Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bits of Metal: Part One

I have always been fascinated by metal.

These days, that might imply an interest in what some people call music, but I am referring to the substance, not the genre. I'm talking about steel.

Not just steel. I routinely pick up bits of metal from the sidewalk: wires, pins, springs, washers, tags, and many other things I have never identified. Many of these things fall off backpacks and clothing, but I also find a lot of earrings and pieces of jewelry that have broken or fallen off. Of course, I find a lot of coins, and I have no hesitation about stopping to pick up a penny--heads up or not--even if it isn't worth the time to some people, it is to me.

But my real fascination is not with coins or random bits of metal on the sidewalk. It's with steel. More specifically, automotive steel.

Admittedly, it didn't start with cars. It started with the metal itself. My first bit of metal was a tricycle when we lived in Abilene. It was no different than most trikes today: red and white with a red metal seat and red and white streamer flowing from the ends of the handlebars. I cannot count the number of times that I 'fixed' that trike. Every day it seems I had to turn it over and do some 'maintenance,' even if that merely consisted of looking at the wheel while turning the pedal with my hand. I guess I managed to take the handlebars off, but I really can't remember.

I do remember my actually working on my bicycle in San Antonio, where we moved from Abilene in 1967. Here we lived in an apartment. I had a green 'stingray' bike, with no gears and an 'automatic' brake that worked by slamming the pedal backward. This bike was a simple machine, but I longed to 'work' on it, so I fiddled around with all the moving parts: the chain and the handlebars were all that availed themselves.

It was here, in the Seven Pines Apartments in San Antonio, that I developed the desire to work on something more than a bike. This was in south San Antonio, which at the time was a very poor neighborhood. Men would come out to work on their cars after work and all weekend, and boys like me would come out to watch them.

After school and during the weekend, I saw engines and transmissions pulled out in the white dust of the caleche parking lot. I saw oil and spark plugs and air filters changed. I saw guys doing bodywork and interior repairs. Even before I realized it, this was something I longed to do.

But I didn't get a car for a long time. I had to make do with bicycles. My first bike after moving to Austin from San Antonio was an "Orange Crate". This bike had a very small front wheel and a regular back wheel (with a knobby tire) which made it seem very much like a "chopper" in 1969 (think easy rider for kids). It had hand brakes, three gears (in the hub, not a derailleur) and was a piece of shit.

For one thing, it was hard to ride. For another, it was hard to 'work' on. Everything about it was cheap and everything about it broke. It was useless for my paper route so I tried to sell it without luck. I probably gave it away.

In high school, I bought a relatively expensive ten speed, a Raleigh Record, which I rode a lot. My best friend McDonald and I rode from 30 to 100 miles every weekend during our senior year. I rebuilt that bike several times, including the wheel hubs and crank.

By this time, I was really ready to move on, and fortunately McDonald had the means: an Austin Healy convertible that he bought and wanted to restore. I don't know what model and year it was not how he came by it. I do remember helping him to rebuild the engine, night after night after school we would work till we couldn't stay awake. One day we finally finished it and even managed to take it out for a drive. McDonald decided to rebuild the transmission next, and the poor Healy never woke up from the surgery.

Next: Cars of my own.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jury Duty

I was called but did not serve.

That about sums it up. About two weeks ago, I got a jury duty summons in the mail. In the 'olden days' when one received such a noticed, it meant a trip to the courthouse, even if you couldn't or didn't want to serve. Nowadays, reporting for jury duty means a trip to the internet, to fill out a form.

So, that's what I did. This web form consisted of a series of what would be considered to be typical questions, about whether or not I could serve fairly plus some questions about my race and income. I answered honestly and in about ten minutes, I was 'impaneled'. I got an email about five minutes later with all the information about where and when to show up.

That day was Wednesday September 15. Municipal Courtroom 2B. I arrived about 1:15 and signed in and took a badge that said "Juror". There were twenty five of us in the room by 1:30, when the clerk came to bring us into the courtroom.

I was juror #1, so I sat on the end of the first row. In front of me were the prosecuting attorney and the Defendant, who was clearly acting as his own counsel. The Prosecutor was a young man of about twenty-five to thirty. He was a little overweight and wore an ill-fitting dark suit. He had close cropped black hair, dark eyes and a ready smile, which he flashed after thanking every juror 'for their honesty' when concluding his questions.

The Defendant was a large man of about thirty to thirty-five. He was obviously a blue-collar worker, for he was not wearing a suit but a day-glo yellow work-shirt with silver reflective tape around the shoulders and across the front. He was wearing work jeans and heavy dusty boots. He also had close-cropped black hair and sported a small gold loop earring in one ear.

The Judge welcomed us, introduced the prosecuting attorney and the Defendant. She told us a bit about the case. It was a criminal case, but not a felony, just a misdemeanor traffic case. Specifically, the defendant was charged with running a red light.

After introductions, the prosecuting attorney was given the first go. He asked us, in turn, whether or not we had had a traffic citation in the past five years and if so, what the disposition had been.

Since I was Juror #1, he started with me. In fact, I have had a citation in the past five years, but at first I couldn't be sure. I stammered a bit until I recalled that I had gotten that speeding ticket back in February of 2008. I told him that I'd taken it to trial and that it had been dismissed, to which he said, "Congratulations" and moved on.

By the time he got to Juror #25, there had already been a shorthand established: "Got a speeding ticket. Paid the fine and took Defensive Driving," or "No tickets," were the two standard replies that moved the whole thing along pretty quickly. There were a couple of people who had gotten tickets for running a red light, one of whom said it was an accident (she just rolled out into the intersection) and that she'd called the police on herself!

This revelation afforded the prosecutor the chance to tell us that since it was a traffic case, there was no room for considering motive. In other words, it didn't matter whether or not the Defendant intended to run the red light, just whether or not he had done it. In theft, the prosecution explained, the State must at least address intent, as it is integral to the crime. But, in a traffic case, intent is just not a factor.

In other words, I realized, the Defendant was probably guilty and there was probably nothing we could do about it. Nothing, that is, unless we had an agenda, which, quite candidly, is what the Prosecutor admitted he was trying to uncover in his line of questioning.

When he was finished with all twenty five of us, the Prosecutor turned over the floor to the Defendant, who stood up to face us. He began by telling us that he was a heavy equipment driver. He said that it was not always possible for him to stop as quickly as he would like and that he would ask us to consider that. Now, although my knowledge of courtroom procedure is limited to my many hours of watching Law & Order and Perry Mason, this seemed even to my amateur ear to be a bit too much information about the case given much too early in the process. Indeed, the prosecutor quickly objected.

The Judge called the Prosecutor and the Defendant over to the bench. After a couple of minutes of muffled voices, they turned back around to face us. When asked by the Judge if he had any questions for the jury pool, this time, the Defendant said no. He knew, it seems to me, that his was already a losing effort. His attempt to explain the circumstances so early in the process reflected his honest motive, which was to say that even if he had done it, he didn't mean to.

The presence of the police officer--dressed in his full Blues--in the back of the room seemed to already be enough evidence to set the process inevitably in favor of the prosecution. Obviously, to the Defendant, the Judge's admonition was merely the necessary proof of this inevitability.

Well, whether or not I was perceived to have had an agenda, I was not chosen for the jury. Since either the prosecution or the defense can effectively dismiss a potential juror for any number of reasons, I have no way of knowing which side dismissed me or even if they gave me that much consideration at all. Since four of the six jurors who were actually picked came from the first ten on the list, it's pretty likely that I was summarily dismissed by one or the other side, but it's also likely that neither of them wanted me to serve and that I was simply passed over.

So, called I was, but serve I did not. By two-thirty, just a little more than an hour after I'd checked in, I was back out in the heat, on my way home.

Just as well, too, since it would have been the rest of the afternoon and the verdict was already a foregone conclusion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My First Love

Dear TV,

You've probably noticed that we have been hanging out a lot less lately. I really don't know how to break this to you gently, so I might as well be direct.

We are no longer best friends. Now, don't get me wrong, we are still good friends and all, but, well, our relationship just hasn't been as special--nor as exclusive--lately as it used to be. The thing is, as I've gotten older, I have made other friends. I've got other interests, you see.

No, I am not saying you aren't interesting anymore. I mean, you've got all those science and history channels now, as though you are really trying to become more cosmopolitan and to appeal to pseudo-intellectuals and dilettantes like me. So, I suppose if I wanted to, I could get some of the same information from you that I get from books and magazines. Of course, you've got your 'hard-hitting' news magazines like 60 Minutes and Dateline, and even whole channels dedicated to news and sports, but let's be honest, while these offerings are certainly entertaining, informative they are not.

Now I am not blaming you for FOX. I understand, it is a natural development in the steady decline you've shown over the years we've been together. But as a good friend, I have to tell you that, like bad teeth or rolls of fat, it's real turn-off, literally.

You see, even though I never have the patience to watch O'Reilly, Hannity or Beck, I see and hear enough of these 'fair and balanced' viewpoints in other media, so I have just started turning you off. I know you haven't noticed, what with all the other millions of fans you have out there, slavishly devoted to your quaint but aging twentieth-century style of 'infotainment'. But it is true: our friendship isn't what it used to be, and it's time for a break.

Now, I said it's time for a break, not that we are breaking up, so I won't be throwing you out of the house. No, I'll still continue to see you, just not every day and not for as long. You understand, don't you?

Actually, I have to admit that I am returning to my first love: books. In fact, you probably know that I've been secretly seeing them all along. Not just books, but magazines and the internet are all sources of the words I have so long loved. The thing is, words will be with me always, even when I don't pay the cable or electricity bills. I can always take my book outside and read under a tree for free.

And free is what I am when I read.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gr3yghost's Green Ghia

The girls think it's cool. The guys think it's nuts. I think they are both right.

It is my new toy, a 1974 lime-green VW Karmann Ghia convertible. Actually, it is my new project, since it doesn't actually run. Yet.

I bought it from a guy in Georgetown, who had it listed on Craigslist for $1800. We drove out early Saturday morning to have a look. It was sitting on a concrete pad in his front yard, and the first thing I noticed about it was the color. It's one of those unmistakable colors, the kind that make you stop and look, even when the car itself is in bad shape.

And, this car, man, is it ever in bad shape. That is the second thing I noticed, and the third. To begin with, it has a lot of rust, and that's an understatement. it has no interior, no convertible top (though the rusted frame is there). The windshield is cracked. The tires are shot and the wheels are rusted. The engine 'turns over--which means it isn't locked up with rust, at least--but a small fire in the engine compartment melted the wiring and boiled the paint off a big spot in the trunk, which is now rusting away. The floor pans look solid, but that's because they are probably replacements, and the passenger side is dented already. It doesn't look like it has ever been in an accident, but it has been repainted so it's possible when I start stripping off the paint I'll discover otherwise. The nose cone--one of those impossible to fix things--has never been dented as far as I can tell, so that is a positive.

That may be one of the very rare positive things I can say about it today, even though that cynical assessment does not diminish my enthusiasm for the project. This, believe it or not Dear Reader, is do-able. As I looked it over, I knew it would be an enormous undertaking, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. One or the other Reader will recall a couple of other automotive projects that sat in my driveway for several years, so I was mindful of the disbelief that will accompany this news.

And yet, I couldn't resist. I didn't resist. After all, I have looked at every Ghia posted on Craigslist in Texas for 18 months and so far, this is the only affordable convertible to come my way. This is not unexpected since even the coupes are fairly rare--they never sold more than 35,000 in a single year of production--the convertibles are even rarer. Altogether, there were no more than 75,000 convertibles of all model years made.

I didn't know those statistics when I was looking at the car, only that this might be my best chance for some time to come. So, as I rolled out from underneath, still shuddering at the sight of all that rust, I offered $1000. He countered with $1500. I paid $1300 for it, delivered to my driveway.

So, there it sits. I made the first two purchases for it this morning, a car cover and a Haynes Repair Manual. There is a lot to be done, and as you might have guessed, I will be writing about it. Not, however, in this journal, since it will undoubtably reduce the readership by half or more, so I will chronicle the saga of the lime-green Ghia in another blog:

Gr3yghost's Green Ghia