If you had a grandparent alive in the ninties you know the car. The road-whale: huge, rounded, and powerful. Buicks, Oldsmobiles, a smattering of bloated Chryslers and the ubiquitous Cadillac—these great machines drifted slowly from lane to lane, piloted by tiny, blinking, q-tip-headed drivers on the way to the golf course, hospital, or buffet. The cars were styleless and unreliable, but your grandparents didn't care. And then your grandparents died, or got too blind to drive, and the road whale vanished, apparently to Montgomery, as automakers introduced new styles of geezer transport.
In all fairness, the Donk (or Box or Scraper, depending of your linguistic preference) isn't entirely unique to Alabama's capitol, but Montgomery residents are connoisseurs of them in the same way the French are of wine. The Donk is what happened to your grandmother's car after seven years of shuffling between used car lots. Its formerly demure beige or blue paint job has been traded for bright, glittery reds and greens, shades normally reserved for bumpercars. Its wheels, once plush and modestly-sized, are now thin strips of rubber wrapped around chrome rims larger than truck tires. Colorful xenon headlights gleaming, the Donk stands well off the ground, sneering at the paltry clearance of SUVs. It is uncool rebranded. The hulking, lozenge-shaped machines will be the 2000s answer to the low-rider.
The southern night is cool as the yellow, brick-shaped 82 Volvo grumbles past two Donks waiting at a stoplight. The Mechanic drives. Montgomery is roughly half black and half white, just as it is roughly half affluent and half poor, he says. His house—his father's before him—is now in a black neighborhood and he is one of the few whites still living in the area. Ten years ago, it was appraised at $25,000, though its value has been steadily rising. These values reflect psychology more than structure. The house is fine. Most of the Mechanic's neighbors' houses are fine. But people with money do not want his house because they do not want to be near his neighbors. There is a simple reason for this.
"Segregation is still fuckin strong here," he says, "it's different, but the same." His yellow Swede-machine toils past gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and the few other businesses that remain open after ten. Sometimes the crowds outside are white, other times they are black, a simple binary. "There's a fuckin load of tension..." Little misunderstandings, different ways of speaking, the wrong type of eye contact can erupt into ugliness. Resentment simmers on the front burner. The Mechanic is from the south, but Montgomery is something else, he says. "I'm still not sure I like it here..."
The two people on the hill feel the same way. They are from elsewhere in Alabama, too, both in town on separate visits. The midday sun makes the grass glow radioactive-green as they sit on a park bench overlooking the Alabama River and Montgomery's sleepy business district. They converse with disarming ease given that they have only known each other for an hour. The man tells the woman about marching with Martin Luther King in Birmingham and, though she is in her forties, she reacts with surprise to his descriptions of segregation. "You mean black people and white people couldn't use the same bathrooms?" He nods. She is disgusted by how many more bathrooms and drinking fountains would have been needed. "That just doesn't make sense..." she trails off. He nods. Then: "nobody in this town is friendly," he grumbles to the air. He has seven dollars. The shelter will not accept men without substance problems. He only needs $35 for a room, but hasn't been able to scrape up any money. Suffocating air lies over the park, like a thick quilt in summertime. "I don't like it here," he says, and his dark eyelids descend over gray irises. Behind him, a Donk glides, shark-like, through an empty parking lot and suddenly guns its engine into the street.