This Old Car

Learning to drive is a rite of passage that almost every teenager anticipates eagerly—most can’t wait to steal the car keys out of mom’s purse so that he or she can pick up a smattering of friends and take them out to Chick-Fil-A for lunch and awkwardly gawk at their crushes. I say “most” teenagers look forward to this because, as usual, I was the exception to the rule.  I think it’s because I’m just generally ornery.

I had no interest in taking Driver’s Ed and was even less interested in actually operating a vehicle.  Driving our riding lawnmower around in our yard was enough of a challenge for me, as more than once I’d crashed it into the swing-set in the backyard, leapt off the mower and run hysterically crying into the house, leaving the engine running (mainly because I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off).

There was just one time that my father forced me to navigate his boat-like 1989 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight all the way up the church driveway.  At speeds that fluctuated violently between five and 60 miles per hour, I nearly plowed into a tree and a light post, both of which were at least several hundred feet away—on either side of the drive.  It did not help that my younger brother was in the back seat of the car, cackling and shrieking “Let me drive!” the entire time.

When we finally we reached the parking lot at the top of the hill, an audience had gathered to see who, exactly, had commandeered my father’s gigantic blue car, and so ineffectively, to boot.  Never mind the fact that I was shaking like a leaf when I got out of the car.  The crowd of people not only applauded, but they actually jeered.  I’m talking about genuine shrieks of laughter—and this from churchgoers, too!  I’ve always had a very delicate sense of self-esteem, so this didn’t exactly encourage me to keep on driving.

Around this same time, I actually got into an argument with my father about why I didn’t want to get my driver’s license.  It was very simple, in my mind; I knew that I wouldn’t be getting a car of my own, given my lack of a job and my parents’ meager income, so what was the point?  I would’ve had the option of driving either my Mom’s beige Chevy Astro minivan, or the aforementioned Oldsmobile, neither of which I wanted to drive. Dad was absolutely unable to sway me, so he wisely gave up and let me be until I decided to pursue the matter on my own.

Some time passed, and I decided to take a test to see if I could be exempted from the classroom portion of the Driver’s Ed course.  I had no interest at all in sitting through this class—I’d seen it from the hallway before, and every single time, the scene was the same.  At the front of the room was a slovenly middle-aged man dryly lecturing on something like three-point turns or parallel parking, while the 40-some 15-year-olds forced to be there against their wills either slept, doodled, killed themselves or passed notes.  It was wholly depressing.  And, from what my friends had told me, this class was supposedly held every day after school for maybe four hours for, like, sixteen thousand weeks or something.

I passed the test, which was held on a Saturday in our school cafeteria, with flying colors.  It was a shamefully easy multiple-choice affair, which included questions not unlike this one:

If you have stopped at a stop sign and you need to make a left-hand turn, which of the following should you do?

  1. Show me on the doll where he touched you
  2. Activate the left turn signal, then look both left and right before proceeding
  3. Go to McDonald’s and order a medium soda
  4. Pat Lil’ Kim’s exposed, pasty-covered breast like Diana Ross did that time

The only thing I needed to do after passing the test was to complete the actual driving part.  At my high school, there were two tough old birds that taught the driving portion of the class.  Coach Jackson coached football and incidentally taught world history (and, just as an aside, he didn’t so much “teach” it as he scrawled incomprehensible words on the overhead projector; he also frequently ate food in front of us, making “mmm” noises all the while, and repeatedly informed us that we couldn’t have any).  The other, Coach Mintz, was a phys-ed teacher who also coached football.  His first name was “Doyle,” and from what I was told, it was apparently hazardous to casually refer to him using his first name, though I’m not sure why, considering I never could understand a word that man said.

Because I was in his class at the time, Coach Jackson did not hesitate to put me in a car with himself.  It was a typical Driver’s Ed setup—some non-descript white Oldsmobile sedan with an extra brake on the passenger side, and two other frightened students in the back waiting their turns to hopefully not die.

The actual driving instruction, which took place over a series of several days, was actually not that bad, though Coach Jackson told me several different times that I should “hold the wheel like it’s a sexy woman,” and not “like you’re stranglin’ a chicken.”  Neither metaphor really made much sense to me, primarily the one about the sexy woman, as I’ve never encountered any person, male or female, who features a steering wheel. Also, at one point Coach Jackson had me drive him to an abattoir so that he could pick up some pickled pig’s knuckles.  He offered me one, and the stench alone nearly made me throw up.

I made it out of this driving instruction in one piece, and Coach Jackson signed the piece of paper that authorized the DMV to issue me a full-fledged driver’s license.  To celebrate, my mom let me drive my brother and my friend William to a local coffee shop in her van one night (she’d “upgraded” to a green Dodge Caravan by this point).  Not surprisingly, I crashed the car, smashing out the driver’s side headlight, though I blame William; we were on our way into territory that was unfamiliar to me so we could pick up a friend of his, and he misjudged our distance from the turn.  He shrieked “turn here!” at the last possible moment; I overreacted, lurched to the right, and wham!  We drove right into a guardrail.

Casey, not surprisingly, screeched “Dear God, help us!” directly into my ear just moments before we made impact, because this is apparently his “wreck catchphrase.”  Years prior, our mother had been driving us home from the library when a tractor-trailer driver accidentally backed into us at approximately five miles per hour, and as this happened, Casey unbuckled his seatbelt and dove to the floor, looking wholly terrified, and screamed the exact same thing.  I like to point out that since getting his driver’s license, he’s fallen asleep at the wheel twice, but had I been in the car with him either time, he wouldn’t have—I would’ve yelled “Dear God, help us!” in his ear as soon as I noticed him nodding off.

That mishap aside, my driving improved over the years, and I eventually got my own car—a 1986 BMW 325i.  It didn’t last long, though.  Thanks to an accident wherein I lost control of the vehicle after rounding a curve, it was totaled. Unfortunately, after the crash, I was without a car for some time.  I thought that I might be able to work over a summer and save enough for a car, but quickly learned that a summer’s worth of minimum wage minus taxes leaves you barely enough to buy a pair of tennis shoes.  So that entire summer I drove my mother’s Dodge Caravan back and forth from my house to my job at “PostalAnnex+” (a kind of off-brand Mail Boxes Etc.-type store), which was housed in one of those front kiosk room things that you see between the entrances of most Walmart stores.

The only vaguely amusing thing that I have to say about that place is that the mentally handicapped woman who operated the “Radio Grille Snack Bar” wore a nametag that read “Corky,” which I assume someone meanly gave to her as a hateful joke that referenced the guy with Down’s syndrome from Life Goes On.  I really hope it wasn’t actually her name. It’s worth noting, however, that she was always very mean to me for no apparent reason; she actually spit upon my hamburger once, in plain view of myself and several other customers.  I had her fired, and to this day I don’t feel bad about it [1.].

Anyway.  I did end up with another car a few months later, though it was not procured in a way that I especially cared for.  My grandmother on my dad’s side passed away and left me her 1993 Ford Tempo.  Now, I loved my grandmother dearly—I still do—but she was not exactly a stickler for meticulous car cleaning or maintenance.  So there was an abundance of pine straw in the trunk that she’d been hauling around for her flower beds, though this was relatively minor compared to the fact that the paint felt rough—the car had gone without being washed for so long that the clear coat was but a distant memory, and the paint had subsequently started to oxidize.  Some debate raged for some time over what color it was, too; I’m pretty sure it was originally a robin’s egg blue, though in certain light it looked white, beige, butter yellow or sometimes even grey.

Not surprisingly, the car was desperately in need of maintenance.  Among other things, it needed an oil change (or three), new tires, new brakes, new spark plugs, and (probably least importantly, but I insisted on it because it was incredibly annoying) a new turn signal module.  When I first took possession of the car, the turn signal didn’t “blink” so much as it illuminated.  It did flash once every fifteen years or so, give or take a decade.  The bill for all this work was over a thousand dollars, and so my parents decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to teach me “financial responsibility.”  Never mind that I didn’t make that much at my dinky work-study job in three months, or that my parents were covering the car’s insurance and registration.  The repair costs were suddenly up to me, and having no other choice, I used my credit card and carried a balance for the first time ever, the first in a long, long series of horrible financial decisions I would make.  Thanks, parents!

I didn’t keep the Tempo very long, as it just wasn’t a good car. It routinely broke and I constantly had to pay more non-money to get it fixed.  The last straw was had when the gas pedal literally stuck to the floor; I had no way to stop the car (or, as I was calling it right then, the “hurtling metal death trap”) until I was able to wedge my foot under the pedal and yank it towards me.  I did arrive at home without incident following that little surprise, but as soon as I walked in the door, I threw my keys in the trash and told my parents that I was not driving that car ever again.  This wasn’t exactly true, as we did have to dig the keys out of the trash so we could take it to the dealership to trade it in, but the point was still valid, I think.

Briefly following the Ford Tempo, I had a new Nissan Sentra, which I paid for myself with my own money; unfortunately, my parents decided that it was not wise for me to bring it with me to New York when I moved after college.  But some years later, after getting my finances in order, I decided that getting a car again wouldn’t be a bad idea.  The only real logistical hurdle that I could think of was parking, but I quickly discovered that it was possible (albeit annoying) to find parking in my neighborhood.  So after I arranged to get insurance coverage and cobbled together a meager amount of money, my friends Eric and Al and I went car shopping.

Something you should know about Eric and Al—though they’re both a few years older than me, I’ve had a driver’s license longer than either of them, but collectively they have owned something like seventy-five General Motors vehicles, primarily Chevy Cavaliers.  Because of this, it made some sense to them to find me a Cavalier.

I have to admit that I wasn’t immediately sold on this, because I remembered that my father had, for some time, driven an early-model Cavalier.  It was white on the outside and had a maroon interior—it was like driving around in a bone and sitting in the marrow-filled center.  He hadn’t bought it new, either, so it was just a matter of time before the fabric on the ceiling fell down; it hung loosely in drapey, puffy pockets, something like the interior of Jeannie’s bottle (of I Dream of Jeannie), except crappier—the cheap Atlantic City hooker’s version, perhaps.  Plus, the mechanism on the underside of the driver’s seat gave out, meaning that the seat would sometimes randomly fly forwards or backwards as you rounded a curve, stopped at a light, or sneezed.  Instead of actually repairing or replacing the seat, my father sawed off a gigantic slice of a tree stump from the yard and placed that behind the seat to prevent it from sliding.

But Al and Eric promised that my car would never end up in such a condition, and after a bit of poking around, they found a 1992 Cavalier for me.  White, with blue interior, it was in excellent condition; the air conditioning still worked, and it had less than 60,000 miles on it.  It was the quintessential “Grandma kept it in the garage and only drove it to church” kind of find. I was quite happy with my purchase, considering that it cost me all of a grand; however, I had it for less than a month before some idiotic kid T-boned me at an intersection and totaled it [2.].  The car was a total loss, but it took Al about a week and a half to find a virtually identical replacement vehicle.  I say “virtually” because it was the same make and model, except it had twice as many miles, its air conditioning didn’t work, it had a huge crack in the windshield, it desperately needed an oil change, new brakes and new tires, and it had a weird smell.  Plus, it cost more than the original car.  But since I had apparently been removed from the decision-making process on these things some time ago, the car was procured for me and we went to work on cleaning it up the best we could with the tiny bit of insurance money that came my way.  We christened this new car “Smashy II” in honor of the original “Smashy,” which had sadly died in that unfortunate accident, and is now almost certainly a big pile of car-fetti somewhere in Long Island.

For a good long time, after the initial blitz of cleaning, replacing, scrubbing and modifying Smashy II, it seemed to be relatively well behaved, until it began to exhibit a number of random symptoms that made me begin considering driving it off a cliff, or perhaps beating it to death with its own muffler.  For one thing, random lights on the dashboard seemed to illuminate randomly just to spite me, even though there was never anything wrong with the car or its functionality… at first.

At some point, something called the “convenience center” went bad.  This is the component that makes the “ding” noise when you unfasten your seatbelt or leave your headlights on accidentally. My friend William was up from North Carolina for a visit; we had tickets to a show in Philadelphia, and as we started driving there, the car seemed fine—until it started randomly dinging.

Ding!

Ding!

Ding ding!

Ding di-ding!

At first I thought something might be wrong, but the car seemed to be working normally otherwise, and there were no indicators illuminated on the dashboard.  The dinging paused momentarily, and William and I resumed our conversation, until—

Ding!  Ding!  Ding ding ding di-di-ding!

“Why is it doing that?!” I yelled.

“Maybe the rainwater from outside has seeped into the unit and corroded a connector,” William offered.

“That’s certainly a poss—”

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

“—a possibility,” I finished.

Ding!

The rain had cleared some miles back, so I mused, “Maybe if it dries out a bit, the” DING “dinging will” DING “stop.”

DING.

DING.

DING DING DING DING DING DING.

DING DI-DI-DI-DI-DI-DI-DI-DIIIIIIIIIIIING.

Something was definitely wrong.  The dings were no longer individual, discreet bell noises; they were now all run together, resulting in one long high-pitched, brain-boring cacophonous note.

“Make it stop!” William shrieked, clapping his hands over his ears.

“Get the” DING “manual out” DING “of the glove” DING “compartment” DING “and…” I stopped trying to wait for the dings and instead started trying to talk over them.  “See if you can figure out what fuse we need to pull out to make that stop.”

The car apparently understood what I was saying and started dinging even more in protest.  It was a futile effort, anyway; had we pulled the relevant fuse mid-drive, the car would have probably sputtered to a stop and we would’ve been stuck on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike in a downpour on a Friday night. So the dinging just continued.  We begged and pleaded with Smashy II; we told her what a good, nice and pretty car she was, and that seemed to work.

Until I opened my mouth, that is, and said “It worked!”

DING!

“GAAAAH!” William screamed.  We concurrently began to beat the car dashboard; since praise hadn’t worked, perhaps threats and physical violence would.

“Stop it RIGHT NOW!” I screamed.

DING.

“I will run you into that guard rail!  I mean it!”

DING.

“I am not afraid to rip your paint off or smash out your windows!”

DING DING DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING.

“I think it knows you’re bluffing,” William said; he was right.  There was no way I was going to wreck the car deliberately in the middle of a downpour, especially on the way to see a Cirque du Soleil show.

“Ding,” said Smashy II, seemingly confirming his hypothesis.

We tried any of a number of things to try and distract ourselves from the dinging cacophony.  We turned the radio on and up as loud as we could stand it, which didn’t work very well since apparently all they play on terrestrial radio these days is commercials.  I suggested that perhaps if we read Smashy II a story, it would quiet down and pay attention.  So William began reading aloud from the Bill Bryson book that he had in his bag, to no avail.  Smashy II dinged incessantly all the way through story time.

Unfortunately for us, because of a combination of factors, we never did make it to Philadelphia to see the show; we had to turn around and drive back to New York about a third of the way there.

Eric did manage to later fix the dinging module by slathering its contacts with something he called “electrical grease,” though initially the repair resulted in another symptom—the “fasten seat belts” light came on, and stayed on.  That finally stopped happening, but all of a sudden the brakes stopped working a week after that.  I ended up trading Al for yet another Cavalier which was almost as bad–and after driving it for a few months, I decided that maybe I was done with owning a car in NYC. The confirmation came when I couldn’t sell the vehicle for even a couple hundred bucks–I ended up donating it to some shady charity operation that gave me a receipt for my generous gift (valued at $250!) to Tiger Trove Conservation Park in Oklahoma or something after they picked up the car.

I suppose that for most people in the United States having a car is something of a necessary evil.  Some weirdos, like Al and Eric, actually like having cars, which is fine and good.  I’m just beginning to think that maybe as a 15-year-old kid I had the right idea to be disinterested in motor vehicles.  Cars are expensive, annoying, large and they break all the time.  Besides, if I keep up my bicycling, I’m going to end up with a really nice butt.

—2006

__________
  1. I told my friend William about this and he then said to me, “You’re a callous man for having a hate-filled person with mental problems fired from a demeaning minimum wage job, just so she could go someplace else where she might be able to do something constructive.  So shame on you.”[]
  2. Lucky for me, a New York City cop was parked across the street from where this happened, and he saw the whole thing himself. He ran over to check on me first, and after I told him I was fine, he stormed over to the other vehicle and bellowed, “WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?!”[]