Jun 252017

I had to do something really hard yesterday: I had to give up my car. I’m sure you are thinking, “What’s the big deal?” People get rid of cars all the time. The circle of life for automobile ownership is barely longer than that of a fruit fly, so why should this be hard?

Because I’m not one of those people. When I bought my car, new, I fully intended to drive it into the ground. And, basically, I did – nearly 23 years later.  Which is what made it so hard, because in getting rid of the car I was basically divorcing myself from one of my oldest and closest relationships. I have family relationships that aren’t even as old. Or as close. Or who have been nearly as good to me.

This car has gotten me through 23 years of my life, from college to now, through two careers, several moves, multiple relationships, multiple relationship endings, and everything in between.

And the adventures. So many adventures… Starting from the Spring Break Road Trip From Hell (which included discovering, in the middle of the night, in the fast lane of I-580, that the owners’ manual was incorrect in suggesting there would be a gas warning light…) to all the (more successful) road trips up and down the empty expanses of the American West, from the Grand Canyon to Seattle, through every north-south artery in California and desolate valley of Nevada.

There were four complete cross-country trips with my car stuffed with all my belongings: two on I-80, one on I-70, and one, on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, on I-90, where first the radio tuned into a station in the Dakotas broadcasting Native American chants and then later NPR’s coverage accompanied me as I ascended the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore and saw the serene countenance of our forefathers gaze out across the country.

Less romantically, there was yet another near-miss of a gas depletion disaster on one of those I-80 trips, when I only barely made it into Wyoming after climbing out of Salt Lake. (Unfortunately for future stupid drivers, the border gas station I think I literally rolled into off the interstate may now be closed.) And then the tornado that chased me as I descended into Nebraska.

Through it all, the car took care of me, and I took care of it. Well, if you ignore the softball landing on the hood in its first year, the time I took it off-road in the hills near Big Sur, the time I bottomed out on a snow patch in the Sierra, and the time I, well, lost it… (Long story, I’d forgotten I’d driven it to school when I walked home after class, and then was shocked to find an empty space in the garage when I went to drive to dinner). And it did get rear-ended once, but that only made it better, since it finally got rid of the squeak coming from the rear passenger compartment.

I’ve camped in the car, cried in the car, sung in the car, made out in the car… But like a beloved pet, at a certain point she started showing her age. First it was mostly non-mechanical things, like the glove compartment breaking and the sun visor cover shredding. But eventually important systems needed more help, and more frequently. A front lock had to be replaced, a clutch had to be replaced, the rack and pinion system was replaced, a catalytic converter had to be replaced, an alternator went out, was replaced, and then immediately went out again (while I was driving…), and eventually the starter crapped out as well. I got all these things fixed over the course of the past 11 years, but by last year the failures were coming quicker and more catastrophically. For instance, last year, as I was driving to a hearing, the car suddenly utterly and completely died. It had not done anything like this since its first year when I’d run out of gas. Fortunately I was able to get it towed to the mechanic (and still made the hearing…) and the repair wasn’t too costly, but it was foreboding, and I found myself losing faith in my beloved car for the first time. I took it up to Tahoe last fall after a fresh tune up for what I sensed would be its swan song, because I was no longer comfortable taking it on trips beyond the AAA towing range.

And then came this year’s registration renewal, when I found it would once again need a new catalytic converter to pass smog. And the clutch had degraded so badly that I had to pretty much stomp on it every time I wanted to change gears. It would have cost at least $3000 to fix the known problems, and another $2000 for everything likely to soon break, and that sort of cost just couldn’t be justified. Not when I couldn’t use my glove compartment, open the sunroof (perhaps I could have, but for the past 15 years I’ve been terrified about not being able to close it again after I’d opened it), or reliably tune in more than one radio station. Having only spent three years of its life where there was winter there weren’t significant issues with corrosion, but the paint job after the rear-ending was not as good as the OEM paint and was starting to fade, peel, and show signs of rust. Also, ever since I mounted my bike rack I haven’t been able to use my trunk since it’s such a pain to put on, and all these issues were starting to feel like something of an imposition.

But the vehicle was solid and that wonderful engine still purred (highway mileage was still in the neighborhood of 30+ mpg), and it wasn’t plagued with the insecure overdone computing systems of today’s cars. It was such a fantastic piece of engineering I felt like it would be a tragic waste for this functioning machine to no longer be allowed to do the work it was born to do (in Smyrna, Tennessee), and still could do so well.

I really wished it could still have a loving home, and it pained me to realize that it couldn’t be mine anymore. But I was starting to miss out on doing things because I didn’t want to risk driving to them, and that defeats the point of having a car at all. So with a heavy heart yesterday I turned it into the dealer. He gave me $100 and it’s going to be scrapped and I feel terrible.

In some ways this emotion is misplaced: after all, it wasn’t actually a living creature. And yet it still somehow seems like something that was nonetheless imbued with a soul. In other words, while a car is an object, it isn’t exactly an inanimate one. When one turns on a car one brings it to life, our trusty steed that accompanies us on our journeys through time and space. Machines are creatures of humankind, and it is not at all unusual to see the humanity we’ve built into them.

But as with anything that lives, at some point that life has an end, and we can only hope the end be as gentle as possible. Ultimately my car got me every mile we needed to go, and safely (even when it stalled before that hearing last year, it at least stalled right outside the venue). Keeping it longer would have only tempted disaster. It even nobly served me these past few months as I agonized over my decision for what car to get next (I whispered to it affectionately every time we pulled into a dealer’s parking lot) and yesterday it drove me for the very last time, to the Honda dealer, where, in a move that will surprise absolutely no one who has ever known me, I bought yet another sensible Japanese economy car.

The new car doesn’t have a stick shift, which, while a prudent choice, is something I will dearly miss. But it is peppy, spacious, efficient, and economical, which are high priorities for me. Also, unlike the old car it does not have automatic seatbelts, does have a tachometer, and lets me put my bike inside the car. And, unlike the old car, which was Stanford red, this one is a shiny, beautiful, and vastly more appropriate Cal blue.

Talking to people who already have this kind of car it seems like it will be a perfect companion for all the adventures I want to have, and I guess that’s what this blog post is about. I’m not just giving up a car; I’m giving up the piece of my life that was attached to it. Keeping an old car alive, even when done as an economically sensible decision, still involves so much looking backward. Did I not want to let go of the car, or did I not want to let go of the person I was who had that car? Now I have a new car, one so brand new it doesn’t even have plates, and I am faced forward. It’s time for that.

Before I left the dealer I had to clear out the things in the old car and move them to the new one, so I parked them next to each other. They had a chance to meet and commune in their subtle, silent, car-like way, and I’m glad. I’m glad the old one was able to to tell the new one to look forward to having just as good a life with me as it had.

1994 Aztec Red Nissan Sentra
September 12, 1994 – June 24, 2017
2017 Aegean Blue Honda Fit
June 24, 2017 – ???

  2 Responses to “Saying good-bye to an old friend”

  1. RIP Nissan Sentra. Our family shares your sentimentality, Cathy. Our 1999 Toyota Sienna is older than Kayla and was/is the car she really wanted to drive when she got her license last year, so she is. I got a new car in Jan 2016, but still see my old friend every day on my driveway.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, there’s something very sad when you have to get rid of a car. I remember when I sold on my first car, its like leaving behind an old friend.

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