Her name was Ethyl—the perfect name for a battered redhead well past her prime but still up for adventure.
The year was 1986. I was a freshly minted journalism grad who had relied on Chicago public transportation to get from my apartment in Evanston to school, work and socializing in the city and never thought she’d need to drive again. But after I landed my dream job as a beat reporter at Chicago’s legendary City News Bureau, I knew I’d have to relinquish my CTA tokens for an ignition key. I needed a cheap, reliable beater, and fast.The solution came from my high-school buddy Georgia and her motorhead husband Mike. The car in question was a 1976 Chevy Nova, orange, with well over 150,000 miles on her odometer. Georgia had driven the car for several years but was finally in a position to upgrade. Mike was constantly working on it and could vouch for its reliability. Asking price? $350. Done.
I’m not big on naming things, but just looking at the rust-scabby redhead with the torn black-and-white checked cloth upholstery evoked the name Ethyl—a play on words referring to both the old lead additive to gasoline and my high-school principal, Sister Ethel. She was loose-limbed and well broken in—the car, not the nun—with manual steering and a windshield that leaked around the edges in a heavy rain, giving the interior a distinctive musty smell.Ethyl and I immediately started a drivers’ ed crash refresher with my father—a guy with a serious history behind the wheel (a novel in itself, involving both his activities as a wheelman for some nefarious West Side Chicago characters and the Bronze Star in World War II). In the two weeks before I started the job, the old man rode shotgun while I struggled with parallel parking, overcame my expressway phobia and practically wore out the little blue-and-white “Chicago Streets” book that listed all the city’s byways. By the time I started the job, I was as ready as I’d ever be.
City News was a baptism by fire for a suburban kid and reporting newbie, and Ethyl was the perfect accomplice to my adventures. She waited at the curb as I tailed Mayor Harold Washington and various Chicago pols and celebrities (Adlai Stevenson Jr., former Mayor Jane Byrne, Irv Kupcinet, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) as a regular part of my rounds. She was a regular fixture in the parking lot of the old District 20 police headquarters at California and Pershing. In those pre-cell days, I used the phones to call bereaved families for comments on dead loved ones, checked with the coroner’s office for gory details, called in stories to persnickety editors, and got endless good-natured grief from Chicago’s Finest. She nervously waited on the street when I accidently got locked into a West Side community center after hours on a Saturday night. And I had to rescue her one day when she was towed from a downtown street. My efforts to free her from the auto pound in the labyrinthine bowels of lower Wacker took on the desperation of Dante in one of the Seven Circles.In our free time, Ethyl transported me and my favorite drinking buddy Eileen to a myriad of locations—from Joe Danno’s fabled speakeasy Bucket O’ Suds, to the then-funky Higgins Tap, to the Sunset Inn on Cermak in Berwyn to the dive bar attached to Dino’s Pizzeria in Norwood Park.
Ethyl was as far from high maintenance as a gal could be. My old man and his buddy Lou were constantly tinkering with her, replacing her innards as they wore out with parts scavenged from their Sunday morning sojourns to Maxwell Street. As a result, she was the healthiest, if not most attractive beater on the streets.But finally, inevitably, our days together drew to a close after Ethyl got a fatal transmission diagnosis and I got another job and was making enough to buy an almost-new Chevy Cavalier.
She was a fighter until the end. She was still running when my old man managed to sell her at a neighborhood gas station for $350—the same price I’d paid for her two years earlier.Requiescat in pace, old girl.