Atlanta in the 1980’s was an ever-evolving tapestry. Like a 16-year-old boy, it was full of ideas, hope, and testosterone. For years, the little brother to older and bigger cities. But after all the hand-me-downs and noogies, Atlanta had finally gotten its driver’s license. As had I, and looking for a car of my own.
From the candy-apple red, to the curves, to the easily removal top, she exuded sex appeal. Her name rolled off the tongue like foreplay: Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. This was an R-rated car and I was a PG-17 kid… in the eyes of my father anyway. Unfortunately, he was the one person I had to convince to buy the car for me: and for that I would need detailed information.
My dad was a stickler for details. He would read a manual before even touching a new device. I, on the other hand, had to touch, feel, maybe break something before I could really understand it.
This was the pre-internet early-1980’s, so I couldn’t just Google the information. I had to go out of my way. I had to go to the dreaded library. I borrowed my dad’s brown-turd-of-a-car, with a name that stuck to your tongue as you tried to spit it out: Chevy Citation.
My dad had bought the Chevy after Car & Driver magazine had given it a front page with the headline: “Outperforms a Ferrari Boxer.” As I drove down Heards Ferry- one of Atlanta’s many hilly and winding roads named after ferrymen- I jammed the sticky gearbox into 3rdgear, I wondered in what category this rattlebox could have surpassed a Ferrari. To me, this turd on wheels felt more like driving a covered wagon to the ferry, than a Ferrari to the library.
The library was not the most user-friendly experience back then. I’m not even sure “user-friendly” was in the lexicon of the day. Once past the judgy-looking lady at the front desk, who glared at me over her reading glasses just waiting to shush me, I tried flipping through the giant filing system. This behemoth held thousands of 3×5 notecards, which meticulously catalogued everything in the place. This was Google’s Lucy. After a good ten minutes of dead-ends and frustrated noises on my part, I noticed the judgy-lady coming my way. Oh, crap, do I just walk away so I don’t catch the wraith of this woman?Too late, she was quicker than she looked.
“May I help you?” she asked icily. “Uh, I’m looking for information on cars?” “Have you tried a car dealer?” she said, apparently wanting me gone as much as I wanted to be gone at that moment. But my quest was too important to abandon. “I, uh, I’m trying to talk my dad into buying me a used Alfa Romeo, and I need some stuff to convince him.” The lady took the reading glasses off her nose and put them back in her hair. “Convertible?” she almost cooed. Wow, if I get this kind of reaction from just a mention, imagine what driving it would be like?
About an hour later, I had all the documents I needed, and the librarian’s phone number. She slipped it to me on my way out. Her name was Liz and she insisted I take her for a ride one day… with the top down.
The first piece of evidence I presented to my dad was a Car & Driver magazine article that Liz helped me track down on micro-fiche and even Xeroxed for me. For some reason my dad still trusted the magazine. I think he was in denial that his Citation was anything short of what he had been sold. “Look dad, Car & Driver calls it ‘a dream’.” “Yeah, you’re dreaming alright,” was his response. He then grabbed the Xerox copy and said “where’d you get this anyway?” “The library…. Look, a friend of mine’s dad, who’s loaded, is willing to give this car to me for cheap.” I figured this would make my dad listen. After-all, he was the most frugal man with money I knew. Probably the only heart surgeon driving a Chevy Citation anyway. “You went to the library?” was all he said, in a surprised tone, as he left the room.
I waited until the first olive from his martini glass was in his mouth before I hit him up again. From years of observation, this was my window when all was good. By the second olive, everything was an argument.
“Here is a current Kelly Blue Book,” I said as I handed him the book. “I’ve earmarked a page I want you to see.” He smiled at my unwillingness to cave as he looked over the details. “$12,000 dollars?” he snorted. “My brand new Chevy Citation was only $6,500, and it outperforms the Ferrari Boxer.” But does it. Really?I thought about saying, but I held my tongue and pulled out more evidence. “Current used car ads. Notice your Chevy tends to lose value rather quickly. The Alfa Romeo does not.”
He was already into his second olive. That was fast, I thought, I’d better wrap this up. “He’s willing to sell it to me, as a friend of his son’s, for $7,000.” He shook his head, but he didn’t say no.
My next move was a little more subtle. At the advice of Liz the librarian, I’d rented “The Graduate”. After the argumentative stage of martini drinking, my dad would sometimes get a case of melancholy. Bring on the melancholy, I thought.
I stayed quiet throughout the film, even when the red Alfa Romeo made its appearance. I’m still not sure if it registered with him that this was the car, in an older version. He cleared his throat at the end of the film, and I looked over to see him wipe his eye. Was that a tear or just an eye rub? I’ll never know, but the next day he bought me the car.
Car & Driver got this one right: driving around Atlanta in the Alfa Romeo was a dream. You know when you hug someone and everything fits just right? Well the leather seats in this thing were like that kind of hug, and the smooth burled wood steering wheel and stick-shift handle felt like they were made for my hands. I took the top down and cranked up the aftermarket Blaupunkt 6-speaker stereo. It sounded like a symphony in that small space, but this was no classical score. No, this was The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” aka “Teenage Wasteland.”
We listened to a lot of music, me and my friends, from Springsteen to Zeppelin, from Jimmy Buffet, to Soft Cell. (Yeah, Soft Cell. Tainted Love. You know the song even if you won’t admit to liking it). The Who, however, was a constant. I’d say the soundtrack of our lives. They had a sweeping powerful operatic vibe and a little of that snarly young rock attitude that we connected with at our age.
“Baba O’Riley” started off with a pulsing synthesizer that built into a pounding piano, and a crescendo of deep thumping drums… And that was just the intro! By the time Roger Daltry’s voice took off with “Out here in the fields”, I was rocketing down Jett Road in my convertible with the top down. Jett Road was somewhat unique for Atlanta: relatively straight, long, and traffic-free. Being Atlanta, there were hills, but they were of the rolling kind, which made it all the more fun to speed on.
Off of Jett Rd. there was an appropriately named Tanglewood Trail. Oh, the tangled webs it weaved. This area of Buckhead was an enclave of old and new money. There were the houses with tennis courts and swimming pools of course, and then the one on Tanglewood with the basement disco: professional sound-system, professional lighting, even a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The son and daughter went to our school. Rumor was that the father was in the music business and owned the rights to some Beatles songs, among others.
I always felt a little out-of-place in this area, even as a doctor’s son. You remember the car he drove, right? Well today I felt like these were my people as I turned my bright red Alfa Romeo onto Tanglewood Trail. I pulled into a driveway across the street from the disco house just as Baba O’Riley was reaching its final verse and Roger Daltry screamed “they’re all wasted!”
My friend Dave was sitting, shirtless, on his old dark-orange Camaro. The color was more like rust. I don’t believe this was a Camaro approved and applied color. Dave directed me where to park. I was just about to turn off the car when the DJ made an announcement that would change both of our lives forever: “Okay Who fans. Dates have been set for the farewell tour. Yes, I said farewell. Now if you haven’t seen them live, you’d better do everything and anything to get there because this is your last chance! Unfortunately, the closest to Atlanta they’ll be is Birmingham, Alabama…”
“Dude!” was all Dave said, but I could tell by the inflection that he meant “this is a once in a generation event and we have got to get tickets!”