It sat there, or lounged there, or spread itself out and ate the ground
below it there, looking hungry, hellish, confidently orgiastic, a 1960 hearse
with tail fins and tinted windows poised in
Wayne Harris' back yard
like a long, jet-black land ark.
Harris, 23, and the owner of the hearse, prepared to slip into it.
Physically, he and the car seemed at odds. But psychically they were one,
subscribers to the same moon beam, an electric arc humming between them and
almost combusting whenever Harris ran his hands along the hearse's sleek
Harris took a step back. His eyes drifted wide and tried to corner the car.
It looked ready to fly. Harris took a deep breath, "I'm nervous," he
said. "It's like the first day of school. I'm always nervous when I go out,
but especially in something like this."
Harris took another breath as he slid into the car. Then he grinned, his
nervousness mugged abruptly by an opposite dark force. He turned on the
ignition. The hearse coughed, sputtered, burped. Then it heaved and quieted,
appearing finally to breath, inhaling and exhaling instead of sparking and
firing, as if the engine had been removed and replaced with a pair of lungs. "You
get to be with me," Harris then said, still grinning, most of his teeth
visible and many of them square, "when we debut."
It was Friday night. In Arlington. The air was warm and moved around in
little flutters. "Perfect," Harris had said. He'd hoped for this.
Tonight was his coming out. In the hearse! He was taking it to Cooper Street,
the mile-long cruising strip near the University of Texas at Arlington. Cooper
Street had the clout that Harris had been seeking - more so, even, he said, than
Forest Lane, the popular cruising strip in Dallas. Cooper Street makes or breaks
a car with pretensions. And the hearse's pretensions were not hard to hear.
"The hearse," Harris had intoned frankly, "is ultra."
Harris knows from ultra. Last year, he set the denizens of Cooper Street on
their chromium ears with his maroon Buick Regal, the 1984 national car stereo
champion, which he titled, in white paint on the car's rear window,
Harris won $5,000 at that competition, then picked up that much again showcasing
Eruption in front of car stereo dealerships around town. But Harris retired
Eruption to his garage, "undefeated." It had served its purpose. Now
it sits covered with a soft layer of dust - except for one spot, a large, clean,
conspicuous circle in the middle of the roof, where the National Car Stereo
Championship trophy stood so immodestly for so long.
But with Eruption put to pasture, Harris was left without a car. Or at least
without a real car. He had a car for work - a tiny Plymouth Horizon lent
to him by Page-A-Phone, the mobile communications company (servicing beepers,
mobile phones and two-way radios) where for the last three years he has worked
as a systems engineer. But a Horizon wouldn't do on cooper Street. Harris needed
something to top Eruption. That's the way he is. He's motivated by challenges. "I'm
goal-oriented," he explained.
Still, he felt the pressure. After winning the national championship last
year, he got a bank loan for $6,500, merged it with the $5,000 he won at the
national competition and bought $12,500 worth of car stereo equipment. That left
him looking for a car big enough to hold the 2,600 watts he planned to channel
through a 30-inch sub-woofer, which if you know nothing about stereo equipment
means he had accumulated enough decibels to blow a hole through a low cloud
"I knew I needed something big," Harris said, attempting to
reconstruct the logic that had led him to his hearse. "I thought about a
van, a Suburban (a Chevy truck). I don't know how I thought of a hearse. But
when I thought of it, I knew it was right. It made a lot of sense: It was big,
had low mileage. It's never been drive over 15 miles an hour.
"This one was in a pasture," he added of the '60 Cadillac hearse
he eventually bought for $850 from the Summer's Funeral Car Co. in Oak Cliff. "It
wasn't running, the tires were all flat. When I saw it I said, "That's the
one." "I mean" - he nodded toward the rear of the car - "these
Harris had no problems with the darker spirituality universally associated
with hearses. He's not spooked by its potential - not now.
"It was kind of spooky the first two or three nights, having it sitting
out there next to the house," he said. "But after a few days I never
even thought about it. I'm too scientifically oriented.
"It would be interesting," he added of sharing the hearse with the
giddy souls of its former occupants, "I want to believe in something like
that. But it's been pretty quiet. It hasn't moved or anything."
The hearse made its professional debut two Sundays ago, at Fair Park, for
the Dallas car stereo "Crank It Up" contest. Harris arrived early in
the morning with a convoy of friends, each turning on his car lights as he
approached the Fair Park entrance.
"We didn't turn the lights on while we were on the highway or anything,"
Harris said. "I don't know how old people react to it (the hearse). It
depends on your attitude. I don't want to hurt anybody. It's just a car."
in the pro division, open class competition. He won a
By the next day, he'd sold it for $6,500. He also said he set a record at the
contest, but that it wasn't "official," since "there wasn't
anybody there from the Guinness Book of World Records." Harris was asked:
Record for what? He answered: "Sound pressure." He also said
he doesn't plan to put the money he made from his truck into an attempt to top
"I think I'll retire after the hearse," he said. "I don't
think I can do any better."
But as of last Friday, Harris wasn't through yet. The hearse still had to
pass its public debut. To a certain Arlington element, the sight of Harris'
hearse would be the single biggest spectacle ever to cross its eyes. The moment
was not lost on Harris.
"I've been looking forward to this for five months," he said of
his own anticipation. He went on for several minutes about how he'd spent every
off-work minute putting together his car. He wore a hole in the theme of
sacrifice. " This is what makes it worth it," he said. "All those
cold nights I worked on this thing."
Then the sun set and the Arlington sky turned bright with the washed-out
light from miles of neon. Harris pulled his hearse into the street, curled
behind a dashboard
lit like a 747 control panel. There were more knobs and switches on the dash
than Harris had fingers and toes. A smile from some inner self-satisfaction rose
to his cheeks.
A mile into the drive, Harris pulled into a self-service car wash. He wanted
to remove dirt left from the previous night's storm. A crowd of "professional
Cooper cruisers," as Harris refers both to himself (he put 30,000 miles on
his Regal last year driving the one-mile strip) and the rest of the street's
regulars, gathered quickly. Most were drawn by the music that blew from the
hearse's windows. Much more than a wall, it was like an impenetrable force
field, an accumulation of heavy metal noises capable of repelling anything from
buckshot to mortar fire. Those who drove in cars behind it said they could feel
the bass beat pounding in their chests. Inside the hears, Harris supplied his
own ear plugs. Still, even with those, the effect was like being conked
rhythmically with an empty Coke bottle.
"What kind of stereo system you got in there?" one teenager asked
Harris, dropping his head into a side window.
"The ultimate one," Harris answered.
"Man," the kid replied a moment later, lifting his head out of the
car, his face flushed and slightly contorted, his hair mussed. He looked like
he'd just drowned. "You've gone too far."
"It's different. That's what I look for out here," said Steve
Smith, an 18-year-old Cooper Cruiser who paints cars in Irving. "I seen all
kinds of stuff here, from souped up hot rods to this. I never seen a hearse. I
seen old ambulances, '62, '63 ambulances, with mags and stuff."
"I wish I had that car," said 15-year-old John Aziz
straddling a bicycle.
"I don't see how he can ride it," interrupted Haywood Bryant, a
12-year-old straddling his own bike.
"I like the way it looks," Aziz continued.
"I wouldn't ride it," Bryant repeated.
"Shut up," Aziz corrected.
Harris dried the hearse and pulled it out onto Cooper Street. He slipped a
Van Halen laser disc into the stereo system. "We'll get at least one ticket
tonight," Harris said, increasing the volume. He said he's been ticketed at
least 15 times for "amplified noise," though he did say the Arlington
police have left him alone since he became national car stereo champ. "I
spend so much on tickets," he added, "I could have build a whole
'nother car, probably."
Harris began the night's cruise by turning a circle in an Arby's parking
lot. The teenagers and older college students who sat on and around their cars
reacted as though witnessing a celestial phenomenon. They cheered, threw fists
in the air, contorted their mouths grotesquely, screamed at the tops of their
lungs. From inside the hears, however, with Quiet Riot annealing another tune,
they all looked mute, with not a sound reaching the driver's seat.
Harris smiled. "I love it out here, man I love it," he
shouted. "They like it. They like my car."
Past a row of disbelieving faces pressed against the glass at the Arby's
drive-through window, Harris steered the hearse back on to Cooper Street.
Hundreds of cars there sat bumper to bumper, moving every few seconds a couple
of miles an hour. Cars passing in the opposite direction would stop in awe when
they saw the hearse. After they shouted mutely for several seconds, Harris would
turn down the volume and lean an ear in their direction.
"God damn," one kid shouted from behind his steering
"You like my new one?" Harris asked.
"Where's your old one?" the kid asked, referring, as would others
throughout the night, to the Regal.
"I still got it," Harris told him.
"Where'd you get this one?"
"I dug it up."
It went on like that for hours. At times, the reaction of those in other
cars upon seeing the hearse bordered on a cult reverence. A half-dozen college
students in the back of a pickup truck stood up and applauded. A few others,
however, voiced displeasure.
"Why are you driving that dead thing?" yelled one girl, who
appeared to be college age, as she drove by Harris with a carload of friends.
She spouted a stream of invectives. "You're gross. You're sick."
"There's always a few, man," Harris said when they passed. "But
on the average, I come out ahead. I like it when the guys are impressed. They're
hard. Girls are easy." A girl two cars later stopped, leaned out the
driver's side window and handed Harris a milkshake. "Some of these girls
wanna make it in a casket, man. You can tell."
And so it went. At one point - his ears ringing. His fingers curled
permanently around the steering wheel ("it's like driving a train") -
Harris tried to explain his passion.
"I love it," he said. "it's the life I missed in high school.
I went to school in a real small town (Marfa). The whole town had like two
pinball machines. When you took out the girls, all they wanted to do is arm
wrestle. But these people here" - he looked out over his dash, a river of
brake lights flowing before him - "they love my car."
"I work with the most professional people in the world during the day,"
Harris went on. "But these people out here, they're different. They're my
family. They're the friends I don't have in my professional life. They don't
care how I dress, if I make good grades in college, (Harris has accumulated
about 100 hours toward a degree in electrical engineering.) We just drive up and
down a road, bumper to bumper. Most people'd cuss out traffic like this. But
this is association with people.
"I " He paused. "There's no way I can explain it,"
he said finally. "It's too complex."