Sunday, January 20, 2013

The end of an era

Coming to terms with the end of a car.

In the spring of 2009 I was teaching at a small, private liberal arts school in northeast Missouri. I had only been married a few months and our car was dying. So, we bought a "new" one. A guy in the church we attended at the time had a green 1997 Chevy Cavalier that he was willing to let go for $800. We pounced on that. It has been a great car for so many reasons.

It was our first car "together." Our names appeared jointly on the title and registration for the first time ever. We test-drove it together. We decided on it together. My wife and I have probably spent as many hours together in that car than we've spent in some of our homes.

It wasn't long after we bought that car that life began to change for us. We got a letter saying that the college at which I was teaching no longer wanted me to teach there. I wasn't concerned. I believed I could always find another job teaching college. We drove our little car up to Ohio for my wife's brother's graduation then drove back to Missouri without any concern. As the months went by, our lease expired on the house where we were staying and we decided to move in with my parents for a little while while I looked for a teaching gig. The drive up to Nebraska ended up being our home for a year while I worked jobs which paid a low hourly wage looking for a teaching gig.

When I finally got one, it was in New Mexico, where we live now. The move from Nebraska to New Mexico was the first time that the car showed signs of wear. A few hundred dollars worth of repairs seemed like a lot then, but we were doing fine. There were some problems after that. There was a persistent smell of gasoline. The coolant seemed to disappear. Oil must have been slowly leaking or burning because it went pretty fast. Still, we drove it for a few more years and drove it a lot. In Nebraska, we believe that we drive long distances for things. That is because we're comparing ourselves to points east. In New Mexico, it is nothing to drive three hours to see a movie or go shopping. We've even driven a couple of hours to go to Mexico just for dinner and to pick up some cheap vanilla sometimes. The closest truly functional airport is in El Paso, four hours from here.

In October, however, the steering fluid started leaking, big time. The mechanic said that this was due to a rack and pinion which was coming apart. He also told us that the smell of gasoline was from an O ring deep in the engine and that it really needed to be fixed for our car to be "safe." He explained that in order to make the car "safe" it was going to cost thousands. Those were thousands we don't have.

So, we started looking for a "new" car. I must put "new" in quotation marks because our finances would not allow us to buy a truly new car, and even if they could I have a moral compunction about buying anything "new" that depreciates as quickly as a car does. It seems more than a little ostentatious.  Our search was not going well. The year of low paying jobs and problems with student loans affected our credit. Anything I was seeing in our range on craigslist was in worse shape than the green Cavalier. I was getting discouraged, angry and upset.

Finally, a guy from our church who runs a scrapyard told us that he could put together a car for us pretty cheap. For around $2000 he could put together a 1992 Toyota Camry from parts he had in his junk yard. He assured us that this would be a really good car and last us quite a while. We gave him the go ahead. Well, it turned out that in 1992 Toyota changed engines mid-year. So, the parts he had didn't necessarily fit the car. October turned into November and we hoped to have the car by Thanksgiving. He was having trouble finding the right engine. We needed a car to get home for Christmas, but he didn't have it done yet (and my wife couldn't get the time off). December came and went. We kept driving the Cavalier and it kept getting worse.

Last week when the temperatures dropped below zero, it developed a visible coolant leak. Up until this time, the coolant was going somewhere, but we couldn't see it. Now it dripped out whenever the car ran and was going through more than a half-gallon of the stuff in the short drive to work. Not only is this not environmentally sustainable, economically it is pretty bad too. Then, Friday night, a tire went flat. We put on a doughnut and went home. We'd been hearing for weeks that the Camry would be done any day now, and were arguing over whether to try and find a used tire for the Cavalier when we got the call that the Camry was done.

We drove the Cavalier up to the junk yard on a doughnut tire, pouring out coolant, leaking steering fluid, smelling of leaked gasoline and overheating. That doesn't even take into account the physical damage, multiple dents and dings and chips and scrapes and missing mirror and taillights that had more translucent red tape than glass. There sat our "new" silver Camry. He showed us how he'd put the Toyota body over a Lexus ES350 engine and transmission of the same year. He showed us that everything fit together and worked just fine and he assured us that this should be a good car for a few more years.

Today I realized that a weight was no longer on my chest. I worried constantly while driving that Cavalier around the past few months. Still, there is something bitter sweet about the whole thing. That little green car has been with us through some of the most difficult times in our lives. It has been stable through multiple transitions. It has been something we've counted on and it didn't let us down. I know that I am anthropomorphising, but I almost feel like it knew it was on its last legs and had to just keep going to take care of us. I feel like when one puts an old dog down.

I know in some part of my being that cars don't have feelings. I know that sentimentality attached to objects is messed up. Things break down. Things don't have souls. Things are just here for us to use and enjoy. Still, that car seemed like part of our family and as much as I like the new one, and as much as I'll probably look at this blog some day and laugh at myself, I can't help but feel a little sense of loss.

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