10 American p Utah kin to me

Hey, I’ve been to the States. I know the score. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve heard the songs. I’ve read the books. Driving irresponsibly is part of the American way of life. Next to Old glory, Mom’s apple pie, baseball, the Liberty Bell, body beautiful, handguns, alien abductions, mass murderers, wacko New Age religious cults, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Larry King and eggs over easy, reckless driving is a major national pastime, a norm, an expectation, a duty, a goddamn constitutional right.

Well, all I can say is that they’ve never heard of the Auto Amendment in Salt Lake City. You want smokin’ tires, screeching gears, hand-brake turns and fly-away hubcaps? Steer clear of Salt Lake City. You want to drive the wrong way down the freeway, like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2? Or go fender to fender with a bus like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours? Or lead the patrol cars a merry dance like Jake and Elmo in The Blues Brothers? Don’t even think of it in SLC. The proximity of the Sundance Film Festival shouldn’t fool you. Salt Lake City is not a driver-friendly kind of town. Or at least it’s not very friendly to drivers like me.

Okay, I admit it, I’m not the best driver in the world. I’m not the most law-abiding member of the Automobile Association. I’m not unfamiliar with that invigorating state of mind colloquially known as Road Rage. I make a point of jumping every traffic light. I never stop at pedestrian crossings. I flit from lane to lane. I rarely if ever signal before I manoeuvre, let alone look in my rear view. I keep my headlights locked on full beam. I consider it my solemn duty to abuse other road users, especially old age pensioners, women, farmers and, above all, caravaneers (anyone basically who’s smaller and slower than myself). Advanced driving test have I none.

Now, you may be wondering how a road hog like me has managed to keep his license for so long. Surely maniacs such as myself are quickly identified by the authorities and the full force of the law is brought down upon their irresponsible heads. Not a bit of it. If you treat the plod with impunity, as I do. If you don’t give a fig for their pathetic radar traps or roadside cameras, as I do. If you flout the Highway Code, as I do. If you flaunt your floutation, as I do, you can get away with it for years. As I have. My license is clean. My conscience is clear. My number is up if this confession is ever used in evidence against me (it was extracted under duress, you honour, it’s a stitch up, police brutality, free the Utah One!)

Anyway, to get back to what I was saying. I cannot deny that I have a bit of a reputation as a dangerous driver, a demented driver, a mad-bastard-shouldn’t-be-allowed-on-the-road driver. I have been known to overtake on the outside of a bend, on the inside of a bend, on two wheels whilst drinking a cup of coffee and fiddling with the radio. In these circumstances, you’d think America would be the perfect place for me. America, the land of convoys, Cadillacs and car chases. America, the land of food, gas and lodging. America, the land of Jack Kerouac, Robert Pirsig and Easy Rider. America, the land of Henry Ford, hot rods and whitewalls. America, the land of opportunity, the land of the open road, the land of the free - well, the free gift at least.

I thought so too, until I got to Salt Lake City.

You know, I knew something was wrong, right from the start. The omens were bad, the signs discouraging, the auspices inauspicious. It wasn’t the long, irritable line at the Hertz counter that bothered me. After all, airports are busy places and I’m living proof of the fact that lots of irate people hire cars (I’m the man, after all, who put the ‘ire’ into hire). Nor, for that matter, was I disconcerted by the strange look on the sales-clerk’s face when she saw my Irish driving license. Perhaps she’d heard about Ireland’s infamous testing farrago of a couple of years back when there were so many applicants and so few testers that than anyone who wanted a license was given one - no questions asked. Nor, indeed, was I unsettled by the rental form I had to sign, with its never-ending list of disclaimers. Basically, it boiled down to the fact that if I hit anything or if anything hit me, I’d be held responsible for paying off America’s national debt, the next phase of the space program and underwriting Utah’s state lottery until the middle of the next millennium.

No, the thing that set the pre-monitional alarm bells ringing was my inability to find the car. Russ, my mentor, host and marketing scholar extrodinaire, had met me on arrival and was waiting patiently outside the rental parking lot. I’d been informed that my blue compact was parked in space 13, line K. But could I find it? No I could not. As far as I could make out, the parking petered out at line J. After wandering around for ten bemused minutes and apologetically asking for guidance from an employee of a rival rental company, who was singularly unimpressed by my lame ‘I’ve just arrived from Ireland’ line, I eventually tracked the vehicle down. Line K, surprisingly enough, turned out to be immediately adjacent to line J and space 13 was right there between 12 and 14. Cunning devils, these Americans.

I got into the car, started it up and revved the mighty 1.1 litre engine. Hey, this isn’t so bad. Wasn’t it P.J. O’Rourke who said that the best performing cars in the world aren’t the fuel-injected, air-cooled, 16 valved, souped-up behemoths of legend. They are hire cars. Boy, was I going to wring this baby out! But could I get its gear shift to move? No I could not. I depressed the button and tugged on the stick. I tugged on the stick and depressed the button. I depressed the stick and tugged on the button. To no avail. Even with both hands and all my admittedly negligible strength, I couldn’t shift the shift. I was just about to go back to the counter and berate them for supplying me with a clapped out, seized up auto when I saw the little shift-side decal, ‘Place Foot on Brake Before Engaging Drive’. Oh, so that’s how you do it. Easy when you know how. Select R for reverse, wrong way round the lot, somehow find the exit and there’s Russ still patiently waiting even though he’s got a class in less than an hour. What a guy!

Exhausted from my transatlantic flight, soaked with sweat from wrestling with a recalcitrant gear shift and driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in my life in an unfamiliar car, in an unfamiliar city, in an unfamiliar automatic transmission, I find myself in the middle of an unfamiliar snow storm. Just take it slowly Stephen, get in behind Russ and everything will be all right. However, less than one minute after picking up my guide, I’m sitting at 75 miles per hour on an eight lane interstate, in the middle of the rush hour with monstrous trucks whizzing past on either side and Russ’s Audi a rapidly disappearing speck on the indistinct horizon. It’s not like this in the movies.

We eventually get to the apartment after numerous twists, turns, near misses and panic attacks. I parked the car with my justly renowned expertise, approximately six feet from the curb, switched off the engine and slowly exhaled a huge sigh of relief. But could I get the key out of the ignition? No I could not. I tugged and I tugged. I turned it back and forward, to and fro, hither and yon, on and off. I watched Russ’s expression slowly change from ‘glad you could make it’, through ‘what have we let ourselves in for?’, to ‘who invited this cretin?’ Then I realised that the gear shift was still in Drive. Cunning devils these Americans. They certainly make their autos idiot-proof. The difficulty arises with the idiots who don’t know they’re idiot-proof.

Remove key, release seat belt and open the door. A buzzer sounds. Christ, what is it now? Oh yes, the headlights are still switched on. Russ smiles wanly, shakes his head and scuttles off to class. I settle in. Nice apartment, nice view, nice to be here. Nice car - once you get used to it.

An hour or so later, after a much-needed shower and shave, I decide to stroll up to the department to check out the office I’ll be occupying for the next couple of months. As I close the door behind me, I cast an affectionate glance in the direction of my frisky azure steed and notice a piece of paper tucked under the windscreen wiper. Bound to be a promotional flier for a local restaurant, club, dry cleaners or pizza delivery service. God, these American marketers don’t waste much time, do they. Jesus H. Christ. A parking ticket! A parking ticket outside my own apartment. Within an hour of my arrival. What’s going on here? It’s only then that I notice I’m in a residents-only parking zone. But I am a resident! This can’t be right, I say to Russ later on that day. He agrees and advises me to appeal the decision but, just to be on the safe side, recommends that I park on the grass verge for the meantime. Apparently the previous occupant had parked there without incident for the whole semester. Thanks Russ. What a guy!

The next day I have sufficiently recovered from my post-citation trauma to go downtown to appeal the decision, pick up a parking permit and change the car. I’d noticed that an oil pressure light kept coming on and, since the auto was going to be in my possession for some considerable time, I didn’t want the engine to explode whilst I was driving through the desert, or whatever. So, I rang the downtown office of the rental company and the clerk said they had no more vehicles of my make but he’d personally drive out to the airport to pick up another. Now that’s what I call customer service.

En route to City Hall, I remember thinking that driving on the right hand side of the road is much easier than I imagined it would be. It feels natural somehow. Maybe it’s the driving position, maybe it’s a deep-seated instinctive reaction to watching so many movies or maybe it’s just that I spend so much time overtaking in the right-hand lane at home that it seems like the proper place to be. These happy thoughts are rudely interrupted when I spot a piece of paper flapping furiously under my wiper-blade. No! It can’t be. Yes, it is. Another bloody traffic violation. This time for parking on the grass verge. My grass verge! Boy, was I going to give these people a piece of my mind.

I parked in the Hertz lot and marched a couple of blocks to City Hall. You know, if it wasn’t for the traffic cops, Salt Lake City would be a really nice place. Unlike many American downtowns, it’s clean, unthreatening and completely devoid of crazies, panhandlers street-people and the like. I should have guessed. All the delinquents, miscreants, reprobates, cut-throats, muggers and bums in the State are ahead of me in the ‘parking appeals’ line. I had a choice of paying my fines - all major credit cards accepted - or waiting my turn. The officer dealing with the line didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d be sympathetic to my pre-prepared ‘I’m just off the boat from Ireland, give me a break amigo’ speech. So, like any red-blooded white boy I promptly paid up for both violations. Hell, I’d have paid everyone’s fine just to get out of there and back to the uxorious womb of the university. In retrospect, of course, I realise that the line undoubtedly comprised indigent actors, employed by the PD to put the fear of God into any Caucasian foolish enough to consider appealing a traffic violation. Cunning devils these Americans. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

On the way back to the Hertz lot, I call into the parking permits office and, after having my Irish driving license carefully scrutinised, informed that my name, address and misdemeanours were now on the police computer (only my driving misdemeanours, I hope!), and relieved of a substantial slice of folding money in return for a tiny windshield sticker, I am given a map of the university area with permissible parking places clearly marked. Would you credit it, the opposite side of my street is a commercial zone which is exempt from parking controls. Christ almighty, I could have avoided all this hassle by parking across the way. Well, at least now I know. Once I pick up the new car, all my problems will be over.

The guy behind the Hertz counter is very pleasant, despite the fact that his unanticipated trip to the airport must have severely disrupted his schedule. Maybe he’s on some kind of commission. Anyway, we complete the paperwork with good grace and I amble outside thinking that I’d finally managed to crack the American cultural code. I start up the engine and the oil pressure light comes on again. I don’t believe this; not another defective hire car. It’s been a difficult couple of days, my wallet is considerably lighter than it was and, easy-going kind of guy though I ordinarily am, my patience is wearing very, very thin. I storm back up to the counter and harangue the harassed clerk with a cliched diatribe about Hertz not trying harder. Heroically maintaining his customer-friendly demeanour and resisting the temptation to tell me that it’s Avis who try harder - well trained these people - he replies that the vehicle was perfectly all right when he drove it back from the airport. ‘Well, it’s not all right now,’ I bark.

So we make our way out to the parking lot, where he gets in the car, turns the key and the oil pressure light comes on, thank God.

‘You see what I mean,’ I crow triumphantly.

‘But sir,’ he replies, surprisingly calmly considering the grief I’d given him, ‘the light is meant to appear when you switch on. It tells you that the oil pressure gauge is working properly. Does it come on when you drive?’

‘Er, no.’

‘Did the oil pressure light on the previous car come on when you were driving?’

‘Well, it might have flickered from time to time. They’re not like this at home, you know. I’ve just arrived from Ireland...’

He hands me the key and walks away in silence. Hertz tries harder.

Still, at least my problems are finally behind me. I drive back to the apartment in my bright red chariot and park across the street. Russ calls by later to ask how my trip downtown had gone. I respond with a carefully manicured version of events - my stock is so low I couldn’t possibly tell him the truth - and casually mention that I had to change the car. Oil pressure problems, you know how it is. Yes, I noticed you’d changed it, he replies. What a guy! How on earth did you know that? There’s a red car across the street that’s parked against the traffic and only an Irishman . Jeez, so it is. I’m pointing uphill, the rest are pointing downhill. Americans park with the traffic flow. You learn something new every day. It’s not illegal is it, Russ? No, it’s not illegal, just unusual.

Next day - April Fool’s Day, of all days - I’m strolling home from the department full of the joys of spring in Salt Lake City. What a place. Clean, fresh, friendly and, er, law abiding. Hold on a minute. Something’s missing. Jesus, my car has been stolen. Oh shit! What’ll I do? There’s bound to be a penalty clause about this in my rental agreement. The colour drains from my face at the thought of my entire salary, from here to retirement, being drained into some Hertzian sump. Foregoing my perfectly natural desire to dial 911 - if this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is - I check the phone book. Diverse police department services are listed: drugs, homicide, larceny, prostitution, public order offences. Christ, what sort of town is this? Non-violent crime, that must be it.

After responding to several computerised messages and associated touch-tone requests, a very amiable police officer finally answers my call. I explain that my car has gone.

‘What’s the license plate number, sir?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What make of car is it?’

‘Sorry officer, I’m not sure.’

‘How old is it?’

‘Um.’

‘Do you know anything about your automobile, sir?’

‘It’s red, officer.’

'It’s red?’

‘I’m afraid I’m Irish officer, just arrived in town. This kind of thing has never happened to be before. It’s a hire car and I don’t know anything about it.’

‘It’s a what car?’

‘A hire car.’

‘A what?’

‘A hire car. You know, Hertz, Avis, Budget, that kind of thing.’

‘Oh you mean a renl.’

‘A what, officer?

'A renl.’

‘A renl? What’s a renl?’

‘A renl - you know Hertz, Avis...’

‘Oh a rental. Yes, it’s a rental, officer. A rental, that’s what it is.’

‘Let me see. Where do you live, sir? Oh yes, a red, 1996 Chevy, License Plate 6P9332G was towed from that street at 2.31p.m. this afternoon. Parking in a two hour zone.’

My head is reeling by this stage due to a combination of relief and bewilderment. I want to kiss the duty officer. I want to raise two fingers to Hertz and their goddam rental agreement. I want to ask how on earth they managed to winkle the car out of that tight parking space (no I don’t). I want to ask how on earth they knew I was parked there for more than two hours (damn, pointing the wrong way). Above all, I want to ask about this two hour limit business. My map says you can park there at any time.

‘Any time, sir, but only for two hours. Didn’t you read the sign?’

‘Er, where is the car, officer? How do I go about getting it back?’

‘It’s in the pound, sir.’

Not the pound, I think to myself. Sounds grim. Sounds hellish. Sounds like things are gonna get a lot worse before they get better. Anyway, I thank the officer for her help and ring the city impound lot to check that a red, 1996 Chevy, License Plate number 6P9332G is in their possession. The somewhat brusque impoundee informs me that it’s there but I have to go to the central precinct and pay the fine before my vehicle can be released. The pound, it transpires, is on the opposite side of town and, sans car, it looks as though I’ll have to hire a cab. I wonder if they take traveller’s cheques? Should I ring Russ, or not? I’ve put him through so much already. He thinks I’m an idiot. He works so hard and I hate to interrupt his routine. ‘Hi, Russ, you’ll never guess what’s happened…. The precinct opens at 8 o’clock, apparently. So you’ll call for me at ten before? What a guy!’

Seven a.m. the following morning, I peek out from between the curtains and there it is. My car is back! My red Chevy is parked in front of the apartment. It was all an April Fool’s Day joke. The best ever, bar none! How did you do it, Russ? Everyone was in on the act: the police, the pound, the people in the department. He even moved the car. Where did he hide it? How did he get into it? How did he start it? Who cares?! I rush outside, the sheer euphoria covering my semi-naked state. I check the car. It’s not mine. It’s another red Chevy parked there by chance. The bastard was towed, after all.

Russ ferries me down to the central precinct, feigning sympathy and trying to keep a straight face. He can’t understand it. He’s lived here for fifteen years and he’s never had his car impounded. Boy, is he going to enjoy recounting the story of the dumb Irishman who visited Utah for a semester. The precinct, as you might expect, is just like it is in the cop shows (life imitating art or art imitating life, I wonder). Officer on high chair behind desk, bullet-proof glass, dregs of society in line ahead of me: violations, citations, fingerprinting, pimping, soliciting. God, I feel like a wimp with my pathetic impound problem. At least I’m not alone. The guy behind me had his boat towed and impounded. His fucking boat towed! It was attached to his pick-up and the time and they impounded that for good measure. We fall into conversation and it transpires that there’s only one state in the Union where the police’s propensity to tow is more pronounced than Utah. California, apparently. Guess where I’m going next? Got it in one.

I get to the head of the line and explain my misdemeanour to the officer. She strokes her computer a couple of times and says that there’s no record of a new red Chevy in the pound. ‘But I spoke to the impound people, officer.’

‘Oh yeah?, they haven’t told us. Come back in half an hour. Back of the line, buddy.’

Needless to say, Russ is on a roll by this stage as his after-dinner anecdote continues to develop apace. He doesn’t seem to mind being kept from his research. He’s going to dine out on this one for years to come. We just have time to check the cabinets and displays in the precinct’s entrance hall - Rookie of the Month (ticketing Chevys a speciality, doubtless), Commendations for Public Spirited Citizens (so that’s the shit who reported a mis-orientated, time-expired rental), Officers who have Fallen in the Line of Duty (Moloney, accidentally shot by one of his colleagues; nice to know we’re in safe hands) - before rejoining the line. No out-of-work actors here, believe me.

Sixty dollars and a strange look at my Irish driving license later, we’re on our way to the city lot, official release form in hand. It’s on the wrong side of the tracks and I mean the wrong side of the tracks. Russ has never been to this part of town before. I can see why. Trailer parks, satellite dishes, unkempt yards, piles of junk, potholes, pitbulls, flyovers and, eventually, impound lots. Christ, it’s huge. Christ, it’s full. Christ, I’m going to drive carefully in future. I knew my sins would find me out eventually but I never thought they’d find me out in America, of all places. Please forgive me.

We pull up at a massive chain-link fence, behind which lurks a ramshackle ‘office’. There are two signs on the fence. One announces that parked cars will be towed. Jeez, what a scam! You and a buddy arrive to collect an impounded auto. They tow the car while you’re inside. You get another friend to take you and your first friend out to the lot. They tow his car too and so it goes on. Now I know why the lot is so full. This is the automotive equivalent of pyramid selling or a chain letter. Every automobile in Salt Lake City is here. The second sign is equally disconcerting, albeit much more dramatic. ‘Do Not Touch the Fence’, it says. Fuck me sideways, the fucker’s electrified! But no, it’s just automatic and, at the touch of a button from the bowels of the office, the impound portcullis retracts.

Russ waits in his Audi, ready to drive off at the first sign of a tow-truck, while I take care of business. My God, it’s like David Lynch’s worst nightmare. The in-bred troglodyte behind the counter is straight out of central casting, Deliverance division. Cross-eyed, purple teeth, scarlet neck, plaid shirt, oil-black blue jeans and bare feet. At least I think they’re feet. I pass over the release form. He turns it round several times trying to work out which way is up.

‘Red Chevy, boy?’

‘Red Chevy,’ I reply.

‘Renl?’

‘Renl.’

‘Gotta see your license, boy.’

The shit hits the fan. I try to explain that it’s a European driving license. He looks at me blankly.

‘You know, Europe, a large land mass, way, way to the east.’

Nothing. Nada. No comprende.

‘It’s an Irish driving license.’

‘Now you’re talkin’, boy. I’m Irish!’

Of course you are. The seventh son of a seventh son, I’ll be bound.

‘We might be cousins’, he grunts, or was that a leer?

‘Not kissing cousins’, I mutter, whilst nodding inanely.

Bosom buddies now - bit too bosom for my liking - he gives me precise instructions concerning the whereabouts of my Chevy, but to be honest they completely pass me by. I just want to get out of there before ‘Duelling Banjos’ strikes up from somewhere and he insists on a dance with his long lost relative.

Throwing caution to the winds, St. Russell risks joining me in a latter-day Mormon trek though the gargantuan impound lot. The place is a sea of semi-crushed Continentals, burnt-out Buicks, mangled Mustangs, dented Dodges, fenderless Fords and long-abandoned pick-ups. It’s an annex of the breaker’s yard. It’s Cadillac Ranch writ large. It’s Auto Armageddon. Eventually, in the far corner, a speck of red. It’s a Chevy. It’s a renl. It’s okay. It’s undamaged. It’s mine. Underneath the wiperblade, a note.

‘Your car has been impounded...’ Tell me something I don’t fucking know, you fucking fuckers!

Starts first time. Oil pressure light appears. Foot on brake. Into Drive. Drop Russ off at his Audi just as the tow truck arrives. Logo on the side says ‘Bozo Tow’. It figures. Follow Russ back into town. Switch on the radio.

‘Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.’

Don McLean. American p. What a guy!