You can pretty well figure how the weekend is going to go when a cop wakes you up at 7 am on Saturday morning to inform you that your car has been hit by a garbage truck. Yes, my darling girl, Little Red, was laid waste by the waste collection service. It was the once-a-year community yard waste clean-up day in my hometown. My little vehicle was just sitting quietly by the curb in front of the house when the garbage truck driver – apparently stunned by the 32 bags of leaves and debris I had pyramided next to the driveway – cut in too close and caught the left front side of my Kia. Well, I had about a year of my car looking good, which is a new record for me.
I’m not really a car person, nor do I come from car people. Basically, in our family we buy something used that we can afford, then run it into the ground. My mom is still rockin’ a 1983 Dodge Caravan with 148,000 miles on it; it’s her baby, and she’s determined that it will outlive her. I am thus astonished when I hear people at work talking about trading cars with some regularity and discussing the various features and aesthetic appeal of their vehicle of choice.
Meh. As long as it runs, I don’t much care what my wheels look like. My first car was a hand-me-down – the family’s Pontiac sedan I inherited when the Caravan (used, natch) was purchased to replace it in the mid-80s. I got it when I was about a junior in college; back then, kids didn’t drive their own fancy wheels to high school like they do now. We had to WALK the six blocks, whippersnappers!
Eventually that old buggy started to fall apart. I recall having a dead battery one sub-zero morning; the helpful service man, once he ascertained that I don’t know anything about cars, sold me a $150 battery (this was back in the 80s, remember) that my father later averred would power the space shuttle. I think the slick salesman pegged me as a rube when he asked me if I’d ever had my tires rotated and I replied, “Don’t they rotate when the car moves?”
When the Pontiac finally conked out, I made my first car purchase (and by “my purchase,” I mean my Dad picked it out and paid for it, as I recall, even though I was in my 20s. Once Daddy’s little girl, always Daddy’s little girl. Did I make payments to my parents for it? I hope so.) My new ride was a silver Pontiac Sunbird, circa 1986 or thereabouts. Again, it wasn’t new. I bought it from a local guy. It was a two-door and had a manual transmission. I didn’t actually know how to drive a stick, but how hard could it be?
My father, never known for his patience, was my tutor in this endeavor. I seem to have repressed much of the experience, but vaguely recall a lot of stops and starts, my Dad snapping, “Shift down! Let up on the throttle! Not that fast! Shift up! Press the gas!” in a litany that got louder as my skills failed to advance. It’s possible I may have snapped back … all I know is that in the middle of a block some distance from our home, my Dad suddenly demanded that I stop the car and let him out! This incident morphed into family legend, my pops embroidering it more with every telling.
The Sunbird was a good little vehicle for a decade or so. Then it started leaking oil. By this time I was living in the Big City* and didn’t know where to take it to get repaired. I figured I could just as well wait until the next time I got home to Osakis and have the local guy take a look at it. In the meantime, I’d just pour a quart of oil in the engine every morning before I went to work.
This worked fairly well for a few days … until the morning commute when I was startled to see smoke rolling out from under the hood of my car. I was on the freeway in rush hour, so what could I do but just keep rollin’? I got off on my exit and made it to the stoplight at the corner of my office building before the sight of flames licking my windshield convinced me it might be best to stop. As I got out of the car, a man across the street started yelling, “Get away from that thing! It’s going to blow!”
Oh. They do that? Who knew?
Anyway, the fire department was called and yada yada yada, my silver Sunbird was left a smoldering carcass in the middle of downtown St. Paul. I later learned that my colleagues watched the excitement from our sixth floor offices, wondering what kind of idiot let their car go up in flames like that. When the blaze was extinguished, the fire captain approached me, looking grave.
“Have you had your oil changed recently?” he asked.
“Um … yes,” I fudged.
“Well, be sure to tell your insurance guy that whoever did it forgot to put the oil cap back on. We found it sitting on the transmission. Your car was splashing oil all over the hot engine all the way from Shoreview.”
My next car was a NEW black 1997 Ford Escort. Again a manual transmission, but four doors this time. Weezy, we movin’ on up! I had it almost a week before a deer jumped out onto the freeway in front of me. The collision beat the hell out of the right front end (and I suspect didn’t do the deer much good, either, but he scampered off into the ditch and out of sight). With $1,000 in damage and an $800 deductible, I decided if it was drive-able, it could live without cosmetic surgery. Fast-forward another five years or so, when a car hit me in an intersection and then sped away, leaving me with a left-side dent to match the deer-caused damage. Well, there’s something to be said for the aesthetics of symmetry.
Bowed, but not broken, my Escort continued to serve until last summer. It was rusting badly around the dented places and starting to nickel-and-dime me to death with small repairs, so I decided it was time to put it out to pasture. Enter my little, bright-red Kia, purchased from the same guy I got the Sunbird from 30 years ago. People told me I looked “sassy” in it. And now it’s been hit by a garbage truck and is as decrepit as its owner. That’s what an old maid gets for being sassy. Little Red currently rests where it fell, awaiting the conclusion of the endless dance of insurance dickering to find out who’s going to pay the $4,200 it’ll cost to get her moving again.
Even when she’s patched up, I know she’ll never be the same. That’s just as well. We’ll grow old together, Red and I, increasingly rusty, wheezy and cranky. That’s what old friends do.
*St. Paul. Not exactly New York City, true, but it has more than 1,000 people. That says big city to me.