I stand under the buzzing fluorescent lights in front of the dairy case at the back of the convenience store, overwhelmed. Despite the medical urgency of the moment I simply cannot decide.
I glance back at the Pakistani man behind the counter. His eyes are glued to the tiny black and white television that in all likelihood has been on, and in the same exact spot, for thirty years or more. I briefly consider — with mixed feelings — that perhaps it’s a security monitor, but then I hear a tinny burst of canned laughter. Not being a connoisseur of late-night television fare, I wonder what could be so funny at this hour. Judging from the absolutely dead-neutral, glazed-over look on the clerk’s face, not much.
I know he knows I’m here, because we made eye contact when I came through the door. He didn’t move a muscle. He remained slouched on his stool, as he remains now, but his bloodshot eyes followed me as far as they could, until the extra effort of having to shift his entire head seemed to be too much for him just then. I noticed his stained white button-down linen shirt with pearl snaps and breast-pocket stuffed with pens and popsicle sticks. But my own appearance — pajamas, flip-flops, tousled hair, and mouth smeared with blood, as if I’d been feasting on fresh roadkill — did not seem to arouse anything worthy of further attention from him. Perhaps this sort of thing happens all the time, at three in the morning. Just as well.
I turn again to the dairy case. Skim, 2%, whole. Chocolate, strawberry. Pint, quart, gallon. Soy, low-fat soy, vanilla soy. Even chocolate low-fat soy milk, for Chrissakes. At a convenience store. In Georgia.
I raise my bloodied and clenched right hand to my face and, after another glance at the clerk, open it, palm up. Some of the blood has dried already, and the skin on my fingers crinkles and cracks with it as I open my hand. But it’s still there. With my tongue I probe the raw, pulsing gap where the tooth used to live, not particularly savoring the taste of pennies.
I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in chemistry class, or biology class, or whatever class would have provided me with the esoteric yet crucial knowledge that was now required to be an “informed consumer.” I try to remember where I even heard it, that you can preserve a tooth in milk for possible later reinstallation by qualified medical personnel. Maybe it’s a myth. But no harm done in trying, I suppose.
Probably not soy milk, I think. It’s a start.
There is a flash and I turn to see another vehicle pulling in. The driver kills the headlights and now I can see it better. It is a very strange car — part ’59 Caddy, part Hoover. Festooned with LEDs but also with wings. Like some crazy-ass bile green Batmobile, built from the recently-unearthed, sixty-year-old plans of a long-dead fugitive Nazi engineer. With a cold shock I recognize the thing.
“Fuck,” I mutter, in a spray of pink spittle.
In a sudden panic, I swing open the glass door to the cooler and reach for my usual choice by default — 2%, quart size — while formulating a vague plan to make a mad dash out the back door, if there is one. I hear something tiny hit the linoleum floor. It sounds like a tooth, for some odd reason. It is. I bend to pick it up and proceed to kick it under a cardboard display stocked with jerky (assorted animals and flavors). I get down on all fours, set the 2% aside, and reach underneath to locate my tooth. I can’t find it. So I go to slide the display over — easy now, so as not to arouse the clerk’s attention — and proceed to topple it over. I am now awash in a downpour of jerky.
The jerky-rain stops falling and all is silent for a moment, except for the hum of the coolers and another round from the laugh track. I am still on the floor, and I can’t see what the clerk is doing. He had to have heard that.
Suddenly I’m overcome by sleepiness, as if under a spell. I yearn to slumber, deeply, for a long, long time. Nothing else matters. I roll over on my back, surrounded by beef jerky, buffalo jerky, alligator jerky, turkey jerky. I lie on cold tiles under glaring artificial light but it is heavenly. I wonder if it’s possible to bleed to death from a tooth that’s been unceremoniously bashed out of one’s skull; but this wonder, oddly, is no longer connected to care. I am liberated. I start to drift off.
As my consciousness slips away the distant sound of a cowbell reminds me that this is the absolute wrong time to do this. The men (women?) who did this to me are here. But in my utter lassitude I assure myself that they cannot see me, yet. They are probably not interested in dairy anyhow. Or in the dried, cured, spiced, colored, preserved, processed, and packaged byproducts of an amazingly creative variety of animals. I convince myself that they will simply turn and leave, continuing their search elsewhere. Somewhere far away from here, while I rest in peace.
Then the cellphone in my pocket rings — louder, by far, than it has ever rung before. Not only that, but some joker has apparently replaced my usual, bland ringtone with the “Menah-Menah” song from Sesame Street. It is as if a chorus of Muppets are surrounding me, singing to me, taunting me, as I lie there on the cold linoleum. I cannot open my eyes. I want to reach into my pocket and silence the phone, but I can’t. I can barely move. All I can manage is a half-hearted swatting motion with my right arm.
Then I feel something jabbing at my ribs, on the left. It’s annoying but not painful (yet). Somebody prodding, perhaps, with the pointed toe of a leather boot.
“Are you dead?” I think I hear someone say. Then there is a softer, somewhat friendlier, and strangely familiar woman’s voice. “Get up,” she says.
I am trying get the damn Muppets to shut up and to fend off whoever is kicking me. But my brainstem is not cooperating so I am just flailing about, getting more and more frustrated. I want to shout. I want to scream. But all that comes out is a wimpy, effeminate moan. It’s enough to wake myself up, but not in time to avoid one more especially firm and well-placed jab in the ribs.
“Wake up,” she says. It is the voice of my wife. Finally I muster the willpower to open my eyes with a brisk shaking of my head. Cats scatter. Dawn filters through the closed blinds. I see her elbow poised once again.
“Okay,” I whine. “I’m awake already!”
Then I reach over and silence the alarm on my phone, for which I now remember having downloaded the “Menah-Menah” song. I make a mental note to change it back. I do not wish to be further traumatized by the “Menah-Menah.”
Why would I be subjected to such a strange dream? A few of the major themes are so obvious as to not require pointing them out. I will leave those to the psychoanalysts (if there are any left). I will, however, provide a bit of context: the dream occurred in the midst of a week when I was mired in indecision regarding the selection of upholstery for the Beetle. There were just too many choices.
I had never really given it much thought up to then. Having been ass-deep in the project for so long — to the point of wondering, in all seriousness, what I used to do with my time — such matters seemed frivolous and impossibly far into the future. Oh, I guess I might have said, I dunno, some off-white and some tan might look nice for Rubylove, with genuine German square-weave carpet (nothing but the finest!). But when the time finally came to make an actual choice, I was overwhelmed, caught high up in the naked, tangled, windswept branches of the indecision tree.
As with the paint, in the end it wasn’t really a choice at all. I just decided to go with the way the car would have come with from the factory — or something close to it, as far as I could figure. Of course, when I bought the car, there were no traces of the original interior left anywhere. In lieu of an actual headliner, a previous owner had glued strips of off-white vinyl padding, of unknown origin, directly to the roof. The header and roof pillars were painted blue — a different blue than the lower half of the misbegotten two-toning attempt on the exterior, and of a quality that bore the mark of a highly-skilled kindergartener on acid. A little bit of research told me that the stained basket-weave off-white vinyl seat upholstery, while quite similar to the seat covers on the 1975 Beetle I used to have, were not original to this car. Neither (and I didn’t need to research this one) were the pieces of grandma’s old quilt that were tacked to the door panels in place of the genuine articles. Tatters of black carpeting were strewn about the floorboards, pocked with cigarette burns and funky with mold.
In spite of it all, it had one thing going for it — amazingly, somehow, after years of such raw treatment, it still retained that “old Volkswagen” smell. Either you know what I’m talking about, or you don’t. I won’t describe it to you. But that’s the only thing I’m gonna miss. That’s a big thing, though — and I am gonna miss it!
A bit of research was in order — though given some of the P.O.’s offenses, it was at times more like a crime scene investigation (perp was determined to be a color blind, heavy smoker with neither a sense of pride nor respect for his grandmother’s quilting). When tearing it all apart, I found some tiny shreds of off-white, perforated vinyl clinging to the steel grippers that once held the original headliner in place. The “birth certificate” that I got from the Stiftung AutoMuseum Volkswagen in Wolfsburg says “Upholstery leatherette Grille Grey.” And of course the internet was a veritable treasury of helpful information (especially the color charts at www.wolfsburgwest.com).
What I could glean was this: headliner, perforated off-white vinyl. Carpet, gray (I went with premium, pre-cut loop instead of the German square-weave — have you seen the price of that stuff lately?). For the door cards and seat upholstery, the best I could determine was that ’65 was a one-year-only, pattern-wise. I found what I judged to be a very close approximation by TMI, which I thereupon ordered from www.jbugs.com. It is a two-tone dark grey, with a lighter, “mesh grey” on the seating surfaces and in the middle of the door cards. The seat backs are “rollover style,” meaning the solid grey comes up the back, over the top, and stops a few inches later, transitioning to the mesh pattern. They were not custom, exactly, but were “special order” — they make them as needed. This takes some time, and costs a bit more. But I wanted it to be “right.” Also, I ordered the JBugs interior video, as I was aiming to do it all myself.
By the time I mustered up the gumption to have at it (and watched the video almost as many times as I’ve seen The Big Lebowski), everything — including the special order items — were on hand. I decided to start with what many consider one of the toughest jobs in Volkswagen restoration: the headliner. In the hours I spent combing the forums, I came across many enthusiasts who were no doubt far more experienced than I, yet who readily admitted they wouldn’t even attempt it. We’re talking guys who could synchronize dual carbs during half-time with naught but a Leatherman, a glass of water, and a keen sense of smell — but wouldn’t go anywhere near a headliner, citing maddening frustration.
If you’re looking for a “how-to,” you’d be well-served to go elsewhere. My intention is partially to inspire — as in, if an idiot like me can do it, so can you — but mainly to blow my own trumpet. Being a forty-three-year-old slacker with no special skills, achievements, or ability, the chance to sing my own praises so seldom occurs that I’d be a fool to pass it up. So without further ado, dig it!
The most astute observers no doubt have noticed that my new headliner closely approximates, but is not an exact reproduction of, the genuine article for 1965. You would be correct. Instead, I opted to go with the so-called “easy install” version, the most obvious difference being that the roof section is one with the piece around the rear window. I thought long and hard about this; but in the end I decided that doing it myself was of higher priority than meeting somebody else’s standard of “correct”-ness. Even those who are otherwise meticulous about the vintage ethos — and dare to attempt this thing themselves — often make this one of their rare concessions. That said, if I were to do it all over again, I’d be tempted to step it up to the original-style kit, just for the added challenge.
I was so “chuffed” (as the Brits say) about the results that I even risked posting the same pics on http://www.thesamba.com. Those forum-meisters are tough crowd, and a few of them — many of whom, I’m convinced, have never touched an actual Volkswagen, but pride themselves in assumed internet identities as the ultimate arbiters of perfection — can be tactless, ruthless cretins sometimes. Still, the few that bothered to comment were complimentary.
Am I being cocky? Not really. My work is not perfect. There are minor imperfections here and there, things I could point out to you and you would most likely say, “So what?” I’m just feelin‘ good about the way the Volkswagen life is going and want to brag a little. And after all, isn’t bragging what all of the tweeting, Facebooking, and self-absorbed blogging is all about?
Do I have a special talent? No, but I do have a couple of faults that might have helped. For starters, I’ve been maddeningly frustrated my entire life, so that mental state is nothing new for me. Also in my favor is the fact that I’m a very slow worker. By necessity, I’ve become quite comfortable with having a very loose agenda, setting few deadlines, and leaving a sub-task in the lurch while I gather up more gumption.
For this particular work, you really truly have to be “in the moment.” As a matter of fact, that is precisely how I took a rather interesting discovery in stride, without freaking out. I was sitting in the car, on the bare hump, gingerly holding a piece of glue-slathered vinyl that was semi-attached to the right “B” pillar. Things were going along okay. I had already done the left one. There were just a few small wrinkles at the very bottom, but I figured that with the rear seat bottom and the carpet installed, as well as a possible shoulder harness (I’m not decided on that part yet), it wouldn’t be very noticeable. Either way, it was a helluva lot better than the first left pillar attempt, which saw the offending piece in the trash and me in a self-imposed “time out” before I was on the horn ordering another one.
So I’m sitting on the hump waiting for the contact cement to set so I can press it into place. Maybe the fumes were getting to me, but I’m looking around, thinking man, we’ve come so far. Long way to go still, but shit — look at you! Goofy stuff like that. Then my glance settled upon the rear end of the hump (the rump?), above where the transaxle lives. And that’s when I saw the number.
“Hmph,” I said myself. “That looks like a rather short number.”
I mulled this over while the glue set. I finished the piece that I was working on, brushed some mineral spirits on my fingers, dried my hands on my pants, reached over, gave the hood release a yank, and un-shoehorned my way out of the fumey car. Then I raised the hood (not the engine compartment, as if you need reminding about this thing) and consulted the placard.
I saw what I expected to see — a decidedly longer, decidedly different number. Then I checked the hump number again, just to verify that I really wasn’t high, hadn’t been hallucinating. There was no denying it. They did not match.
Why had I not noticed this before? If you would have asked me, just minutes before this discovery, where one can find the chassis number for an old Beetle, I could have told you about two places: the placard behind where the spare tire goes, and on the hump under the rear seat. And what if they don’t match? Well, dumbass, obviously you’ve got a body and pan that began their lives with different pans and bodies. Each had been “previously married,” you might say.
I guess I hadn’t noticed it because right off the bat — the day I first laid eyes on her — I could tell she was a ’65. Slightly larger windows, slanted vent-window posts, so not a ’64; no “1300” logo on the deck lid, nor a center defroster vent in the middle of the dash, so not a ’66. Yes, I did happen to verify this with the number on the front placard — the number I sent off to Wolfsburg for documentation. I suppose it just never occurred to me to cross-reference it with the hump number.
For the purist seeking a virgin concourse queen, this numbers mismatch would have been unforgivable, a deal breaker. For a guy like me, it’s okay (for the most part). It actually helps to clear a few things up. For starters, I had to buy earlier-than-1965 carpet, to accommodate the older, “spigot”-style heater knob. Since my car (the body, at least) was actually made in October of ’64 (as a ’65 model), I had assumed that knob was just a curious leftover from the previous model-year. I also knew from my own research that the serial number stamped on the engine case dated it to some time in 1963. Again, this was easily explained. In its long life, the car has most likely been through numerous engines. A genuine VW case from a ’63, in good condition, would make a great contender for a rebuild. Why not?
Sure enough, after consulting with the ever-growing section of my bookshelf that might someday be endowed to the Volksfool Memorial Library and Hall of Horrors, I determined that while the body is still a 1965, the werks are from the spring of 1963.
What does this really mean in my life? I’m still not entirely sure. Still processing. I’m thinking about interfacing, interchanging, compatibility. That heater knob should work fine if the rest of the lower deck is part of the same shebang. But why did the previous owner have the control valves wired open? The engine will be rebuilt anyway, but why does the existing shroud sport the newer-style cooling flaps (frozen in place, of course, with the control rod dangling free between #1 and #2, and no thermostat to be found anywhere) on a ’63 case? Should I rebuild with an air-control ring instead? Does it matter? What about the brand-new, made-to-order 1965 wiring harness I’ve partially installed?
None of this stuff was depriving me of any sleep (not for the next couple of nights, at any rate). If I’ve gained anything over the past few years, it’s the confidence of knowing that I’ll figure it all out eventually. Somehow. I always do. The answer might not be readily apparent right now, but it will just need some research, and some time. I’ll figure it out, just like I’ve figured everything else out.
As you should know by now, sometimes I’m slow on the uptake. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that it took me the better part of a week to notice the cardboard box that I shoved in a corner of my study, between the bookcase and my newly acquired 1970’s-vintage stereo setup. On that box is printed “TMI” in large, red lettering. Inside are the one-year-only, special-order seat covers. Behind that box is another, also from TMI, that contains the matching door cards, also to my specs.
The actual seats are in a storage locker about a mile from my house, where they’ve been collecting dust for a couple of years now. I haven’t been over there in a while, but I think I know what I might find: original seats, in pretty good condition, from a 1963 Beetle. In other words, that beautiful new upholstery ain’t gonna fit. As far as I understand it, that new upholstery would be perfect for actual ’65 seat frames, and would also fit a ’66 or a ’67 (thought the pattern would not be correct, which is a less consequential matter to me). Like for 1965, those years still retained the “low back” seats (no extra charge for the whiplash). But 1964 and earlier seats had more rounded shoulders, and the piping was oriented laterally across the car, versus longitudinally swept back. Check out these photos I lifted off the internet:
When I ordered the stuff, it never occurred to me to dig those seats out from underneath the pile of rejected fenders, deck lids, hoods, doors, and wheels to double-check what I was dealing with. Why would it have? But it’s so obvious to me now it ain’t funny. I could spot the difference a mile away. I could even tell by feel. But like the hump-number, I never questioned it. When I (finally) decided on a pattern, I picked up the phone an ordered away. Yep, that’s right. 1965. Several hundred bucks down the drain.
Ever since paint, the kitty has become precariously low, even without this painful mistake. I’m discovering that taking a car apart, and even much of the body work, costs relatively little if you do it yourself. But putting it all together, after spending several grand for a paint job — well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. I get a modest monthly allowance earmarked especially for the project, but this latest screw-up would set me back quite a bit. And simply putting the whole thing on hold won’t cut it. I’m still committed to having it on the road by spring. Drastic measures were necessary.
So drastic, in fact that I — wait for it — I picked up some extra time at work! Yes, it’s gotten that desperate. Oh, and by the way — anyone wanna buy brand-new upholstery and matching door cards?
I may be a slow worker, but I’m an even slower writer. Since the first draft of this episode (I do revise, you may be surprised to learn. Like putting lipstick on a pig, I know. But as they say, it’s the journey . . .) I’ve installed the sound insulation, padding, and charcoal carpet. Check it out:
Things are happening — do try to keep up!
The Dude Abides.