“They Just Don’t Park ’em Like They Used To.”
In the bizarre, make-believe world of the Alaska Capitol, Senator Tim Kelly was a stand-out character, and, considering the Alaska Legislature, that was certainly a crowd it was a good idea to stand out of. And away from as well.
But it was Kelly’s personality that made him a standout. Single, good-looking, in his early forties, he looked as if he would be more comfortable in a corporate boardroom than as the chairman of a legislative committee. Once he understood where his bread was buttered he was decisive and incisive. Other than that, he had no personal agenda so he was malleable. Re-election being more important than the quest for truth, justice and the American way, he was an easy vote to buy, a difficult person to dislike and a great conversationalist when he was sober.
But he was a model legislator. He would degrade himself just enough to get his bills passed and drink just enough to vote properly and still forget that he had greasy hands. He was the Midas of business disaster in the real world and was thus lived on his meager salary of $20,000 a year, and $l25 a day per diem when in Juneau.
Because $20,000 a year doesn’t buy very much in Alaska, Kelly learned to cut personal, fiscal corners to make ends meet. One of the ways he would save money was by driving cars that were junkers. He would buy the cheapest car he could find, drive it until it exploded on some remote byway and abandon the vehicle. Then he would find another junker and begin the process over again. For several years he had two cars, one in Juneau and the other in Anchorage. During the legislative session he would drive his “Juneau Car,” a $500 Thing, a Volkswagen with a “Juneau body” so rusted he had to keep the spare tire in the back seat because the trunk was no more.
Since the car lacked both brakes and reverse, Kelly had problems parking. To get out of his parking space at the capitol garage, for instance, he had to push the car by hand. But no matter how slowly he entered his stall, he would hit the wall at the end. For years there was a deep pit in the wall where the front of his car kept slamming to a stop.
That car was as legendary as Kelly. One evening he arrived at a party late and was forced to park his car on a hill next to a neighbor’s driveway. Actually he was blocking the driveway by a good three feet but this was Juneau and usually no one cared. He parked the car facing uphill, naturally, expecting that when he left the gathering he would clamber aboard, rev the engine to the red line, pop the clutch and burn rubber up the hill. Heading down the hill without brakes was not a good idea. There were only two things at the bottom of the incline: four lanes of freeway and the Juneau harbor.
Halfway through the party, Kelly and a collection of lobbyists and legislators were standing in the living room at the picture window when they saw Kelly’s car roll down the hill, backwards, with a man desperately pumping the brakes that didn’t exist. The neighbor in front of whose driveway Kelly had parked had come home and found the car blocking his driveway. This was Juneau and in Juneau, you didn’t go looking for the owner of a car to roll it back three feet. You just got in the car and did it yourself. No one locked their car in this town and many car owners even left their keys in the ignition.
So the neighbor got into the Volkswagen, released the brake and let it roll out of the driveway. Three feet later he hit the brakes. Alas, there were there were no brakes to hit. Worse yet, the car had an automatic lock on the steering column. When the key was out of the ignition, the wheel locked in place. Thus the neighbor found himself in a dilapidated hulk of a car rolling backwards down a steep hill, picking up speed, with no brakes and the steering wheel locked in place.
With much screaming, the neighbor made it all the way down to the bottom of the hill where, mercifully, the traffic light was green. The car made it through the intersection, across four lanes of traffic and into a cyclone fence. The Volkswagen ended up gently bouncing on a mat of fence suspended over the Juneau harbor, in what would have been a fitting finale of a Walt Disney chase scene. The very rattled neighbor was not, as they say, a happy camper.
Kelly’s legacy with cars, as everyone around the Capitol knew, was both long and hilarious. In Anchorage, he had a badly beaten, very old, quite undependable sedan with more than 150,000 miles to its credit. It was one of those cars where the owner would normally have a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For.” Kelly’s car had had such a sticker but it had fallen off with the bumper 20,000 miles earlier.
The spring after the incident of the rolling Volkswagen, about mid-March, one of his aides was assigned to make a trip to Anchorage. As a personal favor, Kelly asked her to get his car out of long-term parking at the airport and drive it to a friend’s house. “It will save you money on a car rental,” Kelly assured her. “I’ll get my car out of the long-term lot and I’ll pay you back for parking.”
The aide said “Yes” without thinking about what she was being asked to do. That was two mistakes in a row: first for saying yes and second for not thinking about it. Had she been thinking she would have realized that this clunker had been sitting in an open parking lot during an Alaskan winter since at least Christmas of the previous year.
But she didn’t think about it.
She just got off the plane in Anchorage and walked out to the long-term parking. After some searching she found the car with three feet of snow on the roof, hood and trunk. It took her half an hour to dig the car out of the snow and $30 for a jump to get it started. Then she had to wait for almost an hour before the car heated up enough to melt the inch of frost off the windshield. Slowly edging the car out of the parking space, it groaned and whined all the way to checkout gate.
At the pay booth, she got a shock. The attendant looked at her, the car and then the ticket and said “$875.”
“$875. The car’s been here since November.”
“This car’s not worth $875!”
“I can’t help you. It’s $875.”
Cursing Kelly, she wrote out a check.
“I’m sorry,” said the attendant apologetically. “This is a Juneau check. I can’t accept an out-of-town check.”
“How about a credit card?”
“No. A local check or cash.”
So the aide had to park the car — leaving it running — walk half a mile back to the airport where she cashed her check at the walk-in bank — there were no ATMs then — and then walk all the way back across the airport to the long-term parking.
“Here’s your %$#@*&% money.”
“Thank you, Miss. And have a nice day.”
Cursing Kelly in the vilest terms she could mouth, she eased the junker out of the lot and onto the frontage road. At that time there was a series of bumps along the frontage road and when she dipped into the first one, she heard a strange noise from the trunk. It sounded like bells, or more accurately, a chorus of chimes. Pulling the car over the side of the road, she opened the trunk with a screwdriver — just the way Senator Kelly did — and there, complete with the ownership stickers, was Senator Tim Kelly’s previous election’s entire phone bank. Kelly had pulled them out of his campaign headquarters wall and tossed them in his trunk on his way to long term parking — all 24 phones that had yet to be returned to the office that had given him the back room for his phone bank. Again cursing Kelly, she got back in the car and drove away.
But the worst was yet to come.
Just as the car eased over a set of railroad ties, it died. It didn’t die in the vernacular of the road in the sense that the engine quit. It died as in dead. The car was dead as in expired, terminal. It was like a Democratic bill in a Republican Senate.
Worse, the engine expired with the car half on and half off the railroad tracks. The good news was that these tracks had not been used in more than five years. The bad news was that the car blocked all traffic from behind and, considering that the frontage road was the only way into and out of the airport at that time, there was quite a bit of traffic blocked. Honking and cursing at that “*&^%$#@ woman driver,” the cars swerved around her, the drivers shaking their fists in her direction. Finally a semi-truck stopped long enough to push the car onto the shoulder and into three feet of snow covering a glaze of ice.
Then the car slid into a ditch.
With her suitcase in hand and murder in her heart, the aide hiked across an open field dressed in city clothes through snow up to her knees where she placed a collect call to Senator Kelly and told him in no uncertain terms what he could do with his car, his job, his family jewels and other parts of his anatomy.
Kelly tried to calm her down, a valiant but vain effort, and told her not to worry — which she wasn’t going to anyway — and take a week off with pay.
That calmed her down slightly.
She remained calm as he told her that he was going to call a tow truck and would she at least wait until it got there?
Yes, she said, she would do that.
“And,” he said, “Could you pay for the tow with your credit card?”
[This story comes from Steve Levi’s WELCOME TO ALASKA, NOW GO HOME! available on Kindle.]