This is the seventh in my “With Music” series, where I look back at a point in my life through a song. The stories are diverse as the music I reference. The other entries included (with links to the posts) Ben Folds Five, Sheryl Crow, Beth Orton, Dean Martin, The Verve, and Barenaked Ladies.
There is a good chance that Jupiter was hit by lightning.
This happened when I was living in Los Angeles, which makes this story even more strange. For those that don’t know, when any kind of storm happens in LA, everyone freaks out. New stories are abound about car crashes and flooding. Growing up in the Midwest, you couldn’t help but see the overreaction as something rich for comedic possibilities. Heaven forbid, someone has to wear a rain coat. Can you believe it? What next? Snow and a winter jacket?
Cynicism aside, it was after one of those bizarre storms that I first noticed that something was wrong with Jupiter, my black Pontiac Grand Am.
Jupiter was not the first car I had owned on my own, it was my second. My first car was a cute little blue Pontiac that seemed to have a knack for getting in accidents. The first time I got in an accident with it, I was driving home from my job (with a college class scheduled for that night), when I slammed into the car in front of me. I was listening to They Might Be Giants at the time and you can actually hear the car crash on the tape.
It sounds like a hollow screech, almost as if someone with an owl interrupted a TMBG performance.
The accident was outside an Arby’s and I had to run across the street to the restaurant and call the cops (days before everyone had a cellphone). The teenager behind the counter looked put out by the fact they had to call 9-1-1. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less how they felt about it. I felt lucky to be alive. My car folded like a piece of paper and I saw my life flash before my eyes as that much-better made SUV got closer and closer to my face. I’m still alittle surprised I got out of that accident without a scratch or injury.
While waiting for a police car, to my surprise, one of my cousins pulled into the Arby’s and made some casual chit-chat about my very recent near-death experience.
“Hey, Scott, saw your car.”
“You mean the one in the middle of the road, flattened?”
“Yeah, wow. That is just… wow. So I thought I would stop in and see if you are okay.”
“That’s great. Do you want me to tell your folks?”
“That I’m still alive? That would be nice.”
“Okay, see you later. I got to go, running some errands, but I’ll give them a call once I get home.”
Definitely one of the oddest little exchanges I have ever had in my life. Even the worker behind the counter thought it was weird and offered me a free soda.
I took the soda.
Where was I?
Oh, yes, when I was planning to move out to Los Angeles to study at the University of Southern California, the last thing I wanted to take with me was my cute blue car that was prone for destruction. I spent a year preparing for my great move and one of those calculations was around getting some new wheels.
Nothing about my Pontiac Grand Am shined power or even stood out in a crowd. That last point was definitely true. I even had to put a Dave Matthews Band sticker on the back window just so I could tell which car was mine in a mall parking lot (this was after one embarrassing moment when I tried to open the wrong car).
So about the name Jupiter- It came from a Tori Amos song and that was because my first trip in the car was to a concert she was giving. My date for that evening asked if I had named the car yet. And when I said no (name a car?) she took it upon herself to bestow the name on it. The name of the car stuck, the date did not.
Life in LA was not easy for Jupiter. There were two riots in the city that first semester on campus, both around the success of the Lakers. What better way to celebrate a team’s victory than property damage? Makes sense.
I remember watching the news that night and thinking that parking lot looks familiar… and is that my car that person is standing on?
A few days after that I learned that my windshield wipers were snapped off. I don’t think it happened during the riot, but all of the cars in the row that it was parked had the same vandalism. I discovered this damage after driving to a small theater to see Ethan Hawke in a movie version of Hamlet. Honestly, the damage to my car felt less personal than that bad Shakespeare adaptation. (He does “To be or not to be” in a video store for Christ’s sake!)
When I called the cops and told them about the damage to my car and the others, I had to wait a few hours for their arrival. Once the officer arrived he looked at me like I was an idiot for bothering him with this. I still remember how he rolled his eyes. Almost 20 cars damaged, no big deal. He didn’t even bother to take fingerprints or to inform the other owners. Life moved on.
I was going to talk about the lightning, right?
I was once out driving and everything in my car flashed. All of the panel lights inside and all of the lights on the outside. Flash. Flash! I pulled over my car and turned off the engine. Waited and restarted. Everything was fine.
A few days later it did it again.
Most people would head to a garage then, but I was a poor college student living in the very expensive city of Los Angeles. It would take me a few more light shows before I made that drive.
The lightning theory came from the mechanic. He asked when it first occurred and I talked about how it was a few days after one of LA’s rare rainstorms (everyone remembers when it rains). He then asked if I saw anything burnt around it. Burnt? No.
It took a few visits for the story to grow, like most good fiction does. Electrical things seemed to be fizzing out one at a time, and with each fix the mechanic’s theory became something we almost shared, as he replaced one thing at a time.
Okay, let’s say the car was hit by lightning and some kind of a surge of power got “stuck” in the car. It travels from spot to spot taking out whatever is in the way. I like to imagine it as some kind of a cartoon lightning with little legs, maybe even a little scared to be stuck in a car. This is honestly the story the mechanic would say when I pulled up. “So where did the surge hit next?” A light was always being burned out, something always had to be replaced and he would make the replacement with a chuckle.
In the olden days, people would’ve made up gremlins to explain such a situation. But here was my mechanic coming up with an idea of lightning people, a community, and one lost soul trying to get home. I guess it’s true, everyone in LA is an aspiring writer. Even my mechanic who couldn’t fix my damn car.
Jupiter saw a lot of wear and tear over the years. It got a dent by the driver side front that I could never explain. I never did replace it (another marker to tell it is my car when out and about). It had driven across the country three times.
This was a car with personal history for me- Jupiter picked up my wife from the airport numerous times. It drove both of my children when they were young. It even was the car I used to pick up our first dog (she was a scared puppy that day and pooped quite a bit in the back).
One of my favorite stories around the car is that one of my professors asked me to carry some of her artwork to a museum for a showing. The piece had a lot of little stones in it. Well, the seats in a Grand Am are not flat so the stones got everywhere. I was still finding little stones from that piece of art, right up until the day Jupiter went away.
Like most Tori Amos songs I am not certain what “Hey Jupiter” is about. Clearly, she is not singing about the Roman God or planet either or a car. Whoever the subject is, that person is a little lonely, in need of a friend. I get that, but it’s an odd choice on her part, when you consider the strength the name of Jupiter brings with it. Lightning, leader of the Gods, not someone moping in a room. Jupiters don’t mope. They get hit by lightning, they get run over during a riot, they get broken by a vandal, and they get up.
Jupiters are strong.
“Hey Jupiter” definitely feels like one of those songs where you kind of wonder if Tori Amos wishes she is Joni Mitchell. She has covered Joni’s songs in the past. It appears on Tori’s CD Boys for Pele, with a cover that looks like it was probably something that sounded good in theory, but fell apart in presentation. Unless you think of Tori Amos as a shotgun-wielding country girl living in a shack. Nah…
But who am I to argue with Tori Amos? I mean, you see the gun on her lap, right?
I know it is weird to think of a car as a friend, but that Pontiac Grand Am with the dent in the front and the “surge” problem was a friend. That car had been with me for every step of the most life-changing years of my life. So last year, when I had to sell Jupiter because she was dying and I needed a car more safe for a family of four, it was hard
The dealer though just saw the dents, he saw the backseat that needed to be vacuumed (crumbs from my kids and their continuous snacks); in other words, he saw the physical, not the emotional. When I finally made the purchase and he offered me a small amount for the car, my dear old friend, I grimaced.
It’s been over a year, and I am still grimacing. And I do admit that every now and then I will look up to the heavens and wonder where Jupiter is now.