Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Passing Muster

We may call this the United States, but one thing these states are not united about is vehicle inspection.

Here in suburban Atlanta, a yearly emission inspection is all we need in order to be able to drive a car, truck, SUV, crossover, or minivan.  The emission inspection is due before one's birthday, which makes it easy to remember.  Once a year, we take each vehicle to any of about a thousand tiny emission checking stations, where we pay up to $25 (it's almost always $25, except for my friend Jean's $20 location, which she claims is "in the 'hood") for our inspections.

The minimal inspections that we have here are fairly methodical and predictable.  The inspector connects the emission check computer to the vehicle's on-board computer to get a direct reading.  For older vehicles, a "sniffer" device is inserted into the car's exhaust and the tires are run on a roller mechanism to achieve enough RPM's for the emission computer to register the emission levels.  An example of the latter can be seen in the picture above.  This is all very mystical, and when it is finished, the inspector hands you a sheet of paper indicating whether your car passed, and that's it.  The brakes could be failing, or you might not even have any working headlights, but if the emission check goes OK, you're good to go.

The other day, I was thinking back fondly on the vehicle inspections of my youth.  In the 1960's, Memphis required vehicle inspections several times a year.  Going to the inspection station was always something of an adventure, because there was no certainty, even with all visible parts functioning, that your car would pass.   The inspection station itself was a cavernous old building which reminded me of a retrofitted airplane hangar.  There were half a dozen or so lanes in which cars lined up, and often the place was packed, especially as the inspection deadlines drew near.  I remember heading out sometimes after dinner and making a night of it in Midtown at the inspection station...ah, the simplicity of youth.

The Memphis inspection was designed to ensure that a car was road worthy: the headlights were checked to make sure they were aimed properly, the steering was checked, the windshield wipers were inspected for signs of wear, and all the vehicle parking, brake and turn signal lights were checked as well.  My favorite part of the inspection was the brake meter, which was an adventure unto itself.  The idea was to accelerate for a short distance, then brake as hard as you could to see how well the brakes stopped the car.  The brake testing machine consisted of sensor plates tied to fluid-filled meters that shot up a wickedly red viscous liquid, and the degree to which the fluid would rise would depend on how effectively your car braked.  My dad said that when he was younger, he and his friends would try to hit the brakes hard enough to max out the fluid.  He said that some of it even escaped on occasion, although I'm pretty sure he was making that part up.

Once you passed the inspection, assuming that you indeed passed, the inspectors would apply a new inspection sticker to the lower right side of the vehicle window.  This task had to be performed with a certain orderliness.  First, the old sticker would have to be scraped off with a razor blade, then the window cleaned of any remaining adhesive (lazier station employees would sometimes skip this part), then a new sticker would be applied.  Once the new sticker was in place, you would feel totally legitimate driving said vehicle.  Nothing could stop you.

It's been many years since I've lived in Memphis, and I see from rambling about online that there is a new inspection station (see photo at right).  Clearly, this new station looks to be a thing of beauty.  But I wonder if the brake meter is still there, and if the guy walks out to tell you how out of line your headlights are.  I'm thinking that the whole thing is almost certainly far more automated these days, but at any rate, it is a nice looking building.

Now, all this inspection business may have seemed back in the 60's and 70's to be a bit extreme, but consider the alternative nature of inspections in Chicago during that same period.  When I lived in Chicago, you could basically drive anything from a Soap Box Derby car to a saltine cracker box, as long as it had four wheels.  I remember these antigoglin cars rolling down the road, sitting at an angle, and wondering how in the world they passed inspection.  In Chicago, it was all about buying the "city sticker", which essentially gave you license to drive your vehicle through the ice and snow, regardless of the percentage of Bondo and duct tape.  But on one occasion, even I violated the Chicago rules.  Let me explain.

It was a leisurely Sunday afternoon in 1980, and my wife and I were driving our 1970 two-tone Chevy Nova north on Sheridan Road, through the tony North Shore community of Kenilworth, on a cold winter's day.  (All the winter days in Chicago are cold, so that is a rhetorical statement if I've ever heard one.)  The Nova had belonged to my dad in Memphis, and he'd always taken good care of it there, but I recently had inherited it and moved it to Chicago.  Several weeks prior to the said Kenilworth sojourn, I had been in a minor collision where I'd been hit from behind, but I had since affixed the license plate to the its bracket on the rear fuel door with a piece of string, so it wasn't going anywhere.

Anyway, there we were, motoring along through the slushy roads at about 25 miles per hour.  I looked in the rear view mirror and spotted a police cruiser following me, lights flashing to beat the band.  I double-checked the speedometer to make sure I hadn't been speeding, but when the officer approached the car, he simply said, "Sir, I'd like to inform you that your license plate is not properly affixed to your vehicle.  You need to get it fixed as soon as you can."  And that was it...no ticket, just a gentle reminder that I had strayed over the line of Illinois vehicle propriety.  Of course, it was true that the slush had discolored the plate slightly.

Having been moved to Chicago, the Nova had basically taken on a new life, where inspection became a relative term.  I sold it to a fellow some years later for $400, and he tried to sell me cocaine at the same time.  I refused, of course, thinking that none of this would have happened had I kept the car safely in Memphis, where every few months, it could visit the inspection station to get its shiny new sticker and a little pat on the back for having all its lights in order.

So, happy motoring, and good luck with your next inspection, in whatever form it takes.  I have confidence that your car will pass...I think.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fish Fry

Maybe it's some sort of great Southern family tradition, I don't know. But it seems that since I could remember, my great Aunt Mary and Grandma hosted a sort of joint gathering known only to us as 'The Fish Fry'. It always seemed that the event was held when the weather was nothing less than perfect -- a cool, dry afternoon at their charming old bungalow, which was literally steps away from Overton Park in midtown Memphis.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Clay sold real estate for a living, and their work schedule was such that they could afford frequent weekend trips to Florida and points in between, where they would catch the fish themselves.  So the fish they cooked up at our dinners was no ordinary store-bought catfish -- it was always fresh, and you knew where it had been.

Aunt Mary always used the same ancient electric deep fryer. For some years, I had no fondness for catfish and was content to gorge myself on hush puppies. I have eaten hush puppies from the Tennessee River to Florida, but I have never had any quite as good as the ones Aunt Mary and Grandma prepared in that fryer. The cornmeal was mixed with the grated onions in the most precise configuration, so that the taste fairly leapt off the plate and into my mouth. I simply couldn't get enough of them and would eat far more than I should have. I was young and skinny, so calories and carbs didn't matter. Honestly, I could eat hush puppies (and still can) with the best of them.

The fish fryer generally sat out on the screened back porch, and the smell would waft throughout the neighborhood. We would set up picnic tables in the back yard and feast all afternoon and into the evening, downing catfish, corn on the cob, token green vegetables, fried chicken, and gallons of iced tea. And then there was dessert, at which Grandma and Aunt Mary excelled. "You don't want that mix cake, honey. This is real chocolate cake," Grandma would say. The cakes were typically either dark chocolate, milk chocolate, German chocolate, or coconut. The grownups would always have coffee, and I'd get (more) iced tea. The feast just went on and on.

After the dinner dishes had been moved off to the kitchen, we would make short work of the cleanup. I would help clear the table and sometimes dry the dishes, then head off to the huge living room, where my Uncle Clay would be ensconced with some literary classic which he would encourage me to read. I remember that I first became interested in Steinbeck after a fish fry. My uncle and I would discuss books we both had read and what we thought of them. What music was to my mother, good literature was to my Uncle Clay. He was quite the eccentric, but I liked him very much.

And so the years passed, with my eventual departure from Memphis to attend college in Chicago. It seems that we had a few more fish fries when I returned home on breaks, but ill health started to catch up with my older relatives, and the gatherings became fewer and farther between. But I just know that wherever Aunt Mary, Uncle Clay, Grandma, and Mom and Dad are now, they are enjoying catfish, fried in that heavenly batter, with unlimited glasses of iced tea and cakes that simply cannot be contained by any cardboard box.