The first thing Rob Ford does after settling into the driver's seat of his 1988 Aerostar minivan is unhook the rearview mirror from the windshield.
"It's fallen off so many times, I don't even bother with it anymore," Ford says, stashing the mirror on the floor.
He selects a CD, a black disc labeled "Bass Mechanik," and slips it into the minivan's player. Within seconds, it becomes clear why the mirror had to go. The entire van rattles. The windshield vibrates. Even Ford is shaking from the bass that shudders forth from the van's arsenal of speakers and subwoofers.
The Aerostar's stereo system has cost Ford about $1,700, an investment created by long hours at a hated part-time job. It may also be costing the 17-year-old his hearing, which he admits has suffered. No matter. To Ford, no price is too great for this much cool.
"This is the best system in the school," Ford says, surveying the Lutheran West parking lot in Rocky River with a gleam in his eye. "That's what makes it worth it."
It takes only a minute of pounding bass before a classmate exits the school building, yelling and waving. Ford flicks the kill switch and silences the roar, waiting for adulation.
The friend doesn't disappoint.
"Ford!" he shouts, impressed. "I knew that was you! I could hear that from my LOCKER!"
Ford has it all: an amp, 15-inch subwoofers, 6-by-9 speakers, coils of power wire, a hand-held bass knob, a disc changer, an auxiliary battery -- even a half-dozen Bass Mechanik CDs, engineered specifically to flaunt a powerful bass line without the distraction of melody or lyrics. All together, they grant him bragging rights at Lutheran West, a place so enamored of thundering noise that its principal had to issue a formal ban on loud stereos in the parking lot.
But despite his high-school superiority, Ford is only a recent convert to the cult of the car stereo flourishing on Cleveland's West Side. In the adolescent male's unending search for motor-vehicle cool, stereos have replaced souped-up engines and stylish body work as the accessory of choice. No bass is too loud. No component is too much. In fact, the next thing Ford and his friends want are remote controls -- to eliminate the effort of reaching over to adjust the CD player's dials.
Ford's dad has tried to keep his son's obsession in perspective.
"He's only hurting his own hearing so far, and hearing aids come cheap," David Ford says, laughing. He remembers his high-school days. "I went through that stage myself, but I put the money into muscle cars. It's a rite of passage, that 'mine's bigger than yours' kind of thing that guys go through. He has a great desire to show off what he spent so much money on. But you go to college, and you realize all that stuff is kid stuff."
"I don't think about that," Rob Ford responds, his hand waving away the future. For a high-school senior, college is light years away. "I think about now and what I've got now. Which is pretty sweet."
"You can never get out of it," says Ford's friend, Chris Gallagher. "You're always trying to keep up."
If the car stereo scene is a cult, Gallagher is Lutheran West's Jim Jones. Soft-spoken, with a pre-stubble baby face, he spent thousands on high-end stereo equipment before he could even drive. For years, guys at school and in his neighborhood have come to Gallagher for advice . . . and a deal. Constantly in the process of upgrading, he always has something to sell.
And reeling in new converts is part of his business strategy, Gallagher admits. Incessant upgrades would be impossible without other people ready to buy his month-old castoffs. Ford, who bought some of his first pieces from Gallagher, was quick to understand the relationship.
"I said, 'This is sort of like drugs, how you get addicted and need more,'" Ford says. "Then you get into the whole thing of wanting to show off, and it just isn't loud enough. It's loud, but it's not loud enough."
"It's never loud enough," Gallagher says.
But, if Gallagher is a dealer pushing a product, he is also remarkably generous to his buyers. New converts know he will gladly hook up their stereos, a process that can take up to seven hours in a minivan like Ford's. Should a friend buy bigger wires and want to retool the entire system two weeks later, Gallagher is ready for that, too.
Now 19, Gallagher earned his driver's license only a few months ago, but he's been buying stereo equipment for four years. He had to put it somewhere.
First it was his bedroom.
"I'd play them in the house, but they were car speakers," he says. "I would hear how cool they sounded in other people's trunks, so I wanted to see what they'd sound like in a car."
So Gallagher turned to his mother's Buick Skylark. It sounded great, and he was happy -- until, while tweaking the system one day, he grounded out his mother's battery, burning through wires and screwing up the Skylark's electrical system.
Kathy Gallagher cut off access to her car. But Gallagher continued to buy more and more equipment, upgrading every chance he got. Many of the pieces he bought ended up "on loan" in friends' cars.
"If it's just sitting around, and you're not doing anything with it, you want to hear what it sounds like yourself," he explains. "You have no choice. You can let it sit, or you can let someone else hear it."
After a few friends held on a little too tightly to Gallagher's loans, he shifted his focus to a series of junker cars he bought and kept in the garage.
"A lot of stuff, I would buy it brand-new, just to see what it sounded like," Gallagher says. "So I could install it and play it. I just couldn't drive around with it."
Though he now has a license and occasional use of the family's Buick Century, Gallagher still gets his greatest pleasure from installation. To the uninitiated, car stereos can be shockingly complicated. Each piece, each upgrade, involves ripping out the carpet and building the whole system again. Screw it up, and the investment is toast.
It drives Ford nuts.
"I just want to be out driving with it," he says.
Chris Walter feels the same way. Walter, 18, boasts the loudest stereo in his Old Brooklyn neighborhood. His goal is to stay on top. A secondary goal is to rattle the world.
"I want to be driving down the street, knocking people's knickknacks off their walls," Walter says.
"Shattering the windows as you drive by," Ford says.
"I've set off a few car alarms here and there," Walter boasts.
"I set one off this morning," Ford says.
Ford still remembers the excitement he felt when his rearview mirror fell off for the first time.
"I thought, this is great!" he remembers. "That's what I was striving for!"
Even Gallagher was impressed. "I was like, woaaaah," he says, Keanu style.
If there is joy in observing their own power, it turns to ecstasy when someone else notices it. Most of the time, they don't even crank up the bass until they spot a target on the sidewalk. Responses are carefully monitored. Kids are most likely to be impressed, but adults occasionally provide the ultimate compliment: a display of rage.
"I've got this neighbor, and nobody likes him," Walter says. "He lives on the corner, like two houses over, so I just sit at the stop sign for like 30 seconds and play it at full blast. The other day, I was driving from school to work, and I had it turned up pretty loud, and some old lady started yelling at me.
"I couldn't even hear what she was saying," he says. "I guess I didn't even care."
The goal is always a reaction, any reaction. It's a quest that Gallagher says is becoming increasingly difficult.
"A lot more people have sound systems," Gallagher says. "It's getting a lot more mainstream. And so people on the street won't even turn around. You'll be going full blast, and you get nothing. It makes you kind of mad. You're thinking, it's not loud enough?"
"Now you have to make their car fall apart or shatter their windshield," Ford says. "Then they'll notice you."
For all the pleasure of a booming bass, the drivers do feel pain. To be loud enough for today's jaded pedestrians, the noise level inside often rises too high for comfort. Walter and Ford estimate their systems can get close to 150 decibels -- about the level of a rocket launch. And while stereo enthusiasts brag about the "depressurized" euphoria of a too-loud beat, Walter admits it can be painful.
"You'll be driving with it way up, and it kind of pops your ear, and then you can feel it rattle your eardrum," he says. "It can hurt sometimes."
But, of course, the payoff erases any thought of that. Back at school, Ford revs his maroon van and cranks up the bass, cruising out of the parking lot. Rules or no rules, Bass Mechanik is on full blast.
As he swings past a group of kids waiting on the sidewalk, Ford turns the bass up to maximum and, from the corner of his eye, checks the response.
Two guys are pounding their fists with the music, rapping along. One guy is glaring. A group of girls giggles, one of them trying to get Ford's attention as she feigns deafness.
Everyone is watching.
The subwoofers and amps and vibrating bass boom out the beat. Ford just smiles. For now, at least, his is the biggest. He takes the long way home, past the mall and another school or two, just to make sure everyone knows it.
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