The Pink Light
At the used car lot, the dreaded high point of the week was the trip to the car auction to see what kind of pretty shells might have washed up on the beach recently. Everyone, even Ratso, was required to go, except for the Chung Brothers. We would also leave one man behind to watch the store. By tradition, this job always fell to the person with the worst hangover that morning, i.e. George. It wasn’t that George necessarily drank more than anyone else; it was just that his drinking had the latest start. His drug of choice was the white powder. So around 3 am, when his co-workers were already winding down, he would have to knock back a tumbler of straight bourbon to relax enough to get a few hours of sleep.
While George would cower like a molting lizard on the big chair behind the front desk, the rest of us would clown-car it to the auction house, located in one of the more proletarian suburbs of Chicago. Except for the occasional thin faced Eastern European who thought he could buck the overwhelming odds and drive off with a bargain, the auction was strictly for professional dealers. The cars were mostly from the South and looked better and more suntanned than their leprous Northern counterparts. This did not, of course, mean that they had all been once owned by the legendary little old lady. But the dealers knew that their customers did not buy cars so much as buy fantasies and dreams. And to the dealers’ jaded eyes, the question was whether there was enough car there to make the buyer’s dreams come true for the time it would take them to sign the contract and slap the money down on the desk.
The dealers worked against the House by sort of pre-selecting among themselves which of them would get what car, and the bidding seemed to proceed accordingly. When Eddie had gotten all of the cars that he wanted, he would put his cash down (always cash at the auction; the auctioneers were professionals too) and take the titles and the keys. He would then gather his workers and hand out the keys, to each according to his abilities.
The best running car would go to Zeus, the ex-professional wrestler, because he had a tendency to completely fold under any kind of pressure (which was probably why he had failed at his old job). Blackie, on the other hand, could be trusted with a marginal car, provided that he first gave up his wallet to Fast Eddie to make sure that he didn’t have any “accidents” on the way back to the lot that would cause him to have to sell the car to some passing stranger for drug money. Strange to say, Fast Eddie didn’t hold this little peccadillo against Blackie. Blackie, when he was reasonably sober, was one of the best salesmen on the lot. He had learned to harness the almost unlimited power of his own native sleaziness to cultivate the extraordinary talent of being able to make anyone come to hate him in a manner of minutes. He could then parlay this hatred into a sale by convincing the customer that if he bought the car at the price that Blackie quoted, Blackie would be in deep trouble with the owner.
In any case, losing the occasional beater was considered just a part of the cost of doing business. I was quite sure, for example, that at least three cars had disappeared without a trace up George’s nose. Not only were they missing from our weed choked back lot, their keys and titles (kept in separate locked cabinets) were missing as well and before I started working there and changed the locks only George and Fast Eddie had the keys.
The very worst death traps that Fast Eddie bought would be given to Ratso to drive back. Ratso, being a street person, didn’t even have a driver’s license. But just as he was used to living below the radar, he could also drive below it. It was understood that if Ratso ever got into serious trouble with a car, say, if it were to suddenly burst into flames, he would simply bail out and run for it. For this reason, he was never issued one of the dealership’s official tin license plates. Rather, he was given a crudely filled out paper license applied for tag that could go down with the ship, if necessary.
One day, we didn’t buy enough cars at the auction to need all the drivers we brought. And Fast Eddie asked me to drive back with him. He first dispatched the other drivers in five minute intervals so that all of that junk wouldn’t be rolling down the road at the same time and attract attention. Naturally he himself took the best car of the day; in this case a powder blue 1967 Buick Electra 225, a car the size of a small pirate ship that was known to its admirers as a “deuce-and-a-quarter”. Fast Eddie, who when it came to automobiles was as clinical as a vampire surveying the night crowd, gazed upon this beauty with the loving look that a middle aged man gets when he runs into his very first car again. I had to admit that the car looked much better for its age than Fast Eddie did. The Chung Brothers would no doubt be able to buff it into perfection in one good afternoon. But it rocked like a rowboat when I got in, and the car smelled worse than the Sunday morning sheets from a Midway Airport motel.
“What do you think, Eddie? Five or six pine air fresheners should be enough to fix this car up.”
“Nah. Chung Brothers got this spray they use. You know that air fresheners aren’t my style.”
This was true. The mark of a Fast Eddie special wasn’t a fancy air freshener with our address hanging off the rear view mirror, but a full color statue of St. Christopher on the dashboard. Half of our clientele was African American, and it was widely believed on Raper’s Row that no Black person would buy a car that had been previously owned by another Black person. Fast Eddie also believed that it was common knowledge that only white people put statues of St. Christopher on their dashboards, which is why we kept a big box of them in the store room back in our trailer where we kept supplies and all of the fascinating things we found left behind in the cars we bought.
When Eddie put the deuce-and-a-quarter into drive it jerked like a dead man hitting the end of the rope, which was a sign that the Chung Brothers would be doing some welding on the transmission before replacing the fluid with STP. But the brakes seemed to work without Eddie having to arch his back into the seat and press on the pedal with both of his feet, so I began to feel a bit more optimistic about the ride back.
We drove for a couple of miles and then when the engine had fully heated up we heard a rattle, a discrete little rattle that we didn’t like at all. But it stopped almost immediately and it was a few minutes later that the smoke started to billow out from under the hood. The smoke wasn’t white enough to be the radiator overheating and in any case it didn’t smell like the wet insides of Diver Dan’s rubber boots. It smelled like oil, which was a very bad sign indeed. Fast Eddie pulled over to a fire hydrant, popped the hood, and jumped out of the car. He was only out for a couple of minutes before he slammed the hood down and came back into the car.
“Freaking auction house. The oil cap is missing. Oil blew out all over the underside of the hood and it’s dripping back onto the engine and burning.”
“Can you stick something into the hole and plug it?”
“No. Put in a rag or something and it might catch on fire. Oil pressure looks okay. We’d just better get back as fast as we can.”
We didn’t really have that far to go and chances were that the oil wouldn’t entirely blow out by the time we got back. When we got to the city, we kept to what some people call the “boulevards” – the streets that were wider than the side streets and busy enough to have traffic lights, located a half mile between the main arterials. Eddie pressed it in his commando style, rolling through stop signs and running the lights whenever possible.
Then we ran a red light and a cop car appeared behind us like it had fallen out of the sky.
“Crap” said Fast Eddie. “He must of been hiding in the alley.”
Now Ratso would have jumped from the car before it had even stopped moving and run away. Zeus would have burst into tears and Blackie would have categorically denied everything including the fact that he was sitting there behind the wheel. But Fast Eddie was one to take it like a man. We pulled up into an empty space in front of a driveway and stopped. As the cop walked towards us through the smoke, Eddie rolled down the electric window.
“Hey, look who’s here!” said the cop. “I had a feeling when I saw a piece of crap deuce-and-a-quarter blow though that light looking like a burning steam boat that it might be my old pal Eddie.”
“Hiya Bill. Come on. That light wasn’t red. It was pink.”
The cop laughed. “Okay Eddie, I’ll let you off with a warning. The warning is that down the road there’s another patrol parked in the alley behind where the old Tip Top Tap used to be. Try not to run that light too.”
Fast Eddie didn’t run that light, of course. The rest of that day was so unremarkable that I don’t remember anything else about it. But I do remember that it was the first time I had ever heard the expression “pink light” and for some reason it stuck in my mind.
Over the years as I worked in lots of other places with lots of other people, and each of them, being human, were in their own ways as interesting as that motley crew that worked at the used car lot. I find that the pink light is useful in explaining the human condition. The pink light marks the intersection between the rules, their enforcement, and our own personal momentum. It’s where we express ourselves by bending things and it is the stage upon which we play out our individuality. Rules of course are indispensable, if only because they contain the sum of what we think we have learned in human history. But all rules are a bit artificial and one dimensional and are, in fact, a bit inhuman for this. This is why they need enforcement, both externally by authorities and internally by morals. But against rules and enforcement are the imperfect three dimensional human beings trying to assert their own individuality as they see it. I believe that this complex relationship can be caught in the difference between treating a person as you love them and actually just loving them. If one loves someone, one of course will also treat them as though they are loved. But treating someone as beloved lies in the world of rules whereas loving them lies somewhere else quite distant from the world of rules. Loving, even the imperfect sort of love that humans are capable of at their best, is so different from loving by the rules that we can only begin to capture it using the language of metaphysics.
The thing that makes Fast Eddie, George, Blackie, Zeus, Ratso, and the Chung Brothers so vivid and interesting to us is that they seemed to work and live every minute in the pink light, pushing up against the boundaries at all times. And as pathetic as some of them actually were, almost all of them would have considered themselves far more individualistic and free than people like us. But like any good businessman, Fast Eddie had carved out a space for himself in the free market using the resources, including the human resources, that he had available. Of course, his workers were using him too, since in capitalism, all things and all people are first and foremost capital. When people talk about human nature in capitalism and imply that capitalism expresses some sort of some sort of human desire to acquire things (if not be greedy) they are wrong. Human nature expresses itself in the tension between the rules and one’s expression of one’s individuality. Rules are always pushed and manipulated and this is how the rules change. We all live much of our lives in the pink light, no matter how rule abiding we like to claim to be. If I say that every place I have ever worked in capitalist society is like the used car lot, I am not saying that every person I have worked with was as corrupt as the people I knew on Cicero Avenue. (Although deep personal corruption is by no means a monopoly at these edges of capitalism.) But in each and every place I have worked, management and labor defined each other to one degree or another as resources and capital. No matter how much management invested in shows of sincerity or workers invested in shows of compliance, the focus was entirely on the game of appearing to love rather than on loving. And this is why capitalism, like any other set of rules, is so foreign to what religion is (or should be) about.
Labor Day 1/4
Tags: Labor Day