In 1981, as soon as I was old enough, I took my driver’s test in a ‘64 sky blue Ford Falcon – a three-speed column shift. The sedan had belonged to my great aunt Ann, who never drove it much. I failed magnificently the first test - mis-releasing the clutch, bunny-hopping into the driving course’s little fake intersection and stalling out.
The first car I actually owned outright was a red-orange Ford Maverick that my grandmother had accepted to settle some debt at the general store. I bought it from her for something under $300. I got a year or so’s worth out of it, but when it threatened to start sucking me dry with repair bills – I sold it to someone I can’t remember for the same amount I’d paid for it. Caveat emptor.
So the family Falcon served until the fall of 1983, when I went off to college in Philadelphia, where it made no sense to have a car.
(In fact, the only time I had wheels in Philly was 1987, when I was the founding field manager for PA PIRG’s fund-raising canvas, and had a company rental car to tool around in in my free time, which meant whenever we weren’t canvassing, sleeping or drinking pitchers of Yuengling porter at McGlintchy’s – which meant pretty much never. I ruined three of those cars – all in the line of duty. Over the course of a week, the first car gradually developed an acrid burning smell and fewer and fewer gears, until it had no gears at all and I had to call a tow truck. A second car I just outright wrecked (possibly running a red light, though I don’t remember any light at all). I got T-boned by a heavy steel van, which reduced one of my more fragile canvassers to tears and a week of hypochondria. Within the week, the replacement had the window shot out as we drove through suburban Ardmore. Probably a BB-gun, since we’d have noticed a bullet I think. That last one was kind of a relief because I’d destroyed the rubber seals on that window breaking in with a coat hanger. And since my boss happened to be in the passenger’s seat when all the shattered glass fell into his lap, it was pretty clear I couldn’t be blamed for that one . . . )
Anyhow, by the time the car had been returned with a hundred unpaid parking tickets, I had left Philadelphia and moved to central Massachusetts in pursuit of an Englishwoman I was in love with. I got by with my old silver Motebecane Mirage bicycle – and hitchhiking.
A few months later, after things had blown up with the Englishwoman, I was in the Poconos helping my grandmother with the store. At the end of the winter, as a thank you, she sent me off with a ‘78 Chrysler LeBaron that had belonged to her boyfriend Stan. It was maroon and silver land yacht that drank gas like a sailor and I put a million miles on it driving around the US and Canada as though it were Belgium. At the end of summer 1990, I sold it to a fearless guy in Eugene Oregon for $175 because the chassis was apparently ‘soft’ and the mechanic seemed legitimately concerned for my life.
As mentioned earlier, I got by in San Diego with that Motebecane, but after a year of it I bought a sooty yellow Rabbit diesel with 150,000 miles on it for $500. A previous owner had welded in a second gas tank and with the full twenty gallons you could drive 800 miles between fill-ups. This was the car I was driving in the days when I met Monica, which demonstrates her shining ability to see past an unpromising first impression. (She was getting around on a red Kawasaki motorcycle at the time.) The car survived to some point in 1995, but I had left it at my father’s while we were in Kazakhstan for a couple of years and he got tired of being saddled with a sooty decrepit Rabbit as a driveway ornament and sent it off to the junkyard. I can’t blame him, since by then one of the doors wouldn't open and I was the only one who could coax it into life in anything below 50 degree weather. (A rolling start always helped, but my father wasn’t that motivated.)
In 1996 my grandfather was upgrading his car and unloaded a Ford Fairlane on us, behind whose solid steel bumper Monica gained her first experiences with Pennsylvania black ice – taking out both a stop sign (no harm) and a pine tree (yeah, some harm). But the old Fairlane took us back to San Diego. Before it could fail its inaugural emissions test we traded it in, buying a near-new ‘97 Saturn station wagon, which at $12,000 was 24 times more than either of us had ever paid for a car.
We crossed to the new millennium with two nearly new cars – the Saturn and a ’95 Jeep Wrangler, which was named Wilhemina. She was sold a couple of years later while we were living in Ireland where for three years I drove an anonymous rented Vauxhall with the steering wheel on the wrong side.
The Saturn persisted through all of this as this time my father didn’t send the car to the junkyard. When we moved to Rhode Island with our now eight-year old Saturn, I said to myself, we need to go shopping for a second car – because even though we don’t need a second car very often, we do need it sometimes.
Thus began an epic decade of car-shopping procrastination. I don’t think I can reconstruct all of the machinations that went into me not ever buying a second car, but I think it started with my sister’s wedding, when they sent us back across country from California driving my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s old Dodge Raider. (They were relocating themselves, but it would be nearly a year before they reclaimed it from us.) I think by then, Monica had taken a part time job driving an enormous Suburban for the school we’d enrolled the boys in – and that became our second car for two or three years. When she’d had enough of carting school kids and turned in the SUV, Monica did actually buy a Saturn sedan off of Craigslist for two thousand dollars, but within a month or two she totaled it, getting rear-ended while buying eggs from a local farmer – so that car hardly counts. At some point my father off-loaded his Dodge Van on us, but it was never going to pass inspection in Rhode Island, so I sold it to an old man who seemed down on his luck and I’m sure that van didn’t help. Friends moved to Japan for a 18 months and needed someone to look after their zippy little Impreza. And finally, my mother’s reliable and well-preserved ’96 Honda Accord came our way when she upgraded to a Lincoln hybrid.
The old lady – our once-reliable Saturn gradually became the second car.
But my mother’s old trooper of a ‘96 Honda Accord – is also showing its age. The odometer stopped working after it’s last inspection, so the mileage remains a perpetually spry 264,954. The radio comes and goes and we need pliers to adjust heating.
So in December we did the unthinkable. We finally went car shopping and quickly bought a brand new 2016 Toyota hybrid Rav 4. There was no bargaining, because only show models could be found and we had to pry the vehicle away from the dealership.
And so the Saturn was demoted to third car. It is still parked just off the driveway by the woodpile, finally looking entirely derelict and forlorn – with a bashed bumper (we spent that long-ago insurance money on something besides fixing the bumper) a roof scraped and scratched from ill-advised snow-shoveling, a speedometer that thinks you’re always driving 40, windshield wipers that spontaneously jump to startling life on cold mornings, and ceiling fabric hanging in drapes and tatters. And since it failed to start in March – demoted still further to ugly driveway ornament.
I have to jump start it and drive it away to the salvage yard, because I need that spot. Porter's aunt has a '98 Honda to unload and she figures her more or less penniless nephew could make use of it when he goes off to college this fall.
And so the cycle of life continues . . .