In 1989 I bought my first brand-new car. I had just graduated college, gotten a job, and moved into an apartment when Dad said, “Enough freeloading; I’m coming in two weeks to get my car back.” I looked for a used car, hoping to save money, but nobody in town would lend me money because I had no credit history.
Disappointed but undaunted, I turned to General Motors, which offered to lend me up to thirty thousand dollars to buy a new car. “You’ve achieved so much,” the form letter said, “with your recent graduation. We think that makes you a good risk, so we invite you to reward yourself with a fine new General Motors car.” I went to a Chevy dealer and, resisting considerable upselling, picked out an entry-level car, a maroon Beretta with four cylinders and five speeds. I splurged on a cassette stereo; everything else was as basic as I could get. The interest rate was obscene, but I could manage the payment, so I signed the loan papers on a Thursday. Besides, Dad was coming on Saturday whether I had a car or not. With just 16 miles on the odometer, I drove it home.
I’d never driven a new car. It cruised so smoothly! It passed without sounding like it would rattle apart! That stereo really rocked! Still, I was not enjoying the car payment, and realized that I would want to keep this car long after it was paid off. This meant keeping my car in top shape so it would be worth having then. So I followed the maintenance schedule religiously and had even small problems checked out. I also washed and waxed my car about every week and kept the interior clean, because I’d want it to look good in the future, too.
And then the troubles started.
One week after I bought the car, the drive thru at McDonald’s didn’t put the lid tight enough on the orange juice. I never got it fully out of the seat, the door fabric, and the carpet.
After about a month, a dying tree hanging over the road decided to deposit one of its large branches on my car’s roof as I drove under it. Just after I got the car back from the body shop, an F-350 with an iron flatbed decided to change lanes without checking his mirrors. Here’s the result.
That’s $2,000 worth of damage. The truck’s driver somehow convinced the cop that I hit him, even though the glass from my window was all in my lane. So on top of paying my deductible to repair this damage, my insurance company charged me a special fee of several hundred dollars for having caused the accident. I didn’t know they could do that! They also nearly doubled my rate, which was already terribly high because I was male, unmarried, and under 25. I changed insurance companies, but I still had to eat peanut butter and hot dogs for three months while I recovered from that financial mess. And then the body shop screwed up the repair three times.
The windshield wipers quit working after a few months, and it took the dealer three tries to get the repair to last. After about eighteen months, the stereo died. I saved up and put a new one in myself. Then the power steering pump started making strange noises. It took the repair shop four tries to put in a pump that worked.
I’d had the car about four years when I was hit in the right rear corner after I hit a patch of ice and slid partway off the road. What looked like minor body damage turned out to be several thousand dollars’ worth of frame straightening. The body shop did a pretty good job, but still the front-seat passenger could pretty easily put their foot on a spot on the floor and with very little pressure make it pop like the lid of a baby-food jar.
Then one day when I tried to turn the car off, something snapped and my key spun freely in the ignition. Turns out that a long aluminum rod that connected to the starter solenoid broke in half. The fine gentlemen who repaired it couldn’t get the steering wheel on straight. When I insisted they get that right, they sent their burliest mechanic to try to intimidate me into leaving. When that didn’t work, they got it on straight all right – by breaking the steering column. I could move the steering wheel about an inch up and down or left and right. I was disgusted, but not wanting to deal with those mechanics anymore I drove it away like that. I ended up never getting it fixed. The car drove fine.
After about six years, the headliner started coming down over the back seat passengers’ heads. I reattached it with neat rows of staples. I noticed that the clear coat was chipping off both doors. And finally, one day as I leaned back to square my butt in the seat, a bracket that held the seat to the floor sheared in half, and I found myself suddenly staring at the neat rows of staples in the ceiling. Thankfully, I hadn’t started the car yet. I fixed that myself with a bracket from a junked Beretta.
The last couple years I owned the car, I washed it maybe a couple times a year, and I’d let it go long between oil changes. My enthusiasm for the car was gone. I felt like I had wasted my effort to keep the car nice, and I felt a lot of disappointment. What was the use when outside events and fate, I guess, had conspired against my little car so much? I didn’t expect it to last forever, but I had wanted it to stay nice longer. And then, as if in defiance during those neglectful years, it had rolled through 150,000 miles when I sold it.
Cars fall apart, of course. It’s what they do. I was naive to think my Beretta would stay like new for so many years. But to my surprise, now that ten years have passed since I sold that car, I look at it differently.
I remember the day I found a long, straight stretch of deserted state highway and put my foot to the floor as I rowed through the gears. With a big smile on my face, I learned that my car could go just beyond 100 miles per hour.
I remember how well, for an inexpensive economy car, it held the road when I pushed it through curves and over hills. I could get it momentarily airborne on a particular rise around a curve on State Road 42 west of Brazil. I hope it’s not too indelicate to say that my car’s handling made my butt happy.
I remember long road trips I took in my car – a sweep through Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hoboken by myself to see old friends, and a trip to the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia with my dad to see where he grew up and meet relatives I never knew I had.
I remember listening to mix tapes and tapes of old radio shows in my car as I drove around town. I often sang along, not much caring whether anybody else saw me.
I remember driving in my car to the old mill dam in Terre Haute with my girlfriend, where we’d sit and talk, solving world problems, and maybe have a smooch.
I remember getting out of a speeding ticket in Thorntown in my car.
I remember a frigid January day when I brought my first baby home in my car.
In other words, I remember enjoying my car as it took me places and helped me spend time with people I loved.
It’s easy to think that I feel better about the car now because time heals all wounds. But rather I think I was so focused on making the car last that I was often closed to enjoying the car while it lasted.
I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes lately. The last part of chapter 2 talks about the frustration of working hard to build up something only to later have to hand it over to somebody else, who may screw it all up. Even though this isn’t exactly my car story, verses 22-25 do apply:
What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
I spent a lot of time chasing after the wind, as Ecclesiastes says, on my car. There was nothing wrong with taking care of my car – it is prudent to take care of our things so they last as long as they can. But my taking care of it interfered with my ability to experience the joys of owning and using it. I didn’t even enjoy washing and waxing the car; I did it mostly from my drive to keep it nice. It was like I was compulsively hoarding pennies in a jar for another day, checking my jar every day to see how many pennies I had, hoping that I could count on those pennies in the clutch. I wasn’t living in the present, enjoying what God has given me in that moment, trusting God to provide.
Today I have a 2003 Toyota Matrix, which I got in my divorce. It had been my ex-wife’s car and she had picked it out, but she wanted our family car instead when we split. I wish it weren’t red – the only color I like less on a car is white – and I wish it had a little more power. But little car has grown on me anyway. I love its fuel economy, its CD stereo, and that the hatch can swallow a surprising amount of stuff. I don’t have as much time as I used to for washing and waxing my cars, but I took this photo right after I managed to put a good shine on her:
This car is not without its troubles. The clutch makes a funny hooting noise when it’s humid or damp outside, it sometimes stalls when just starting to roll, it has lost five wheel covers so far (at $80 each), and I’m about to have to take the car back for the fourth time to get a brake job done right.
My prayer today is that God will help me enjoy this car as His gift to me as I drive my boys to the park in it, take it on road trips, drive to work while singing along to CDs, maybe make a return trip to Hoboken this year, and yes, wash it and wax it and keep to the maintenance schedule so it will last as long as it can.