#61 Car Sense

Like most of us in the 60’s I inherited the family Volkswagen, used by my mother, then my brother. It was a red ’61. On my 21st birthday I was shocked by a brand new ’68 shiny version of the same car. When I say shock I mean shock since my mother had mandated that I would not be given a car or anything else, ever. Along with the shock was, and this is going to sound terrible, disappointment. My car was gone. Gone were the many quarters left in the seats, the trinkets, straws, napkins, keepsakes my friends and I left behind. I’m sure I seemed ungrateful. But I can’t understate the shock part.

I returned to school and work in Seattle in the shiny new VW, lurching as I drove, because that was the year they put the clutch in the gearshift. So every time I tapped to the radio music on the gearshift, the car went into neutral. I couldn’t get used to that. Also out of gear, I managed to roll back into a very low to the ground beautiful Jaguar in the Seattle U district. Fortunately no damage was done.

So here’s the second shock. Home one weekend, the shiny Volkswagen disappeared and a sporty Buick Opel Kadett Rallye unceremoniously appeared in its place. Double triple shock. They took back the VW, which apparently was a problem car, and I honestly don’t know who advised my mother on the replacement but it was great. I never understood because she had never done anything like that before or since. It’s taken decades to realize why she made that one and only gift. Another time for that.

That first weekend speeding the new car back to catch the ferry for Seattle, a deer jumped off the embankment in the dark onto the hood of the car. I really was speeding and it stopped the car. It was the first time in my life I had worn a seatbelt. The front of the car was smashed in, and the deer landed 50 yards behind me. Some people from my hometown were coming the other way and drove me to the ferry so I could get to Seattle. I was told to report at the police station where I had to draw the accident with the other “vehicle.” I drew a stick figure of a deer with antlers. They said the deer was missing minutes after the accident. I don’t know how they fixed that car but they did.

Fresh from the body shop, I was in a right turn lane in downtown Seattle. A tour bus to the left of me in the straight lane, decided to turn right illegally. I honked my horn and crawled to the passenger side to keep from being crushed. Passengers on the bus yelled at the driver to get him to stop. New car, back in the shop. The bus was on its way to California. The driver kept calling to bribe me not to report the accident.

About that time I didn’t want to feel doomed, but I was developing what I considered a reasonable fear of white panel trucks. They seemed to be the most common delivery truck. They had no side windows and very little view, and always seemed to cut me off. I’ve not been hit by one yet, but I emphasize yet.

One time dashing in the Opel to make a ferry for Seattle, I had nothing but a fist full of coins to my name. I missed the ferry so had to speed to make a different one twenty minutes away. I tossed the change onto the dash. For months every time I would slide the heating lever, another coin dropped like a slot machine.

The Opel was the car I drove with my little dog Sammie when I moved out to New York. It got me through rush hour traffic, to ski areas and commuted for a while to New Jersey. Once when I was out west on business, I got a call from the manager of the radio station to tell me that my car was totaled. What? I left the keys with a friend at the station to start it for me, so was terrified that she had driven it to her death. No, there had been a freak storm and a solitary tree fell on my car crushing it. The company had it repaired. I don’t know how because it was flattened.

It was the Opel that I gave to my friend Ivan when I moved in with the man in my life then. And it was the Opel Ivan abandoned on the Brooklyn Bridge. And it was the Opel I traded with the mechanic for the repair costs. The car was only about 5 years old, but the deer, the bus and the tree were probably just too much.

After my return from Milwaukee I bought a Chevette to get me to the Connecticut train station in my new town. It was a stoic little car for hauling furniture or plants for the yard. At one point police discovered that a thief sat in my car at the train station during the day to watch other cars to rob. I never locked it so no one would break in.

After about five years, Chevette repairs were out of hand. I went to a car show in Manhattan and was guided by a friend to a Peugeot, a lovely boxy car with a simple understandable dash. I went to the dealership in Stamford and bought one. Got home and realized that I had not driven it. I went right back and fortunately it was perfect.

There was a mason doing some work around my house so I gave him the Chevette in return for some of the work. He disappeared. There’s a moral in there, but don’t make me write it down.

The Peugeot was new when I left New York and Connecticut. Unfortunately the area of Pennsylvania where I moved had no Peugeot dealerships. For a while I actually drove back to Stamford, Connecticut to take care of the car but I found a mechanic who worked on Peugeots. He had been a race car mechanic, and for whatever reason liked French cars, so, his little shop out in the middle of farm country was called “Le Garage.” Really.

Back then I was edgy, trying to start a new business with strangers. I still paced at the pace of a New Yorker. To have my car taken care of, I had to spend half a day in the middle of chicken farms and freshly manured fields while the mechanic Jake and his buddies swapped tall tales. I was irritable in his makeshift garage, but he knew Peugeots. Or he was willing to work on them. I’d sit in his little office by the space heater, which unfortunately I backed into one time wearing a fur coat.

But at some point I became less irritable and Jake and I started talking. He took care of my car and in a way was taking care of me, especially when I drove across country. He’d set air circulation and changed oil for different altitudes, things like that. Probably all hogwash but that’s the way we rolled.

I’d tell him my travel stories and he told me his tall tales. I started carrying a tape recorder because the cracker barrel atmosphere with his buddies was too much to miss. I started writing a play. It was my goal to keep that car so that it would be the one on the stage. I think I named Jake, Ike in the play.

It seemed like it cost an awful lot to keep a fairly new Peugeot running. Parts weren’t easy to come by since they went out of business in America. And Peugeots were unusual enough that other owners would stop me and chat. One time a few years into this maintenance routine a guy told me how much Jake overcharged him so I confronted Jake about what he charged for my new tires. We didn’t have quite the same rapport after that. I’m pretty sure I paid for his daughter’s college tuition. Then he moved to Florida. His notion was that I could put my car on one of those car trains so he would still do the maintenance.

I found a local gas station owner who could get parts from a guy in Vermont, who  got parts from a guy in Canada, who got parts from France. I saw a lot of that mechanic as the car started to rust.

Move a few years ahead. Life was complicated as it was winding down with the unnamed man in my life. (#55 It Takes Two) I was working long hours as a publisher and knew Peugeot was not going to pass its next inspection which was immediate. A friend took me to look at cars that would be similar to the Peugeot experience. In other words, not American. Then someone insisted that I look at the brand he and his wife had been buying for years. I saw one on the lot and that was that.

The guys at the dealership were still laughing when I asked what they were going to give me in trade for the rusting Peugeot. I saw them tow it away, a sad moment. But I drove the new sort of ladylike van home. I knew I’d be rushing for an early meeting in the morning so I left it in the driveway that night.

In the morning with the predicted rush, I stepped into the brand new van/car and it wouldn’t let me put it in reverse. I don’t even think it would start. This was all happening when I was also about to move out of the house, or as I refer to it running away from home in just days. But the car wouldn’t budge. I was sure I had a lemon.

I had the card from the salesman, so with the new work phone, called frantically. This was like a bad day in New York frantic. I don’t remember who I talked to, someone in the service department with a very calm voice. He asked me one question. He said, “Did you put your foot on the brake?” Well, no, in fact I had not. I didn’t know the connection but apparently there were some changes in cars in 17 years. I put my foot on the brake, and the car started up, went into reverse and back I went. Forward too.

I wasn’t prepared for two things. How rusty my Peugeot was and how frail I had felt, especially driving to New York. For the first two months I was sure an airbag would go off at any moment. And second, the power. When a policeman stopped me, I wasn’t trying to get out of a ticket but mentioned that the car was brand new. He gave me a warning.

That was 14 years ago. The elegant Japanese van just cost five times what I budgeted for inspection. Bad news. I had hoped it would last the same 17 years as the Peugeot. Maybe it will now.

But I still get nervous about white panel trucks.


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