After my sophomore year of college, my parents gave me their 1988 Plymouth Reliant. We lived in the suburbs, I needed a car to get a job, and my parents are very kind people. The car was a slate gray four-door sedan, one of the ubiquitous boxy K-cars that defined the late 80s the way softly rounded cloud cars defined the following decade. It had aged well, as K cars did, and though it was well past its warranty in both miles and years, it was in good shape. The vinyl was sun faded, the steering wheel worn pale in a couple of places by years of sweaty palms, but the car was basically intact.
Except for the ceiling. The goddamn ceiling.
The Plymouth Reliant was only one of many cars with a fabric upholstered ceiling. The trouble with this is that eventually time and weather would take their toll, and the fabric would begin to fall away from the ceiling. It started as a small bubble, near the interior dome light, but before long the whole ceiling was hanging down, sad, like the doughy belly of a retired athlete. I tried numerous things to try and reattach the fabric to the roof, but eventually it always drooped back down, growing progressively worse. It brushed my head when I drove, block my vision in the rear-view mirror, and forced friends in the back seat to duck down. But the worst was yet to come.
Eventually, the first tear appeared in the gray fabric. Then it grew. Before long the fabric, instead of drooping like a bubble, hung like ratty curtains from the ceiling of the car. Behind the upholstery was a thin layer of foam padding that, perhaps thanks to its age, flaked apart and fell like dirty dandruff onto the seats, floor, and clothing of riders. Once again I tried methods of fixing the upholstery–super glue, thumbtacks, double-sided tape–but nothing worked. Periodically someone would snag something on the fabric, and a loud tearing sound would signal that the problem was getting worse.
This was a frequent problem. In the late 90s, many kids in their late teens and early 20s were driving their parents hand-me-down K cars, and I knew several people who’d had the same problem. No one ever found a solution that I heard about–I knew one guy who just ripped out all the upholstery, scraped away the flaky padding once and for all, and drove around under the bare steel ceiling of his car, exposed wires running back and forth overhead.
That summer I played roller hockey most Saturdays with some friends. Our rink of choice was a converted tennis court at the local middle school. The parking lot was right beside the rink, and with the summer heat I generally left the windows open and the doors unlocked. The only problem was that the heat and the breeze sometimes made the ceiling worse.
One day, after hours spent sweating into my goalie gear under a heavy summer sun, I went back and found the ceiling was MUCH worse. I lost it. I don’t remember if I had a bad game that day, or if the heat made me cranky, or if I’d just had it with that damned upholstery, but I started tearing it all down. Flakes of gray foam snow rained down around me, but I didn’t stop. Ape-like, I grabbed handfulls of tattered upholstery and yanking it, eliciting loud tearing sounds as it came away from the trim.
That’s when I noticed the wide eyes on the other hockey guys. For a second I thought it was my outburst that shocked them, but after a minute I got my bearings, and noticed the nearly-identical slate gray Plymouth Reliant parked a few spots to my left.
I wasn’t sitting in my car.
Luckily, the guy whose car I defaced was another of the hockey guys, and he had a sense of humor about it. He’d had it with the upholstery too, and said he’d thought about doing exactly what I did. I offered to let him have at my ceiling, but he passed.
Not long after that I was sideswiped at a stop sign by a very careless girl on her cell phone, and the gray Reliant K was retired.
Photo from Flickr user aldenjewell, used under Creative Commons license.