I found out about Rahn Harris's cars on a recent visit to the Hyde Park Co-op, where Harris works in the produce department. He is arguably the most popular member of the produce department because of the big plastic baby rattle he keeps on the produce scale. Customers shake the musical rattle to get his attention when he's away stacking vegetables, and you don't wave a baby toy in public without lightening up a bit. On this particular day, Harris and I were chatting about the weekend.
"I worked on a couple of my cars and moved a couple of other ones," Rahn tossed off as he weighed a few apples for me.
"How many cars do you have, anyway?" I asked him. Harris thought for a moment, then said, "96." He collared a passing Co-op employee to corroborate his story, pointing a finger and demanding, "How many cars do I have?" "I don't know, what is it now, 105?" guessed his colleague. "You used to have nearly 200."
Harris specializes in cars of the 50s and 60s, with a special fondness for '57 Chevys. He buys them whenever they turn up--rusting away on a side street, in a garage, or in someone's backyard. He owns one garage on the south side, formerly a car repair shop, and rents 25 other garages around the city. The cars that can't fit in his garages dot side streets; most have up-to-date licenses and city stickers. Even so, tow trucks--and ubiquitous vandals--take a heavy toll.
Harris let me visit him one day at his main garage, a nondescript brown brick building marked most distinctively by whatever cars he has parked out front. When I visited, there were two 1962 Chevys, a Bel Air, and an Impala, plus the car that Rahn actually drives, a maroon 1964 Impala Super Sport. The garage's front door has a faded sign in red magic marker taped to it that reads "Beware of Mean Vicious Ugly Pit Bull With AIDS." "People laugh at that," he admitted, adding "but then they look inside." When they look, they see a leash and an empty collar on the cement floor.
Harris showed me around the garage, which involved weaving through stacks of tires and parts and squeezing past entire cars, parked in a long line, one after the other. It's dark, the way garages always are, and there's the customary tiny office just inside the front door, with the usual clutter of ancient clocks and commercial calendars. Instead of pinup girls, though, the walls are inexplicably given over to head shots of Oriental women circa 1966.
The first car in line was a 1962 honeygold Impala Super Sport that took Harris three years to get. Three years for a car with a motor that doesn't run, a questionable body, and no tires. Harris is pleased with the acquisition. So far he's taken out the motor and switched hoods with the '62 Bel Air out front. Piled nearby, he's got some tan seats from another '64 Impala, slated for a new life in the honeygold.
Farther on is a sagging 1960 two-door station wagon, bought from its original owners in Hyde Park. "This car's been towed three times to the police pound and I keep getting it out." Harris shook his head. "It's not worth really anything, but I just have a fanaticism or something about getting my cars back. I don't like anybody to take them from me."
We were looking at a 1969 Camaro when Harris tried explaining his obsession. "The thing is, it's a hobby that's gotten out of hand. I didn't buy these to sell, I just bought them as a hobby. And the only time I'll actually probably sell a car is if somebody insists on wanting to buy one or some of the parts," he said, and began naming the various car parts piled closest to us. "Old Camaro doors, back of a '55 Chevy, old motors, carburetors, old Camaro dash..." Basically, the garage is an organ bank. Harris has two other maroon '64 Impalas identical to the one he drives now, ready to be scavenged for a healthy carburetor or taillight when necessary.
As we drove south toward a colony of his garages, I asked how he keeps track of his far-flung empire. "Every day I get off work, I have to go and check the streets where my cars are for street cleaning and vandalism," he said. "I have no relationship with anyone, because who wants to be bothered with a car junkie? I can't buy decent clothes because I spend my money on the cars. I'd rather spend my money to buy a car than have food in my stomach. You know what? I'm addicted, that's what it is. It's just like an addiction."
We cruised through tidy, quiet blocks of bungalows on the far south side. The first stop was a converted coach house built entirely of expensive wood, with an ancient semicircular stained-glass window over the front door. Harris believes the house formerly belonged to the Armours. If it wasn't them, it was somebody else quite rich: the garage has three stories, with the servants' quarters on the upper two stories now given over to a fantastic collection of auto parts. One small room holds nothing but old hubcaps. Here and there are artifacts left behind by previous owners, making the place feel like a cave in the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes. Stapled to the wall near a window is an old match dispenser with two compartments, one marked "Burnt" and the other "Good."
The rest of Harris's garages are more run-of-the-mill one- or two-car garages. We rolled up and down alleys with Harris pointing out the sights, stopping at this or that garage to check on cars. "Last night, I moved around seven cars to different locations," he said, beeping and waving at someone he knew. "That car right there, the green one? That's mine. I bought that car just for the glass.... There's a garage I used to rent.... That yellow garage over there? That guy's got a '57 Chevy he bought brand-new. I've been trying for eight years to buy that car. It's rusty. Raggedy. But I want that car.... I got a car parked over there, the third car in line, the blue one.... There's my convertible garage. The roof's coming off, so I call it the convertible one."
Harris's cars range from the utterly dilapidated ("See this car here? Smashed. I've had this car in here two years, three years. And it's not doing anything but taking up room, wasting money") to drivable to nearly renovated. One of our last stops was a garage Harris has rented for 22 years; it now holds a gorgeous midnight blue '64 Chevy Impala Super Sport that he and a friend have fixed up and plan to sell. "I bought this from a guy who was a collector of old cars and his wife got on him. He had a bunch of old cars, and his wife said either the cars go or I'm gone. He's not like me, I'd say OK, you gotta go. Better take your shoes and go," he laughed.
I wondered if Harris's family thinks he's nuts. "Oh yea-ea-eah," he said. "Everyone does. Everyone! Everyone who has encountered me and I've told 'em about my car fetish, they say, 'There's something wrong with you, kid.' And there is, there is, you know. But I never hurt anybody. I never take anything from anybody, I'm not a violent person. But it takes up all my time, really."
We were driving through Chatham when Rahn did a double take and threw the car in reverse. "Ooooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh," he said. "Oh, lemme see that." We rolled back to where an old man was about to close a garage door on two old beat-up cars. "Excuse me? Would it be for sale? The old car?" Rahn asked politely while the owner eyed him sideways. "It'll only take a second. I like old cars, as you can see." The old man hesitated but finally figured what the hell, so Harris hopped out and danced into the garage.
Harris had his eyes on a convertible '65 Thunderbird huddled in the back of the garage, partly buried in rubble from the crumbling garage roof. "Don't know what the hell he's gonna do with it," the old man muttered. "Oh, you'd be surprised," I told him. "Yeah?" said the old man, unconvinced and not particularly interested. Harris was crawling on the Thunderbird's hood, peering through the windshield. He came out dusting off his hands. "How much do you want for it?" he asked.
The old man shrugged. "Make me an offer. You see what it's worth."
"I'll give you $200 for it," Harris said quickly. The old man agreed, and they exchanged phone numbers.
As we headed back, Harris was distracted, his mind on the convertible. "I just said $200 'cause I didn't know if he knew what it was really worth," he gloated. "That car's worth lots more. Even though it needs work, the basic body is there. The only reason it's in the condition it's in is because water and snow has come in over the years where there's no roof..."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.