In all this heat, the smells of the cars detonate like grenades of nostalgia when you open the doors -- that dry, thick smell of overheated upholstery and cooked plastic, the dust and dried-out cigarettes under the seats, the spilled beer, old newspapers and empty antifreeze jugs -- the primal American car musk, eau d'auto, this being the scent that's cooking up inside 1,200 sun-blasted cars out at the Blue Plains Impoundment Lot.
"When I first started this job, 4 1/2 years ago, I thought we'd run out of cars," says Officer Kenneth Kochinsky, red-faced and blue-eyed, the man in charge down here at desolation row. "They don't even slow down."
This is where your car ends up if the police boot it and you don't claim it; if they catch you doing some dirty deed with it, hauling drugs, say; if you die all alone; or if you just say the hell with it and abandon it. This is the end of the line.
Open the door, check one out, smell that smell, taste the irony exemplified by a faded turquoise Ford Country Sedan bearing the motto: Quitters NEVER WIN, WINNERS NEVER QUIT; or the coarse mortality of the blue Chevelle with the roof buckled out, not in, because this was the car Orlando Letelier was riding in when the terrorists blew it up; or the poignance of the VW microbus with a SAVE THE WILDERNESS bumper sticker and contents that include: brochures for the Baltimore Harborplace and the Monongahela National Forest, one hiking boot, a second-grade workbook and a makeshift stick-and-string fishing rod. Try to put it all together, imagine the world in which all this made sense. The rod, say, is just the kind a divorced daddy might rig up on a visitation weekend. The child in question might well be the little girl with brown-crayoned freckles and very blue eyes, as drawn in a portrait lying in back with "My Whale Book." Did she make him nervous? On the floor are three empty packs of Kent III cigarettes, the kind a divorced daddy who hates fishing might smoke.
This is a circle of some kind of hell, proof of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a graveyard of psychic elephants, "the last outpost," as Kochinsky calls it; a few acres of mud, spare parts and the grunge that blows down from the range of ash heaps on the other side of the fence. It's just down Rte. 295 from the reform school, the mental hospital and the blackened metal structures the student firemen keep setting on fire and putting out.
It's not a junkyard; it's an impoundment lot. As often as not, it isn't the cars that have quit; it's the owners. Something went wrong, and wouldn't stop going wrong.
"You don't have anything to show you own this car," says Officer Kochinsky to a guy with a beard, a yard of neck chain, two impatient friends and some papers vaguely associating him with a 1964 Ford.
They are inside the ratty old trailer Kochinsky has for an office. The sun ricochets through the door from the windshields, the mud puddles.
"I bought it from my buddy on a Friday. I didn't even know it had the dead tags on it," the guy explains, dead tags being license plates that have been switched from another car. "After the weekend, I was driving around and the cops picked me up."
Kochinsky doesn't care; he just runs the lot. "You have to go to Shannon Place and get one of these white cards," he says. He talks slow, he's from West Virginia, he understands.
"I already been there, they said all I had to do was show you this paper. . ."
No way, not today. The guy leaves with his friends, everybody doing a slow burn, all for a 17-year-old Ford that probably won't bring as much at the montly auction as it would cost to pay the towing and storage charges.
Kochinsky says: "At Shannon Place they have a window with inch-thick plexiglass between them and these people. All we have is three steps to kick 'em down. We had one guy, they'd impounded his van three times for failure to secure D.C. tags. He came driving at the trailer with a 10-wheel dump truck. We bailed out the other side. Then there was this lady who was living out of her car. She said somebody came along and stole her tire. She called the police and they caught the guy, but they kept the tire for evidence, so she couldn't move the car. Then somebody took the tags and the police impounded it. She must've made nine or 10 trips down here to pick up property. I'd see her walk in, raining and storming so hard you couldn't see that yellow truck, and she'd be here."
The yellow truck as it happens, is a step-van somebody was running a floating craps game in. The sign on the side says: TENDER TOUCH BREAD. The sign on the window says: EVIDENCE. It's moldering away next to the black step-van they found a homicide victim in, EVIDENCE also.
It's all evidence. What you keep seeing are signs of the eternal struggle, humanity trying to ascend from the slough of despond that in this case is the Blue Plains Impoundment Lot. But some terrible gravity wouldn't let go.
It's the good angel wrestling with the bad one. Check out the Mercury Cougar with the letter inside from the Maryland State Department of Education, urging somebody to get into a degree program and signing off: "Thank you and hang in there." That was the good angel. The bad, and apparently winning, angel appears in a decal on the side of the car: "Born in a jungle/Raised in a cave/Truckin & ------'/Is all I crave."
Who can figure the silver 1973 BMW with New York plates; a checkbook showing a balance of $19,250 (the checks having been torn out at random, with only No. 3 left in it); a sales slip for $3,000 worth of queen-size bed, lamps, convertible sofa and so on from Hub Furniture; a bottle of Scope; directions to somebody's house in Rockville; a New Testament; a grocery list; a pile of bargain coupons; and a pipe that is hardly smoked but whose stem is chewed all the way through? Did love go wrong? Or was it politics, the job offer that didn't mean as much after the election? What happens to your life that you abandon your checkbook, your Bible, your mouthwash and your car?
You keep seeing signs of one last push to keep these cars going: a gallon jug of antifreeze in the back seat, a radiator cap, a can of brake fluid. This is understandable. But why do you see so many hats and gloves abandoned too? (Does anything look older than an old hat in an abandoned car?) Why all the newspapers open to the help-wanted ads?
The hopelessness gets right up in your face. Check out the green Ford Galaxie 500 with a medical research report on the front seat. It is titled: "Classification of Acute Leukemia." Climb into the immaculate olive, four-door Mercury Marquis Brougham with three color pictures of a family on the dashboard and a big nasty nebula of smashed glass where somebody's head would have hit the windshield.
Maybe these cars are the human equivalents of owl pellets or shed snakeskins or cocoons. Maybe they have no more meaning than baby teeth or fingernail parings.
Still, when you open the doors in this heat and smell that smell, you realize that there'll be no more sweet dark cold excitement of Christmas Eves driving this baby home with a tree in the trunk; no more eternal summer nights of cruising with your elbow out the window, feeling the wind blow warm and cool in patches; no more kids arguing over who gets to ride in front; no more of the heater ticking as it cools in the numb-fumbling oohs and aahs of winter parking on some impassioned side street; no more cigarette lighter rising orange through the darkness like your own private moon; no more America flying past your window crisp as a flag in a 55 mph wind. . . .
And here, now, in the eternal present that is always the end of the line . . . well, watch out for the copperheads, Kochinsky says, and the 8 million rats that cover this place like fog, come sundown.
And the hole.
He points toward the back fence, and the incendiary haze that towers over the lower Potomac. Back there is a test hole that was drilled when the city was considering dumping sewage sludge in this lot.
"Don't you step in that hole, 'cause we'll never get you out," he says with that tight West Virginia look on his face that you realize is a smile, after a while.