peters opinion wlfm (print only if desperate. otherwise save until next week) -amb

Peter Gillette

I got my first (and, so far, only) car the last week of June 2003. It’s a very crappy car, a 1993 Ford Escort Wagon that came with 150,000 miles of storied history.
It had a new clutch, and then dad sprang for a new set of front tires that made it almost roadworthy. It didn’t become ready to drive, though, until about 48 hours later, when I bucked and rolled into the Circuit City parking lot in search of a better radio/CD player.
My first road trip came a few days later, when I drove to Madison to visit a friend. Already bored by my CDs, I immediately turned to the early part of the dial, between 89 and 91 FM. I **live** for those first few seconds when you can’t quite tell if you’re listening to a Christian parenting call-in show or Wisconsinites arguing with a wonky professor humoring the locals with his (or her) condescension on foreign affairs.
This was my second time in Madison, and my first time driving. The roads were all torn up, and I got unbelievably lost. Several times, in fact. I drove around in circles, then in circles within my circles, but it wasn’t too bad, because gas was still just $2 per gallon. It was tolerable, though, because of two radio stations I found deep down on the dial. One played top-shelf local folk, guaranteed to chill you out, and the other was in the midst of broadcasting perhaps the oddest thing I have ever heard broadcast: a complete**–** **ital**complete**ital** ** — recitation of George Orwell’s “1984” with periodic cutting every few pages or so to Tony Blair and George W. Bush speeches about Iraq.
It’s one week later. I had gotten to and from Madison in one piece, and now I’m heading from my home in the northeast corner of Illinois to Iowa City for the jazz festival. Will my ‘lil crappy car make it?
Smooth sailing … until I cross the Mississippi River. Now, Illinois is flat, but Iowa is **flat**. And so, miles ahead of me on I-80, I see a symphony of lightning and I’m scared, wishing I had **four** new tires. The rain starts, I’d never driven in Iowa, and I didn’t have a cell phone.
I go to the early part of the dial and this pipsqueak intern, obviously frightened by both the storms and the prospect of public speaking, gulps out the path of the storm. I’m still scared, but, by comparison, I feel a bit better.
Flashback, 1999. I’m 16. I can drive. My mom is a church organist, and now I can drive home between services at will just as long as I pick her up. I fall in love with Marian McPartland’s NPR show Piano Jazz. I never go home. Each week, I circle around downtown Antioch listening to the show, but it was okay then, because gas was still just $1.50.
And so it is these days, until now, at least. I always sneak on to campus after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break on the Saturday before I’m supposed to, not the Sunday. This American Life and Garrison Keillor make it seem half as long.
And then, as I sniff my rickety engine and exit onto 441, trying vainly to remember when my last oil change was, I turn to 91.1, that bastion of lovely unprofessionalism staking out its corner between WPR’s sometimes pretentious productions and the broadcast cancer that is Clear Channel, the company that owns about half of America’s radio stations.
Sometimes the WLFM deejay, a familiar voice or even a friend of mine, wouldn’t press the right button, and there would be an awkward silence. Dead air is a beautiful thing this day and age, and an art unto itself. And so I would smile, overheating though I was.
But I wouldn’t circle around. There was no need to. Gas prices aside, I was home.