If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know that a whole LOT of my stories have something to do with my cars in some way, and this one does – albeit peripherally.  It has to do with friendships, Saabs, and cookie jars – and it’s a very honest story.  When I started writing it, I didn’t know where it would go – and then I realized it had a second part – so I wrote that – and the two parts together gave it almost a synergy… So having given you that as an intro – allow me to introduce “Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends”

My first car was a 1965 Saab 95.  3 cylinders, two stroke, just like an outboard.  At the time, I was learning so much – and there was so much to learn about it (translation: I knew so little about cars at the time) that for every hour I drove it, it’d take about that much maintenance, or more.  Eventually I got it to be relatively stable – but even so, it was a challenge to own this beastie.

One Saturday, as part of the routine at the time, I’d yanked the engine out of it (yes, “yanked” – you could do that with this car – take all the bolts loose, then grab the exhaust manifold in the right hand, the fuel pump in the left, do the hokey pokey, and yank the sucker out – really). I’d then fixed something on it it, and put it back in, and then driven the car to school on the following Monday.

At the school I went to at the time, a community college – we had a huge cafeteria with round tables for about 10 people, and a pretty regular group of us sat at this one table between classes to study, hang out, have lunch, chat – whatever.

I remember that Monday. I reached across the table for a pencil or something and someone saw that I still had grease under my fingernails that I just hadn’t been able to get completely out from the Saturday before – and this gal just absolutely freaked, then almost threw a pair of nail clippers at me and then went off on telling me that I needed to get new clothes and look better.  This went on for a bit, and it was clear that trying to get a word in edgewise wasn’t going to work at all, so I let her rant for a while.

A really good friend took me aside and tried to help.  He’d known me longer than they had, and tried to kind of help or smooth things out a bit by offering to take me to a fairly upscale clothing store – and I remember thinking,

“…and just WHO is going to pay for all this stuff to make me look acceptable in their eyes?”

I remember thinking they were incapable of seeing through the grease far enough to see why it was there.  Not that I wanted to go to school dirty, but if you’ve ever worked on a car, getting grease under the fingernails is part of the process, and getting it out takes a little longer.  I know now that there are things that can help with that, but I didn’t then.  I also knew at that time that none of them would be able to do what I did – I’d gotten to the point where I could have the engine out in half an hour (well, 32 minutes) – from the time I shut it off to the time it was in the bed of my dad’s pickup truck – and I thought to myself that if I had a skill that would cause a little dirt under my fingernails to remain, I’d take that skill over “looking good for someone for whom that was the defining characteristic of whether I could be their friend” every time.

I left that table that day and never went back.

I studied in the library, not in the cafeteria…

But based on that experience, I decided to try something.

I dressed like crap for a quarter.

On purpose.

I wore old clothes.

I wore overalls I’d painted my Grampa’s barn in (trust me, the barn wasn’t the only thing that got paint on it)

I wore the boots I’d been wearing when I painted the barn (they’d started out black, they now looked like a negative of a leopard… that was an oops…)

I mean, I worked at looking crappy.

If it was nice, unstained, and untorn, I didn’t wear it.

Did I have nice clothes?

Yup.

But that wasn’t the point, at all.  I was going for the seriously crappy look, and I did absolutely everything on purpose.  I wanted to prove something.

And honestly, it was pretty lonely for a bit.  I remember that it was hard to do what I was doing, but I was stubborn enough to do it – and I kept at it.

A few weeks went by, and I found some new friends at the library who were pretty cool people, and who didn’t really seem to give a rip about what I wore, they were just cool folks, so I hung out with them.  I remember one gal, Bonnie, was just gorgeous, and I was just stunned that she’d even be seen with me, but she didn’t seem to care, and it was really, really cool to see that these people didn’t care what I wore, or whether I had grease under my fingernails or not, they just liked me for who I was.

At the end of that quarter, I felt my point had been made, so at the beginning of the next quarter – I dressed a bit nicer – just because by that time, it was getting old, even for me.

And they noticed.

I remember Bonnie asking me what was up, and I told her – and the rest of my new friends. They were kind of surprised that they’d been unwitting participants in an impromptu social experiment, but I was honest with them.  And they now had a friend who they knew, and who they liked, and who also now dressed a little more respectably, and I had friends I knew didn’t care about my fingernails – and – here’s what got me about that…

In that first group, nobody seemed to care what it took to get my fingernails like that – not that I wanted them filthy – but there is zero chance that anyone sitting at that table could have done what I did with a car – any car, much less a 1965 3 cylinder, two stroke Saab…

And that’s what made me mad.

It’s like they were looking at me like a cracked cookie jar.  And they only saw the cracks, not the cookies inside.

Years later, I tried another experiment at another college, and it was almost the same experiment – from the other side.

Some of you guys reading this out there might get this.  Just like in any college, you end up with a lot of friends – male, female, whatever.  The university I went to had – well, far more than its share of nice looking young ladies.  I remember being very shy about talking to them – and at the same time remember feeling quite bad about the – oh – how do we put this politely? – I was feeling rather bad about the feelings this “red blooded American boy” was having about these “red blooded American girls.” – Those feelings tended toward the whole objectifying the young ladies end of the spectrum, and I just didn’t like that in myself.  So I thought about it for a bit, and realized that there was actually an inverse relationship between how well I knew the gals and how “red blooded” I felt about them.  It was almost linear:  The better I knew them, the more I thought of them as a human being and friend, and the less I thought of them as – well, objects.

So I tried to figure out how to solve this problem.  I mean, each of these gals was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, etc…  And while I was just as full of hormones as the next guy, but I just didn’t like objectifying them that way.  At all.

And I wondered…

How could I stop thinking about all these nice looking young ladies in these inappropriate ways?

…and then I remembered…

I didn’t think of the girls that were my buddies that way…

What if…

And so – I remember picking one gal rather specifically (the gal I was most terrified of because she was the most gorgeous of the bunch, and therefore, I figured, totally unapproachable) – I’d chat with her in the foyer of the building before class (and was late to class more than once – heh – in fact, I remember one time, I’d just told her I had to get up to get to class and saw the whole class trooping down the stairs – I’d missed the class entirely…Well, I was majoring in communication at the time, and by golly, I was communicating… : )

…not that the prof saw it that way, mind you, but still…

One thing led to another, and Yolande and I became friends, nothing more than that, that had never been my goal, we simply became friends.  And while the fact that we were now friends didn’t change the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous one whit – it did change something in me.  I saw her as Yolande, my friend, instead of seeing her – and thinking of her – in ways that would make her feel uncomfortable, and me feel ashamed.  I haven’t seen her in years – but I still remember how well that little experiment worked, and how much fun that friendship was, a friendship that wouldn’t have started had I not wanted to be, as we used to say back then, “just friends.”

And what’s interesting is these two stories go together…

In the first – people were distracted by what they saw – because they didn’t like it, and didn’t bother to look past it to see what was inside.

In the second – I was distracted (oh, Lordy was I distracted – but… I digress) by what I saw – not because I liked it, but because I liked it in ways that I really shouldn’t have in that context – and just like the first one, I didn’t bother to look past the outside to see the person inside.

It’s kind of funny – this story also answers the question one of my college buddies once asked about “Why does Tom constantly have all these gorgeous women around him?”

Well…

Some were buddies to start with just because I just liked them…

And some ended up being buddies because I wanted to just like them.

It ended up being a serious win-win… : )

But it taught me a huge amount about people.

What they looked like, whether it was good or bad, gorgeous or plain, didn’t necessarily translate into what kind of a friend they’d make.

And it taught me to take gentle chances – because often, I found, the people I was scared of talking to wanted a friend just as much as I did.

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