’t put them to sleep.

Back to my dark road story in South Fort Worth. It was my first long drive, and ended up being my first time being pulled over by the police. I was pulled over because I was driving with my brights on. I seem to have inherited my dad’s night blindness, so it probably was not wise to even be driving at night in the first place.

It started to rain. I saw flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Being the first time I was pulled over, I didn’t immediately recognize what was going on. So in addition to being a very resourceful late bloomer, I am also a little slow. Even though I tested at a 125 IQ, I was still a little slow. Can you imagine if I wasn’t slow? But then again IQ tests don’t mean anything other than bragging rights. Right? Right???

“Pull over, man. It’s the police.” My brother in law Steve exclaimed. I did as he said. I came to find out later that he was slightly freaking out because we did not thoroughly search the car and clean it out after buying it. He was afraid the hippie former owner might have hidden a joint in there that we would have taken the fall for.  “Remember what I told you if you ever get pulled over. Just put both hands on the wheel, and reach down slowly and roll the window down.” Steve ordered. I did as I was told, feeling just a little nervous.

“Good day, sirs. License and registration?” The officer barked. I reached over into the glove compartment and dug out the registration papers and handed them to the officer. Then I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and fished out my driver’s license. The latter I only had a couple years. Yes, I waited until I was 18 to get my first driver’s license. That’s because I did not get my first job until my last year in high school. Remember Winn-Dixie? Before they downsized and left Texas to move back to their home state of Florida.  Driver’s Ed was the very first thing that I paid for once I received my first check. That and a movie ticket to see Batman Forever, which by then was playing at the dollar cinema. (I don’t think they have those anymore).

“Mr. Wooten, do you know why I pulled you over?” The officer asked curtly.

“No.” I replied. “This is my first car. I go to UT-Arlington and was driving it around.”

“You had your brights on.” Officer what’s-his-name told us. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t stolen. Do you mind stepping out of the car so we can search it?” He asked as a second patrol car pulled up.

Steve and I did as we were told. We stood off to the side of the car while at least three police officers, two had gotten out of the second one, searched the car; all the while keeping an eye on both of us. I had seen enough episodes of “Cops” to know not to argue with the police and make myself look guilty.

“Car is clean.” One of the other younger officers reported, just when the other officer jumped up and shouted: “I found something”

All three officers leaned in. The first officer who pulled us over shone his flashlight on an object in the console of the car.  My brother in law and I leaned in to try and make it out. The officer who discovered the object strolled to his car and dug out a piece of tweezers and a plastic bag. He came back to the car, reached in and picked up the object and placed it in the bag. Then he casually strolled back to his patrol car.

As the third officer passed us, he held the baggie up for Steve and me to see. “We are going to have to field test this. Do you know what this is?”

Steve looked at me. I could tell he was trying not to laugh out loud. It looked like a piece of lint. “Um, no. What is it?” He asked the officer.

“We suspect it is crack cocaine.” The discovering officer answered. He went back to his car to do the test. We waited, rolled our eyes and could feel laughter coming up from our insides. We tried to hold it in. Luckily it was dark out. I wasn’t even sure what time it was.

The officer came back a few seconds later. “You guys are lucky. It turns out it was just a piece of lint.”

“Sorry for bothering you guys. Have a good evening, gentlemen.” The officer who had pulled us over said as him and the other two officers walked back to their cars. In less than a minute both police cars were driving off as we got back into the Galaxy. Still shaken up from my first experience, I let my brother-n-law drive back to Arlington.

We burst out laughing.

“You could have gotten a ticket for the brights being on.” Steve said, chuckling.

“Were they that bored or just stupid?” I said, with a grin from ear to ear. “I should probably check my jacket to see if I have any more “crack cocaine” in it.

We stopped by a Wal-Mart on the way home that my step sister worked at overnight. I forgot to mention that I was the youngest of six and an only child. I could try to explain that but it is more challenging for people to figure out on their own. Hint: my parents only had me by their second marriage.

“Hi.” My sister, Penny, said as she kissed her husband. “You two look too happy. Not to mention a little wet.”

“We almost went to jail for possession of lint.” Steve guffawed. He went on to tell her the story. It was a few years after that, when they were divorced, that I would occasionally hear about my addiction to lint.

This is the first time since that night that I retold the story of how I narrowly avoided going to prison for lint trafficking and luckily didn’t end up in lint rehab.

Moral to the story: Well I guess just don’t drive with your brights on and remember to clean out a cash car that you purchased from a stranger. You never know what could be in there.

Honestly I wrote this story just for the humor. Apparently there was a nugget of wisdom in here. For the first time in years I am still laughing at this all over again. I have probably been laughing on the inside all this time. We never really forget anything.

I wish I could return to those days. It was the last of my so-called innocence. I went into debt for a ’97 Neon a couple years later and had a couple cash cars years after that, both were from the same year. I pretty much am attracted to anything from 1997. It was the highlight of my life. Seems like it was mostly downhill after that. But those will be for short stories of the future.