June 29, 2013

When You Say Goodbye To An Old Friend

My first memory of a car was our family car. It was a dark brown Mercury Cougar, maybe a 1987? I remember my parents telling me that they were going to be getting a new car, that we were going to get rid of the brown Cougar. I remember bursting into tears. I remember my Dad getting irritated with me. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “This is a good thing!” But I didn’t yet know the excitement of getting a new car. I just knew we were getting rid of our old car. I thought it would know and be sad. I cried and I cried.

And then we got the new car. It was a new Mercury Cougar. This one was red.

And I stopped crying. And I was very happy.

I never owned a car myself growing up. I was kind of freaked out about driving. While most kids couldn’t wait until they got their drivers licenses, I was in no rush. I turned sixteen in March and didn’t get my license until the end of August. Even when I did have my license, I barely used it. My parents were not the type to toss their keys to you and say, “Here you go, have fun.”

If I went anywhere, I got picked up by a friend or was dropped off by my parents. Every time I thought about driving, the term “operating heavy machinery” popped into my head and my knees got a little weak. So I didn’t drive that much.

I moved to Chicago to go to college. I didn’t need a car there either. I took the El, buses and walked everywhere. There is virtually no reason to own a car in the city of Chicago. You get used to commuting and the stories that come with it. I saw things. I saw things, man.

I left Chicago for a couple years to live in South America as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That’s a whole other story. After coming home, I went to grad school downstate for a year. I was 27, and for the first time in my life, I needed a car.

And that’s how my 2003 Ford Focus came into my life.

He wasn’t fancy, but he was perfect for me. I know a lot of people call their cars “she,” but I just always got a male vibe from the car for some reason. It was small (like me!), white (like me!) and often underestimated on the highway (like me? I don’t know). I totally admit to having car prejudice when I drive. I like to get behind more obvious cars, like SUVs or sporty sedans, because they’re fast and draw away more of the attention. Suped-up pickup trucks were crazy bullies on the road, yet work pick-up trucks were polite. And not every asshole drives a BMW, but every BMW driver is an asshole.

Smaller cars like mine, sigh, they have bad pickup and shouldn’t be in the left lane EVER. But mine was zippy! Reliable and unassuming, I loved my little car.

It had a CD player and I blasted my burned CDs as I zipped down the highways to various jobs, all of course always inconveniently located an hour away from wherever I was living at the time. Ok, that’s also not true. I don’t like to blast my music. I have sensitive ears. But it sounds better than “I played my music at a moderate level while maintaining a sensible five-miles-over the speed limit pace down the highway.” Whatever the volume, there is no better way to listen to music than in surround-sound, in your car, driving somewhere by yourself. All music should be listened to this way.

We had a bond, the Focus and I. It was just a car, but I began feel like it got me. His headlight were nostrils blowing lit mist in the cold. In the winter, as I brushed snow and scraped ice from its windows, I heard him say softly, “Is that all you got, February? I can take it.” We got perpetually lost, with or without my GPS. He didn’t mind, just more time we got to spend together. When I locked my keys in the running car, he shook his head at me and said, “It’s okay, I know you do this dumb stuff sometimes, you big dummy.” He was my friend.

I packed up and drove this car downstate when I went to grad school with my new husband. It was in this little car that we drove courthouse to get divorced a year and a half later and then to get tacos afterwards. I packed up and drove this car back to Chicago after grad school to work in community organizing. It took me to a zillion dinners and concerts, dates, weddings and funerals. Too many funerals. I became a spoiled city driver, opting to drive rather than hop on the el or bus. To combat the shit I was given by my car-less friends, I picked their asses up everywhere, from Edgewater to Humboldt Park, from South Chicago to Uptown. “No, it’s cool, I can get you. I can drop you off.”

I squeezed more people in that two-door hatchback than was advisable or comfortable, but these were public transportation-takers; they were used to close quarters and elbows in their parts.

I took this car camping in Wisconsin for the first time. A highly controlled and organized outdoor-experience for this city girl. My brother and I took it to visit our childhood vacation spot in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I hit a chipmunk in the Northwoods. I cried.

I took this car to the Office Max near my apartment in Ukrainian Village to buy thumbtacks and a corkboard. I don’t know why I remember that. Sitting back down into my car in the parking lot, door half-ajar, a man grabbed the door and tried to force his way in, reaching for my purse on the passenger seat. I elbowed him in the neck and face several times and got in a solid right before he ran away. I remember being annoyed thinking, “What an asshole,” as I drove back home, until the pain of my bruised hand hit my brain and the realization of what had just happened sunk in. I thought it best to report it to the police, shaking from the adrenaline letdown.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of breaking glass and foggily thinking, “Ugh, stupid drunks, breaking bottles.” In the morning, I got ready for work and go outside, only to find my passenger window smashed out and my glove box torn apart. (I guess I didn’t live in the best neighborhoods.) My first thought was: “Oh crap.” My second thought was: “Ha ha ha, joke’s on you, crackheads, I HAVE NOTHING!” My third thought was: “Oh crap, joke’s on me, I have nothing.” I took it to the shop to get the glass replaced, to the place with the most annoying radio commercial in radio commercial history and went across the street to eat pancakes while I waited.

I drove that car downstate again when I moved to take a chance on love. I drove it back to Chicago two years later with my new daughter, my most precious cargo.

Let me tell you: fitting an infant’s car seat into a two-door hatchback is not ideal. But we made it work. We made starting over yet again work. We made it work when the miles hit over 100,000, when the engine was slower to turn over, when the air conditioning suddenly went out in July. “Come on, buddy, we’re okay, we’re gonna be okay,” I whispered to him, caressing the steering wheel, often speaking for the both of us.

I knew it was coming. Our inevitable end. The warning lights coming on, the noises, the bills to fix this or that adding up. While driving I would think it. “I need to start thinking about getting a new car,” and then I’d be hit with a brief wave of guilt.

The car seemed to move a little slower. It was subtle, but I could feel it. In my heart, I could feel it.

It knows.

I would avoid talking about it around my car. Passengers would ask, “How long have you had this car? Probably thinking about getting a new one, huh?” I would shake off the question, somehow change the subject. After all, you don’t talk about when you’ll be ready to get back in the dating scene while your spouse lies dying in the bed next to you. Okay, that might be a wee bit dramatic. But still. IT KNEW.

The idea of a new car without all of these problems was exciting. But how could I get rid of the car that had gotten me in and out of so many good and bad situations? I had had him for over ten years. It was the longest relationship I had ever been in, outlasting boyfriends and marriage and careers. I am arguably many things, good and bad. But if there is one thing that I am, it is loyal. Loyal, to a fault, perhaps. I watched Lost all the way to the last stupid episode, for Pete’s sake. WHAT WAS THAT SMOKE MONSTER, J.J. ABRAMS, WHAT WAS IT? I was in it until the end. It’s just that I wasn’t sure when I would know when the end was. How would I know that it was, you know, time?

It’s like the Focus knew my struggle. It’s like it wanted to make it easy for me. To put me out of my misery. Driving home from my hour commute, I made the final turn onto my street. The song on the radio suddenly stopped. That’s weird, I thought. Something must be wrong with that station. I changed the channel without taking my eyes off the road. Still there was silence. Hitting all of the radio buttons now, I finally looked down. The radio was dark. The entire dashboard was dark. The car had completely died and I was coasting. I began to yell, “AHHHHH! WHAT DO I DO? AHHHHH!” as I coasted gracefully the last forty feet to my house, turned effortlessly into my driveway and brought the car to an easy stop. I turned off the engine.

I tried to start the car again, but the engine wouldn’t turn over. The Ford Focus had died. It could have happened on the Eisenhower during rush hour traffic. But it held out, enough to get me safely to my street, to glide me gently into my driveway, one last time, one last safe arrival.

We got it to the car dealership the next day. It would cost too much to fix it. It was over.

We agreed on a trade-in price and I got to pick out and buy my first ever car. The first car I have ever paid for with my own money, which felt really, really good. This one is red.

It is so high-tech and plugged in and synced up that I barely know how to use it. It has a USB port for my iPod and has voice-activated everything. Most importantly, it has four doors and I don’t have to squish Kiddo in and out of it anymore. It is beautiful and exciting and I love it.

I asked to see good ol’ ’03 one last time. Well, and to get my stuff out of the trunk. There he sat, stripped of plates and alone. There was a quiet dignity to him. I took one last photo of my car in the lot.

I looked around to see if anyone was watching. No one was. I laid a hand on its hood. I look into its windshield. I teared up. I actually teared up. I gave it a pat. “Thanks, car,” I mumbled. “Thanks for…” I wasn’t sure for what exactly. It had done what it was made to do. Be a car. Taking me places. Keeping me safe. Listening to me sing alone and loud and poorly. Listening while I cried and laughed. For getting me into some fun and out of some bad situations. For always getting me home.

Goodbye, car. Goodbye, old friend. TC mark