After I hauled all my stuff 2,500 miles in the Impala and settled in Georgia, it was time for me to go job-hunting. After a few boring office-temp jobs, I spotted an ad that got my attention: Copywriter needed to write catalogs for large auto-parts company. Must know classic American cars. Within minutes of showing up for my interview at Year One, I had my first full-time writing job… and a nickname inspired by my car: Mad Max.
The Impala didn’t exactly fit seamlessly into its new neighborhood in Decatur, which was populated mostly by fairly refined CDC and Emory University employees, but it was very well-suited for trips to nearby hipster-centric Little Five Points and jaunts to Deliverance country in the northern part of the state. I got used to the lack of air conditioning in the car, which never overheated even in stop-and-go traffic during triple-digit heat waves.
The beer-can-and-JB-Weld patch I’d put in the corner of the rear window finally solved the car’s chronic rain-leakage problem.
In addition to the heat, I also had to get used to Georgia-style rain. In California, it only rains in the winter and you get plenty of warning when rain is coming. That means you can count on not getting soaked when you start an outdoor wrenching project. It doesn’t work like that in the South; I had to replace a water pump in the parking lot one sunny afternoon, got halfway through, and then an Old Testament-grade thundershower got me. Here I am test-driving the car while filthy and soaked.
It got a lot easier to fix up my car once I started working for the Year One Graphics Department, since my coworkers were a bunch of super-obsessed Detroit-iron fanatics and I could get just about any ’65 Impala part (not to mention tools and Rat Fink T-shirts) on my employee discount. The parking lot was always full of wild, daily-driven drag-race cars, hooptied-out parts cars, and everything in between. Normal people don’t drive, say, 12-second Buick Skylarks or primered-out Slant Six Coronet 440s to work, but these were not normal people. The Graphics Department, which created all the various YO catalogs and publications, was home to a half-dozen or so designers, photographers, and writers. Hardcore Southern gearheads, every one, and probably the sharpest, funniest group of coworkers I’ve ever had. Everyone had a Graphics Dude nickname; the tall skinny writer was Ichabod, the black-bearded designer was Chong… and it took only one glance at my Impala for them to assign my name: Mad Max, or just Max for short. To this day, my former Year One coworkers (including South Carolina LeMons hero Walker Canada) all call me Max.
At that time, the company would put out a fat glossy-covered catalog for each line of GM or Chrysler car every six months or so, and as new parts came in they’d be added to the “New Products” catalog, which would be shipped to customers as an addendum to the big book. Eventually, the contents of the New Products catalogs would be added to the big catalog… but they’d been short a writer for many months and the backlog of un-catalogued parts was enormous. My job was to grab a new part, find the photograph of it, write up a description that combined useful specs and information with a bit of humorous ad copy, and incorporate the whole mess into the catalog layout. Repeat. Endlessly.
The three writers were seen as being even weirder than the rest of the Graphics Department crew, so we had our own corner of the office. Black-light posters, thrift-store lamps… and, if you look closely at this photo of my desk, you’ll see the drawer full of 8-track tapes. Yes, we had an 8-track-only music policy, which kept us all hitting the thrift stores in search of new tapes; while I never was able to get the Holy Grail of 8-tracks (the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks”), I did manage to find some good Shocking Blue tapes. I did my work on a Quadra 950 Macintosh with a whopping (for 1995) 20 megs of RAM, and I learned to hate the evil and crash-prone Aldus (later Adobe) RageMaker and its enabler, the equally evil and crash-prone System 7 operating system.
So, I’d get a new product— say, an oil pump— and use the Paths tool in Photoshop to knock out the background of the photograph shot by our overworked photographer on the fantastically expensive digital camera in the Year One photo studio. Then I’d try to find some way to liven up a bunch of application specs with some entertaining copy.
Multiply this by eight catalogs, several of which were still laid out using the prehistoric waxer-and-process camera method, and I faced a several-month period of 16-hour days spent chained to PageMangler. It was very stressful— I’d shoot bolt upright in the middle of the night, sweat-soaked and hallucinating Chrysler A-body door panels and the System 7 Bomb Dialog.
Fortunately, my boss was this Firebird-racing Tennessee madman, Keith Maney. Some of you may be familiar with Keith from various muscle-car-centric TV shows (My Classic Car, Dream Car Garage, American Muscle Car, Hot Rod TV, MuscleCar TV, and Horsepower TV, among others), but I saw him as a great example of what it means to be a deadline-hitting, quality-prose-every-time, professional writer. I learned more about the craft of writing from this guy than I ever did from any college class. Someday he’ll finish the Not Too Sharpe Racing Datsun roadster and we’ll see him run in LeMons.
My wrenching skills and general car knowledge also underwent great improvement during this time, thanks to my immersion in Southern Gearhead World; here’s a lesson from a coworker in Full-Size Chevrolet Rear Control Arm Bushing Replacement. Once things calmed down on the deadline front, we’d take regular field trips to the dragstrip, where I received yet more crucial education (more on that in the next episode).
One thing nobody told me about Atlanta was that it snows there in the winter. Worse yet, sometimes it rains and then the rain freezes, rendering road travel very difficult for a large rear-wheel-drive sedan with an open differential and torquey V8. How is this possible in the Deep South? So, one December morning I woke up to find the car completely covered with a thick layer of ice. The door locks were frozen completely solid, and I had to call my Minnesota-native parents for advice (pour hot water over the locks, they suggested). All the advice in the world couldn’t prepare this soft California boy for his first-ever snow driving experiences, however.
Then it turned out that the door latches would freeze in the open position, once I got the car moving, which resulted in a huge, primered-out Chevy sliding all over the road with its doors flapping open and shut. Other drivers gave me a wide, wide berth. Fortunately, my years of experience with parking-lot donuts and related hoonage in rear-drive Detroit bombs made me reasonably skilled at recovering from skids, and I hit nothing.
But, damn, it just wasn’t fair, this weather! The Impala’s heater, and particularly its defroster, proved inadequate under these conditions, but our forefathers survived just fine with cold car interiors and frosty windows.
In spite of the crazy writing workload, I was enjoying my job. My coworkers drove silly cars and were excellent storytellers in the Southern tradition; I argued politics with them constantly— inevitable with the San Francisco/Deep South culture clash— but we hung out, played poker, drank whiskey, and wrenched on cars together. Meanwhile, my girlfriend was hating every minute of her Southern experience; she’d gone from being a respected chef and restaurant manager in California to an ivory-tower academic at Emory University, and the bullshit was getting to her. On top of that, neither of us dug the relentlessly suburban/exurban, mall-centric sprawliness that was the Atlanta metropolitan area.
Then there were all the echoes of the Civil War and Civil Rights Era, which Georgians saw as different battles in the same war. In California, history is sort of unreal and distant, like Disneyland, with all the victims hidden safely from view… but in Georgia, you can just about see heaps of Gatling-gunned CSA soldiers and lynched sharecroppers bleeding on the asphalt of the mall parking lot, and that makes for a lot of tension. Just down the road from us was Stone Mountain, aka “The Confederate Mount Rushmore” and the ceremonial birthplace of the 20th-century Klan, where you can see a laser light show projected onto the stone faces of Confederate heroes while Lynyrd Skynyrd plays on the loudspeakers. Naturally, my Nixon obsession led me into frequent rants on the Southern Strategy, which didn’t go over so well in Gingrich country. With my girlfriend’s increasing unhappiness with her academic career, it was looking as though our stay in Georgia might not last quite as long as we’d planned.
But I did like deep-fried okra, Georgia junkyards, going to the dragstrip, and shooting the shit with my coworkers. I used my Year One employee discount to get my first really good tools, full sets of S-K sockets and wrenches, and I started planning a bigger and better engine for the Impala. In the meantime, though, I slapped a 327 sticker I found in my desk onto the car’s air cleaner. 327 is just a cooler number than 350.
We’d get all sorts of sample cans of spray paint from manufacturers hoping to sell their products in our catalogs, and so I established a policy under which any sort of primer paint could be tested on my car (provided the paint fell somewhere on the black-and-white continuum). This resulted in a sort of “concrete camouflage” effect.
The car was looking meaner than ever as a result of this treatment, and so it became the inspiration for the photographers and designers, who were working on a new publication.
The Graphics Department would be putting out a slick car magazine entitled Restoration Review, and the designers decided to use photos of my car for the original concept mockups. Here I am, the genius who created Super In-Destruct-O Paint!
My girlfriend and I took the Impala on trips to Savannah, Lexington, Chapel Hill, and Nashville during late 1995 and early 1996, and it proved a great Southern road-trip machine.
One of my fellow YO Graphics Department writers was a musician who’d been knocking around the Atlanta music scene for many years, and I started joining him to see bands at various scurrilous dive bars. I became a fan of Smoke (I recommend the excellent documentary film about Smoke’s late singer, Benjamin Smoke) and I went to some great country/punk/rockabilly gigs during this era. I also had the opportunity to see Doc Watson in a small venue at Little Five Points.
I put my improved wrenching skills and access to wholesale parts to use by replacing the remaining original suspension components. Still not satisfied with the car’s handling, I splurged on a set of decent tires and a fat Addco front swaybar. This brought the car up to late-20th-century handling standards. All it needed was more power… and that was in my plans.
The real question was: What would the Impala do in the quarter-mile with its mildly upgraded, smog-headed 350? Next up: The dragstrip!