It was a bright, cold morning in March, 2011 in Chicago. I had just had the best improv audition of my life at The Second City. I skipped, high on life, back to my 1992 BMW 525i car in the perfect parking spot I’d found right outside the theater. I started the engine, and the radiator exploded in a cloud of fumes and acrid smoke. It ballooned outward from the front of the car. A jogger ran right into the cloud. She coughed and stumbled to the driver side window. She started screaming at me for poisoning her lungs. She threatened to sue me. I shouted back, “It’s my car, not me!” She flipped me the middle finger and jogged away.
The car was totally dead. And, as it seems to happen in my life, I’d gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a split second.
I’d had that car since high school. I had named her Sheila and driven her cross-country from San Francisco to Chicago. We were close, that car and I. I discovered disco music at age 17 and driven down Castro street in San Francisco with the sun roof open, blasting Donna Summer on Sheila’s surround sound speakers. She was actually the second BMW I had driven. My uncle was a BMW car mechanic so my family only bought Beamers since he’d service them for free. The first BMW I had was a 1985 528e, a beautiful car that I forgot to put in park when I pulled into my family’s driveway one day in 10th grade. I remember I was worried about an AP History test. I walked into the house without looking back as the car slowly rolled down the hill. It crashed into an Oak tree at the bottom. My dad found the wreck when he got home from work. I was playing video games instead of studying and he ran in screaming at me for both the car and the video games. I’ve never seen him so upset. What can I say? I’m just not very good with cars.
I needed to offload the hulk of the 1992 BMW. I towed it back to my apartment in Logan Square. It was in decent shape, except for it’s engine, as I honestly noted in the Craiglist ad.
An hour after I’d posted the listing, I got a call. The voice on the other end of the line was shaky and reedy. The man said his name was Bernard Pious. He said it was his dream to own a BMW. He loved fixer-uppers and wanted to repair the car himself. He had cash, and he could come over that evening to take the car off my hands.
Bernard arrived at my apartment. He was easily in his late 80’s. When I first saw him, he was drinking an apple juice box, held in hands with no gloves in zero degree weather. The stairs on the landing of my apartment were slick with ice. I held his frigid, free hand and helped guide him up the stairs. His body was thin and frail and seemed ready to break at any moment. I wasn’t sure how I felt about selling this old man my car.
We got inside my apartment. My roommates looked on from the living room. They looked concerned. “Now, now, no paperwork needed,” Bernard said, speaking just above a whisper. “I’ll just take ‘er off your hands.” He started counting $100 bills.
“No, I’m going to need a bill of sale,” I said. My dad had told me to make sure I did that. We agreed to it. Bernard took out a pen with the tip chewed off. His hands were trembling as he scrawled what looked like a Cumulonimbus cloud for a signature. One of my roommates motioned for me to come over. “Do we need to call a paramedic?” she whispered.
“So I’ll just tow ‘er her tomorrow or the next day or soon,” Bernard said. “I’m not in any rush. You see, I’m gonna build ‘er brand new from the inside out, on my own.” His eyes twinkled as he said it, and he seemed like a wizard or mystic for a moment. Then he coughed up some phlegm and asked for a tissue.
“One last thing,” he said, hobbling toward my front door. “Can I keep the old license plates? Just ‘til I can get down to city hall and get ‘er new ones.” I didn’t see the harm in it. I had the bill of sale, the ownership was transferred. I didn’t want the car to get a ticket or towed for lacking a licence plate in the interim. So I agreed to let him keep the plates.
The next day the car was gone, and I thought, “That’s the last I’ll see of that.”
The parking tickets started coming in the mail four months later. The car was sitting at 2338 N. Elston and accumulating almost daily individual tickets for having expired plates. I tried calling Bernard several times. No answer; his cell went straight to voicemail. So I took the bus and went to the address of the tickets to check it out.
Sure enough, there was the hulk of my old car, sitting on the side of the road. I had brought a spare key that I hadn’t given to Bernard. I don’t know why I had kept it. Maybe intuition. I walked around the car. I stared into the distance. Then my curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the door and tried to start the car. It was dead. It had not been repaired.
I got out and locked the door. The sun was setting over the Chicago Skyline. I tried Bernard again. He wasn’t answering my calls. It was freezing outside. I was panicking. I couldn’t deal with any more tickets. I didn’t know what to do. So, I found a medium-sized rock by the side of the road and started bashing off the license plates. I didn’t have a screwdriver or the patience to go home and get one. So I took the rock and tried to knock the plates off the car. I did my best to keep a low profile while I was doing it. But cars kept honking at me. I think they could tell it was weird for a guy to be prying off license plates with a rock and bare hands in zero degree weather.
I eventually succeeded. Two of my fingers were torn open and bleeding. I took the plates and caught a cab home.
I never was able to get a hold of Bernard. His phone just went to voicemail. I think he died. I think he died before he got a chance to fix my car or change the license plates. Or realize his dream of fixing up a BMW.
I typed up and printed letters to contest all five parking tickets I’d accumulated:
The Chicago DMV waived the tickets, believe it or not.
I’m bad with cars. I’m even worse at buying them. But I know now at least: take the plates with you when you sell. For god’s sakes, keep the plates.