This morning brought me memories of my first car, a 1973 Fiat 124 Sport Spider. I had to start writing immediately, because that car…well, I’ll simply say that without that car, I’d have been utterly miserable. It brought me enormous joy and great happiness when everything else was rough and rocky. I drove it well past 100,000 miles, as far south as Key West, as far north as Livingston Manor, New York, and back and forth between many other points shy of those two.
The beautiful Spider never let me down. Even better than that, that car kept me up—’way up. In all the time that I had it, I never once thought I needed a bigger car or a faster car or a car with more creature comforts. The car was so good I was barely aware of what else I could have in my life or what might have been missing. I loved looking at it. I drove it onto quiet country lanes where I could swoon as I photographed it from all angles. I really was in love with it.
Time and miles wore on. The paint began to look patchy, thin, and dull. The color of the upholstery changed from tan to a very odd off-pink. The ragtop got ragged. I was never disappointed; I think lack of disappointment can be a sign of real love. In any case, purebred Italian cars ask for TLC. It was either love her, or the unthinkable. So, over time, I gave my sweet 124 everything to maintain our pride: a repaint, new upholstery, a bird’s eye maple dash,
a fancy radio, and a pair of bright, powerful quartz-iodine headlamps like her European cousins wore. She wore the best tires, Michelins, mounted on beautiful Italian Cromodora wheels. I gave her Bilstein shocks, which endowed her with a regal poise on all roads. I patched her rusty floorboards, kept her engine room spotlessly clean, and regularly changed the oil in her Aurelio Lampredi-designed twin-cam engine myself.
The 124 Spider design came from the storied, family-owned Italian design house, Pininfarina, designer and builder of generations of stunningly beautiful automobiles for illustrious marques like Ferrari, Cadillac, Alfa Romeo, Rolls-Royce, Isotta Fraschini, Hispano-Suiza, Lancia, and yes, even humble Fiat. Most of my favorite cars were designed by Pininfarina, whose designers achieved classic beauty without resorting to gimmickry or fads. Pininfarina’s men were artists indeed, accomplished masters of line and form.
Despite their well-known, typically Italian fragility and a heartbreaking tendency to rust—some say that in the silence of the night you can hear them rust—Fiat Spiders have become immortal. Today people take them in even as basket cases and restore them with tender loving care. They feel the 124’s rare Italian charm, a charm usually found only in Ferraris and more costly kin: impeccable Italian style, and in motion, an intimate connection among driver, car, and road. The 124 hasn’t the Ferrari’s horsepower and speed, but the Fiat is attainable by mere mortals. You cannot buy a similar car new today, not one with the Italian breeding that created what the 124 was.
In those early days when I was really car-crazy, my two high school friends and I would go on about cars every time we met, debating the functional merits of Mercedes versus the sporting attributes of BMWs. We saw the most illustrious cars as works of art, refined manifestations of man’s highest intelligence. And we always dreamt out loud about which one we’d buy—if only, of course, we had that kind of dough.
For many years, I was always part of a trio, which means I had exactly two close friends. Who they were was dependent on the school I attended: with each new school came an entirely new student population and a new pair of friends. I didn’t play in large social circles. I didn’t play football or basketball. I didn’t play with beer or drugs. Sex would wait for quite a while. My road was not the familiar, well-traveled one, and it was not necessarily smoother for that.
When I was five, my family went to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. One day we were on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, a prime shopping area of the town, lined with expensive shops. One of those expensive shops was a camera store, in whose window
sat a Leica, among other cameras. Leicas are from Germany. They cost a bundle. Even then Leicas cost a bundle. Years later, my mother told me that I pointed to that Leica and told my parents I wanted it. They did not indulge me. I wouldn’t stop screaming until…well, I don’t know how that scene ended. I do know that my folks allowed me to come home with them. Years later, despite the crushing emotional stress of being denied that Leica, I got into photography, as many boys from Jewish families seem to do. Maybe it’s because they get cameras as Bar Mitzvah gifts. Photography infects Gentiles, too, though they do not become bar mitzvah and have only birthdays and Christmas to receive gifts. This point is completely arguable. Some of my best friends have been Gentile photographers.
I spent a few years sequestered safely behind my camera,
trying to understand life through the charming gadgetry of camera gear and the medium of silver halide film, which I learned to process in my own darkroom. I was mesmerized by the chemical magic that took place in the darkroom. There could be a surprise—and perhaps even a prize—in every step. Every roll of film I developed could harbor an interesting slice of reality. Every time I developed a print, placing the exposed photo paper in a tray of developer, I’d watch an image appear, slowly at first, and then faster, faster, and faster, until it became fully developed. That was magic, nearly every time.
I was paid for some of my work. I garnered an award for it here and there. Somehow—just how I can’t recall—my friend Scott Turner and I were hired to shoot the National Battle of the Bands when it took place at Dorton Arena in Raleigh, NC. For days we worked feverishly in my darkroom, which was in the little pump house behind my parents’ house. We turned out a ton of good work and received plenty of orders for photos. I shot weddings for friends and friends of friends. Word just got around that this guy would shoot your show for a reasonable sum and it would be good, too, even if it was in black and white—much to the consternation of one young bride. She assumed I’d shoot color and I assumed she knew I worked in black and white. It was a classic case of nobody talking to anybody about what mattered. Still and all, I almost always had a fine time nosing into people’s lives through my lenses, and they seemed to enjoy it, too.
A short while later, I stepped with some trepidation into university life at UNC-Chapel Hill. Why I chose that school I still don’t know. The campus felt huge, with students running around everywhere on lovingly maintained brick walkways. There was always a large crew of workers somewhere on that campus, pulling bricks up, turning them over, and setting them back in place. I’ll bet UNC spent as much on all those bricks as it did on professors’ salaries.
My freshman year was a minor disaster. Without knowing exactly why—except that the university had this minor detail called a “science requirement”, which everyone had to fulfill—I took a course in calculus. And I flunked it. I took many other courses that seemed to have nothing to do with anything at all. Professors droned on without giving a single reason why. I was lost. I didn’t know why I was there. My family assumed I’d go to college; so did I. The man who was meant to be my advisor didn’t advise me, not much. He’d greet me smilingly, ask me how I was doing, smile at my response, and then he’d push the “NEXT” button. You’re on your own in this life, old boy. That was his message. I lived that way, but not because of him. It was my nature.
Even on its rare good days, the food on campus was revolting. On a wall inside a bathroom someone had scrawled, “Flush twice. It’s a long way to the Pine Room.” I decided to start cooking my own. I’d bike to the grocery store, return with a tasty haul, and stick it in the fridge in the dorm’s central hub. By dinner time, when I returned to retrieve my goodies for cooking, someone had already helped themselves. I lived in the Academic Residence Area, or ARA. of Morrison Dorm, where the students were said to be more inclined to academics than parties. The ARA became known for the epicurean delights in its fridge— frozen fish sticks and stuff like that—probably because of me.
During the next academic year, magic came my way again, rescuing this lost sailor for a time.
First, this word about a word: I dislike the word “sophomore.” It sounds absurdly porous, soggy, and spongy. But in that soggy year of my generally disastrous college career, real magic flourished. I was wandering around the drop-add hall, the place where you drop the dud courses and pick up some that will turn you on and give you a thrill. I had zero idea what to study, and I said so out loud. A girl within earshot immediately turned my way and said, “Why don’t you take Italian?”
She pushed the right button. I’d already been twice to Italy, in 1970 and in 1972, as part of a high school art class trip. I loved Italy. I wonder now why it didn’t occur to me then to learn Italian, which makes me very grateful for that girl at drop-add. She was obviously one of my angels, a protector of the guy who wanders aimlessly through life. Those mornings in Rome felt pretty electric as I walked alone into Centro Storico from Domus Pacis, our hostel on the outskirts. I felt exceedingly, happy, excited, and—strangely enough for a guy who had less than zero confidence—completely comfortable in Italy. Never did I feel alone by myself in Rome, where there was a wealth to discover in every moment. I was the lone photographer among a group of visual artists. I had a huge leather camera case to carry my Nikons and lenses around the city.
I loved the morning walk into the center city as tiny Fiats, Fiats far too small to swim across the sea to our American shores, swarmed around me, with crazy Italian drivers inside them. Note the simplicity of the cars. Despite their numbers, these simple Italian cars did not upstage the architectural treasures of Rome the way large flashy American cars would.
I loved the Italians and mostly they loved me. I say mostly because this man,
at Rome’s nearly endless Sunday morning flea market, picked up a shoe and shook it menacingly at me moments after I shot him there at his stand. This was 1970, and Italy was not all that far removed from the devastation from World War II. His frustration was obvious. Perhaps Italy’s post-war “il miracolo economico” missed him. Or maybe he engineered his own frustration by stubbornly refusing to add more color to his inventory.
You can count on young Italians for fun. These three were on a bus.
At a market on a side street, beautiful children were everywhere.
Below, a young Roman beauty. I wonder who she has become.
I have to title this one “Woody Allen’s Roman Brood.”
These youngsters were taking a break outside the Vatican.
I cried when I saw the Roman Forum (below) for the first time. I don’t know exactly why, except that I must have been there ‘way back. Reincarnation is real.
The air within the Colosseum, below, might feel more than a thousand years old. You should go there to verify that yourself.
The Italian class met five days every week that year, for several hours each day, led by a genuine Italian man, Alessandro di Silvio and his American wife Pat. The first semester was a real challenge. I earned a “C”. The second semester was much easier. I had a visceral thrill when il Professore told me how much I’d improved. He awarded me a “B” for the term. I awarded him and his moglie a box set of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerti Grossi LPs. That class gave me momentum enough to catapult me onto the Dean’s list, and that’s how I landed the beautiful Fiat Spider. My folks were very proud of me. My father never finished college, and my mother didn’t get to go at all. Little did they know that my “soft-more” year would be the apex of my college career. My next two years there were a veritable wasteland.
During the spring after I left UNC, I went through a period of intense depression. My roommate, someone I admired deeply, finished his degree and left town. Loneliness set in, and my reluctance to let anyone get close to me led to hurt and worry. I kept it all inside. I didn’t have a clue about my sexuality and feared that I was gay. But I stuffed it all down, and all of it just came back up: I became too anxious to engage with life. Gradually, as the weather grew warmer, my depression began to lift. Magic came calling once again.
One day a neighbor approached me. He said, “Russ, let’s go to dinner tonight. Afterwards, we’ll go to an introductory lecture on Transcendental Meditation. Let me make you an offer. If you start TM and don’t like it, I’ll pay for it.” That intrigued me. I’d already had scores of disappointments, but this time I felt some hope. The lecture that evening was a hit. The man who gave it was effervescent, energetic, expressive—everything I was not. I knew that TM would help. I had no doubt. That was significant, because doubt was my main game plan. Only the Fiat and my job at a bicycle shop kept my head above water.
The next week I went to Schwinn Bicycle Company’s service school and became a factory-trained Schwinn mechanic. At the time I worked for The Clean Machine bicycle shop in Carrboro, NC, and loved every minute I spent there. On Saturday of the following week, I learned to practice TM. At a house on Rosemary Street that served as the TM Center in Chapel Hill, I gave my TM instructor—someone I did not know—more money than I made in a week. Immediately after handing over the dough, I thought, “It’s too late. He’s got your money now.” He and I climbed the stairs and entered a room which had a strong scent of incense. We took our seats. As he began the process of instruction, I nearly started to laugh. I thought to myself, “What the hell is this?” Moments later some reverence, some respect came over me, and I had the thought “at least let him get something out of this.”
My instructor showed me how to practice Transcendental Meditation—the instruction is always personal and private—and after he finished, he asked me to meditate on my own for a while. At that point, I’d have done anything reasonable he’d have asked of me. I had not, as you might think, become suggestible and indiscriminate. What I had become was…the easiest way to express it is that the noise in my head, the tension I had carried for so many years just vanished, replaced by an abstract happiness, an easiness I could never have imagined.
After TM instruction, I pedaled back to The Clean Machine feeling very soft and quiet, with an easy, settled happiness that enveloped me like a soft cashmere blanket. I smiled from the inside out. This wasn’t a shout-it-from-the-rooftop experience. I’d never felt anything like it. I was suffused with a simple, self-contained bliss; that was a word formerly beyond my ken. This newfound bliss existed without reference to any outside object. It was independent of everything outside me. In that one afternoon, the feeling that college courses repeatedly failed to deliver finally came to me.
That day, I learned two crucial things in addition to the TM technique: one, that for the prior 22 years or so, I had carried a debilitating amount of tension. The other was that I also carried a potent inner source of happiness. For three days after learning TM, I was untouchably happy, on Cloud 9, as I rode around town on my bike. Huge burdens had fallen off me; a great transformation had begun. As the intensity of the experience gradually leveled off, the value of TM became obvious to me.
I made up my mind to become a teacher of the practice.
I stuck with my job at The Clean Machine, stuck close to the teachers at the TM Center, stuck with my twice-daily TM practice. I drove the Fiat to weekend TM retreats to deepen my understanding and experience of TM. And I stuck with my desire to become a TM teacher. I had not until this point found anything as compelling as this practice of TM. And I was certainly not a disciplined person, as my college career shows. Or perhaps it reveals something else: that the popular, more conventional route was not for me. It was all simply meant to be, to rescue me from the certain misery that would have ensued had I not learned that spiritual technique.
This last section has no photographs to lighten it up. My words took a serious turn. I suppose they had to. I even wondered why I was writing about that period of my life. There were times when I felt very dismal, very dark. There were times when I considered killing myself.
In writing these words, I’m certainly not trying to court sympathy. I felt the need to write them, mostly for myself, of course. That’s why we do anything. Even what looks altruistic, we do for ourselves, because our own life is what matters most. Your life is your platform, your basis, and every damned thing that you do, every thought that you think, is based only there, on what’s inside you, what you eat, who you’re with, and all that goes into creating your life. So I write also in the hope that getting my experience out there might help someone else who struggles.
It has been difficult for me to reconcile myself to the truth that life entails some struggle. There are no guarantees. There is no perfection. There is only the greatness of your own spirit, the power of your own love, and your willingness to let yourself shine, all those torpedoes be damned. I’ve been very lucky in some ways, and in others, well, as long as I’m alive, there’s hope.
Now, though, it’s time again for something new. The happy memories are all well and good, but when they start coming in strongly and you find yourself longing for those good ole days, something’s afoot.
PS: I have to say thank you to the people who were there at those critical moments I mentioned in this story. I’m not always so good in the art of friendship. I either fall in love with people or I simply stand alone, all wrapped up in my own life, a solitary sailor. So I must say a large, hearty thank you to the very kind-hearted Vic Schoenbach, who took me to supper that night; to the ever-effervescent Stuart Baesel, who gave that sparkling TM intro after supper; to Phil Scott, that giant of a man who taught me the TM technique; to the great bicycle magician Chuck Lewis, who kept me happily employed at his brainchild, The Clean Machine; to the gentle artist Wendy Baesel, without whose support I might not have remained steadfast with my practice during that critical first year; and above all, to the founder of the TM technique, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who caused all of us to be brought together under that vast umbrella of his powerful knowledge of life.