Adventures in the Land of Greasecars and Fireflies
“Are you ready?” I glanced nervously over at my friend Jolie in the passenger seat as we drove along the curvy twilight road. She was staring back at me with wide excited eyes. “Uh-huh. Do it.” I flipped the switch on the dashboard from MAIN to AUX and waited for the little car to lose power with that particular tenseness I hold in my jaw that I’ve gotten used to when driving sketchy vehicles. We waited. And waited. Nothing changed. If we’d routed the system correctly the car was drawing fuel from the new auxiliary tank in the trunk. “Goddamn – I think it’s working! The car’s running on straight vegetable oil!” The two of us were suddenly grinning face screaming out the windows with excitement. It was like we’d suddenly slipped out of the gasoline war matrix that’s managed to grab the whole world by the throat – we were sneaking past the system by feeding its waste right back into itself. A moment later the exhaust pipe went from smelling like diesel to smelling like used fryer grease and the whole thing was so amazing and surreal we just felt high on life and freedom. The two of us were just a couple miles outside New Paltz on highway 44/55 – heading over the Shawangunks back home to the wild side of the ridge. It was one of the last days of spring in the Hudson Valley – the sun was setting, there was thick air warm on our skin and the fireflies were just beginning to arrive for the season -- lighting up the night sky like shooting stars.
I. Old Time Lessons From the Open Road
Unlike most Americans, I never had much of a desire to drive a car. Cars always scared the hell out of me – they always struck me as a good way to get yourself killed or more likely get yourself stuck working a job you hated so you could pay for insurance and gas and repairs. I saw the trap all around me from a young age and I wanted no part of it. I grew up in a city with really good public transportation anyway – one of the only places in the country where it’s common for people to never learn how to drive. I come from a long line of New York City folk who rode the subway and took the bus across town to go to work. My dad died never learning how to drive, to me it always seemed like somewhat of a family tradition. Bicycles are way more practical form of transportation in urban areas, and my friends and I all had bikes, so driving really never became much of an issue until I finally decided that I didn’t want to be a city boy anymore and I wanted to be able to live out in the woods. But even after escaping the city, I managed to avoid driving for years.
Like a bunch of my fellow anarchist traveling friends, learning how to ride freight trains and hitchhike when I was 20 was the equivalent of a mainstream suburban kid getting a driver’s license and a family car. It made me feel like for the first time in my life I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted and visit places I’d only even seen on maps or heard about in stories. But the big difference from having a car was that with this new knowledge of the road came the responsibility of having to acquire a whole set of other skills: I had to really learn how to talk to strangers – find common ground and shared language with folks who grew up really different than I had. I needed to find my way in strange lands without having a familiar space to retreat to and I had to learn to deal with bizarre situations and always be able to think on my toes and live out of a backpack. I needed to learn how to make friends quickly and put my trust in kindness. These were such important lessons to have and skills to learn, pieces of old time knowledge sometimes whispered under train bridges in the middle of the night or in the cabs of semi trucks driving through the desert and generally the kind of stuff that’s only gleaned from hanging amidst the unfamiliar and the unknown.
These days there are so few people living that old traveling life anymore. Looking around the world today it becomes painfully clear that people are really scared of each other and we live in a society so fueled by fear that it even allows people with enough money to never have to talk to anyone else. So if you can eat out every meal, stay in a motel every night, and fill up your gas tank whenever it’s running low, you have the option of never having to engage with anyone on more than a surface level, ever. Never mind the economic elite who exist in their own reality bubble away from the rest of us and probably have their own dysfunctional dilemmas, I’m just talking about the average middle-class American who doesn’t know how to talk to his neighbors, let alone some strangers at a gas station or the people who live across town. I never aspired to be a person like that. In fact, since my early teenage years I’ve worked really hard to make sure I’d never become a person like that.
But it seems to get harder all the time for those of us who aspire to a life of meaningful interactions and soulful connections: every year it seems like we get closer to a world where self check-out scanning bar code machines, Paypal, Amazon Internet shopping, and swiping cards in front of digital displays replace any kind of human contact we once had in the marketplace or out in the streets or on the road. Travel and Vacation are big industries that colonize whole areas of the world and whole areas of our mass media soaked consciousness. People learn how to interact with each other from watching horrible Hollywood movies and inane TV talk shows. We learn what the rest of the world is like through the cultural lenses of the people who oppress us and because of this, ridiculous and twisted stereotypes get burned into our tender brains before we have a chance to even know what’s been done to us. These are traps of the modern world, so easy to fall into with our traditional social safety nets cut and our cultural histories washed away in the drowning amnesiac tide of consumer conveniences and corporate monoculture thinking. In a world where we’re all pitted against each other for the dollar, taught to fear each other in the classrooms and from the newspapers and all the other images we’re constantly inundated with, so many of us end up looking only to our wallets or the government for security. Inevitably, tragically, we watch out for the ones closest to us and leave the doors locked and windows rolled up when we’re driving through unfamiliar territory.
This is what the world of cars and driving always represented to me: a ticket to be like everyone else I didn’t want to be like, a ticket straight into the hands of the System. But it’s much easier to criticize things from the outside, look with contempt at all the people driving in their little air conditioned boxes while you’re sweating out on the highway waiting for the kindness of a stranger to emerge from a blur of speeding multicolored metal and stone cold faces. It’s also easier to do romantic things like ride freight trains around the country and always be the exciting person just passing through town if you don’t have anywhere you have to be or anyone relying on you for anything important. Traveling on the fringes of the System, though it can be full of magic and potential and freedom, has its own little world full of alienating privileges and strange social pitfalls.
It’s really such an archetypal punk rock thing if you think about it, being that loner standing on the outside looking in with anger and contempt. It’s definitely one of the defining features of a subculture to look at the outside world with fear and distrust. It’s a powerful mechanism for maintaining traditions and codes of behavior in the face of cultural homogenization (look it up in the sociology books, punk.) Do you remember how scared we all were by the Internet? How the thought of communicating through email seemed alien and cold? It wasn’t that long ago: I remember the summer of 1998 when Dragonface Dan rode freight trains all over the country and sent me emails about his adventures from public libraries in places like Pocatello, Idaho and Ogden, Utah. That’s when I knew for sure the email thing was here to stay. No matter how alienating and foreign, eventually if we’re clever we learn to make the system work for us. And it’s a rare person I cross paths with now who doesn’t have an email address. These days the train hopping traveler kids I meet either use those free 888 voicemail lines or even have their own cell phones to stay in touch with each other, and almost everyone uses the Internet for something, if they don’t already have their own webpages and blogs. Times change, people adapt, the world moves on and creates whole new riddles and lessons for us if we know how to listen close enough to the mystery language and connect some of the seemingly alien dots.
II. The Forgotten Era of the Punk Rock Chingers
Not so many years ago a lot of my friends and I used to drop 25 bucks at Radio Shack for these little electronic tone dialers that we could reprogram to simulate the sound of quarters going into a payphone. Before cell phones and the Internet, this is how a lot of us communicated with each other across the country. Tone dialers were actually created in that window of time in the 80s when telephones were switching over between the rotary system and the touchtone, and people needed to access their new fangled tone-operated answering machines from rotary phones. I suppose some people continued to use them to program their phone numbers and they were just one more piece of electronic garbage made in Chinese factories and sold at identical strip malls around Our Great Nation, destined for obsolescence. The dialers were about the size of a cell phone, tiny black boxes; they could easily fit in your pocket. We would buy them, open up the back with a little screwdriver, use a soldering iron to replace one of the microprocessor crystals responsible for making a specific tone with a similarly shaped but different tone crystal, and put the whole thing back together carefully. We called them “chingers”, thus named for the “ching” sound they made when you held them up to a payphone receiver and pushed the button. Five consecutive programmed “chings” tricked the phone into thinking a quarter was being deposited. And a chinger had an infinite supply of chings. This is how we outsmarted the system and talked to our friends without having to pay. In a world where the System is so monolithic and brutal, where the phone company has direct ties to the nuclear arms industry, where their corporate insignias look straight out of Darth Vader’s Death Star from Star Wars, and where we obviously all wanted to work as little as possible so we could concentrate on being Anarchist Revolutionaries, it was a pretty cool trick. It was like finding a loophole in the communication grid, a clever way to slip through the cracks and use their infrastructure for our needs.
By the time I started using my chinger, only certain payphones worked on the old tone system, but those of us with chingers in our pockets knew where they were in all the major cities, just like we knew where the good dumpsters behind the stores were to feed ourselves. Some of those chinger phone spots became like space/time portals to me – I’d spend long nights on the phone with my friends out west, pumping my fake quartertones into the machine every couple minutes. When I was 19 years old, the entire first tour of my band was booked from an old telephone on 8th Street and Avenue C with the use of a chinger and a list of venue contacts. But that was so long ago, things change fast in this modern world. I hardly even recognize that block anymore. Round the millennium the phone companies finally switched over to a system that didn’t recognize the old tones, and the era of the Traveling Punks with the Chingers in Their Pockets got relegated to a piece of obscure history you’re reading about right now but probably won’t be hearing about anywhere else.
III. Welcome Back to the Year 2004
You may have noticed that there’s a war going on in Iraq right now, and the war is so obviously primarily about oil and the money being made off of oil. About building pipelines through the desert and securing future energy reserves, government ties to big business interests and corporate contracts to rebuild decimated economies. Those of us with our eyes open know how wrong the whole thing is, but as a society we’re addicted to it like a drug. Fossil fuels are the life-blood of the System. Oil and gas are the backbone of capital-intensive industrial production because they provide the energy for transportation, for industry, and for mechanized agriculture. Our society as we know it would grind to a halt if we suddenly didn’t have access to cheap fuel, and there are a small amount of people who control the fuel who are quite skilled at maintaining that control. Everything in the grocery store is there for us to buy because of subsidized oil paid for in blood. The gas we pump at the station is subsidized by the same misery and carnage. We don’t want to think about it, so most of us don’t. The same disconnect that allows us to live a life where we don’t need to talk to our neighbors is the same disconnect that allows us the ability to shut out logic when it’s right in front of our eyes and staring us in the face. The politicians on TV might say it’s about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” or “Protecting Freedom and Democracy” but we all know that it’s just about keeping the system running – and low and behold: the system runs on cheap oil.
History is capable of making so many twists and turns – the hyper-petroleum dependent world we live in now was not always so inevitable. The diesel engine, which is still used today for all long hauling and heavy machinery because it’s superior in strength and reliability to the gasoline engine, was first exhibited at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris – and Dr. Rudolf Diesel actually had it running on straight peanut oil! It was a powerful engine, which used compressed air and oil without the use of a spark to create an ignition. Dr. Diesel, 34 years old at the time, designed his engine to run on various oils all of which could be grown by regional farmers. However, the auto and petroleum industries were quick to turn the diesel engine into an opportunity to maximize use of the crude oil they used to make petroleum gasoline. Because the diesel engine is stronger, it can be run on less refined gasoline – what we call diesel fuel today is actually a byproduct of the petroleum making process. By offering both fuels at one station and coming from one source, it could maximize profit and keep the ability to power our own engines completely out of reach of the people.
We don’t hear much about fueling cars on vegetable oil, do we? It burns much cleaner: 70 percent less particulate matter into the air, 40 percent fewer hydrocarbons, no sulfur emissions. If we could produce the fuel for our engines from crops that we grew in this country – safflower, soybeans, canola, corn -- why would we need to go all the way across the world and kill people? But we already know the answer because it’s the same old story: they’ve created a need for something they’ve got and they want us coming back for more. It’s the cursed logic of the marketplace: in order for the system to “work”, it’s necessary to make people need what they don’t have. If they can do it themselves, you have to take away their ability to do it themselves. This applies across the board – whether it’s farmers in the developing world saving their own seeds or kids in the suburbs producing their own music. When it gets to be too much of a threat, the system clamps down – they figure out some way to take away the power, and then they sell it back to us. And in this modern world, everything comes back to oil.
This can obviously all be pretty demoralizing if you feel things strongly in the world and have the blessing or curse of being able to connect some of the scary dots. Maybe, like me, you swore you’d never be doing it, but suddenly one day you find yourself filling up at the station with everyone else, eating your morals and choking on gas fumes. And it feels horrible and humiliating, standing at the pump, watching the dial ring up gallon after gallon, spending your hard earned money to fuel the war machine. You know it’s only a matter of time before it’s all going to blow or collapse in on itself, but for now it feels like a slow, depressing, bloody, painful, social and ecological catastrophe that you’re participating in. But deep inside, waiting around the corner, you know there are other ways and it’s probably time you start working on them.
IV. Strange Twists of Fate and Planted Seeds
I first heard about it one snowy night back in 1995 when this woman showed a video called Living Off the Fat of the Land at the anarchist bookstore I hung out at on Avenue B. The video was about a group of women from San Francisco who drove across the country in a diesel van they fueled on used vegetable oil that they got for free from fast food restaurants. In order to do it they mixed the waste oil with methanol and lye and heated it – a chemical process that separated the glycerin molecules from the oil and replaced them with alcohol -- thereby making the liquid combustible. This was very impressive to all of us, to say the least.
By a strange twist of fate that still makes me smile to myself sometimes when I think about it, that same winter I ended up studying Spanish at this language school in Guatemala and ended up meeting this couple, Kaia and Josh Tickell, who were college students from Sarasota, Florida. One night over dinner I was telling them about the video I’d seen, about the women running their car on vegetable oil and driving across the country. Josh was a really bright kid with a lot of vision and I remember his eyes got all big: “What an amazing idea!” The following year Kaia and Josh ended up buying a big old Winnebago RV, painting it all hippie green and blue and full of sunflowers and calling it the “Veggie Van.” As part of their senior thesis for college they ran the Veggie Van on used grease from fast food restaurants and drove it all across the country. They were slick enough to get all kinds of corporate sponsorship and get on Good Morning America, and they ended up inspiring a whole lot of folks all over the place.
Since that time a whole thriving movement of people who are making what they call Biodiesel, fuel for diesel engines made from vegetable oil, has really taken off and Josh has been at the forefront of it all, actually making his living running the veggievan.com website and getting paid to speak in front of crowds about the future of sustainable energy. But even back in those early days, Josh and I would argue about what that future was going to look like. He was dead set convinced that the only way we could save the planet was to get the big oil companies to invest in sustainable technology, which could then be available to the masses. I told him that there was nothing sustainable about convincing everyone that it’s okay to drive as much as they want and handing over all the power over to corporations which, by their very nature, will never have any regard for human life or the health of the planet. The only vision that made sense to me was a more localized one, where farms could produce oil crops and there could be fuel cooperatives with a much greater emphasis on public transportation and community control. But that was a while ago, life has moved on, and needless to say Josh Tickell makes a lot more money than I do.
Meanwhile, some years later, I have all these friends, from Oregon to Maine, who are making their own biodiesel and running it in their diesel engines. I know folks out in Oakland making biodiesel in their garage and there are biodiesel fueling stations up in northern California. I keep hearing word about new cooperatives starting up all the time. These days you can even buy a pre-made biodiesel processor from the people out at Real Goods in California. The idea is actually filtering into the mainstream. Then, in the middle of last summer, my friend Quinn showed up in New Paltz from North Carolina with a Ford F-250 truck she and her crew had converted to run on straight vegetable oil. They had bought a kit from a company called Greasel in Missouri that altered their truck to be able to burn straight grease without having to add any extra chemicals into the mix. Shortly thereafter my buddy Kevin drove his friend’s old diesel Mercedes that had also been converted using a Greasel kit all the way across the country. So amidst all of this, I started having fantasies about converting my own greasecar.
V. The Greasecar
The conversion of a diesel car to run on grease isn’t really that complicated compared to lots of other things in the world. The basic idea is that a regular diesel engine will run on vegetable oil as long as the oil is hot enough to not clog the fuel injectors. Straight vegetable oil at room temperature will clog the system because it’s too thick and heavy. So to make the system work you have to install a second fuel line with a second fuel tank in the trunk. The tank is made out of aluminum and has copper coils running through it. The coolant (which is liquid that runs through the engine absorbing heat to regulate the temperature) is rerouted under the car after it goes through the engine and then it runs through the aluminum tank, transmitting heat through the copper coils, thereby heating the vegetable oil. The car is started on regular diesel, and because a bunch of fuel hoses are cut and rerouted into an electronic switch, once the system is heated up, you can flip a switch on the dashboard connected to a switch under the hood, and the fuel source changes from the diesel tank to the veggie oil tank. Before you turn off the car you switch the system back to diesel so the fuel lines don’t clog with congealed vegetable oil. That’s pretty much the deal.
VI. Arteries and Hoses, Hearts and Engines
I always assumed that getting a car would be an alienating experience – driving along in my little box not talking to anyone. But as I discovered quickly with the purchase of my first vehicle a couple years ago, that “not ever having to talk to anyone” rule really only applies to people with new cars who have the money to always bring them into the shop. When I drove cross-country in my 1982 Toyota pick-up truck I discovered that driving an old janky car was not unlike hitchhiking, a daily adventure full of joy and incredible frustration. That winter I learned how to change the oil, replace the spark plugs, clean the carburetor, replace the alternator, replace my water pump, use a screwdriver to hotwire the ignition and a hammer to unfreeze the starter, as well as meet all kinds of exciting strangers willing to hook my jumper cables up to their battery and impart all kinds of car wisdom to me. I learned that the way you learn how to work on cars and get over being intimidated by them is just to get one, wait for things to go wrong, get over feeling bad about asking for help when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and make sure you have a little time in your life to screw up and get really dirty.
One thing I’ve come to understand recently as I’ve gotten over my fear of working on cars is that despite my earlier punk rock hatred of internal combustion, they really aren’t inherently evil. Cars are just machines that people created, people like you and me, and we made them in our own image, however flawed and mortal. Of course, Hummers and SUVs are these horrible manifestations of human egos gone awry, and it seems like all new cars are filled with computer chips and all kinds of crap that makes it impossible to work on them yourself, but cars, especially old cars, can have a lot of soul. The engine of a car is like a heart – instead of blood flowing through its arteries, its pumps are filled with oil and anti-freeze and gas. Just like a human body all the internal systems are connected – when one piece goes it usually sets off all kinds of chain reactions. Cars need understanding and attention to keep functioning, just like us. And like people, the more we understand them and how they work, the more time we spend with them, the less alien they seem.
VII. Obsessed with Diesels
Last winter when there were two feet of snow on the ground outside our house in the woods, I met Dave Rosenstraus on the greasecar.com message board. Greasecar is a company out of Western Massachusetts that, like Greasel in Missouri, sells DIY conversion kits for diesel vehicles. They have a message board on their website where folks can post questions and advertise cars. Dave was selling his beat up old Ford F-350 ambulance that he’d already set up to run on veggie oil. As it turned out he lived in a punk house in Allentown, Pennsylvania with a crew of other kids, played drums in a bunch of bands, and inevitably we had a bunch of mutual connections. Dave taught himself how to do grease conversions without any background in mechanics and that was really impressive to me. Even though I decided not to buy that enormous janky old money-trap ambulance, we stayed in touch.
Meanwhile I did as much research as I could over the winter and eventually decided that the most practical and economical car to invest in would be a Volkswagen Jetta, and then I promptly began manically searching for one. I was totally obsessed, traveling across the country this spring with my partner Ashley on Icarus Project tour - and every chance I got I was online looking at page after page of used car websites. Ashley would laugh and say: “There you go looking at your Jetta Porn again…” But it paid off and I finally found one: a 1990 diesel Jetta for about as much as I could afford to pay in a place that wasn’t so hard to get to. When I got back to the Hudson Valley with my little diesel car, I ordered a kit from the Greasecar folks, which set me back another 800 bucks. Then we organized a three day long workshop/party in New Paltz, and put flyers all over town that said:
“COME TO A DIY VEGETABLE OIL CONVERSION PARTY
IN THE AGE OF CORPORATE OIL WARS”
Dave drove in from Allentown to oversee the process, and for the next three days we made a big spectacle of ourselves in one of the parking lots behind Main Street, tools and car parts and coolant hoses and hose clamps everywhere. A bunch of folks showed up to check it out and help make things happen. People played music and cooked food. After three days and a bunch of inevitable screw ups, the car was running, the smell of fryer grease was in the air, and my friend and I were driving off into the sunset - which is, if you recall, how this whole story begin.
IIX. The Mind Blowing Machine
It’s a month later, and when I drive by the gas stations now and look at the prices they’re charging per gallon it feels like the old days when we scammed the phone lines to call our friends on the other side of the country. When we pull up and ask permission to hit the dumpsters behind the Chinese restaurants and our exhaust smells like grease, everyone around us is amazed. It’s such a great way to start conversations with strangers. No one wants to pay $2 a gallon for gas, and just seeing that other options exist out there creates an opening to think about larger change in the world that the mass media just does not have any interest in showing. It’s called being a threat by example. As Ashley is fond of saying, it’s like we’re driving around a Mind Blowing Machine.
So at the moment it seems we’ve found a loophole in the system we hate, but of course there’s only so long they’ll let us use it. Business interests will figure out some way of bringing us into the fold. In a couple years they’ll probably start making us pay for used grease, they’ll start taxing or ticketing us. Inevitably they’ll start making their own biodiesel from the waste grease they won’t let us have anymore and then sell it to us. Will it be a Josh Tickell teamed up with BP and Chevron to create the Sustainable Shining Path to the Future with the computer chips in our brains and genetically engineered oil monocrops sucking the land dry? Will our badass friends have localized permaculture fuel farms and biodiesel cooperatives in the free states and autonomous zones scattered around the dying nation? Time will tell. Meanwhile, there are new technologies out there on the horizon – hybrid cars are already on the road and hydrogen fuel cells are on the way. The greasecar is inevitably going to go the way of the chinger, an obsolete technology for an out of date system. And really, in the end, the whole individualist car culture that we live in is going to have to change dramatically if there’s any hope for the planet. There’s no denying that, like so many other things in our society including the Internet, the interstate system was originally fueled by and built for war – to transport arms and soldiers, and there’s seemingly still the imprint of the origins imbedded into the design. Our culture is sick and demented and the last thing we need is more highways and roads. But I like to think of it the same as when a big old tree in the forest dies – younger trees come along and utilize the root system that the old tree spent years carving through the rock and the soil. Why make a whole new system if you can take advantage of a structure that’s already in place? We’re just doing the best we can with what we’ve been left to use.
Ashley and I are pulling out of the parking lot of the High Falls Food Co-op one day when we catch wind of the familiar used fryer grease smell and look up to see a small VW pickup truck, painted the color of a John Deere tractor, pulling in. There’s a huge sticker on the back that states in bold letters: “This Car Runs on Used Vegetable Oil” The guy driving the truck is Eddy, who proudly tells us with a shy smile that he’s driven 25,000 miles in his greasecar.
We make a date to go out and collect grease; supposedly he’s perfected the grease dumpster hand pumping system and I’m anxious to check out his seasoned technique. This is our own little subculture we’re creating – somewhere between Back to the Future and The Road Warrior, set on the backdrop of the Hudson Valley in the early 21st Century with corporate oil wars raging across the world. Even though the greedy bastards have made their permanent marks in the land and in our heads, the future is surely not going to look the way they’ve planned it. The future is as of yet unwritten, and if we’re crafty enough we’ll find a way to build our new world with the broken pieces of all their monuments to power and oil. I don’t know how the future’s going to look, but there’s only so much you can control the flow of chaos. And there’s definitely some chaos up ahead. Meanwhile, we’re out here dumpstering our fuel, growing our food, breaking the rules, and making as many friends as we can along the way.
for more on the grease tip check out: www.greasecar.com / www.greasel.com / www.veggievan.com