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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Little Life Journies

It was a white 1972 Toyota Corolla with 93,000 miles on it and holes in the floor, but it was mine. My car-geek brother convinced me that it was a reliable make--the price, good.

I was desperate. The property manager for my first apartment assured me the townhouse was on public transportation. There was no reason to question her; a “T” sign stood at the driveway--it, however, failed to indicate that the complex was a weekend-only stop. The first work morning in my new home, I waited an hour for the bus, running back up the hill to snag a ride with my later-scheduled roommate, arriving at work way too late. Having inked a lease believing public transportation would arrive at my doorstep, I was stranded with no transportation at all. The bus route I needed stopped three miles away.

The options: ask practicing-lawyer dad to get me out of the lease, or beg pseudo-banker dad, to extend a loan. I went with option two. Hello “Want Advertiser?” Within days I drove home with the two-door, standard-shift model that we were assured “had been driven up from Florida.” We weren’t that gullible, but my brother convinced me it was a decent purchase, so I pocketed the registration to what my now-husband used to call: “The Little Engine that Could.”

At first though, it was more like the “Little Engine that Couldn’t.” I no sooner parked my wheels at my apartment when the tires started deflating. Looking over my shoulder, I wondered what kind of neighborhood I’d moved to; the mechanic reassured me. There were leaks in the tire stems—small expense for parts—larger expense for labor—the headache, biggest of all. The fan belt followed. It squealed when I accelerated; the car stalled when I stopped, but I was broke. When the car finally died it required a new alternator.

The voltage regulator though, is my favorite story. I left my parents’ house on a dark night to spend Thanksgiving with my now-husband-then-boyfriend. On a two-lane highway, sitting in the middle of the road about to turn left, the car stopped dead—no lights, no emergency blinkers--a driver coming up behind me wouldn’t see me in time to avoid a crash. Popping the shift into neutral, I opened the door, straining to steer and push and was suddenly surrounded by four male athletic types who yelled: “Get to the side of the road!” as they maneuvered my car to safety. Then they introduced themselves.

No introductions though, were necessary. Five years previously, they were a grade behind me in high school, where I slouched shy and invisible down the hallways and they were celebrated football heroes--unaware of my existence. That night, they demonstrated all manner of chivalry while dropping me back at my parent’s house. Voltage regulator necessary to keep a battery alive: $12.50. The tow truck to move my vehicle: $40. Rescue by kind former high school jocks: Priceless.

Oh my little car. The engine ran hot in the summer so I learned to turn the heat on while driving to my boyfriend’s at the shore. One night both low-beam bulbs blew out and I traveled home from my sister’s though flickering lights flashed by drivers who suffered my blinding high-beam glare.

Finally though, I learned that regular tune-ups staved off more expensive repairs and once I did, that little car took me places—in my early twenties, the calendar was full of weddings and parties and most of the time the Corolla and I arrived. It saw me through two apartments, three roommates, my romance with my husband, and our first year of marriage. For four years, the car carried me through my life changes and I milked it through maintenance and adjustments, partners until, as a two-incomed newlywed, when the headlights blew out again, I got tired.

With 113,000 miles on the odometer, we traded it in for a new Mercury Lynx with a shiny finish and new-car smell that blanketed our guilt when the dealer explained the old car would be shuttled to the scrapyard across the street. While there were no repetitive repair jobs on the Mercury, it was a short lived luxury. Lacking dashboard indicators to reveal engine overheating caused by a hole in the radiator, the Lynx’s engine seized up at 60,000 miles--we owned it for less time than I’d had my first car. The next vehicle we purchased was a standard-shift Toyota Corolla that lived with us through 120,000 miles.

I loved that second Toyota, but somehow, it wasn’t the same. Above a towering cliff on Route 53 in Quincy, a grocery store and an apartment complex are situated on what used to be the scrap heap that absorbed my first car. Whenever I’m stopped at the traffic light there, I give it a little wave.

This week, Boston Globe columnists Bella English and Bill Porter wrote about former cars, jump starting this memory.

1 comment:

Darnell said...

Liza, Nice essay. Cars are such a part of the American psyche. It's our invention, the hallmark of our independence (and the loss of it), and for those of us old enough to remember chrome bumpers, it was a very American art form. I love car stories.