Saturday, August 17, 2013

We To Buffalo Roam: The 2013 Lexus IS350 AWD

To Allen P. Spaulding, Jr.

I have a theory that the truth is never told from the 
nine-to-five hours.

-- Hunter S. Thompson

If at all.

-- Anonymous

We were approaching Big Flats on the Southern Tier Expressway when the Adderall kicked in. At least I think it was the Adderall. Couldn’t have been the Prilosec. Either way, I remember turning to my sometime Caribbean songwriting collaborator Dr. Beefalo and saying “History is hard to know with all the hired bullshit” when there was this tremendous roar all around us. This was followed by the night sky pulsing in time with the Klezmer version of “People are Strange” on the radio. “As your sometime Caribbean collaborator,” Beefalo shouted while peering skyward, “I advise applying as much speed as needed to reach escape velocity in case of a problem.” “Good thought,” I hollered back, Florshiems pressed to the floorboards. 

The car's power made itself known right off. There was none of the lag you get from turbo machines. As it began to eat asphalt, I considered that this must’ve been the maneuver a friend performed before crashing his single-engine '65 Maule Bee Dee on take-off weeks before. A visionary iconoclast and gonzo artist whose spirit derived from Leonardo and Mr. Natural in roughly equal measure, his nose-dive from this mortal coil left we who knew him shocked, then stunned, then bereft and – for two of us, anyway -- about to drive through the night to make his Buffalo memorial on time.

It was a night that began at one of those suburban malls that turn ghostly in the dark. The idea was to leave Beef’s Prius within sight of a security camera while heading off in a test Lexus – a 2013 IS350 sedan costing $48,000 as equipped. In addition to other features, this meant it came with all-wheel-drive, a six-speed automatic and keyless-starting 3.5-liter, 24-valve, six-cylinder engine generating 306 brake horsepower at 6,400 rpm. 

Beefalo arrived wearing his usual tropical shirt and pork-pie hat. With him was the fish tackle box holding our Adderall, Xanax, Lipitor, Prilosec, Ambien and baby aspirin. Despite his resemblance to Hunter Thompson's Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, Beef's rasped description of the Lexus as "sweeet" was made in Dr. John fashion. 

True enough. Parked under a mercury-vapor lamp, the Avalon-based 350 did look sweet, its swept and rounded lines lending it a wide-body look. The effect was to end the plainness of earlier models while making a last stand against the weird spindle grille and razoring sheet-steel of its 2014 successor.

Sweeet: The 2013 IS350 AWD
Not that any of this matters when put against Hunter Thompson's two-car dictum. This holds that matched convertibles -- a Porsche and a green Cadillac -- are requisite for gonzo motoring. Why two drop-tops, asks you? “So you can switch cars when things start to go bad,” the bat-hallucinating bard wrote in Men's Journal, adding:  “Be sure to launch one of these off a cliff.”

That's a tall order for most automotive journalists. Besides, the idea of things tracing doomed arcs through the burning blue had temporarily lost its appeal. One thing was becoming clear however: Ironies – some of them uncomfortable -- were beginning to mount.

The night was sultry as we got underway -- a condition the luxury car’s small but leather-lined and climate-controlled interior handily overcame. Of course, the trip’s first Adderall also helped dispel fog -- and so with the Lexus' windshield framing bright ribbons of roadway under a waxing moon, there was no indication our midnight ride would be attended by fear & loathing.

We made Pennsylvania in jig time, beneficiaries of the Lexus' quick throttle response and transmission-equipped Sport mode. The throttle response also jolted my sometime Caribbean companion out of reverie and into autobiography: “I used to scam a supplier up here into selling me USP-grade nitrous,” he recalled with an oblique nod as we passed some towering roadside apparition. “I'd say I worked for a place called ‘Superior Air Conditioning' and needed the ether to repair a glass chiller. He'd sell it to me by the tankful, no questions asked.” 

This was a reminder that the Keystone State is another country – a mix of mid-century industrial decay & “Earth After Man” plant growth. To Maryland, it’s what Louisiana is to Mississippi, or New Hampshire to Vermont – a swampy, quasi-libertine, cars-on-blocks reflection of its buttoned-up neighbor. This was especially evident along a dark stretch of Harrisburg through which the IS350’s sotto-vocce nav system routed us before leading onto a network of secondary roads.

Thus we came into Northern PA. Thompson, who advocated fearlessness as a way to seize control from a world gone mad, called this “jack rabbit country." Supposedly, it's a region in which ennui so promotes lunacy that its rabbits “crouch by the side of a road while waiting for the next set of headlights to come along.”  

Oblivious to the legions of little pink eyes awaiting our approach, we drove jack rabbit country's wooded byways, passing shuttered establishments touting "Pigs of All Sizes," & "Clyde Peeling's Reptile Land" & the like. En route, I looked out for deer while unfavorably comparing the 350's performance to that of its BMW 3-Series competitor. Sure, the Lexus delivered power in a glissando of speed. And yes, its high cornering limits were reached with ease. But the entry-level luxo-sedan suffered from barbituate road-feel, and its transmission sometimes searched for the right notch to hit like a jacked-up rock-star

Which brings us back to the roadside's rabbits. Turns out they don't take to the bushes with the passivity of rural teens who get stoned and lie down on runway aprons. Rather, as Thompson went on to write, the rabbits are such gonzo freaks that once a vehicle approaches, they dash into its path "with split-second timing to make it across just inches in front of speeding front wheels.” 

The Lexus' 17-inch alloy wheels were well suited to controlling understeer -- a useful aid in keeping bunnies from becoming road-kill. Luckily, we never encountered any of Tioga County's road-running rabbits, so I never had to slam on the Lexus' power-assisted discs to spare their lives. On the other hand, I was struck by Thompson's suggestion that we each abide in a jack-rabbit country of our own making. As the gonzo embrace of life demands defiance of its death -- we too must sometimes make the mad dashes that lead from ground to glory. 

Beefalo, who'd been practicing "Spirit in the Sky" on his ukelele, agreed. "Such moves are sometimes undertaken in a vintage airplane," he averred before relapsing into memoir: "I remember a night at a bar in South Beach when this one Cuban hooker had thought another was moving in on her turf. So there was a god-awful fight. Both got their blouses torn and lost their neoprene wigs -- but in the end the winner was able stand astride the loser to proclaim: 'You were told, bitch. Now you been showed.' Heh."

There was Dr. John again -- but if this story hid another life-altering message, it was lost on me. So I asked Beef to hand over the tackle box from which I fished out another Adderal and fiddled with the 350's satellite radio to see if I could find "Carmelita" playing somewhere in the ozone.

As is often the way with such things, my search ended with our listening to "People are Strange" instead. That's when the night sky went into the Klezmer-accompanied reverb described at the beginning of this piece. It's also when I floored the Lexus, bringing it to speed and staying there until an all-night diner appeared in the distance.

We took this as a sign. "As your sometime Caribbean songwriting collaborator, I advise you to turn in here," Beefalo directed.

The place resembled a Denny's that had crawled off to die -- except that it was still open and really an IHOP. No matter. As the diner's only customers, Beef and I slid into a Naugahyde booth and waited for help to emerge from its murk of orange-yellow plasticity.

This came in the form of our waitress, whose name tag said "Babi," but offered no guide to pronunciation. A handsome woman of indeterminate age, she came across as one who had to pull the graveyard shift long after doing so was comfortable.

Not that Babi was any pink-collered cliché. Instead, she seemed like the femme-tragicque you'd find waiting tables in a French film. This had me fear she'd engage in the annoyingly contrarian dialogue with which froggie auteurs create irony. 

Fortunately, I was wrong.

"Coffee, fellas?" she asked.

"Yes please," I replied, admiring the shape of her head.

A beat. "Anything else?"

"Well, um, Miss, seeing as how Cuban sandwiches are out, my sometime Caribbean collaborator and I would like whatever you've got that corresponds to a Denny's Grand Slam." 

"We've got pancakes. You know -- pancakes with lots of whipped cream and fruit and stuff. You could have bacon, eggs and pancakes, though."

"Sold," I said. "But eighty-six the goo. Just make that sausage,
syrup, pancakes, potatoes and eggs, over-easy. And the same for my friend here opposite."

Babi shrugged. "Why not just ask for a couple of Coronary Blue-Plates with a hefty side of LDL" she asked while scribbling the order onto her pad.

"That might take longer to write down. Besides -- is not all this cholesterol-fear a meme trumped up by drug companies and their fellow travelers among the Bobos?" 

Babi smirked approvingly. Sensing a fellow spirit, I asked:

"Anyone through here tonight mention odd things happening in the sky?"

"Could be the Aurora," Babi offered with a squint out the window. "The Aurora Boreally."

"In July?"

"Happens." Then in the direction of the kitchen: "Hey Caleb -- we've got the Aurora Boreally out there. In July."

"Say what?" shouted Caleb over the noise of an exhaust fan. "Bor-e-ally," Babi repeated with asperity. In response, a non-committal "Hmmm" issued from the food prep area.

I was skeptical. "You sure about that being the Aurora?" I asked. "I mean -- this was nothing like the lights you'd see on some 'Wonders-of-the-Ungava' Christmas calendar or anything" "That's true," Beef
chimed in, about to add his own description of the celestial display. "It was like the sky danced -- like Scorpio on approach doing the Electric Slide."

Babi directed her attention at Dr. Beef. "Well, maybe it wasn't the Aurora then," she allowed. "That's got lots of shooting colors & such. But we also get the Persius meteor shower about this time. And the Delta Aquarids. Could've been one of them."

You've got me there, I thought, never having heard of either. Perhaps in Babi we had someone who could explain the mysteries of biological life as well as broasted chicken. But we never got to find out. With the subject of sky phenomena having run its course, her conversation took terrestrial turn.

"That your car outside?"

Until that moment Chevrolet owned the franchise on such inquiries: First there was that horse-country barmaid who wanted a better look at a Corvette Z06; and then the beautiful East Indian doctor who closed up shop so I could give her a ride in a pre-production Chevy SSR. Respectful of the moment, my response to Babi was thick with American-Joe humility: "Sorry to say I don't own it, Miss. It's just a car I'm writing about."

"Oh, well. It's only that my boss is looking for a new car. Seeing as how you write about them -- what'll you say about that one?"

"Well, it's nicely understated, that's sure. And its comfortable so long as you're
sitting up front -- although this all-wheel model's a bit cramped on the driver's side. At 26 miles per gallon on the highway, its mileage is pretty acceptable -- and it's got speed, handling and performance. But it somehow lacks soul. Of course, that's my take. Anyone interested might just as well wait and see what the 2014s are like. They're supposed to be 'all new.'"

"Well -- the boss likes the Kia," said Babi resignedly.

The sky had begun to lighten when Beef and I left Babi at the Big Flats diner door, and it was only a short while later when -- with the first glimmer of dawn at our backs -- we coursed through the countryside leading into Buffalo, its hills dotted with Greek-revival farmhouses and enormous wind turbines of the type our late friend took a lead in pioneering. In time, Buffalo itself appeared, the 30-foot statues atop its
Liberty Bank building still locked in their nightly battle of alternating torch lights: "I'm the Statue of Liberty," the first flashed her torch as if to proclaim. "No you don't, bitch" flashed the second, I am."

There'd be no "you been told, now you been showed" moment. It was just another turf war. Only this one in the sky. 

While somewhere on the ground below, old friends were beginning to gather. 

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  1. Thank you for writing about Allen. He was a visionary in baggy chinos, and scruffy beard, a white dog following him. We, who loved him so very much,
    know how hard it is to be in a world without him.

    1. You've put into words what many of us feel. I like to think that Allen P is again being followed around by Alfie (Don Snorto) as I write this.

  2. Beautiful. Whenever I read anything you've written, Alan, it reminds me why I keep trying harder.