Sophomore year of college, 1980, I got a used Plymouth Horizon, burgundy with burgundy interior, the meaty color of a nose bleed. Technically, it wasn't even mine. My father had the title and threatened to impound the car anytime I drove beyond the Chapel Hill city limits. Which was just as well. The car burned oil, ran hot and, if pushed over 50 mph, shimmied like Pia Zadora. Even the radio was busted, stuck on the staticky right end of the dial, between black gospel and white country. In my car, Jesus dispensed his everlasting mercy from the arms of a hard-hearted woman. It never occurred to me to want anything better.
Imagine my wonder and amazement when, in 1987, I moved to Durham and saw what the Duke students were driving. Porsches, Corvettes, Miatas. The wealthiest girl I knew at Carolina drove her mother's cast-off Buick, a gaseous, farting beast that lumbered up Franklin Street like a dung beetle. And it wasn't just what these Duke students were driving, it was how they were driving--tearing around the perimeter of East Campus, hopping the curb at Broad and Main, double parking at the bakery. There was a certain deft arrogance, a Romper-Room carelessness suggesting that these cars were just more toys, brought to college along with the curling irons and stereo sets.
Over the years it became a habit of mine to watch these students and to chat with them about how it was they got to drive cars worth four times my annual salary. Twenty years ago, they were pretty unselfconscious about it. The market was rudely healthy and they sat on their leather upholstery looking complacent, like lions that have eaten. I remember this one boy, Jason, parking his MG on a side street near the old Durham Athletic Park. The car was biotite black, with chrome that jabbed in the sun like knives. Jason said his parents gave him the car when he decided to go to school in the South. Evidently, they were concerned that, forced to walk the streets, he might be ambushed by rednecks or Negroes. I told him that as a matter of fact, he was parked in a dicey neighborhood right now. "You think I should move the car?" he said. Then, waving the thought away, "It's massively insured. Besides, if something happened, I could maybe borrow my dad's Karmann Ghia. It's awesome."
In the '90s, as the market swelled with happy, imaginary money, things got giddy. At the parking lot at George's Garage, a Ferrari roared into the spot next to me and opened its door into the side of my Honda hatchback. We got out to look. The Ferrari was unscathed, regal; its driver tried to assess the damage to my car. She looked like a veterinarian eyeballing a three-legged mule. When I told her not to worry about it she said, "Oh my God, thank you. It's my brother's car, but he has these little kids who it's like illegal to let ride in here. So he lets me drive it and now I want one. He calls it his dot.com-mobile." "Made a killing, huh?" "Oh my God."
A decade later, with war on the tube and the market opening each day with the tinkle of a leper's bell, the streets of West Durham are a little quieter. Massive Navigators sit sober at traffic lights, and even the sporty BMWs and Toyota Spiders employ a tactful restraint. A few months ago, a copper Volvo sat outside the Mexican restaurant on Foster Street. The car looked new, though it had a ding in its left flank and a swatch of stickers decrying the imperialist pigs in the White House. The driver was an undergraduate who was either cultivating dreadlocks or had simply given up shampooing. He was waiting for someone, listening to rap music that throbbed like a headache. I looked the Volvo over, because I understand they are good cars and because my Subaru had just came out of the shop with a repair total the cashier actually refused to speak out loud. She just flashed a number at me, like I was buying Angolan diamonds. I asked the kid what he thought of the car and he said it was a good car, but that his dad was making him give it back, because of the ding. His dad was pretty uptight these days, he said, but no matter. The Volvo was too bourgeois anyway. It set his chakra on edge.
Melinda Ruley has been a reporter and columnist for The Independent. She is currently on a sabbatical.