Engineering the Unexpected #1: It Isn’t as Easy as in the Movies

It is only recently – as in the past month or so – that I realized something about my nature. I’m happiest when I’m introducing unpredictability in to my life. I love surprises and the unexpected. I like doing things that might fail but might also take us on crazy quests that make for great stories later. For the next little while I’ll be talking about those times when I have done that.

I am only a little ashamed to admit that one of the most influential movies in my life was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I remember watching it in my room at home and being blown away. You didn’t have to live the same predictable day every day. You could break the script and do something interesting. You could drive to the city and have an amazing day and do things you wouldn’t normally do. You might have to lie to do it but that’s OK because it’s all in the name of fun.

About the same time I remember watching After Hours. This was also an influential movie for me as well. In it, the main character, played by Griffin Dunne, meets someone at a restaurant and, attracted to her finds a way to meet her later that night in lower Manhattan. The movie follows him through a series of crazy events, some likely terrifying for him that never would have happened had he just gone home, heated up a Lean Cuisine and went to bed at 10:00 PM.

I knew, at 16, I was destined to not be the guy who heated up a TV dinner and went to bed early. I would do exciting things. I would get in to unexpected situations. I was completely obsessed with Boston at the time and knew that someday I would live in a high rise apartment there and have exciting adventures every night with interesting people.  And one day, I decided that that Boston adventure would start early. And so, one summer morning in 1987, I went to my parents and said: “Me and my friend, G, are going to W. Lebanon (20 miles away) to see a movie this afternoon. We will likely see a second one too so we’ll be gone most of the day.”  Then I got in my 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air – it looked like this:


Well, maybe a little more beat up. But certainly this big.  Really wide, and almost 18 feet long. No power steering, just a giant steering wheel and something of a tank. I had once sideswiped a bridge with it with zero damage. But don’t think for a minute that made this car safe. This was a deathtrap. No headrests on the front, only lap belts – and only in the front, and a solid steel dashboard.

I had no car stereo so I tossed my trusty boom box in the back seat:

D8443It took six D-cell batteries so I always had several spent batteries rolling around the floor. There was also a small “suitcase” of cassette tapes in the back as well. In heavy rotation in those days were the Art of Noise, Yello, The English Beat, and Stewart Copeland’s “The Rhythmatist” album.

I headed over to my friend, G’s house and went to his room and told him my plan. It took a little bit of convincing. He was not a city guy. I think cities made him feel nervous and unsafe. But eventually he came around to the idea. But before he left he grabbed a small “butterfly knife” from his room to protect himself. (Wow, he wasn’t lying about being scared!)

Off we went, on the two and a half hour drive to the great big city.  One moment of the trip comes to mind. We’re finally in northern Massachusetts on I-93. About 12 lanes of traffic. It’s hot so the windows are all open, and because this car is so old the back seat upholstery is falling apart and tiny bits of fluffy seat stuffing are circulating throughout the car. Every now and again I wipe one from my eye.  And this is playing:

As someone who drove mostly on back roads and empty interstates 12 lanes of traffic was a new experience for me. But there were two of us so I’d get help to see if I had room to change lanes.  And eventually the traffic slowed enough that it was less hectic, but more aggressive.  Needless to say I was ready to get rid of the car and take transit. (Even then I wasn’t a fan of cars when transit was available). We drove around Cambridge looking for a place to park and finally found a parking lot at the Lechmere store – right next to Lechmere station.  We locked up and explored the city.

I did some shopping at Filene’s Basement to get some clothes that I figured weren’t available locally. We also went over to Strawberries Records – a mecca for me on every school trip. They had so many bands I’d never heard of – and bands I had heard of they had albums that could only be special ordered back home.  They also had a few other things that 16 year old me thought was extremely cool: actual elevator operators (usually tattooed, pierced, and fully decked out in 80’s punk regalia), and this bizarre theft protection system for cassettes.  All of the cassettes were behind Plexiglas windows with small hand holes. If you wanted a tape you would reach through a hole, grab the one you wanted and drop it. It would fall on a tiny conveyor belt at the bottom and make its way to the cash register at the front.

We went all over the city but then it was time to leave.  In fact, not only was it time to leave – it was well past it. We had stayed out long after my parents were expecting me. Once we got out of the city where city noise would give us away on the pay phone I’d call my parents and let them know we were running late.

G got nervous around North Station and decided he would feel more comfortable if we took a cab back to the car. We hailed one and took it there. And then we realized we didn’t know how to get out of the city. Fortunately, the cab driver was happy to show us for a few extra bucks and we paid him.

We got in the car and started it up and G said “Oh no! He’s leaving!” The cab driver was tearing out of the parking lot at great speed – and our way out of the city was running away with him. I cranked the wheel to the left, put the car in reverse, looked behind me and hit the gas. I didn’t get far, though, as I felt a bump and the car stopped, clearly up against something substantial.

In fact, it was up against this:


Yes, a 1987 (brand new, then), Porsche 944.  The entire rear quarter panel was crumpled.

G and I looked at each other and then at the cab who was now at the next red light about to completely leave us behind.  The moment stretched forever.

And then I straightened the car out and followed the cab.  The cab driver showed us the way out of town and we found ourselves on the interstate – now horrified at what we (OK, I) had done.  And just as Dr. Johnny Fever started worrying about the phone cops after destroying a phone, I was now convinced that there was literally an all points bulletin out telling not just Boston police but all of the police in the state to be on the lookout for people with my description.  I still had to call my parents, but I’d watched enough TV to know that I had to get myself across the state line before I could stop so that I was well out of the reach of the Massachusetts state police. Any stops would bring an officer like Mark Wahlberg in The Departed to my window and it would all be over.

We stopped at the New Hampshire welcome center and called my parents so they knew we were late. Then to be safe I checked the bumper and made sure to get the small bit of grey paint off the chrome (so we couldn’t be traced!) and headed home.

When I got home, my honesty got the best of me – or maybe the Filene’s bags gave me away but I told my parents about our deception. But not about the Porsche. They were upset for a while but they got over it surprisingly quickly.

After a few days I’d forgotten about the whole event and my memory was only of a great trip to the city.  On the next Saturday I went to the post office to check our mail.  And there it was: a message addressed to my dad from the Boston Police Department.

As it turned out someone had taken down my plate number (Even then I recognized that was the right thing to do – and that I should have stopped but the fleeing cab was where my focus was) and they merely wanted us to come down and fill out an accident report. I got off really easy. My dad was unhappy and this time I was punished for it.

This was one of the first experiences I had with “Engineering my life to encourage the unexpected.” I learned only one lesson from the experience, though, and that was that I really enjoyed getting myself out of the daily routine and that what I saw in the movies really was as fun as it looked.  But it was another 4 years before I learned that there needed to be some parameters I needed to consider to keep myself and others safe while still having fun.  The good news is that while it took me four years to learn those lessons, you won’t have to wait that long. The bad news is that you will have to wait for another entry before you find out…

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