Dear Lily June,
There’s just no delicate way to put this: Car ownership is a b!tch. I didn’t get my first car until I was in my late twenties, and I used to be very distraught about it. In college, I commuted by city bus each way to school, for a round-trip total of about two hours a day. Without a hint of judgment, I say to you that my fellow patrons and I made quite a sight: I was a nineteen-year-old balding girl doing needlepoint on the bus to ease my nerves, surrounded by aging women with more whiskers than my then boyfriend, children who were inexplicably never in school and always covered in sticky substances of unknown origin, and men who permeated a fine perfume of eggs, cigars and a lifetime of whiskey breath.
And the driver, usually a person whose record was just shy of felony assault with a moving vehicle, always ran late to fetch us, so that by the time she arrived, I’d stuck myself a few times at the stop and ran my bleeding thumbs over my bald spots, the senior women had sprouted more peach fuzz over their faces than fast-acting chia pets, the children were sticking to each other like velcro, and the men had enough time to splash a little Aqua Velva over their cholesterol-smoke-alcohol-soaked cloud, ready now for their job interviews downtown.
It was very much like spending time in the Violent Femmes’ song “Waiting for the Bus” for four years of my life:
From there, I hobbled around for the first year of graduate school on my feet alone, walking up to two miles in hundred-degree weather to fetch groceries and a solid case of heatstroke. I lost a lot of weight, and a lot of time, and a lot of sanity making long treks to work/school, home, and back again. There’s nothing like realizing you’ve left your assignment on your desk, for instance, when you know you have to walk a mile home again just to fetch it. This is not just a hackneyed tale of woe by an elder, Lily, where I hiked up hill, both ways, with no shoes on broken glass and was grateful. This was my real life.
I tell you all this to impress something upon you: Car ownership is still worse than any of these experiences. Aside from what it does to the environment (she says, alarmingly casually–sorry to your whole generation, Lily!), the things it does to your wallet and to your sense of security (if not your body) once you get into that inevitable car wreck that everyone has at least one of in their lives are the same as what happens to your gas tanks: They drain and drain.
Like your dad himself, his car was sexy (ha, you can’t unread that, daughter dear) but also a bit worse for the wear. A black ’03 Pontiac with a spoiler, it had been through the wars and kept breaking down over the course of our early years together. Like car, like driver: As your dad started getting migraines and analgesic rebound headaches and sleep apnea, his car suffered window mishaps and rocker-arm replacements and serious slashes to the leather interior that took duct-taped towels to fix.
The first time it broke down was in a little Podunk town called Columbia, Tennessee.
It was a Christmas we’d made the trip from Tuscaloosa to Ohio, and this Tennessee town was about equidistant from either home or school. It broke down on the way back–on a Friday no less–so we were trapped there for the whole weekend. It was a Saturday and Sunday filled with your dad muttering under his breath while we waited to have the car towed nearly an hour up the road to the nearest fix-it shop. Come Monday, we threw the repair on the credit card, ate some of the best barbecue we’ve ever eaten, and hauled it the hell out of there as fast as we could.
The second time the car broke down–for the same engine repair, a busted rocker arm–was again in Columbia, Tennessee. When you break down in a place you don’t care for once, you curse your luck and keep on driving. When you break down in the same place twice, you start to wonder what cosmic force is having a hearty laugh at your expense. Your dad and I will never forget our ill-spent weekends in Columbia, raising our fists together at the sky, watching bad cable TV, and waiting to drag ole Smoke (named posthumously for how we spent most of our time in that particular vehicle) to its next spot to die.
Of course, it can always be worse, and anyone who says otherwise is just baiting the universe. As it turned out, one worse place to break down is on a set of railroad tracks.
While we thanked our lucky stars it wasn’t in Columbia a third time, we did have to get out and push Smoke a couple of inches, but the old jalopy easily budged off the tracks. There was no train at the time, so we didn’t have visions of villains twisting their mustaches while we were tied to the rails with rope, nor did we suffer some dramatic scene where we were forced to jump from the doors a second before the car exploded into a volcano of debris. But we did freak out a little for our rough luck and wondered if we were the Charlie Browns of motorists.
That car did a valiant thing, though, Lily–a far, far better thing than it had ever done. After all the breakdowns and the hemorrhaging of money we’d done to keep it limping along, it had the good sense one day (when your dad was behind the wheel I’ll have you know) to fling itself into oncoming traffic at a red light. Whether it was, as your dad claimed, his inability to see the red set off as it was by the Tuscaloosan sunset, or whether, indeed, Smoke knew it was its time to go, I guess I’ll never know. But we were T-boned hard–our fault, of course–and the car was totaled.
It could have been a tragedy except for what followed. We looked up blue book values on the vehicle and found it wasn’t worth more than around $600 tops, given its state of ill repair, its dents in the fender, its sputtering engine, and its towels taped into the shape of seats. The insurance company delayed and delayed until the day I called and cried and said, “How do you expect us to pay our premiums if we have no way to get to work?” (Once I’d lived the high-life of riding, there was no way I was going back to schlepping those miles in the heat any more than I had to).
And the agent called your dad that evening. And I knew something was awry, because I heard him say, “Sure, that sounds fair, I suppose,” but there was starlight shooting out of his eyes. And he hung up his cell and told me we were getting $6000–more than enough for the down payment on our next car and some to spare (and a lot to burn)–and that was Smoke’s gift to us. Maybe, over all that time, we’d put more than that into repair, but I doubt it. Your dad loved that car, and in the end, it gave us everything it could: a pile of rusting metal and a big fat lump of cash. If someone accidentally added a zero, we’ll never ask.
With our heaping helping of ill-gotten gain, we went over to the Honda dealership to pick up the first car I’ve ever owned–a green Accord the color of pesto (hence the name). It’s the car pictured as the cover to this entry, and for the most part, it was dependable, only it had some bad habits.
For one thing, you couldn’t kick out the wires from under the passenger seat–which for some reason were exposed like the Coppertone girl’s bare bottom–without making the defroster quit altogether, a fun little trick I learned on a long car ride when we broke down once again on the way home at Christmas (though this time, blissfully, nowhere near that hell hole in Tennessee).
Because it was raining, and we couldn’t see on the highway, we were forced to spend more time waiting on repairs that would cost too much to do too little. (Of course, that town we got stuck in, wherever it was, had some of the best donuts we ever ate, so maybe our cars breaking down was just a way to ensure your mom and dad got to occasionally date.)
Pesto was also aptly named for its alert system, which would beep like an drunken sailor robot any time one of us forgot to put our seat belts on. I’m not opposed–in theory–to a car trying to keep us safe, but that alarm went out of its way to burrow through your ear drum, making you feel not just unsafe, but unsanitary in the knickers each time its shockingly loud call went off. It truly was a Pest.
[That being said, wear your seat belt, kiddo. I had a Great Aunt Franny, a Catholic nun, who used to say “God is my seat belt.” Then she got into a terrible car accident and ended up with pins in her wrists in her eighties, and Aunt Franny buckled up and didn’t provoke the Lord anymore from that day forth.]
Pesto died in an annoying way, too, which is to say it didn’t. What it did do was keep on leaking, like a poodle who can’t hold its piddle on your carpet. We lost oil at an alarming rate, and we were forced to face our options: Start purchasing cans of oil like the Tin Man before a hot date, spring for, ironically as the case may be, a $6000 engine repair (I swear, Lily; I can’t make this stuff up!) or just trade it in before it was even paid off and cut our losses.
So long, Pesto. You died looking well, except for where Lily’s dad backed you into a pole behind a Piggly-Wiggly on the first day I owned you or where a dog we took in because we thought it was lost (it wasn’t; it turned out our neighbors had gone on vacation and had let it wander off) tore up the leather interior until it was a sad fray of scraps. We’ll always remember your horrible alert system and your rampant oil consumption, you beloved hunk of junk. (You never forget your first, Lily.)
All of this brings us to present-day, Lily, where we await what kind of horrifying demise will take down our family’s first baby SUV, a Honda CR-V. I’ve told you the story of how it was named, but what I haven’t told you about was the day we spent almost eight hours straight in the dealership waiting to take that baby home. At one point, fed and entirely relaxed after your third bottle eaten in a show room that day, you cut a butt-splosion so loud it seemed like the models on the floor might’ve had their windshields rattle and their alarms go off.
And you almost smiled wryly at our salesperson, who later inexplicably took a picture in front of our vehicle with us then sent it by mail in a card. That’s why there’s a bizarre photograph on our fridge of your dad and I with that weird smiling stranger in a Honda shirt.
He’s probably waiting for the Charlie Browns of motorists to work their way back to the start.
- “Columbia Tennessee Square” by Flickr user jdj150 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdan/347217466/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Columbia_Tennessee_Square.jpg#/media/File:Columbia_Tennessee_Square.jpg
- “HBD DD1” by SwalleyD – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HBD_DD1.jpg#/media/File:HBD_DD1.jpg
- “Coppertone”. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coppertone.jpg#/media/File:Coppertone.jpg
- “Tin-Man-poster-Hamlin” by U.S. Lithograph Co. – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-1599 (color film copy transparency), archival TIFF version (16 MB), cropped and converted to JPEG with the GIMP 2.4.5, image quality 88.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tin-Man-poster-Hamlin.jpeg#/media/File:Tin-Man-poster-Hamlin.jpeg
- “Charlie Brown” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charlie_Brown.png#/media/File:Charlie_Brown.png