How to Install a Car Stereo and Become a Perfect Person

This essay originally posted on Medium.


Tony with his ’63 Impala, May 2019.

Anythingis as much everything as it is nothing. How do you fill something without parameters?

I’ve wondered this since I first pitched The Perfect Person Project, my decidedly indefinite standing offer to learn anything from anyone. Asking the public to teach me whateveris a task so preposterously open-ended, it felt like I could lose my way after the first few steps.

But yesterday I scored my first education and it turned out to make total sense — and that is largely in part to my first instructor, Tony.

Old Tony.jpeg

I lived with Tony six years ago in a house designed by M.C. Escher and in our garage sat an insanely cool ‘63 Impala, passed onto him sophomore year of high school from his mother. He worked on it from time to time, but it wasn’t running back then.

In the years since, Tony moved to Los Angeles, married the very lovely Jennifer, and earlier this year bought a house (that is decorated like a flippin’ home decor magazine spread). The whip has also seen big changes, from a working engine to a new interior. Next up was a stereo and an amplifier.

So Tony invited me up to get educated, and I in turn wanted to know what to bring as non-financial (likely edible) compensation. [This whole mad-libs philosophy of pitching an idea and figuring it out later often ends up with me inquiring about snacks.]

“Jen usually puts something together,” Tony explained. “I’ll see what she had planned, so you can bring something to complement.”

That something turned out to be cold beer and a good attitude.

Meanwhile, I had to recognize that, somewhere deep inside me, there lurked some much younger self who saw too many mid-to-late-century flicks at an impressionable age and once assumed a driveway scene like this was what Saturdays were inevitably made for — and that, as a writer, catching some vignette of suburban daydream would be like hunting big game.

[Author’s Note: Given a lifetime of cinematic delirium with a relatively recent grounding, I’m still coming out of the haze with smokey tentacles periodically lashing my brain.]

New Tony.jpeg

On the drive up, I chatted up my cousin Griffin on the phone. The dude’s a Reno resident these days and when I informed him of my destination, he recounted a story of being back in his hometown of Santa Barbara the same weekend Tony was randomly visiting the coastal haven, with the latter ultimately approaching the tall, redheaded former at a bar, saying, “You gotta be a Kilroy.”

I rolled up to a palm-lined block in Leimert Park and it briefly felt like my old days of crashing, where an unfamiliar guestroom soon became a frontier outpost. The homestead was welcoming from car door’s close and I waved in that strange sense of warmth I assume comes each time you initially approach the porch of first-time homeowners to visit old friends.

After a new home tour and my typical expletive-riddled ramblings of praise, I was greeted by an outdoor table’s neat arrangement of the tools we’d be using and the electronics we’d be installing. The project’s inaugural lesson began with Tony explaining his preference of DIY, given its inherent ability to make a person care more about what they own and what they’re capable of. Do something yourself if you can; pay someone to do it if you can’t. Then we got to work.

Considering I’m someone who has merely refilled his oil and changed his headlights, I learned a lot! What may have seem basic to any car guy was a relatively new world to yours truly, from finding power sources to observing the standardized colors of wiring. I even took notes in a lil’ pad.

Throughout the afternoon course, it was fascinating to recall that I’m older than Tony (by two months) and that he’s not an auto shop teacher (actually in the cigar business) because, from start to finish, Tony steadily moved along, thoughtfully answering my questions, offering me opportunities to be hands on, and comprehensively approaching the topic, ensuring I always understood what we were doing and why. [Plus I handed him tools and pulled cables through the back seat.]

Jennifer even took a break from cooking — what ended up being a fabulous meal for the three of us— to step onto the backyard deck and give a glowing review of Tony’s teaching voice.

At some point, as Tony ran through why he was pursuing more makeshift solutions because it was an older car, he said, “So I wouldn’t be doing this if I had…” — momentarily pausing for the right words — “…a son,” I joked. That’s what the afternoon felt like at times, some oddball portrayal of Americana folklore about how a dad passes on his car knowledge.

After a few hours, given breaks for catching up and a sit-down dinner — followed by a particularly long post-meal backyard lounge that rounded out with a Q&A session about escrow and mortgages because this is the age it’s as familiar as it is new— we finally got the stereo ready for tunes. Tony let me choose the song to test it out, so Carly Rae Jepsen’s immortal pop classic “Cut to the Feeling” came blasting from the steeziest car on the block.

Then I played something more time-appropriate — The Desires’ “Rendezvous With You” — and it felt like completing a scene. There was surely some writerly indulgence to the playing of oldies to end an afternoon of beers and working on a classic car while dinner plates are rinsed on the other side of a glowing screen door as sunlight steps down from the sky, the trees swaying less.

[Author’s Note: Again, this kind of nonsense is a habit I ultimately aim to kick or control, but it’s a slow dance to rid yourself of such histrionic scene-setting neurosis.]

It wasn’t long until an evening breeze strutted into the backyard and crickets took up their nightlife, and the quiet, inky neighborhood came dotted with glowing pops of yellow, that I caught myself still, dwelling on the notion that Tony had assembled a pretty swell life. It’s hard to grab hold of the tiny moments when you allow yourself to furnish a streak of only seeing certain friends at dinner parties, baby showers, and weddings. Even with revealing dialogue in a larger, louder setting, you don’t inhabit the person’s world for long. So actually finding yourself immersed in the details you know by heart comes at you with a soft bite. The corners of my mouth floated a bit, and I thanked Tony for being game for a project I still wasn’t sure how to articulate beyond the elevator pitch.

“Even without everything else, it’s cool you have a reason to see old friends,” he said.

This was true, and I pulled at the thread accordingly. Thus, awash in porch light, with the tools put away and the driveway cleaned up, as Jennifer decorated for a birthday party inside, Tony and I broke down the heart that beats at the core of this ongoing project: I want to have new experiences and learn new things, sure, but I really just love beholding people in their element.

I rarely get to see friends and family drop knowledge. It just doesn’t come up. I was never going to ask Tony how to install a car stereo at some party. But yesterday I got to pick his brain about something he’s known how to do since he was a teenager, when his cousin’s boyfriend first taught him about cars. This knowledge has been in him the whole time I’ve known him and yesterday I saw him in total control, and it was cool as hell.

When I originally came up with this project, the years-ago version at least, it was to be a sort of how-to hodgepodge. But that doesn’t make sense to me anymore —it seems akin to a student printing a chapbook of his hastily scribbled class notes and what he remembers from a teacher’s lecture — and that’s not what this input/output is really about, I suppose.

In fact, shortly after the stereo came to life, us in the Impala’s front bench seat, as “Little Bitty Pretty One” by Thurston Harris filled the slick aquamarine interior, Tony remarked, “Nobody realizes what they know until they’re asked — and actually have someone to listen.”

Truly, that’s what this all is in its most primary terms — a captive audience in trade for new knowledge. Everyone knows something, even if they have to rummage around their attic to dust it off, and they don’t always have the ready chance to reveal it. But I’m here for it and I want to hear it all until my ears no longer work. Come at me with your life lessons for a life of lessons — one down; the infinite to go.