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Sitting in the Car with Tom and Howie

If Metsian memories are building from a trickle to a flood, then it must be Flashback Friday [1] at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

I’m unreasonably loyal to inanimate objects. Got this bright, shiny new computer recently that I refused to plug in for several days after delivery because it seemed unfair to the old, slightly rickety machine that was opening fewer and fewer Web pages every week. Got new shoes in September but wouldn’t wear them until after the playoffs because the incumbent pair had gotten the Mets this far and it wouldn’t seem right to abandon them prior to October. Don’t even get me started on the night the tape function on my stereo — my stereo on which I recorded so many beloved cassettes — went on the fritz and needed immediate replacement.

Then there are cars. Men and cars. That’s allowed, right? We’re supposed to be in love with our vehicles, referring to each one as a she as we exult in listening to her purr. But my car doesn’t really drive me.

I’ve had two. Fifteen years ago this week, I got my second. I’ve always been grateful for its utility, that it’s started and carried me from point A to point B without breaking down at point A and a half. I don’t blame it for the aversion to driving [2] that struck me in the mid-’90s and has stayed with me ever since. It’s not for not liking it that I’ve put not quite 67,000 miles on it since taking ownership on January 11, 1992. Since 1996, I’ve either commuted to my job by train or worked from home. I don’t really have anywhere to drive.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve never forgiven my dependable powder blue 1992 Toyota Corolla for not being a trendy teal green.

My car sometimes feels like a bastard child to me, conceived as it was in a very unpleasant transaction at Five Towns Toyota of Lawrence. I needed a car, I went there and I had a horrible experience. Despite reading one of those “how to buy a car without getting ripped off” books before entering the fray, I went to buy a car and felt like I was getting ripped off.

Everything about it still gives me hives, from the salesman who told me he needed a deposit from me right now to save this special price that’s only in effect today to the loan arranger who made up a monthly payment that had nothing to do with the interest rate that was quoted. I knew I was being rolled all around.

T-Day, as it were, was Thursday, January 9. I wasn’t sleeping. I knew this was all wrong. I didn’t want to deal with them anymore. So I started talking to lawyers. Everybody I knew who knew a lawyer got their attorney relatives or friends on the phone for me. They all said I could get out of the deal. I called the dealership and was told, oh no, you’re stuck with this car — the powder blue model because it will cost you extra for the teal green number — and we’re going to sue you if you don’t follow through. I was going nuts. I went to Radio Shack and bought one of those calculators that figures out interest rates and realized they were trying to take me for what amounted to thousands more over the life of the loan.

I called back Five Towns Toyota and yelled at them. They yelled at me. More threats were exchanged. In another office where I worked (this was going on in the middle of the day), my editor ran interference for me with a PR rep who was trying to set up an interview for me. This isn’t a good day for Greg, he said. He’ll call you tomorrow.

My calculator gave me some moral fiber to trust. I’d spent my life caving into salesmen and professionals and anybody who had what I wanted. No, I wasn’t going to budge. You’re not going to rip me off. I cared less about blue versus teal than I did that somebody saw me coming and decided he could take advantage. This, I demanded, is all I will pay in terms of financing. More haggling ensued. Emotions crested. Then things calmed down. I said something about not wanting to be dissatisfied.

Damned if I know why this was the magic word, but all at once the salesman was all “we don’t want you to be dissatisfied.” All at once, he was a reasonable human being. The financing was settled to my satisfaction. The price was brought down to my satisfaction. The color, well, we just don’t have it in teal green right now and you’ll have to wait and we will have to charge you a delivery fee to get it from another dealership.

Screw it, I thought. I want to get this over with. I don’t care about color. Just give me the blue one. I still have it.

Few have been the days since 1992 that I’ve thought about the teal. That was back when almost every expansion team in every sport was trying on teal: the San Jose Sharks, the Charlotte Hornets, the unborn Florida Marlins. I had a sense this was a fad. Teal green was pretty, though, but I settled for the powder blue.

I arranged to pick up the car, my second car, on the eleventh, two days later. Punchy, groggy, irritable, vulnerable, I left the office and went down to the office parking lot to get in my car.

My first car.

It was a Toyota Corolla. That’s why I was so set on having another one. The first one had been very good to me. It was bought used from Avis. My dad had them as a client and they gave him a professional discount. He bought it when I started college after my mother decided if I rode a bicycle around Tampa that I’d get run over. I didn’t argue. The first Corolla, an ’81, burnt orange, came with 14,000 or so miles and I proceeded to add another 95,000 over ten years. I drove from Florida to New York or New York to Florida seven different times. I drove to Montreal and Philadelphia and Boston and St. Petersburg to see baseball games. I drove it from age 18 to age 29.

Man, I loved that car. She/he/it had given me a marvelous decade. The end of the road was at hand by the end of 1991. I replaced the brakes not two months before understanding she/he/it couldn’t go on forever. That’s why I was shopping for a new Corolla in late ’91, early ’92. That’s why on this Thursday night I was driving her/him/it home from work for what would be the second-to-last time.

And ya know what else was going on that week? Tom Seaver was voted into the Hall of Fame. First ballot, 98.8% of the vote. Only five voters didn’t check him off. They were either infirm or stubborn. Everybody else who didn’t have an excuse validated Tom Seaver as the best. Nobody got more of the vote than Tom Seaver, not before then, not since then. My favorite player was, in a tangible way, the favorite of the ages.

It was good news in a stressful week. The election was announced Tuesday. Thursday, that awful Thursday, had more than painful automotive negotiations to them, it turned out.

It had Tom Seaver on the Howie Rose show on the way home.

Tom didn’t do all that many interviews after he retired from playing. When he did, he didn’t do it under any kind of Mets auspices. The last we saw him as ours was when his number 41 was retired in 1988. A year later he was broadcasting for NBC and WPIX. By ’92 he was still affiliated with the Yankees, of all teams, keeping Phil Rizzuto company now and then. His relationship with the Mets was nonexistent.

But on WFAN that Thursday night, he was home. It was Tom and Howie — still my favorite talk show host ever — recalling Tom’s career. It was supposed to last 20 minutes at most, but Tom stayed and talked for more than an hour. Howie wasn’t about to remind him his time was up and Tom didn’t seem to mind sticking around.

I drove the same route home I’d been taking for almost two years: Northern State to the Meadowbrook to Merrick Road to our first apartment in Baldwin. I was riveted as I drove. I don’t think there were any commercials. Just Tom and Howie. Gil Hodges came up. Rube Walker. Jerry Grote. ’69. The trade. The trade back. The last time he was allowed to walk. Just Tom Seaver and Howie Rose talking at length about Tom Seaver.

What more could I want?

When I pulled in in front of the house where we rented, they were still at it. I could have gotten out, run inside and turned on the radio, but it felt inappropriate to take a break. If the FAN could hold off on interruptions, so could I. It was worth it.

Tom, Howie said, we have a little surprise for you, put together by our producer (don’t know if it was the immortal Chris Majkowski or who back then). It was a musical montage, a tribute to Tom’s career. The music was Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young,” the punctuation was one highlight after another of Tom’s pitching. Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson on the air telling us once again that Seaver had a perfect game going with one out in the ninth, that Seaver had just struck out his tenth in a row, that Seaver had won a 20th or 25th or World Series game. I don’t remember all the highlights. They were plentiful and the excerpts were rare. I do remember the music very well.

And may you never love in vain

And in my heart you will remain

Forever young

With that, the remains of the day came crashing down on me. This morning, I was being pushed around by a car dealer. This afternoon I stood up for myself. It may sound trifling to those of you who are more self-assured consumers taking up two spaces in your SUVs, but I swear it was like I had changed amid those angry phone calls to Five Towns Toyota. I felt like I had finally, finally, finally

…grown up.

It was pretty late in the game for such a realization. But I’d been slow [3] about tackling adulthood [4]. There was a night when I was 19 when it occurred to me I was no longer a kid. There was an ensuing decade when I had to keep reminding myself of that chronological fact. And now, at 29, that was it. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was a full-fledged adult. I just bought a new car on — color notwithstanding — my own terms.

And? And I was about to give up the last car anybody was ever likely to buy for me, the car that, in essence, I had grown up in. And who should be floating about the tinny speakers in that first, never-to-be-topped Toyota? Tom Seaver, the first, never-to-be-topped hero of my youth. His career was flashing in front of my ears. His deeds were forever young, but it was now as official as it would ever be: my favorite player from when I was a kid was never going to play baseball again. I would get older, he would get older and everything about him as a Met would be a memory. We’d both find other things on which to dwell as going concerns, but neither Tom Seaver nor I would ever have Tom Seaver quite the same way again.

Him in the Hall of Fame. Me in a new blue 1992 Toyota. Him on the mound. Me in my burnt orange 1981 Corolla.

I can see us in the rearview mirror.

Next Friday [5]: My earliest influence.