Thursday, November 02, 2006


In Which I Couldn't Car Less...

Long ago, I realized I'm just not built like other men. Well, physically, I am. I'm talking about mentally, emotionally.

For most of my life, I haven't found that to be an impediment--not in the least--but this past week it bothered me a bit when I came to a realization:

Most guys I know are very emotionally involved with their cars.

I get it, I do. Aside from all the Freudian phallic projection stuff attached to cars, there's a much more practical reason that the men I know--or are related to--have a special bond with their automobiles: it costs them too much NOT to be emotionally involved with them.

But once I got out of childhood and outgrew my early attachment for our old family Jimmy, I've never quite liked the cars I've owned as much as I've wanted to.

So when the battery light went on in my Subaru wagon one night the week before last and the headlights started to dim to the point that I was almost holding a flashlight out the window, I knew it was time to ditch this thing. And I didn't feel nearly as bad about it as I supposed I should have.


Granted, this problem was only a bad alternator, but it was the latest in a long line of problems over the past year. Subarus are supposed to be very durable cars and most Subaru owners I know have driven theirs well over the 100,000 mile mark with nary an automotive hiccup. Not me.

Her Lovely Self and I bought this car as it came off a lease about 10 years ago, and it was very exciting when we did. It was far and away our most expensive purchase to date--we didn't yet own a house--and it was a HUGE vehicle, at least compared to our mincing little Toyota compacts. Plus it came with all sorts of extra bells and whistles--power locks, for example. All-wheel drive. A mesh cargo net and a "privacy screen"--a little pull shade thingy that covered the back hatch area, thus forcing thieves to smash your window in order to see what you were hiding under there.

But then the car quickly proved to be the mechanical equivalent of a high-maintenance girlfriend. The power windows didn't work at temperatures lower than 50 degrees. The passenger-side door was slightly off-kilter and made a whistling noise at speeds above 45 miles an hour. Also, it tended to stall any time it rained.

Most of these problems happened while the car was, thankfully, still under warranty, but it was annoying to have spent so much money and time on a car that was reputed to be a durable, go-anywhere kind of ride--it was an Outback after all. If it sputtered to an ignominious stop every time the skies clouded over, how could I ever expect to go off-roading in the bush country with Crocodile Dundee?

Then again, most of the cars I've owned have had some peculiarity or other--many had several--and I suppose that made it easy for me to be fickle about them and ditch them without a backwards glance when the time came.

My very first car was a gift from my dad: a piss-yellow 1971 Ford Galaxie. It was quite the boat. My dad had bought it in the Pacific Northwest back when he was working out there and I was in high school. It was great for long distances. He drove it all the way back to New Jersey, although his trip was briefly interrupted when he was arrested for smashing up a bar somewhere in the Midwest and had to spend a few days as a guest of the county on a drunk-and-disorderly charge.

By the time my brother and I were in college, my dad had moved on to a vintage pickup truck, and the car went to my brother, who needed it to get around Providence. After he graduated and got his own car, I needed wheels to get to my summer job, so one fateful day in 1987, my dad handed me the keys. And a garbage bag.

"Might want to clean her out 'fore you take her for a spin," he said.

No shit. It was like an archaeological dig in there. My brother had filled it with about three years' worth of fast-food wrappers and grubby paycheck stubs. And underneath that layer of sediment, I found gas receipts from Washington state, some paperwork from a county jail in Illinois, and even an empty brandy bottle from Dad's drinking days, wedged up into the springs underneath the passenger seat.

I had never had a car before and wanted to spiff this one up as much as it was spiffable. So I got my dad's shop vac out and proceeded to clean the carpet, a big mistake. As soon as I thumbed the switch, the vacuum made an ungodly racket and, with a great tearing sound, began sucking the carpet right off the floor of the car.

As I discovered later, the carpet was pretty much rotted through and all that had been holding it together was years of caked dirt, bits of food and wads of gum. I say I discovered this later because in the event, I too distracted by something else to notice the condition of the carpet. That something else was a small crop of mushrooms growing out of the thin layer of dirt on the metal floor of the car. Mushrooms. I shit you not.

That was only the first of the Galaxie's eccentricities. Another big one was the air conditioner. It worked, after a fashion, but for the first few minutes that you turned it on, it would belch out this strange, green-tinged fog that made my eyes water (and for all I know could have caused permanent lung damage). The car had an automatic transmission, and every so often it would automatically shift into neutral. This happened once when I was driving it down the highway at about 102 miles an hour. That was one good thing about it: once you got it up to speed on the open road, that boat could really fly.

I knew I wouldn't have the Galaxie forever, though. For one thing, it was just too much work. In New Hampshire back then, any car of a certain age had to be inspected every six months, and it was a serious chore to bring the Galaxie up to acceptable standards for the day we took it to the garage. Dad and I had to glue the manifold on with furnace cement. We'd have to find fresh coat hangers to shore up the exhaust system. And I spent a small fortune in aluminum tape and Rustoleum paint in order to mask the rusted-out holes in the rear of the car. And the driver's side door. And the passenger's side door.

And then one summer, as I was driving the car to the country club where I worked, I heard a surprisingly loud clanging noise under the car--as though I had just run over a small toolbox--and a moment later there was a startling amount of slack in the steering. I spun the wheel like I was at the helm of a sailing frigate, but that frigging car arrowed right off the road and down an embankment, coming to rest in a ditch on the edge of a farmer's field. Luckily, I had been going up a hill when it happened, so my speed wasn't too great and the car was otherwise undamaged. But when my dad came and towed me home, he concluded that something crucial had come loose in the steering or the drive-train or possibly both, and that was the end of the Galaxie. I sold it for one dollar to a kid I worked with at the country club, just to get rid of it.

The next week, Dad took me to see Abe, a fellow he knew through Alcoholics Anonymous, and who turned out to be a car dealer. Just that week Abe had taken possession of a 1980 Chevy Chevette, which had been owned by his neighbor, the proverbial Little Old Lady who only drove her car to church and the grocery. It had about 14,000 miles on it and was in great condition, aside from the fact that it was the color of infant diarrhea. Abe wanted $1,500 for it, but he ended up taking just a little over $1,000. I paid him $250 down and for the rest of the summer, every Friday after I deposited my paycheck, I would drive straight over to the dealership and write out a check for $100 at the cashier's desk. Never again would I be so financially responsible. But it paid off: By the time I went back to college in the fall, I had the title.

Which meant I had it handy nine months later, when I accidentally contacted a Ford Bronco with the front of the Chevette, as related here in the paragraph headed "Crash Test Dummy." By the time I got back from the hospital--where I'd had X-rays to confirm my neck was merely sprained and not broken--the car had been towed away, the only sign it had been there being a lurid green pool of antifreeze on the tarmac. I should have felt sadness and remorse--it was my car, after all--but as I said, I just wasn't built that way. And besides, it hadn't been such a great car either. Granted, its flooring didn't host a fungus garden, but it was annoying in other ways. The rear defroster didn't work, for one thing, so in the winter I found myself driving with the windows open, or else breathing very shallowly in order to avoid fogging up the back window so I could see out. Eventually, the thermostat thingy in the engine died and I had no heat in the car, which made for an interesting winter. It was a four-speed standard transmission, but like the Galaxie, my Chevette too had a habit of slipping out of gear at the most inopportune times.

Nevertheless my dad, who you will recall suffers from an intractable case of C.R.A.P. syndrome, wanted to buy the car off me: he had recently acquired another non-working Chevette, given to him by a coworker who needed to clean out the car orchard in his back pasture, and my dad had an idea that the two cars could be merged in a Frankensteinian way to form a single operating vehicle. Thus it was that, a week later, when my classmates were getting ready to graduate and their parents were arriving with fancy cars as graduation presents, my parents arrived with a rented car trailer and my broken Chevette, mashed front end and all, lashed onto it.

I had expected that I would be the recipient of the Frankenstein Chevette, but a short while later, the sun shined on my ass when my grandfather, who had kept me afloat through college by slipping me 20 bucks here and there, bestowed on me my graduation present: a check for a thousand dollars. I had never before held so much money made out to me in my hand at one time. And I used all of it to put a down payment on another Chevy, this time a hatchback model known as a Spectrum, one of the first of the ill-fated Geo line of cars. With just six miles on the odometer, it was the first new car I ever owned.

If I had any kind feelings or sentimentality for this purchase, though, it was all wrapped up in an overarching sense of gratitude for my Papa, who had bailed my ass out in a big way: I had just accepted an editorial internship for the summer over a thousand miles from home and, after that, I was going to have to start looking for full-time employment. I expected to be putting on some serious miles going to and from job interviews, so having a reliable car was a priority. And this car was definitely a step up from the shit-brown Chevette. For one thing, it had a really good rear defroster.

Alas, that was about all it had going for it. It had no air conditioning, which turned out to be a real necessity when I drove down south for my internship. The car had vinyl seats and was apparently built to retain heat, so even though I often parked it in the shade, with the windows cracked and a reflective windshield visor in place, the interior of the car still managed to have the mean temperature of a working blast furnace. Once, coming out of work at the end of the day, I reached over in the passenger's seat to retrieve a cassette that had been sitting on the cushion, only to discover that the cassette was stuck to the seat. Did I say "stuck"? I meant welded. Even after I managed to scrape it loose (with the aid of a spatula from my apartment) it left behind a blackened cassette silhouette that was the regular feature of comments from anyone who happened to be in the car with me.

Another peculiarity of the Spectrum was the placement of many of the control buttons for various functions of the car. The headlights, parking lights, windshield washer and rear window wiper controls were all arrayed in a series of buttons along the top of the raised dashboard that sat about level with the top of the steering wheel. I'm sure some ergonomics whiz in the Chevrolet R&D labs thought this was a great selling point--you would turn on your headlights with your hands still placed on the steering wheel! Just extend your fingers and voila! But in practice, these buttons were a little too convenient to reach. I was forever turning on lights or the wipers with an accidental brush of my hand or swipe of books or papers as I got out of the car. In short order, I ended up buying a new battery because I'd left the lights on in too many parking lots.

As long-time readers may know, the Spectrum met its end rather dramatically when I moved to Chicago and got creamed by a Mack truck, less than three years after buying it. I survived the accident and so did the Spectrum, after a fashion. For about a month afterwards, I was forced to drive it to work, although I had had to cut off the back bumper to do so (it had been bent so badly in the accident that it was rubbing against the back wheel, and we all know what hell that can be on your gas mileage), and I had to steer slightly to the right, since the frame had been bent significantly after getting rammed by the truck.

There was other structural damage to the car, too. For example, there was a hole in the underside at the rear of the car, just near the exhaust pipe. I didn't learn about this, though, until one morning when I was at work and two security guys for our building appeared at my office door. One was laughing uncontrollably.

"You got the gray hatchback?" he asked, looking at his clipboard, which apparently contained my name and license plate.

I nodded, bracing to be told the car had spontaneously ignited or something.

"Well," the guy said, barely able to contain a smile, "your lights are on. Better go down and shut em off."

I looked at his mirthful partner. "What aren't you telling me?" I asked.

Then the man finally did smile. "You go see," was all he said.

I assumed he and his pal were amused because the car really did look like a total wreck (the Chicago police certainly thought so, when they pulled me over a week later and gave me a ticket for driving an unsafe vehicle). But as I got outside and neared the car, I saw something else was up. For one thing, from a distance I could already see that my headlights were blinking on and off at weird intervals.

When I got up next to the car, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the reason why.

A crazed squirrel was chittering at me from the interior side of the glass. He screeched in a most put-out way, hopping up and down on the dashboard in a frenzy of tiny scrabbling claws and the occasional bouncing squirrel turd. Almost every time he moved, he activated the headlights or the parking lights or both. At one point, he jumped to one side and found the windshield washer button, then began squirting the car--and me--with washer fluid.

I don't know what possessed him, but the fluffy rat had found his way into the car through the hole in the back and then apparently lost his bearings. I opened all the doors and the back hatch but that little bastard didn't come out for almost 20 minutes. To add insult to injury, when I came back out at the end of the workday, he was back in the car. I guess he liked it. And at that point, I'd have gladly given it to him. Instead, I had to turn it over to the insurance company, when they eventually cut me a check for the car, a check that turned out to be significantly lower than what I still owed on it.

Through luck and pluck, I ultimately scraped together enough money to pay off the Spectrum and buy a severely used 1982 Toyota Tercel. Unlike the Spectrum, I went into this purchase fully expecting the car to break down at any minute. It made terrible noises when you gunned the engine, it listed strangely and dangerously to one side, and it had rust holes big enough to put your feet through.

So naturally, that very summer, I impetuously decided to drive it east for a 10-day vacation in New England. And somehow, I convinced Her Lovely Self to go with me. It was our first big trip together. And it started out very ominously indeed. Our very first night on the road, the battery light went on in the car and I went through a process of discovery that I would repeat 15 years later. We ended up stranded in Youngstown, Ohio, where we coasted into a Motel 6 in the pissing rain and spent the night in their last room--a smoking room, alas, in which it appeared that the previous occupants had tried to smoke not only cigarettes, but also the curtains and some of the furniture, judging by the burn marks all over them. But it turned out to be a fine night (and the furniture turned out to be quite sound and stable. Ahem.) and the next morning we got to a mechanic who was able to put in a rebuilt alternator. For the next 9 days and 5,500 miles I didn't have another problem with that car, not until I'd been back in Chicago for about a week, at which time the right rear wheel fell off, taking a significant portion of the axle with it.

From there I jumped straight into another Tercel--a 1992 model--and that was my second brand-new car, although it didn't stay brand-new for long. That car, I swear to God, was an accident magnet.

On a camping trip up to Wisconsin, Her Lovely Self strapped her bike to the rack on the trunk in such a way that the bike slipped. And so all the way home, the frame of her bike rubbed most of the paint off the back of the car.

A month later, as I was sitting in traffic, minding my own business, a pick-up truck turned out of a parking lot to pull into traffic next to me, except the driver badly misjudged his turning radius and clipped the right rear quarter-panel of the car, peeling it away from the frame like a can opener.

Three months after that, I took a job back east and moved from Chicago with the help of my roommate, who had a car with a trailer attachment to which I could hook a U-Haul. He had agreed to follow me all the way to Washington, D.C. and then drive back to Chicago with Her Lovely Self, who would be living there for a while yet. Once we got the U-Haul loaded on the back of my friend's car, I gave him a map marking our route. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't need the map. I'll be on your tail the whole way."

Boy, he wasn't kidding.

Just outside of Chicago, all the traffic in front of me came to an abrupt halt. I put on the brakes and slowed. A second later I heard the squealing of tires behind me and looked into my rearview mirror just in time to see my roommate behind the wheel of his car, his face showing the kind of strain that immediately brings to mind the idea of shitting a brick, which he no doubt was. Apparently he'd been driving at around 75 miles an hour and had to jump on his brakes rather suddenly when traffic slowed. But he had reckoned without the weight of all my stuff in that U-Haul. The momentum of the trailer shoved him forward, completely out of control, and he rear-ended me at about 40 miles an hour. My bike had been on the trunk rack this time, and the force of the impact hammered one of the pedals right through the trunk lid, jamming it hopelessly. Worse than that, the impact shoved me forward so that I ended up rear-ending the car in front of me. A BMW. Was that ever fun to straighten out.

And that wasn't all. Over the years, other stuff happened. Rocks from a gravel truck smashed out both headlights and left an impressive hole in the center of my windshield. A tree branch about the size of a canoe fell on it and crushed the trunk (again). A kamikaze raccoon hurled himself into the path of my car one night. I thought I left him behind (I distinctly heard the thubba-dub-bumpp of his body as it went under the car), but when I got home, I was mildly startled to find his disembodied head staring out at me from the caved-in grille. Nevertheless, I still managed to get almost $2,000 trade-in on that car when I finally turned it over to the folks at my suburban Subaru dealer, in exchange for my high-maintenance Subaru girlfriend.

And now, 10 years later, that selfsame old wagon sits in our driveway, waiting for the local charity to come and tow it away, where it will be sold at a benefit auction to help homeless kids. I stared at it for the last time this morning, willing myself to have an emotional response because, in truth, I really did want to like this car a lot more than I actually do.

It was, after all, the first big purchase of a young, married couple. It's the car I drove to two really crucial job interviews (both of which resulted in job offers). Most importantly, it was our first family car, the car that safely transported Her Lovely Enormously Pregnant Self to the hospital twice and safely returned bearing the most precious cargo it will probably ever carry. It served me well on more than a few misadventures involving uprooted trees and toy construction hats and stolen dogs. And now, after having replaced most of the electrical system, the clutch (twice), the oxygen sensor (three times), the brakes (including the rotors), the driver's side door, and ridiculously expensive portions of the All-Wheel Drive System, I'm just casting it to the wind for nothing more than a broken alternator.

I guess I'm just a cold-hearted bastard.

Or maybe I'm just too distracted by what I found waiting for me in the driveway when I got a ride home from work the other day.


See, I was perusing classifieds for some junker I could use to commute back and forth. After all, who has the money to waste on a new car, especially when you're going to have an extra mouth to feed soon?

Well, apparently Her Lovely Self does. She's been doing freelance writing like a crazy woman since the kids started school. I just didn't realize how much she'd been doing. Evidently enough to pony up 25 percent of the purchase price of this bad boy, which she bought privately from a meticulous gentleman who himself bought the car barely two years ago and has put all of 15,000 miles on it. But now that gentleman has been transferred to Brazil and he needed to unload his car. His car that got a clean bill of health from our mechanic and whose service record for the past 24 months is scarily well documented in a little binder in the glove compartment of the car.

"Just consider it your Christmas and birthday present. For the next five years," HLS said when she picked my jaw up off the ground and handed me the keys. "That goes for them too," she said, gesturing to my parents.

Mom and Dad hastily corrected her on that point. Apparently my mom and my aunt recently settled all of my grandfather's affairs, including the disposition of his old Cadillac and his house, which he bought in 1956 for $10,000 and which just sold for about 40 times that. As a result, they've had a little windfall, most of which they've applied to their own debts. But when my car conked out, my parents huddled with Her Lovely Self and decided to match whatever funds she was putting up for the car. They just didn't bother to tell me about this until after the fact.

So once again, my Papa has helped me get a new car, a car that I happen to like a lot (I've had my eye on Honda's baby SUV for years, which my wife well knew), and which my family sneakily conspired to buy.

And for the first time since I was a child, I have an emotional attachment to a motor vehicle again.

At least, I will until the first flat tire.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Nice looking car!! HLS and your parents truly rock. What a great surprise. May this vehicle be default- and wreck-free!
Nothing like getting a new car... congrats!!!
My husband hates our subaru too..Forester..which got great crash test ratings..but your right...its a little finicky. I love my tundra...6 years and has never let me down..I hope someday I'll get to buy my husband a car! That is so cool. Lucky man, MM!
Nice looking set of wheels, MM. My godfather has a Pilot (a bit bigger model Honda) and really enjoys it. Watch out for squirrels/raccoons/flying branches now, okay?
I fucking hate cars as well. I wish I lived in a big city with some good public transportation.

Nice new ride though man. I hope it gives you another ten years!
I learned to drive in a Galaxie, but it was Mr Gator who was driving when the hood latch popped for no reason and the hood sprang up in his face, obliterating the view of the highway he was driving on. *That* was fun.

Our next car was the 1972 Volvo 145 that I learned to drive a manual transmission on. Volvos in that era Had notoriously weak exhaust systems, and I got quite efficient at wire coat hanger tailpipe supports. One time the tail pipe fell off in traffic. I got a few astonished looks as I muttered some bad words, stopped, then causally picked the pipe off the street and threw it into the cargo section of the wagon, to reattach when I got home.

(skip several vehicles worth of story)

We are currently on our second VW Golf.
Best car we've had so far.

To quote a friend "I hate cars. They're so fickle."

May your new one be more unfickle than most. And i hope it's a color you like.
Congrats on the cool wheels, MM.

Perhaps I picked up the emotional attachment to cars that you've lacked thus far. Anyway, it's cool to read someone else's car sagas. Thanks for sharing.
As a person who works in the used car business, I see many people who have a hard time letting go of a vehicle they've driven for years. However, the joy of gaining a new car is probably far greater than the sense of loss! Congrats on the new vehicle!

Jen Balboa
Ok Jen, you've convinced me. Even though there is nothing wrong with my car and I'm thousands of miles away, I will rush right over to your place and buy a new one.

Oh, wait. There is something wrong with my car. It needs new tires. Im sure they'd be cheaper than a new car.
Oh, I forgot to tell you we had to have harware cloth put in a few places under the hood cause chipmunks kept chewing the wires. Once he understood *why* we had Dcon scattered in there our mechanic installed it.

Living in the woods can be a pain. Especially in acorn season.
The raccoon incident had me laughing so hard I had to re-read the section at least three times. The third time was after taking a break and reading something 'serious' so I could get the tears out of my eyes. Congrats on the new vehicle!
Wow, what a great present!


(This post reminded me of the episode of Growing Pains where Maggie went back to work and earned enough to buy herself a luxury car, without mentioning her pile o' money to the rest of the family. Thankfully, this situation is a little different ;>)

Loved all the car stories, especially the squirrel and the poor raccoon's disembodied head.

I can see where you wouldn't be particularly attached to the cars you had in the past. Maybe this time will be different...?
it's kind of comforting that you apparently have the same luck with vehicles as you do with every other bit of your life. :-)

i was absurdly attached to my s-10, and sobbed for quite a while when i had to give it up. i do not care for the jeep that i drive now. it's an automatic, the hood is possessed and the heater doesn't work. *sigh* i miss my baby truck.

congrats on the new vehicle - go hls!
My first car was a 1984 Honda Civic, gold, that I named "Tyrone." That one overheated and died on the way to class my freshman year of college. Then came the Altima that a couple of illegal aliens rammed into the back of my junior year of college and totaled. Then came the Neon I had to sell when I moved to the "Walking City" of Boston. I had emotional attachments to each, too!

Congrats on the new wheels!! How wonderful of HLS and your grandparents!!
that is what my wife drives, but not nearly as well taken care of. Enjoy
We love our CR-V! I was just oggling someone's new 2006 at the gas station the other day. Mine's just a '98. It's a great car--super compromise between the size & gas milage of a compact and the family functionality of a SUV.

Congrats on the new car - very cool.

While I'd never dream of driving here in London (it still feels weird to be on the left side of the road), your post made me really nostalgic for both my old Chevy Beretta (with which I hit a very large moose - both the car and myself had very minor damage), and my Corolla (a 2003 model that in four years didn't have ANY trouble at all).

Great idea for a blog post btw - it's fun hearing other people's car stories :)
Bravo! Your Papa is a soul who will be with you forever. A blessing indeed.
I am a car freak and have cherished, polished, kept the oil changed and even named them, with the exception of one- which will remain nameless.

Congrats on the cool new ride- very sharp :)
Nice choice. We bought a CR-V last year and have had ZERO problems with it. Same goes for my Element. I think you'll be very pleased.
Wait just a freakin minute. I know I've been really busy and haven't been checking my top blogs as regularly as I usually do, I could be a day late and a dollar short, again......BUT....The one line that screamed, at the top of it's lungs, to me from this post was: "After all, who has the money to waste on a new car, especially when you're going to have an extra mouth to feed soon?"

Can I say: Fuck the new car!

Are You guys preggers??????????????????????


HLS is going to have another lil MM dude or dudet? When's the due date? Do Thomas and the Brownie (aka: BIG SISTER) know? What was their reaction? When did you find out? How did you find out? I bet HLS kept it pretty close to the chest, given your recent tragedy.

From the bottom of my heart - CONGRATULATIONS! I'm so happy for all of you at the Magazine Mansion!

I apologize if I'm late to the party wagon, and, if I'm the only one that caught your slick, under your breath, announcement - Yay me.

I know it's extremely selfish of me. But. I can't wait for the colorful labor & delivery, diaper changing, spit up all over your fresh clothes, sleepless night, posts to come. (Only because you started your blog after Thomas & The Brownie had long passed the infant stages of their life)

May I also be so bold to point out: The reason you were never emotionally attached to a vehicle is because; you are a rare breed of man, genetically blessed with the DNA of what is truly important in life: your children. (Please excuse the totally bad grammar).

Congrats on the new vehicle. Uber congrats on the, soon to be, new transportee of the new vehicle.
And to think that all you got her was a carpet cleaning!!
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