I owned an ’85 burgundy, 5-speed, fuel-injected, three-door, turbo charged Dodge Lancer. We called it the POS. It was the car I used to bring garbage to the dump, carry bricks and wood, and haul crap without caring. I kept it clean but didn’t worry if it wasn’t. We’d find driftwood and toss it in the back, sand and shells and all. We spent countless hours driving to the beach, the ice cream parlor, the auto repair shop. My son practically grew up in that car, learned music from its cassette deck, held up the felt on the falling roof so I could see where we were going. I drove him to school in that thing well into third grade.
We all remember our cars.
My first was my dad’s ’72 Nova, which wasn’t mine but I racked up the miles on it for him as good sons do. My first car I drove when I lived on my own was a 1980 light blue, Chevy Monza. That little thing and I saw the United States a few times, smuggled blankets out of Mexico and Molson’s out of Canada. We spun out down an icy hillside in Massachusetts and I ended up junking it in Pennsylvania when the engine blew out. I was driving all of a friend’s belongings from my house to her mom’s when that happened. I think that’s when I started understanding metaphor. In fact, to this day metaphor drives my writing life. It comes from cars.
My favorite was a red Jeep Cherokee five speed. I abused that car the way jeeps should be abused, and it lasted far longer than I treated it. It is the car I think of when I hear Paul Simon singing, “If more of my homes had been more like my cars, I probably wouldn’t have traveled so far.” Those were good times, windows open, radio blasting. There was the time I was stranded in the desert with a dead battery a hundred miles from a tree. Or when for several years the gas gauge on the Jeep was backwards. In forty years I went from fitting everything I own in the trunk to needing a U-Haul just to go away for the weekend. I can think of very few objects I’ve owned that symbolized “freedom” more than my cars.
One day when Michael was small and we were in the POS we drove over a pothole at a sub shop parking lot. The chassis slammed hard and made a crumbling sound like folding metal. I tried to back up and it refused. A friend pushed me out and I drove home thinking whatever was wrong righted itself.
No. In fact, I couldn’t go backwards for the next eighteen months.
I learned to look for a pull through. I’d park far away at the mall, grocery stores or work. I learned to anticipate what was next so as not to corner myself, or worse, find myself with my face against the wall. I learned patience. Only three times in a year and a half I found myself trapped. The first was at Old Dominion University when arriving for a night class and the parking lot was full save one spot against a pole. I paused and asked my friend if he wanted to push me in then or push me out later.
I learned what roads I couldn’t turn down, what tight situations might be waiting, when to find a slope to roll back down, when to walk. A cop once pulled me over for pushing a yellow light. He let me go but stood and waited for me to leave first, but I had stopped in front of a sign and for the second time I couldn’t back up when I needed to. He waited. I waited. Finally, I said, “Wow Officer, my heart is still racing and I’m tired. I think I’ll sit here a minute and compose myself.” He left.
It was after the third time that I junked the car—excuse me—donated it to Good Will. I had to get it inspected and went to a shop where I know the mechanic, Tuna. Honest to God his name is Tuna. I didn’t want to tell Tuna about my inability to back up, obviously, since I refused to buy a new transmission, and I realized I was screwed when he pointed me into the one car bay with no way out but back.
In Virginia, an inspector’s first task is to scrape the old sticker off the windshield, so while he scraped I called, “Hey Tuna, it’s the last day of the month so I know you’ll be swamped, go ahead and put the lights on while you’re in there.”
“Good idea, Bob!”
I called out. “Okay. Brakes? Good. Left signal? Good. Right signal? Good,” and found myself doing my own state inspection. “Reverse” No white lights lit up, of course. “Good!” We finished that part and he finished the rest, put on a new sticker and asked for ten dollars. I gave him a twenty and said, “Tuna, I need a five, four ones, three quarters, two dimes, and five pennies.”
“Sure Bob,” he said and headed to the store in the front of the shop. When the shop door slammed I got in the car, threw it in neutral, got out, heaved it over the red tire lifts onto the gravel lot, jumped on the brakes until the POS was far enough back to go forward. Tuna came out and I held my side gasping for breath. “You must be in a hurry!” he said handing me my change. I drove off wondering what was next.
Seems like back then I was always wondering what was next.
The following day I drove Michael to school. We listened to music while he held up the roof. He grabbed his bag, got out and waved as I rolled forward, moving on, and realized the truth is we rarely have a reason to go backwards anyway.