Out of the Rubble
I was too young to understand the financial commitment. I was too young for the consequences of this decision, still feeling the invincibility of adolescence. A head-nod from my father told me that the contract in front of me was okay to sign. I was still detaching the umbilical cord at the time but starting to test how far away I could go before it snapped.
I was now the proud owner of my very first car, a used grey Scion with a few poorly-concealed dents from drivers past. After the keys were in my hand, I sat in the driver’s seat and my sister sat beside me. We noticed there were some suspicious, dry leaves in the cup holders and I quickly threw it out the window before my parents walked over. In hindsight, that should have raised a flag about the provenance of this little, beaten-up vehicle.
We kissed our parents goodbye and went to celebrate with a quick bite at the local Mexican food truck. I got my usual, a chicken quesadilla. My sister was sipping on an iced hibiscus tea. This place was the real deal, authentic and cheap. For two broke sisters, this was paradise. It was just me, her, and this new symbol of our freedom. Who knows what adventures this car would take us on?
We were driving back home as the sun was setting. A few scattered raindrops let me know that we left at the right time. I was scared to drive in the rain and in the dark, and here I had to do both on a winding, narrow road paved through some woods. We had barely driven ten minutes out when I noticed the few raindrops turning into a light sprinkle of rain. We came up on this slight hill that dipped to the left as you went over and then right to the next bend, just a few minutes away from the turn onto the main, well-lit road.
It all happened so quickly. The roads were slick, and my tires could not grip them enough. As my car drove over the small hill in the road, it started fishtailing back and forth in its struggle to make the turn. My car went over the hill but failed to make the last bend to the right. Instead, it spun out of control and barreled into the woods on our right side.
Do you know that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re about to go over a hill on a rollercoaster? First, the anticipation bubbles inside you with a nervous excitement, and then your stomach drops as you reach the peak and come roaring down. My stomach twisted and tensed and I could feel my eyes widen helplessly at what was ahead: a thick mess of trees, bushes, and a river not too far off. We were airborne for a terrifying moment, and then I could feel the descent sink my stomach into the ground.
Dropped down and jolted around. Every branch and surface that my car crashed on screamed in my ears and threw pieces of glass around our heads. Fall, bump, crunch, repeat.
The roller coaster had finally ground to a halt. I couldn’t move for a full minute, still processing if I was alive or if this had been my rough passage to the other side. All I could hear for a while was the ringing in my ears. The music from my phone was still playing from the speakers. It was the first thing I heard. I could hear myself asking if my sister was okay before registering if I was even still here. She was in the same state of shock.
The adrenaline finally kicked in. I looked around frantically for my phone to make the music stop. I found it behind my seat and remembered it was our way out of here. I used my phone light to help me find the loose items that had fallen out of our bags and gotten scrambled around the car. I spit tiny pieces of glass out of my mouth, the grains embedded in my hair and in my teeth. My sister looked for her hibiscus tea until she noticed it had been thrown through the shattered sunroof.
The forest was still. I could hear the beeping of my totaled car and my heart pounding in my ears. It felt like I was underwater at times, hearing muffled sounds and clarity only through my screaming thoughts. We carefully walked out of our respective doors, fearing that this crumpled wreckage would ignite at any point. We called our parents: our father was at his home about an hour away and my mother was at an event in the city nearly two hours away. They defied the laws of traffic and physics to make it there not too long after the police did.
The ambulance took a while to arrive since emergency services had trouble finding our location. I gave frustrated directions and coordinates to an operator who seemed to expect a satellite image of our location as we were crawling out of a car crash. They finally figured out where to send an ambulance. I could only shake my head and be grateful I hadn’t crashed in a more remote location. It felt like we would’ve had to walk to the hospital at that point.
The ambulance workers did a very basic check that we didn’t have shards of glass sticking out of our brains or eyeballs and said we “looked fine.” I didn’t argue too much because I was fixated on the potential cost of this ambulance ride. We turned down the ambulance to the hospital as a result. I looked fine because I still had all my limbs and hadn’t knocked my head into incoherence. I ignored a concussion, whiplash damage, and a heavy stress response because I felt I had to be okay if I looked okay enough.
We had crashed on the border of a small town and a medium-sized city. The police on the city side were hardened by their experiences and incapable of mentally separating the criminals they arrested daily with two sisters in pain and distress. They questioned us rudely both separately and together, trying to trick us into saying we had been drunk or something that would’ve made their job easier. Clearly, two young women must only be up to no good, right?
The days, weeks, and months that followed were a blur of pain and attempts to ignore what had happened. The car had rolled into a ditch. Only half the airbags went off, but we were lucky to walk out of there without more than a few scratches. This marked the end of my adolescent invincibility. This marked the beginning of my fear of driving. All it took was a few raindrops in a used car. In a split second, I nearly lost my life. I could’ve never walked again, but I crawled out of that wreck and was strong enough to get behind the wheel again.
The car was totaled, and insurance helped me get another used car. This time, I went for something safer, and that worked for a few years. Since then, I’ve moved away and sold my car to better survive in a city that is much too expensive and stressful to drive in. I haven’t driven in four years now, and at this point, I’m afraid I won’t be able to get behind the wheel again. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep my mind sufficiently calm and focused as I’m racing around in a 2-ton death-trap.
My world has gotten a lot smaller as a result. I have to plan any outings in advance so I can secure train tickets and taxis. I feel stuck, but at least I feel free from the anxiety that getting back behind the wheel was giving me. Sometimes I pull up the photos of the totaled mess that the tow truck pulled out of the woods that night and wonder how I ever walked out of there. One day I’ll be able to look at a car and feel something other than gripping anxiety — I have to, for my own sake.
Thanks for this chance to tell my story, @Mavia!
I currently drive a 2015 Jeep Wrangler. That may seem kind of boring, but it is a meaningful vehicle to me. For many years, I drove a huge SUV out of necessity. I had to have the ability to tote around 5 kids along with all their stuff: sports gear, musical instruments, camping equipment, friends… you name it.
That vehicle, even for all the time I spent in it, was not “me”. It was an extension of my role as “busy mom”; the working mom that was constantly on the go and (somehow) getting it all done. Let me tell you a secret: It was exhausting.
The time came when only one kid remained at home. He was a senior and driving himself. On a whim, I decided to trade in my SUV for something I'd always wanted: a Jeep, in my favorite color (red). It was also the very first vehicle I had ever bought completely on my own, in my name only. I was surprised to find how much I liked that sense of accomplishment. It felt like a big deal.
After meeting other “Jeepers” (Jeep owners), I learned there are almost endless modifications that can be done to a Jeep. However, I’m quite content with how it is currently equipped. In fact, I now feel that what I drive is an extension of myself. Changing the appearance seems silly.
Yes, I realize it’s not fast or flashy. There are better looking cars out there for sure. It definitely is not the smoothest ride and the fuel efficiency is horrendous, but the trade-off? It is so capable. Of all the things I would not mind being identified as, I can appreciate that adjective: capable. I like the fact I can go places others cannot, if I so choose or have need.
I feel free and happy when I drive it. I love all it has come to represent in this stage of my life and I don’t plan to drive anything else in the foreseeable future.
The Little Red Car
My dad used to take me to an Italian restaurant every Saturday.
Our routine was always the same. He would be tired from work, but he'd still wake me up early. He'd let me dress in whatever I liked, whether it be my worn out Princess Jasmine costume and slippers, or the atrocious acid yellow-green gecko shirt he bought especially for me. We'd be off for the day soon after that.
Back then my hair was long and curly, blond locks wisping around me. I was small, barely even at his knee height. My hands were enveloped in his.
We always went to go get our food first. We ate at a small, local restaurant. He'd always buy me pasta with cream sauce. I was a slow eater back then, who took big bites but never chewed or swallowed, but he didn't mind at all. We'd chat and spend our time together, and on my way out the host would place a small sweet in my hands.
He'd take my hand when we left, and he'd start to guide me home. We'd pass by clothing and shoe stores on our way, and with my puppy eyes I was able to beg him into buying me another pair of something I had too much of. When we'd leave the store, I'd look back with wide eyes and whisper to him that something was staring at me strangely.
It was always a red car. A red car with squinted headlights and a grill that grinned with such ferocity. At my height I could barely see past the face that grimaced in such a way, it scared me. When he looked over, he saw what I saw. He leaned into me to whisper.
"Doesn't it look fierce?"
I always nodded to that. He'd pretend to be scared with me, we talked about how it could follow us. When I got too scared I'd tug on his hand, pulling my arm and telling him we'd have to run, or we'd be eaten by the little red machine. I was first to sprint ahead, going as fast as my little legs could take me. He was always on beat with me, matching my pace and holding my hand.
After this I was less scared of the expressions on cars, but I never told him that. I'd always tug my arm anyways and tell him to run with me. With him I didn't feel scared. I kept this up for the next few Saturday's we went out. Sometimes I did it more than once, just for the thrill of running away with him.
One day he was more tired than usual. I pulled my hand away and he let go. I ran as far as my little legs could take me, but he wasn't there. When I looked back, he was still standing there. The red car was still there too.
After that I didn't run away anymore. That was one of the last times we did those outings when I was young.
From time to time we go out nowadays. I don't eat as slow anymore, but I don't like pasta. We go to new places, but I still beg to go into the different stores. We walk side by side with each other, in taller shoes I match his height. My hands are just as big as his now.
I don't pretend to be scared in front of him anymore. I don't run away, or fear how big the world feels around me.
Despite this, every time we go out, I always keep an eye on the roads.
I always make sure to look out for the little red car.
It was a humid hazy August and I was on the hunt. I had roamed a good 50 miles in radius around these rural backroads, their quaint suburbs, and sprawling nearby gray cities. I had 12 hundred dollars, a modest amount without question for the year 2000. I knew the kind of car I was aiming to trap, and it would have to be an old one. But it would be a good one, so help me God.
I would track it down.
I knew in the depths of my blackened heart that a car is not a car. It is an extension of the creative conscious. As men instinctually know (whether it is auto, bike, board, or bare feet) the vehicle is a rite of passage, a testament of where you will, or perhaps more importantly, will not go. A series of events, not a stationary wagon.
I had been sweeping the private market. Those in the know are also aware that folks often tend to underappreciate the things they kick to the curb. Especially cars. I would land a creme puff. I had some near catches, but things fell through. I was patient. Time for such game must be allotted, as seemingly indefinite. You wait. Watch. Then seize the prey.
It came to pass that on one such expedition, exhausted and defeated, I made a wrong turn. In East Rutherford. It was a right turn. I recall vividly how it swooped down and around in semi-circle, off the highway, and at the bottom, obscured partly by a stand of trees was a dingy used car lot. I parked my borrowed Civic and ventured out. All causal, because you don't want to tip off opponents as to what has caught the eye. It certainly had.
It was perfect, a five-door; small, sleek, like a blue coat Whippet. The steely grey blue had a sparkling speckle to it that shone when I waxed it later. But here it lay camouflaged under a cover of dust.
I feigned great interest in the Ford next to it, all the while checking out the side body, the interior, etc of my prize. The salesman was convinced and eager. He gave me a good price on the 1990 Ford, that I couldn't afford, but I pretend to haggle, then asked, "What about this Toyota?" He made some disparaging remark to bring me back to focus and named the right price.
I wasn't even sure what it was. I'd never seen a Tercel. I'd take it for a test drive. Soundless. I was already sold. Bonus it had only 74,000 miles on it, and just one owner, a little old lady. After taxes, registration, etc., I had just enough to cover.
Suddenly, the guy didn't have the title. I had signed on the line and paid! It checked my resolve. I was sure.
He said he'd have it. "Have faith." We shook hands. I prayed. I picked up the car the next day, nearly not able to find the place, having to retrace my accidental steps. I christened it Toto.
Still no title. He said he'll mail it. I waited, and prayed. It came, after an agonizing week of waiting.
I've written about it previously. This is the car in which I had my "conversations" with Jesus. Keeping me on the path of self-discipline. God I loved that car. It commuted me back and forth from work and University, an hour and fifteen minutes each way, five days a week for 3+ years.
It had a funny thing built in sounding like a distant police siren approaching anytime you drove over 55mph... I imagined the old lady was dotty and had it installed by family to keep her (and me) from speeding. A blessing, because on those seemingly deserted roads cops were lurking in random speed traps, and I was always late and in a hurry.
The 1986/87 Tercel is a strange carburetor design that was quickly abandoned. When it finally gave out, nobody was willing to fix it, not for any price. And I was willing to pay to resuscitate that loyal little hatchback. Its spaceship shell had fitted me like a glove. The console was even turned towards the driver, with care, and a double drink holder pulled out and unfolded beneath the terrific stereo with cassette player. Best of all it had an Analog clock. Its own beating heart.
That car was 100% mine. No one rode in that car except me, and Jesus.
Car of Your Life challenge @Mavia
When I was a little girl, my dad's best friend had a little red Ford Fiesta. We called it little red. In elementary school, his girlfriend moved into our house, because she was a missionary getting accustomed to the United States again. That meant that he spent a lot more time around our house. I loved my dad's best friend because he always made me laugh. He did the best impression of donkey from Shrek and teased me constantly. When I would get home from school and see his car in the driveway, I would run inside and yell at him to do the donkey voice. My neighbor, doubling as my best friend, and I called him donkey. He used to take us to the park in that little car to go down the slide. I can't imagine us all piling into that car now, but it was such a fond memory at the time. To this day, whenever I see a little red, I think of him. @mavia
The Blue Car
We shivered in an orderly line by the side of school, all dressed up in our uniforms.
The car pulled up. It was blue and shiny like a beetle, with old paint peeling off in places. Small as a mini, rattling like a tin can. It was my friend's dad's car.
We bundled in and it was then I saw him. The dog. A crazy dog, blonde haired and manic as anything, sitting in the middle of the backseat, panting.
"We just brought her back from a walk. I hope it's not a problem?"
"Of course not," I reply, squeezing myself in beside the mutt.
The car takes off, rattling, feeling every bump in the road. The dog starts howling, struggling, pawing at my legs, inspecting my face close up.
"Everything all right back there?"
"Of course," I reply, exchanging a glance with my friend who grins, suppressing his laughter.
And far too long later, the door pops open and I'm home and I fly from the little blue car, brushing blonde dog hairs from my legs, smiling despite myself.
In Dad We Rust
If we want to figure out how to impart knowledge to a new generation, we have to get TikTok to rust. When there was analog, there was rust, everywhere, like water for chocolate. Hitting one’s formative years in the bright, dayglow pop of the 80s was nonetheless still a decade of living in the belly of a criminally repurposed Russian trawler, some eight hundred voyages beyond its projected lifespan. Everything rusted around you to an alarming degree. That period may well have seen an explosion of plastics and fiberglass sneak their way into our childhoods through Happy Meal boxes and Tupperware parties, but everything remotely adult about us was leftovers from the Vietnam era; not old enough to be classic, never new enough to avoid tetanus. You wanted a gas-powered lawn mower to help with your chores, but what you got was a guy fathering you solely through platitudes and the same rusty push mower that had sliced off his pinky toe in 1963. You wanted to sneak your giant, thirteen-breed, untrained, grocery-store-box dog into your bedroom at night to sleep under your covers and surprise your mother in the morning. Instead, you spent every afternoon with a greatly Danish mutant named Gorgonzola effortlessly laying you out, sweeping your legs at the speed of puppy chow, by clotheslining your ankles with the thick, oxidized horse chain that tethered his neck to a rustier iron screw-stake pierced to the Earth’s core. You couldn’t decide if you were going to blow their minds at the senior year science fair with a tornado in a box or your COBOL, deep space listening algorithm for S.E.T.I., but your folks associated any ideas newer than the moon landing with whorish, coked-up music videos and devil worship. So, it was back to the model volcano and that always meant old, rusty chicken wire.
Thusly, while random conclaves of men, most in denial about their own half-baked skills for troubleshooting carburetors or identifying flanges, spent their down-time putting ideas into my father’s already “progress-stopped-at-vinyl” head, my early motor vehicle destinies were being secretly set. Together they’d grumble about “inferior” Japanese cars and “thieves” in every American dealership. They’d nitpick at anecdotes about some distant third cousin who’d been thrown free from an out-of-control van that continued on over a cliff and then exploded, twice; just to offer a supposedly informed protest against the new seat belt laws. The distant advent of carpool lanes had been rumored and men like these were already organizing against them, sporting collective arguments like, “What’s next, rich cocksucker lanes?” Triangular vent windows were disappearing from auto design and threatening everybody’s addiction to unfiltered tobacco, most of whom had honed their lifelong jones’ by age ten and were now considering the comparatively viable option to never again get in a car with their families, rather than drive without smoking. Suddenly, there were two seats in the front of each car replacing the one, long deathtrap bingo spot in the center over which a person would straddle the manufacturer’s compliant trash pail in a poised position for dashboard head trauma and inter-windshield launch. But, you know, eliminating that was all somehow bad. Let’s just say that I wish I had a nickel for every time in my youth I saw a full-grown man take a sip of beer and then exclaim like he’d been kneed in the nuts, “Crumple zones! What the fuck is a crumple zone?!”
You take these concepts and you drill them into a man like my father, who blamed inflation on drug dealers and taxes on foreigners, and you come out with an overly-frugal, depression-born, Greatest Generation aficionado who would rather tell you about a G.I. taking a bath in his army helmet than pay more than forty cents for a cup of coffee…when the going rate was seventy-five. I didn’t have to reach driving age to know there was a lot of rust in my future.
Dad didn’t believe in buying new. That went for pretty much anything. If you think I’m exaggerating this part, you should fast forward to the scene in my living room that I’d later used in a college admissions essay, pretty much getting pitied into my chosen courses of study. It’s a quick scene wherein he and my mother argued for two straight hours over the “extra” six dollar cost of a mandatory Regents exam prep book I first needed for seventh-grade math. I’ve had a billion friends unpack that moment in my life to just as many different conclusions. Point is, he gave me the money for the book, but he never again slept with or nearly even spoke to my mother. That’s how serious these cost issues were to him. Hence, it should come as little surprise to learn that Dad found creative ways hold me off from getting a learner’s permit until age eighteen and to keep me broke enough never to add a low-riding TransAm or Eagle Talon purchase to his insurance. Three, 5 a.m. trips through questionable neighborhoods to ferry me to work, with the summer’s end prospect of doing the same everyday to get me to college, and we were on the hunt for an automobile of my own.
Dad has never set foot in a dealership. It would make him burst into flames like a vampire. He still wears that fact like a badge of courage. He also never took me to a used car lot, because, well, despite the discount, if anyone was more evil than a politician, it was a used car salesman; Ecclesiastes 13:10. You’d think that the next step down from there would be the only one left, the trick when you sheepishly go up to the abandoned department store parking lot to see that random sellers have lined up an array of lightly crashed muscle cars and station wagons alongside the highway. They’ll have adorned their dashboards with oversized oak tag and magic marker signs, labelling them for sale and writing out a phone number in block characters. Nope. We didn’t go there either. That would be playing right into their hands! You see, these people put their used cars near the highway, not to increase the odds of attracting a buyer, but to keep their home address a national security level secret from you. This was Long Island, New York. Never mind that we could peek at their address on the registration pasted to the windshield. Never mind that, if we bought the car, we were going to see the address on the transfer paperwork at the DMV. In my Dad’s head, if you were unwilling to sell your car from your own front lawn, you, my friend, had something to hide. Oh, the audaciousness of you! You were going to make us go home, and then call you, and then arrange to meet you back in the weedy, ghost-like W. T. Grants sidelot at twilight, where you’d further make us wait up to ten excruciating minutes for your own arrival, thereby purposely and connivingly putting us in a deficient negotiating position and allowing sundown to hide your wicked face. Besides, who are these crazy people who have money just lying about to spend on fancy orange oak tag from the only art store in a 50-mile radius? We know the same three sheets have been for sale at the local Genovese Drugs for nine years and all those discount sheets are white. My pater, Admiral Ackbar.
Dad had a unique purchasing strategy. We’d just drive and drive and drive, all back roads, every neighborhood, all summer, searching for cars on lawns with “regular” 8½ by 11 looseleaf paper signs only large enough to list a price and not even the words “for sale.” If he could spot the frenzied edges of a paper that had been pulled from a spiral notebook, that was somehow a bonus. You see, the second-hand car market at the time would’ve pegged most of these automobiles, even in poor condition, around an $1800 resale value. There were larger mark-ups at official lots and evil wizards out there with Kelly Blue Book spells, but that was the baseline and, to Dad, that was ridiculous. $1800 was save-a-baby-from-cancer money. $1800 was the total he paid for our house in 1963, clearly a more valuable decision than opting to reattach that year’s pinky toe. He claimed all summer he was looking for the best deal, but the truth, as I saw it, was that he couldn’t abide paying corporate level, Jerry Lewis Telethon money for a used car he was sure my teenage brain was going to wrap around a phone pole by Labor Day. Nope. The second-hand market was not our sweet spot. We were looking for fifth-hand, a low bar, its main provenance and selling feature perhaps being that it had never gotten used in a bank heist. Plus, you needed to be willing to take twenty-five bucks off the top if it had ever been at the bottom of a lake. It caught on fire once? That’s okay. The driver’s side door doesn’t open? There’s another door. Your aunt died in the back? The auto parts store has all three scents of air freshener and a new one shaped like a pineapple. I was rarely allowed out of his truck to see the cars up close, but, windows down, I could hear these grown-up conversations openly discussing the ages of duct tape that held on bumpers and lists of top ten reasons a college student shouldn’t need a muffler. Dad would spend enormous spans of time peering under their hoods, engines on, pretty much pretending he knew what he was looking at, so that the seller would become concerned and autonomously offer to drop the price.
If Dad got to both a price dropped in this way and a point in the negotiation when he felt I couldn’t throw his haggling savvy under the bus, I’d be invited out for a test drive. He’d stay behind to nickel and dime some more, to act as human collateral should I decide to hit the gas and make for Mexico on the lamb in a stolen AMC Pacer with three dollars and a churro dream. Yet, the test drive was not me testing the car. It was him signaling to me that he was getting the price he wanted. We were buying it. It was our interpersonal code prompting that I should neither say a word nor “make a face” at the tsunami of rust that started at the rear door undercarriage and had spread to form entire continents and beachheads clear up over the roof. And mind you, I’m not talking about post-pandemic era rust, the sort that changes a few decent metal items around your shed to a smooth, even, happenstance shade of caramel. I’m talking about tooth decay rust, riddled with holes and looking like shit-brown dried coral, a living entropy that snapped off the edges of a car like bark, daily. It came infected with flesh eating viruses and bad decisions. Rust on every one of these cars was worse than the next. Apart from the engines, transmissions, and a couple exposed coils jabbing you from the seats, I don’t think there were three ounces of actual remaining metal between them. Driving these behemoths was like watching a time lapse video of splits opening up all around you with unobstructed views of the sky and pavement, like termites devouring a boat you found yourself floating on down a river of lava. But, I was kind of desperate. And, in truth, for my area, for the time, and for kids my age, this was kind of the norm. Everybody had a trunk tied almost shut with a rope, a deep, breezy split up the middle of their windshield, one wheel that wasn’t quite round. I’d see old friends driving around with a dislodged front seat in their back seat or an old, and yes rusty, melon baller in place of their gear shift. I swear the unmatched, mal-fitting fender replacement industry must have been booming! I’ll just say it. Nobody had a grill. Nobody…had…a grill.
Just to illustrate, many years later, in college, a dear friend’s father had simultaneously purchased her a used Honda and this new device called a cellular phone that she was to keep in her glovebox for emergencies. They had lesser means than me and my Dad, but her car looked intact, nice even. It had working AC and was all a single color. All of her windows rolled down. The front two were even electric. I noted that it wasn’t her birthday or a holiday and I asked if her dad was rewarding her for some achievement I didn’t yet know about. She told me there was no occasion. It was just really important to her father that she was as safe as can be while out on the road. Here’s the kicker, I HAD NEVER HEARD OF THAT BEFORE! Not once had the concept made its way into my life. I told my friends, Bumperdrag, Dead-Shocks, and Invisihood about it and they had never heard of such a thing either. When I told the Phone Pole Bane brothers, they laughed and called me a liar through their wired jaws. Buying your kid a car with safety as the priority? How was that supposed to discourage them from going out and raising your insurance rates one ditch at time? Our minds were blown, like our tires, monthly. The concept was more foreign to us than a magic phone that could make a call from anywhere.
Back to Dad’s code, though. Clearly, I would have had no way to discern that this was Dad’s super-spy communication technique had I not detected a pattern, which, given that “test drive” equaled “purchase,” meant that he had to buy more than one car for me to catch wise. One might wonder exactly how many cars the man bought for me over time. For a person who comes off in my recollections sounding uncouth and uber-cheap, you’d be surprised.
I can joke about Dad all day, roasting his most sensitive, manly innards. But it took me several years to figure out, another two to prove, and an additional few months to get him to admit…those never-ending drives weren’t about finding used cars. They were about spending summers with me. Hard cash for cars that would soon die horrible, spontaneously transmission-ejecting deaths, mutually assured that we’d be shopping again. He continued, for years, to have me spend my money on other things, needed or not, so that when one car wound up as an art piece on his lawn before getting junked, we’d go out to look for another. The whole danger aspect was this oddly expressed father-son trust that I could handle whatever shape a surprise might take. In all, between the ones that he paid for outright, the ones he chipped in for, and the ones he loaned me money for (every cent of which I have since paid back), we went through this charade for five summers, six cars; not a single vehicle purchased newer than 12 years of age, with fewer miles than 210,000, or with the number of owners previous to me averaging any less than four. The MOST we ever paid for one of these rust buckets was $800, and that “high-end” investment was an outlier.
It is because my father chose to express his love in this way that I can fill your day with anecdotes about the cream-colored ’76 Volare sedan, my very first car in ’89, with AM-only radio, a gaping hole in the floor, and one tire replacement that no matter what you did, deflated about every third night. Hub caps used to come flying off the thing at only 15 miles an hour. Not one of those ever matched the others. The car idled at, like, 18 mph. The parking brake took an elephant to set and a Tasmanian devil to release. She had a decent turning radius, to the right, about half that to the left, when it wasn’t raining. Doors stuck. It had AC but was missing the switch to turn it on. Its body since makes me suspect that Jackson Pollock got his start in rust colors. Shock absorption was on par with bellyflopping, naked, onto cement, from a third story window. It didn’t start if the temperature dropped below 30, adding intrigue to the story about a winter’s day drive to school where, at an empty, icy intersection, I lightly touched my brakes after only having sped to about 10 from the previous stop behind me. At this moment my car also stalled. These two actions, coupled with the odd misalignment and alien weight distribution in my vehicle, resulted in me in my Volare, ever so slowly, sliding quietly through the red light, diagonally, like a turtle on a Slip ’N Slide. I looked every which way in a panic to spot oncoming cars, suddenly seeing to my left the police officer who would never take the chance to pull me over thereafter, because his perfectly running patrol car was likewise, but more embarrassingly, drifting through the intersection in diagonal parallel to my cheap old, $500, disintegrating Volare.
That car and I enjoyed eight months of adventures together until I drove 80 miles east of home to a little hotel in farm country. My girlfriend and I had our first ever sexual experience that night, away from the prying comments and questions of parents. It left us in a warm, daytime afterglow, right up until the point on the return trip that my Volare threw a rod, blasting it all the way through the engine block. We were by a cow pasture, 12 miles from the nearest business with a pay phone. Such a glow ends when you’re both hoofing it in 90-degree weather, too dumb to have packed extra underwear. I guess I should have hooked up with the friend whose father cared about her, so we’d have a cell phone.
A day later, my father didn’t seem all that angry about matters. I mean, he should have been. He personally called the cab company to make good on the $290 rural cab ride for which my broke, teenage ass had provided the driver a nifty I.O.U. on a Post-It note. That ate up any chance of paying toward a thousand-dollar tow. So, Dad got his buddy with a truck to PUSH him (I’ll write that again) PUSH him, in the Volare, in neutral, the remaining 55 miles home. Not easy given that it was all hilly, back roads so that onlookers to the stunt would be minimized, lesser chance of cops…more insurance ditches though. A moment of silence, please, for Volare sedan.
As the day ended, I asked him why he wasn’t madder. I mean, throughout the 80s he seemed mad at everything from Toyotas to schoolbooks. He just laughed. When I asked him what was so funny, he told me he hadn’t expected the car to last that long. Eight months was a gift. He’d secretly given it three. Out again we went to find another.
The next several summers saw me in a ’77 Volare station wagon, a ’79 Celica, an ’81 Tercel, and an early Ford Escort hatchback. The ridiculous problems they arrived with seemed almost interchangeable, car to car: sticky choke; cracked radiator; doors that dragged on the ground when you opened them; windows that wouldn’t roll up; windows that wouldn’t roll down; missing gas caps that cost more than we paid for the car; and one entire steering column that functioned, but was so loose the whole thing could be moved around like a joystick in a fighter jet. In a pinch, those quirks could also seem interchangeable with the insane problems later occurring during our vehicular adventures together: a torsion bar that snapped under the car’s own weight at a stoplight; imploding roof; cracked heads in the engine that left a trail of billowing smoke a mile back; a heater that stuck ON during a summer trip from New York to Boston; a cassette player that only ate cassettes; a headlight that suddenly pointed up; brake pads the mechanic had put on backwards; rear-ended by a guy asleep at the wheel; rear-ended by a rolling Gremlin with nobody in it at T.G.I. Fridays; mufflers dragging; mufflers detaching; mufflers twisting into odd directions and pretzels; four-hundred thousand flat tires; and the day when the only gear that worked to get up and across the Verrazano Bridge was first. Rust was their calling card, but adventure was their calling.
The last car to mention, the best car in that whole crestfallen, despondent “Detroit has peaked” series was car number two. While Volare sedan was being dismembered at a chop shop on the wrong side of the tracks, and the whole of the fifth-hand purchasing world was on pins and needles waiting for the price to come down on the Volare’s namesake station wagon out by Old Mill Road, Dad spotted its replacement some eighteen curvy blocks deep into the overly-wooded, Deliverance neighborhood we’d never thought to visit. I couldn’t believe he was even considering it. It was the oldest of the bunch, but somehow pristine and gleaming. There wasn’t a speck of rust on it. I thought he was teasing me. It must be a trick, a joke. Given the presence of so much dilapidation in my high school parking lot, it took a second look to even recognize that this was a car. Dad went and rang the doorbell. He and a gentleman much older than him came out, commencing to Dad’s normal routine. I think I heard a whisper about the guy’s wife passing and a giggle about a fire extinguisher. Six-hundred bucks and a three-minute test drive later, we were rolling out of there the proud new owners of a bright, hunting orange, 1975 Pinto station wagon.
Now, if you haven’t learned it yet from TikTok, Pinto was a model of automobile previously infamous, the nation over, for exploding into flame when somebody rear-ended you. There was a flaw in the design whereby long bolts affixing other parts of the car wound up pointed directly at the gas tank, like a bullet in a chamber waiting for a trigger to be pulled. For that reason, though later recalled and handled, everyone from my generation could spot them a mile away and avoided them like the plague. They were the punch line in a million jokes. We’d be made to pick them out on family car trips. Oh, but this one looked so dashingly new. Everything in it turned both on…and off…and worked in between. It was like God’s car. The doors closed plumb to their seams. Outdoor road noise was muffled, sounding like it had to get through layers of thick metal to reach you. The belts didn’t screech. The engine turned over with a single touch of the key. Was that rubber on the tires?
This was it. I didn’t care about the Pinto’s sketchy reputation. This was the car that was going to launch me into adulthood. This car demanded respect. This was the car that was going to allow me to reconcile with my girlfriend, in style, after her forced twelve-mile march from the Decepticon. I was going to heed my father’s words and just presume, at all times, that there was a loose wire in my teenage brain that drew me like a gravity well toward ditches and sink holes and phone poles and trees and sharks and pedestrians with baby carriages that hadn’t been used since pinky toe ’63. I was going to resist that urge, fight it. I would always be alert. I would always follow the speed limit. I would yield rights of way and privileges of way and happenstances of way. If I could, I would yield curds of whey. I would drive this car, beckoning ne’er a scratch, out everyday on a safety-first bender, polishing it every weekend and feeding it only the best gasoline for its comfort and longevity. I was going to learn about engines, and then massage them, learn about upholstery, and then never let anyone touch it. I was going to be immediately inducted into The Motor Vehicle Hall of Fame. And even with all those angels singing in mind, this car, when I thought about it, had an added bonus. I repeat, rustless, bright, hunting orange, possibly exploding, Pinto station wagon. If ever there was a car that screamed out “DON’T HIT ME!” this was the one. I’d be driving this car until I was ninety.
Two weeks later a drunk driver blew through two stop signs and a red light to total me. The father-son rust hunt began anew. Dad brought candy to the emergency room.
I’m not so obtuse as to go with that old generational stand-by, claiming that rust or even pointless hardship builds character, even in my comedic rear view. Rust doesn’t make you a better driver. Rust doesn’t make you a better person. Rust won’t save you from morons. Neither does it need to make some swooping, vengeful comeback into each little particular of contemporary society. But, at least in my case, with the many wanting trinkets rusting away around every corner of my teenage and young adult life; rust was a sly old clock that could be set, semi-dependably, to go off when time would be best spent in quality tasks with one’s child. I have daughters now. I can tell you, try as I might to make it, TikTok cannot offer that.
Like a Southern Belle
Oh my Plymouth Caravelle! 1987 four door sedan. She was a beauty in my eyes. She had about as much desirability as an aging movie star, but she maintained character and intrigue like a Bette Davis. Dignified, with the kind of thick enamel and shiny trim you don't see on cars anymore. She was my very first.
She sat unwanted in the back of a desperate strip mall used car lot. The half Mexican manager winked at us: "For you, $700." He really wanted to push the thing off the lot, seeing nothing in her. Apparently, she'd been taking up real estate too long without passing glances of interest.
I put in the full price in cash the next day without a second thought. I was sixteen. I was lucky with money despite the overall destitute finances of our family. The car was actually for my sister. She had the license and the potential of getting us places. But we quarreled like petty sheep dogs. Sister was pushing the limits of her independence past curfew, and our lovely Caravelle was a defining point of contention. In truth, she never took me anywhere. The real arguments were between her and Father, who was trying hard to guard the Southern Belle reputation, to the point that Sis was shown the door, and walked out on foot.
I was to inherit the car as soon as I got my license, an event that took much longer than expected for various reasons. And in the end, I drove her maybe twice on my own. Yes, indeed her existence in my driving life was very fleeting, though she was the car I passed my driver's test in. Father's car broke down beyond repair at that same time and of course there was no question that the Caravelle would be his replacement. We were, to be sure, grateful that she was fortunately there to keep us all tenuously afloat.
Her bulky white body coasted on clouds thanks to superior shocks that absorbed every bump in the road. We joked it was like driving the living room couch across the country roads. I regret I knew her so very briefly. And I can see how Father would fear this was one car for getting into trouble with...
Within a year of commuting Father to work, she blew something fatal in the engine. It would have to be rebuilt, and everyone shook their heads professionally and said she wasn't at all worth it. Father agreed. She had served out her youth and was hauled to the junk yard as a glamorous but no longer useful thing.
It's tough for me to write about my first Honda Civic because of the car crash in 2014.
The ill sensation of time slipping into thick molasses when something pushes outside your control, is no exaggeration. It has unmatched force. When a dark haired gangly specked high schooler driving daddy's Benz rear ended us on the highway (not braking in time for an unanticipated but minor slowdown) my little red bullet shot towards the utility truck in front of us.
It had, of all the damnedest things, a ladder projecting out top right. Passenger side. Mercifully for the low profile of my car, the ladder missed by narrowest sliver. On buying the car I had been warned that this was a "dangerous" vehicle.
I was told 1) I was sure to be subject to routine police profiling for possession or DUI spot checks; 2) If I should ever get into an accident, the road-hugging that I loved would surely mean being crushed under whatever car, van, or truck, might be in front.
When the impact came from the back, I remember deafening silence, the milky sky, tranquility broken by my own voice flowing from some dark hollow recess, asking my tall friend Mark without turning my head:
"...will we stop?"
and his hesitant gruff, "I don't know..."
and then whoosh, crunch, the crush of metal, and shattering of glass behind us.
We were in shock, but we weren't hurt. Half an inch from the ladder. The windshield could have broke just from the force of impact, but it didn't. I was on the passenger side this time. Mark was behind the wheel. He was an excellent driver and loved that Honda maybe even more than I, without jealousy, just with a sense of camaraderie in fine rides.
Thanks to that low profile, we knew we had suffered less than we would have if we had taken bumper to bumper impact. That would have snapped us into neck braces. Lack of airbags meant we were full witnesses, unwhipped by canvas. The whole incident played out for us across the windshield like reality tv on Netflix.
The preppy kid was beside himself knowing Daddy would be livid. We watched him agonizing into his cell phone in the middle of the street oblivious to the oncoming traffic that a was skeetering around our debris. And the utility employee from the truck in front wanted to lay into us, but when Mark redirected him to the culprit, the guy took one look and gave up. I guess the Benz and the thought of the kid's Daddy put him in check, so he huffed back into his truck and took off as soon as we exchanged all the proper papers with the cops who pulled in amazingly quickly.
The truck was unscathed, except for a red smooch my puckered hood had left on the white bumper.
I felt for the kid. The face of his Mercedes was smashed, windshield shattered. He was obviously new to driving, though just a few years younger than me really. Eighteen maybe. I couldn't help but wonder if the experience would change him in anyway or if this was destined to only be a financial/ social mishap in his life. A small blip in his curriculum-vitae.
Police would not let us drive out. Safety. Something was leaking from the underbelly, so I had to call a tow truck. My sister drove out to pick up.
Nothing was rougher than seeing my Honda, battered and bruised like a boxer in the corner of the tow yard when Mark and I went to visit to assess the damage and drive it out. Insurance said it was "totaled." Crash was rightfully deemed not our fault. Recompense was $1,200. It wouldn't cover the cost of repairs, and it wouldn't amount to much of a vehicle as replacement. Certainly nothing comparable to my Honda.
"You gonna fix it?"
The magnificent beast had three more years of life until my nephew busted it up. We fixed it again. But when he crashed it soon after that, I left it up to him, prodding his fighting spirit I suppose... but he scraped it.
Fact is, not everybody knows how to love a car.
It was the early 1990’s. MTV was still relevant (well, to some people), and for some reason, girls did this thing with their bangs, making their foreheads look like they were sprouting something that resembled the mushroom cloud seen over Hiroshima after we dropped the atomic bomb. Due to this strange follicle phenomenon, I would argue big hair was so important at the time, the years 1987-1993 should have been called the Aqua Net era. In fact, I bet if you were savvy enough to have bought stock in hair spray prior to the early 1990s the hairspray consumed by teenage girls and hair metal bands alone probably set you up financially for life. It was during this ozone layer depleting era that I encountered the car with the most character I have ever known. This vehicle belonged to my high school best friend, Doug. It was a 1964 Plymouth Valiant complete with push button transmission. If you are not familiar with the Plymouth Valiant, it was inexpensive, no frills grocery getter. I guess you could say it was the 1960’s equivalent of today’s Hyundai Accent.
Now, Doug named his Valiant, Blue which is funny because to my knowledge, Blue was never actually blue in color. It’s hard to describe the actual color of Blue’s exterior because I don’t think Blue had been washed since before disco became popular. Looking back, I honestly think if Doug would’ve washed that car, it probably would have fallen apart as the dirt, grease and grime had melded into some kind of glue that somehow held Blue together. To the observer, Blue’s actual paint was somewhere between beige and root beer brown. The interior? Blue was upholstered in Duct tape with hints of brownish cushion material. Blue had a unique smell I can only describe as a combination of musty dirt, WD40, weed, and exhaust. I remember the car’s inner workings well because Blue’s advanced age meant spending many hours in the auto part store and under her hood. Blue was powered by a 225 cubic inch slant 6 that could hit freeway speed when the car gods answered our prayers and if breaking the laws of physics could be pled down to a misdemeanor.
While a lot of kids at our high school drove newer Civics, Corollas, and muscle cars built by daddy, Blue was a hand-me-down from Doug’s dad. To say that Blue was ugly is an insult to ugly. Everyone knew that Blue was a jalopy of the lowest order and Doug was proud of it. My first sight of Blue was freshman year, I remember seeing her at the side of their house. Her tires were flat, her windows covered in bird droppings, and weeds somehow found their way through a hole in the floorboards and sprouted to almost steering wheel height. As trailer park larvae I was accustomed to seeing cars in various states of dereliction around. F at least Blue wasn’t up on blocks in the front yard. After that, I didn’t think too much about the sad old bucket. That is until the summer of junior year.
You see, Doug’s family were only slightly better off than my own, so buying Doug a decent, safe, legal, car wasn’t going to happen. However, Doug’s dad was that rare and dying breed of human known as a, Back Yard Mechanic. What Doug’s dad lacked in education, charm, and sobriety he more than made up for in pure mechanical genius. So, that summer Doug and his dad weeded the fox tails out Blue, “Fabricated” new floorboards, freshened up the interior with new duct tape, and somehow managed to Dr. Frankenstein the Valiant with a, “Functioning engine.” In the name of safety, Blue was gifted the best $400 set of tires Doug’s dad’s SEARS card could buy. Finally, after many busted knuckles, a whole lot of foul language, and what was likely a bribe of some kind to the DMV inspection person, Blue was deemed to be road worthy. Oh, but Blue did get a bit of an upgrade. Being a connoisseur of heavy metal, Doug used his birthday money (and likely the allowance money he normally budgeted for skunk weed) to buy an impressive Pioneer stereo system and new speakers. Without a doubt, that the stereo system cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.
With driver’s license in hand, Doug drove Blue over to my place of residence. He was so proud of that car. So, off we went with Megadeth blaring, no air conditioning, but filled with a sense of confidence and freedom one could only get from too much testosterone and what was likely a touch of carbon monoxide poisoning from an exhaust leak near the still somewhat porous floorboards.
Doug would eventually relate the story his dad told him where he found out there was a better than average chance he was conceived in the back seat of Blue. So, Blue was more than just a car. Blue was family, so as a friend, I came to love Blue too. You just couldn’t make me go near the back seat.
For the next two years, Blue carried us to and from high school. At first, Blue was laughed at by our high school peers, but then she became like a puppy born with an extra leg growing out its back. Sure, she was repulsive to behold at first, but eventually her character came out and she became adored by the masses. The personality of that car made us all overlook the omnipresent smell of weed, the total lack of safety equipment, and the fact that she occasionally decided to reject a carburetor, alternator, or muffler (usually at the worse time) for no reason.
We had a lot of fun in that car. Blue successfully made the voyage from Redding to Sacramento to see AC/DC and then later (unbeknownst to our parents) to see them again in San Jose. Blue took us to Whiskey Town Lake for the stereotypical cheap beer and someone losing their virginity in the public restroom party. We also cruised around Hilltop Drive in Redding on Saturday nights. While some blared Young MC or whatever vapid garbage was being spewed on MTV from their mini trucks, we unpopularly blared Slayer, Megadeth, Sabbath, and AC/DC. Though our music caused us to be accused worshipping the devil, we graciously explained that worship was too strong a word, but we were big fans of his work. After all that criticism, guess who would feel the most embarrassment about their musical choices when they grew up? Oh, and before I forget, I’m not sure what magic Blue possessed, but that car somehow drew girls in like copper wire draws in tweakers, meaning Doug rarely needed a vacancy sign for the back seat.
Sadly, I haven’t seen Blue in more than 30 years. As happens as we grow into adulthood, I lost contact with Doug when he joined the military (who said you can’t successfully pray for a clean drug test?). Wherever he is, I would like to think that Doug still has Blue. In fact, I hope Doug’s first born was conceived in that old Valiant’s back seat. I would also like to think that maybe Doug has passed Blue on to one of his kids and his first grandchild (after a thorough cleaning) was or will be conceived in her back seat. Call me old-fashioned but some traditions just need to be carried on.