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The Essence of Coolth

Learning to appreciate the Derrty South Kustom Kar Show.


In the morning I stopped by for a couple minutes where the cars had pulled onto the lawn of Courthouse Park for the car show. You could hear the low, breathy rumble and purr of the cars and smell the anticipation in the still-cool air in the shade of the trees.

There was coolth, too, in the demeanor of the adolescent boys with their hands in the pockets of their baggy below-the-knee shorts, as necessary for the event as cowboy hats and jeans are for rodeos. You could see the seriousness in their faces and the slight reproach in their eyes towards anybody who wasn't one of them. Nobody else knew how important these cars were, what serious business they were.

This foretaste whetted my appetite, and I decided to come back after lunch. It was called the Derrty South Kustom Kar Show.

The first person I talked to was a man from Silver City with his old purple '74 Caprice Classic. When I asked him how much it was worth, he answered that he would never sell it because he'd "put his whole life into it," or words to that effect. He had etched white roses and portraits of women on the windows himself. The rear window was dished inward instead of outward like most cars—a really elegant touch. His lips kind of trembled when he talked with me, the outsider.

The tire rims altogether, including the spare, cost $1,500. On the outside, between the windows on either side, there were two almost pencil-thin purple lights like lights on the aisle in a movie theatre. The chunky chain steering wheel was only about six inches wide.

On the floor of the back seat he'd put a tiny glass-topped table and arranged three stemmed glasses on it filled with fake ice and purple flowers. A vase in the middle had a small bottle of Martinelli's sparkling cider sitting in fake ice. This is a low-rider gesture of high style.

Like most women, I've never had any interest in car shows. I don't even know how to change a tire. I've never understood boys' obsessive drawings of cars. But for some reason this show changed something in me, and I thought to myself that maybe I'd understand the guys in my mid-high classes better.

There was something of a revelatory moment when I saw that the car customizers lay mirrors on the grass next to their tires, to get a better look at the rims. Sometimes they place three, or maybe five, of them in a diamond pattern. They glorify the rims. They venerate their cars the way I venerate poems or essays I write and read to myself six or seven times after they're published. The cars are obviously as much an art form to them as writing is for me.

In the article I read before the show it said there were going to be "bikes," which I assumed meant motorcycles. But what it meant was bikes, like those meant for eight-year-olds.

The bikes had big butterfly handles with all the bells and whistles and horns and reflectors and big dice hanging from them. The bike that impressed me most was created by an Anglo from Cruces. He called it "Iced Out."

Almost everything was black and white, from the black crushed velvet (which had big wrinkles on it like waves) on the long banana-seat to the two stemmed glasses with clear marbles in them placed on mirrors on the ground. The Chinese tea set with cups scattered about on the blanket on the grass had a black background and red flower design. His father had bought the set when on leave from Vietnam. Even the black air pump had little dice glued to the side and silver balls like beads strung on a string with a black tassel. Coolth is all.

The guy said he rode it to work. It's hard to go around corners, he said, because the pedals scrape on the ground if you're not careful.

The car customizers obviously reveled in the details. Under the hood, the insides of these show cars were usually chrome-plated and so clean you could eat off of them. A scarlet 1980 Corvette with a "for sale" sign had a lush cherry scent wafting out of it that matched its color. One long car was roped off with velvet ropes, with white artificial flowers twined around the posts. Boys in sixth or seventh grade standing with hands in their pockets would look at these cars and say, "That's ba-ad."

One guy had a Pontiac Sunfire with "ghost flames" on the hood. Most of the body of the car was painted red with a layer of blue sparkle over it for an effect known as "ice blue pearl." The flames painted on the hood were red, too, but had red sparkles in them called "fire ice red." The effect was extremely subtle. You could just barely perceive it with the naked eye.

The climax of the day was the "sound off" event, where judges walk from car to car judging their elaborate sound systems. Sound apparatus inhabited the trunks of cars and speakers occupied back seats. Some cars had monitors on their dashboard or the rear-view mirror, or on their sun visors or in the back seat, playing music DVDs that flickered with the thumping of the sound system.

The crowd of spectators who followed the judges grew to about 60, and lots of kids would run excitedly ahead of the others. The sound would make the whole cars shake and quaver. The enormous black buzz of sound laid down a furry rug you could walk through. Or it was like a large dark Velcro snake rubbing against your chest. I moved away, over to Ash Street, before I saw who won.

I later saw a couple of those sixth- and seventh-grade guys reverentially talking to a hip young owner, obviously seeing their future lives laid out before them filled with glamorous cars. "Hey, dude," they began their question, without a trace of a wisecrack or smile. The owner turned a calm, glowering look toward me.

I'd started out just talking informally with the owners, but with my notebook and pen poised, I started feeling like the female society-page writer with a big floppy hat saying, "Isn't that interesting." I sat on a bench in partial sun getting a touch of sunstroke and a sunburn, and then left.

I'm not about to get some hydros to make my '88 Honda into a low-rider, or a special paint or chrome job. But I'm pretty sure I'll go to another car show some day, with a little expertise now.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly works in Deming.

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