How the Pontiac 6000 once saved my life

I was thinking about something today.  How, in a matter of an instant, our lives change when two unrelated cars collide.  Instantly our plans and destinations change; we suddenly start looking for insurance cards in our glove boxes and trying to explain to the officers who was at fault and who wasn’t paying attention.

And maybe it’s because my familial history has been stained with car accidents – accidents that either took a family member’s life or ended a friend’s existence, or accidents where I was an innocent bystander helping other Good Samaritans extract a passenger from a crumpled vehicle, or offering assistance to a pedestrian who crossed in the path of an oncoming vehicle.

I start thinking about all the close calls I’ve had on the road.  The guy who ran the red light, just as I’m pulling into the intersection.  The two cars having a road-rage demolition derby two car lengths in front of me.  The guy zipping by me at 90 miles per hour on the New York State Thruway, with a police cruiser following at 95 miles per hour.

Thankfully, I’ve never had or caused an accident in the Saturn Ion.  I did, however, survive an accident in the Pontiac 6000.

And it was one strange way to start the new year.

January 1, 2006.  I was hungry and I had a coupon for free food at Hooters in Crossgates Mall – yes, your man won trivia the Tuesday night before – so I was feeling famished and wanted to have a hot meal with some hot hostesses.  There was snow on the ground and traffic was a bit dicey, but I figured I would stay on Western Avenue until I reached the Crossgates Mall access road, so the streets should be safely driveable.

Driving along.  Everything’s good.  As I pass the UAlbany campus, I see a red light at Western and the UAlbany access road.  No cars in front of me.  I slow down to a complete stop.

All of a sudden – WHAMMMMMM!!!

My car surged forward upon the rear-end impact.  The sole driver’s shoulder belt barely held me tight against the seat, while my head bounced backward onto the 17-year-old headrest.  I had just been rear-ended by a Dodge Ram pickup truck.

Okay.  Quick assessment.  Fingers move.  Toes move.  Nothing’s on fire.  My heart is pounding faster than a Devo drumtrack.

I get out of the car.   The snow was falling fast.  Everything seemed normal.  Then I looked at the rear end.  The left side of my rear bumper was gouged.  The tail light was smashed.

Then I looked at the Dodge Ram that was behind me.  Its front grill was nearly caved in.  The driver was on his cell phone.  The woman in the front passenger’s seat sat there, her mouth agape at what happened.

“Didn’t you see the red light?” I screamed at the driver.  “I was parked at the red light!  Didn’t you see the traffic light was red?!?”

“Sorry man,” he said glumly, “I was on my cell phone to my wife.  I wasn’t paying attention, and didn’t hit the brakes in time.”

I looked on the ground.  There were chunks of taillight and Mopar grille all over Western Avenue.  It looked as if the 6 took a hit – but the Dodge looks like it ran into a phone pole.  I quickly glanced at the license plate of the Ram.  Vermont driver.  Oh, and he’s got a Ryan Newman license frame.  Fantastic.  I get run into by a fan of a second-rate NASCAR driver.

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, explaining what happened.  I then called my insurance company and told them what happened as well.

Just then, Albany’s finest arrived.  We were instructed to move our vehicles to the side of the road.  We did so.

One of the officers started taking down information.  “How fast were you going, sir?” he asked me.

“I was going ZERO!  I was stopped at a red light and this knucklehead rear-ended me!”

Essentially the other driver was found 100% liable for the accident – here’s a good rule of thumb.  When it’s snowing and you’re driving in Albany, choose between talking to your wife on the cell phone or your girlfriend in the front seat, but pay attention to what you’re doing.  And don’t drive a Dodge Ram.  Those trucks have more plastic in them than do residents at the Playboy Mansion.

A few days later, a representative from the Ram driver’s insurance company stopped by my house.  “Where’s the car, sir?” he asked.

I showed him the damaged rear bumper and rear tail light.

He started taking pictures.  “How old is this car, sir?” he asked.

“It’s a 1991 Pontiac 6000,” I said with equal measures of pride and concern.

He stopped taking pictures.  “We’re going to declare this car totaled.  You need to sign the deed over to us and we’ll haul it away and give you a check for the salvage value.”

Okay… there are a few things that you don’t do to me.  You don’t insult my high school.  You don’t insult the Pittsburgh Steelers.  You don’t say a bad word about the Albany Patroons.  And by God in Heaven, you don’t use the words “totaled” and “salvage” and “Pontiac 6000” in the same string of sentences.

I told him that his client rear-ended me, and that this was both my personal vehicle and the car I use to drive to my day job and to my photography assignments.  I just want the car fixed, I don’t need a new car.  All I want is my tail light replaced and my bumper replaced.

“Yeah, about that,” he said.  “Your car’s Kelley Blue Book value is too low for us to pay for the repairs.  What we will do is give you a check and list the vehicle as totaled.  But you can still drive it and own it if you want.”

A day later, I stopped by the insurance company and picked up the check.

I next drove the Pontiac 6000 to a body repair shop near the Abrookin Vo-Tec school.  The owner of the body shop looked at the car.  “This is easy,” he said.  “We’ll order you a new aftermarket tail light and repair the housing, and we’ll smooth out the bumper.  Is this a Pontiac 6000?”

“Yes,” I said, with equal amounts of pride and hesitation.

“You’ve taken good care of it, I can tell,” the body shop owner said.  “We don’t get many of these old GM cars here, but the ones we do see are driven by people who care about their vehicles.”

That felt better.

A couple of days later, I received the call – the tail light was back to normal, the bumper was straightened out, and the few scratches on the bumper could be easily covered by a Jericho Drive-In bumper sticker.  The bill was much less than I had expected, and was easily covered by the insurance settlement.

I hesitate to think how much damage I could have sustained in any other car – especially a rear-end smash-up with a Dodge Ram truck.

But I don’t have to think about it.  The Pontiac 6000 survived that – and kept on rolling for four more years, until I finally understood that “totaled” and “salvage” and “Pontiac 6000” could fit in the same sentence without me losing all sense of emotion.