A Love Letter to Crappy Cars and the People who drive them
Isn't it strange how some snatches of conversation, words another person have uttered somehow stay firm and fresh in your mind? Like our brains have a weird crisper drawer that houses seemingly random clips from years past?
There's one bundle of words in my brain crisper that come out every once in a while despite several years passing. Not only do I recall the sentences, I can also remember the lighting of the room, where I was sitting and the face of the friend who produced them.
We were in my friend's living room, it was early evening and dusk was just lurking. My friend and I were perched on her couch, bodies turned towards each other and eyes facing out the large picture window which faced the street.
Another friend of mine was pulling up out there, in her old car. I am not a motorhead so forgive me for not knowing things like makes and models. The car was old, no question about it. Tiaras of rust adorned the wheel wells, various dents and dings on the teal blue paint job cast a pebbled texture over the hood and the door panels. We could hear her before we saw her, the trademark sound of an overtaxed muffler announcing her presence.
My couch friend turned away from the window, looked at me and said:
"That's her car?"
She said this with a look of shock, almost horror, on her face. Looking back now, it's almost comical. Almost. I shrugged in response, as I mentioned above, cars are not my jam so I didn't really notice or care what my friends drove. "I guess?" I question/answered. She grimaced. I smiled and said, "What? It works, right?"
This friend pursed her lips, raised a brow and spoke again, the words going directly from her mouth into my head drawer:
"I judge people by their cars. Sorry."
I guess it didn't matter that our mutual friend had just gone through a gross divorce from a rough guy. I guess it didn't matter that our mutual friend was just now getting back on her feet and also trying to get two small kids on solid ground, either. I guess it didn't matter that given the choice between no transportation and transportation that isn't pretty, most women in that situation would say "HAND ME THE KEYS, HOMIE. I GOT A LIFE TO REBUILD."
At that moment in time, I was also rebuilding a life post-divorce. The shitshow part of my divorce hadn't happened yet, I was still floating on CEO alimony and clinging to the vestiges of a marriage to someone who had annual bonuses and who also loved keeping up with the Joneses.
My ride at that time was the newest vehicle I'd ever driven. A 2000 Ford Excursion my ex had picked up one night after work, on a whim. A whim and a loan of 25k. It had all the bells and whistles and also a gas tank the size of a hot tub. Which was all well and good whilst riding the wave of spousal maintenance and the last bits of guilt from a husband who left.
When both the guilt and the support disappeared (at the same time, imagine that), things became a bit more challenging. Maintaining a vehicle took a backseat to maintaining five lives and before I knew it, that sweet Excursion with the all-leather interior and butt-warmers and spacious third row seating began deteriorating. It was too big for the garages at both our family home and the new rental home the kids and I ended up in after the foreclosure, so the Minnesota winters took their toll. I put off oil changes in lieu of feeding my brood and extravagances such as new brake pads and tuneups were delayed until rent was paid.
That truck was a beast in the snow, though, and it held all my kids plus a few extra. It had a cargo hold that was the size of a small powder room. It was the vehicle that carried our dog home from the Humane Society and the one I had a legit backseat makeout session in with one of my first post-divorce dates.
And then one day, it died.
I was freaking out, of course, I mean...here I was, a hustling single parent with sports-playing, job-holding kids, groceries to get and my own patchworked, pieced-together full-time work schedule. My angel landlord offered to buy the dead Excursion for $5,000. I accepted and began the frantic search for new wheels.
That's when I began my life as the driver of a crappy car.
|Door handles are for decorative purposes only.|
The glow of having transportation lasted quite a while. Just about as long as the spray paint that had been used to cover the rust on the new-to-me Ford Focus. And even then, I was just happy to have a car that started AND fit into a garage. No air conditioning? No problem.
The reality of driving a junker hit home on a chilly spring day. I was driving along Hwy 169, my then-15 year old son Henry and his friend, Jack, along for the ride. Henry and Jack have been friends since kindergarten. Jack's dad was my second divorce attorney, the one who helped me get a portion of the severance package my ex hid during our first go-round. Jack and his parents live a bit larger than my kids and I, so what happened on that April morning was especially embarrassing.
Henry was in the passenger seat, Jack in back. Me, of course, driving. All of sudden we heard a cracking noise and then a vicious thump on the right side of the car.
The side mirror had fallen off, you see, and was now furiously banging against the door, attached to the car with a single wire. Poor Henry. He opened the window and grabbed hold of the rogue mirror and held onto that sucker until we got home. A cool spring morning can turn into a skin mottling arctic blast when you're hanging onto a car part while cruising down a highway. Henry learned that lesson the hard way.
The mirror falling off was shocking, but not a complete surprise. I'd backed out of the garage a little too quickly a month or so prior to that, wrenching the mirror almost completely off, and had rigged a "temporary" fix with duct tape and grim determination. This was when we were in the thick of poverty. The food shelf days. You think I could afford to get something as non-vital as a mirror fixed? Nah. But I did have a nice big roll of tape. And up until that moment, the repair had held.
When we got home, I got out the handy dandy roll and fixed it. Again.
Like everything else in my life, the little silver car that had been the symbol of my new life began falling apart. Bit by bit. The passenger door handle broke. No biggie! I'd reach over from my side and open it for whomever was lucky enough to be riding shotgun.
Then the driver side handle broke. That was kind of a biggie. But I can do hard things, so that's when my car became the one with the perpetually open window so I could reach in and open the door that way. In super inclement weather I'd leave the window up like a normal human being who drove a normal car and just open up the back door, maneuver my fluffy body through the backseat and up into the front. People at work took to joking with me about it. I took to pretending they were hilarious. Because that's just what the broke-ass person at work loves, you guys. People hardy-har-harring over their piece of shit car they drive because they can't afford anything better.
Time wore on, and also wore down that car. Last fall, after several months of going to a nearby convenience store on an almost daily basis to fill up the tire that deflated almost daily, I had to suck it up and get all new wheels to the tune of $450. "Safety first!" I screamed in my head as I signed the charge slip at the repair shop. A week or so after that, the steering wheel began vibrating whenever the speedometer hit 50 mph. And not a gentle vibration. So I took it in again and the nice mechanic who had been kindly helping me keep the Focus running as cheaply as possible gave me bad news.
"Jenny" he said, pre-wincing. "We found a crack in the thingamajig that connects the doodle to the dandy (I don't remember the exact term and as I've explained before I don't speak car). It's fixable, and I found a used part online for you, but it's going to be around $2,000." Side note here: if you can, ladies, find yourself a good car repair place. Preferably one that's run by a guy who understands the single mom struggle*.
Of course my first question was "but is it safe to drive like this?" and of course his response was "no".
At that point I had about $2000 in savings, the checking account was, as usual, beaten down to vapors. I also hadn't had a credit card since the divorce-inspired bankruptcy in 2010. Rock, meet hard place.
This is the difference between the haves and the have nots. One of the differences, anyway. And a huge one at that. The haves might sigh over this news. They might think "well there goes that weekend away in November" or maybe even "shoot I guess we don't eat out for a month". The have nots? LOL. We think "what the everloving fuck am I going to do now?" or "shoot I guess we don't eat for a month."
I told him I'd think about it and get back to him. His parting words? "Listen, I'm not going to lie. You could drive it like this for the next month or so, maybe. But if that thing snaps while you're doing anything over 25 mph, it'll be bad."
And so I did what I usually do in these situations. Nothing. Nothing, and also vent a little to my friends. I had done just that (the venting) in the private facebook group I run, when I got a text from a sweet young woman I'd befriended through trivia years ago.
It said this: "Miss Jenny do you still need a hooptie?" She's in the private group, and had seen my comment about having to find a new hooptie sooner rather than later. She also calls me Miss Jenny despite the fact that we don't work together nor have I ever been her teacher or school secretary.
That, dear readers, is how I came to be the owner of my current ride, The Boo. That sweet young woman had just purchased a new car and GAVE ME her old one. That's right, folks. She not only gave it to me, no charge, she dropped it off and as she was giving me the guided tour of the 2007 Chevrolet Malibu she apologized for things like some dirt on the floor mats and a crack on the bumper and the trunk button that worked intermittently.
|Isn't she lovely?|
If you've known me for any length of time you know that I cry a lot. Sad tears, happy tears, oh girl, I weep them all. This incredible woman caused a veritable tsunami of salty eye water. I held it together while she showed me the inner workings of The Boo. It was later that night, as I sat behind the wheel of my new car, that the weeping started. You guys, I felt like Beyonce in a Tesla. The door handles worked. There were cup holders! The stereo sounded dope, the AC blasted out fancy chilled air and there was nary a piece of duct tape to be seen.
To the untrained eye, The Boo looks like just another beat up old car. To my eyes, it's a cherry red chariot. There may be 200k miles on it, there may be spots of rust and there may be a shaky bumper but this car...it's beautiful to me.
Being poor has taught me many things. It has left marks that will most likely never leave, even if the fates decide to bestow a more opulent lifestyle upon me someday. But one of the best lessons, the most priceless one, is this: appreciate what you have. Be grateful for kindness, whether it's a soft hearted mechanic or an unbelievable act of generosity.
And never judge a person by what they drive.
So. Here's to my fellow hooptie riders. To those who drive crappy coupes, janky junkers, rust buckets and jalopies...ride on, my friends. I see you. I know you. I know your struggles. I know what it feels like to drive the shittiest car in the lot. I know how the cheeks burn a little when the stroller pushing mom jerks her head at the sound of your old timey muffler chugging down the quiet street. I know the courage it takes to ask the car repair guy to just please try to make it drivable, to patch it up enough to get through the next few months.
I know how you hold your breath while turning the key, praying that today isn't the day that nothing happens. I know the thready strands of panic that shoot through you while idling at a stoplight and that all-too familiar chugging of a dying engine begins. I know how glorious the relief feels when it does start, when your tired tires get you through a snowstorm and when you have a safe, warm way to get your kids to wherever they need to be.
Ride on, my friends. Ride on.
Jenny and Boo.
* shout out to the repair shop that has treated me with dignity all these years: Golden Valley Tire & Service. 763-541-0569