We have always only had a single car, but this past week after feeling stranded while my wife was out in the suburbs buying godknowswhat I knew it was time to get another vehicle. The minivanasaurus didn't work out (too expensive). So I decided to trade in some empty beer bottles and buy a new ride.

Let me back up. Since we moved into this house, my wife has usually enjoyed a single 12oz bottle of beer every evening. Sometimes I even join her. Because I haven't found a store in Detroit that accepts glass bottle returns, we have been piling the empties in our basement. A few weeks ago I got lost in the dense labyrinth of brown bottles emitting a soft stench of Sierra Nevada pale ale. I couldn't find my way back to the washing machine without a ball of yarn.

I have wanted a bike for awhile now, but felt concerned that we didn't have anywhere to keep one. Recently I got an idea: I would bring back the beer bottles (worth ten cents each under Michigan's generous deposit law), buy whatever bike I could get with the money, and then park the bike where the bottles had been. There was a such a beautiful symmetry to it that I started bringing the bottles out to the car right away.

It turns out I could only return a fraction of the bottles, because under Michigan law, a store only has to provide a return for the brands it carries. I wanted to bring the bottles back to Meijer (sort of a Dutch version of Wal-Mart), because their bottle return area is right by the front door and I didn't want to face the disapproving looks from old ladies while hauling two children and a few hundred empty beer bottles through a big box store. But that meant all those bottles of lager from former Soviet-controlled nations where they still believe in vampires and bottles of India Pale Ale from obscure microbreweries had to stay in the basement, which is fine because we still may need a place to secret away any half-bovine offspring.

Once the car's trunk was full, I put bags of empties inside the car in the passenger seat and on the floor in front of and in between the kids' car seats, which Gram deftly dumped out on the ride to the store. The kids effectively turned the backseat into Scrooge McDuck's money pit if Scrooge McDuck was actually Barney from The Simpsons. You'd think the smell would have been unbearable but I actually preferred the smell of flat, ancient beer to our car's every day odor. With the view out the passenger-door window partially obscured by a giant bag of beer bottles, I half expected to be pulled over by the cops, and I looked forward to explaining why my son was sucking on an empty bottle of Corona. CPS would have totally been deluged by an avalanche of empties had they tried to extricate my children.

We made it to the Meijer in Dearborn and pulled into a parking spot right next to one of those cart corrals, where I proceeded to fill two giant carts, leaving room for Gram to sit in the basket of one while I loaded several 12-pack boxes under each. Did I mention it was raining? Yeah. Hard. So I'm pushing a cart loaded down with 200 beer bottles and my son while pulling another one filled with 250 bottles as my daughter clung to my legs between the carts screaming about her wet feet. We looked like a tribe of schizophrenic Bedouins who'd wandered into a monsoon. It took us almost half an hour just to get through the parking lot.

If you want a clear illustration of how the economy is in the shitter, spend some time in the bottle return area at Meijer in Dearborn on a rainy day. There are like twelve of those fully-automated bottle-devouring-conveyer-belt-UPC-scanning machines working in 24-hour shifts to swallow every bottle some desperate laid-off auto worker and his family bring in to exchange for some kielbasa or whatever. There were puddles of rainwater and whatever was left at the bottom of ten thousand bottles of soda or beer on the floor and everything was sticky. Naturally, my son wanted to get out of the shopping cart and I had nearly 500 bottles to feed into a machine so naturally I let him wander around picking up bottle caps and gazing upon them with awe. I figured whatever he caught would just toughen him up for the Swine Flu. Juniper and I worked in tandem; she stood in the main part of the cart putting bottles into the machine and staring into it while asking me a million questions:

"What is this robot going to do with all these bottles?"

"Why is this robot going to give us money for these bottles?"

"Who lives back there?"

Meanwhile, people were lining up behind us because there was only one glass bottle machine and they all had a 4-pack of Mike's Hard Lemonade or a sixer of MGD so I started negotiating with them to let me buy their empties if they'd just stop breathing down our necks. One old fellow wasn't selling or didn't speak English or something so I doubled our efforts as he huffed and puffed until the machine filled up and stopped accepting bottles. We had to hunt down the developmentally-disabled guy who empties the machines and then we kept going until it filled up again.

Ultimately, we ended up with $46.30. Totally worth the six hours or so spent on the effort, don't you think? On the way home, I called a lady in Southwest Detroit about a bike I'd seen advertised on craigslist, and she gave me her address. We ended up driving around the most desolate part of Detroit I'd ever seen, all junkyards and traintracks until I called her again to get more directions. "Are you the scrapyard with the big red sign?" I asked her.

"No, we're the scrapyard with the big yellow building."

Once there, she unlocked four padlocks on an outbuilding and rolled out a beautiful, all-original 1964 Schwinn Racer that was just rusty enough that no one will ever bother stealing it. I like fancy bikes as much as the next guy in tapered pants, but where we live if you buy a fancy bike there's a very good chance you won't have it very long. "How much are you asking for it?" I said.

"Fifty bucks," came her reply.

"All I have is $46.30," I said, which she accepted unhappily.

If only she knew what we'd gone through to get it.