Were you driving on Douglas yesterday? I thought I saw your car …
There’s no drive-through at my regular Starbucks. Nonetheless, one day I’m sitting in my car before going in, doing a little work on my phone, when the manager, Bret, comes across the parking lot and knocks on my window. I roll it down and he hands me my usual chai, hot, foamy, spicy, just the way I like it.
“And here all this time I thought you didn’t have a drive-through.”
Bret just laughed and I told him I’d be inside in a few.
After I pay, I sit for a few sips with Nora. We’ve become friends through several connections, but mostly because she telecommutes from my Starbucks any weekday morning she’s not traveling. We take a break many mornings for a mutual “download.” I’ve said before, making a new friend as an adult is one of life’s greatest gifts. Nora is such a good friend that she’s helping me brainstorm shopping for my next car.
I’ve had six cars in thirty-four years of driving. That averages out to one new (or new-to-me) car just under every six years. In actual fact, I drove several of those cars far longer—the exception is the first one, the red CJ-7 Jeep my parents made available for me to cruise in, back and forth to high school. Without significant injury but totaling the vehicle, I rolled it shortly after graduation on a gravel road. My driving record since, including four years as a bus driver in the greater DC area, has risen above less-than auspicious beginnings.
The current wheels, my dream convertible, are certainly recognizable—thus it was from across the lot and inside the café that Bret spotted me and delivered my chai. People tell me frequently that they saw me driving here or there. The Chrysler PT Cruiser is the first American-brand, automatic car I’ve ever purchased. Mechanically it has never been particularly sound and today the number of things wrong with it list a repair bill larger than the value of the car. It’s time to buy something new.
Nora gives me a list, inside my budget, of new cars and suggests she’ll look into the area used market. Nora, Egyptian, American-born, loves to shop for cars; I’m part Lebanese and never give up those last $200 in price haggling. Somehow I think there’s a joke there—our peoples have been trading camels and magic carpet transport for centuries. I’m predicting that between the two of us, we’ll get a good deal on the next car.
But the right car? The right car is the one that I’m driving. I think about the way the cars I’ve owned have been essential to and reflective of the life period in which I drove them. Junior & senior years in high school, I drove that Jeep. During the summer I took off the hard top and drove it under the sun, through the moonlight and in the rain. More than once I stuffed eight or nine teenagers in the back to make the trek across town from the football stadium to the pizza parlor. I learned to turn doughnuts in a snowy parking lot in that vehicle—it was always good for an adventure, as when the clutch let go in the middle of an intersection and I was rescued by four beefy members of the University of Iowa football team who leapt from their car and pushed mine to safety.
In the mid-eighties there was little extra money for airplane trips to and from college. So my parents gave me a scarlet Superbeetle, at least ten years old, that I hid like a forbidden pet on the streets around my college campus where I was not permitted to have a car. I drove it until junior year when it started to scare me—I don’t remember what ended up being wrong with it, but that winter break I made it a thousand miles home to Iowa and told my mother that I didn’t think it was safe for the drive back to school. We went to the VW dealership and drove out in a brand new 1986 Titan red VW Golf diesel, sunroof, no air-conditioning. I would drive that car for nearly a decade. Through the balance of college, grad school, and my early years on a tiny salary as an English professor, I scraped together every payment and then enjoyed the bliss of no car payment for some time. It got great mileage, too, at a time when diesel was still cheaper than regular gas. And I made more than one person laugh carrying my extension cord with me in the winter—most notably when visiting in Massachusetts and plugging it in to a dorm room outlet that required dropping the cord out the window and down from the second floor to plug in the little battery that warmed the motor overnight as February temps dropped below zero.
A luxury car followed, a used Saab 9000. The day I test-drove the car, it was as if the dealer called central casting for a little old lady in tennis shoes to show up claiming to be the original owner. She was driving a newer, automatic red model, and they told me the reason she traded in was the stick shift. The car hugged the road in a way that made driving, one of my favorite pastimes, irresistible. That the little old lady in tennis shoes was also a fierce smoker who lived on a gravel road would not become apparent until I was on the way from Iowa to New York in my Saab. In the closed car, the smoke smell blended nauseatingly with the pine air freshener my mother had bought me. The dust from the gravel road leached out of the tail light fixtures in the rain for years. I constructed an entire fantasy about the car being regularly purloined by a family of bears who drove it out into the woods to smoke. Eventually the smell would go away, although the accumulation of dust never really did. And I loved that car, black, powerful and sleek, in spite of intense repair bills.
It was replaced with the perfect family car, a dark blue Volvo V-70 that made me feel old. In spite of saving my precious babies and me more than once, I never loved the Volvo. Surrounded by SUVs in preschool pick-up lines and parked at the grocery store, its low-slung body made me feel somehow invisible. In stop and go traffic the engine that preferred to race down the highway was sluggish and the car lumbered. I told my children
I would be driving a convertible by the time one of them was old enough for the front seat. The day came sooner, when I bought the Cruiser in 2006. It is creamy white, black roof, grey interior, auxiliary plug for the iPod. The turbo engine makes it surprisingly zippy, and it’s been far warmer and steadier in adverse weather than I ever expected.
On the first 40-degree day in March, I come out of a yoga class, drop the top, turn up the heat and blast “When I Write the Book,” by Rockpile. The sun shines on me and the sky whips past. Some days I drive over 100 miles, ferrying my peeps to and fro, driving to teach, to the studio, and running the errands that keep the home fires burning and the studio stocked. My car is an extension of who I am—a bit battered, in need of new shoes, one fog-light short. The next car will surely too become a part of my story, as each of the others has, but finding it—not the dealing for it, not the financing of it, not the first few miles we share—finding that right fit will not be easy.
The March new moon (3.11.13) promises new beginnings in spite of one more swirling snowstorm. Wishing you joy, fresh starts and reliable engines, Rxo