Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Station Wagon

Toward the end of last year, I got rid of the first car I ever truly owned. It was a 1995 Ford Escort. Already old when I bought it in 2004, its purpose was to be as cheap as possible, and to get me from place to place reliably. These things it achieved. It always started up when I turned the key, and it never once broke down on me. Granted, there were some expensive mechanics' fees that helped keep it running. But in general, it was the cheap, no frills ride it was supposed to be. (And by "no frills," I mean extravagances such as a functioning washer fluid pump, rear window defrosters, and an accurate speedometer.)

In late fall, the Escort began bleeding antifreeze. Things had gotten to the point where I knew it made more sense to spend my money on a new car rather than on fixing an old one. I loaded the car with enough antifreeze to get it to a dealership, knowing it wouldn't have to make the return trip.

As I began my life with a new car, my girlfriend Helen asked me if I missed the Escort at all. No, not really. Granted, it had accompanied me through some pivotal years in my life. But man, that car was crappy from the start. As the years went on and my commutes became longer, it became more of an issue to drive around in the harsh Los Angeles afternoons without an air conditioner (my options being to either roll the windows down and eat the gallons of exhaust blowing in my face, or keep the windows up and get heat stroke). It barely had enough power to get up to highway speeds if it was on even the slightest of inclines. It would leave me in a foul mood after any drive longer than 10 minutes. I was pretty much entirely happy to be rid of it.

But there is a car that I was sad to lose. It was Helen's family station wagon.

Helen and I first met back in our hometown of Erie, PA, while we were still in high school and both too young to drive. And from the first time her parents ever picked me up to take a bunch of us somewhere, there was always the station wagon. It was a 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier wagon. Blue. And just like my Escort, it was old before I'd ever laid eyes on it.

As I got to know Helen and her family better, I discovered that her dad was of the old school handyman variety. He could fix most of the typical problems you'd have with your plumbing or your wiring and, yes, your car too. No need to call the repairman. He bought the wagon brand new in 1984 and, aside from the occasional too-big problem, he kept the thing running by himself.

When Helen learned to drive, she more or less became the primary user of the station wagon. It wasn't fashionable, but it gave her the freedom to go where she wanted when she wanted. When college came around, Helen's parents drove her and the entire contents of her bedroom to and from campus using that wagon. Eventually, they decided to just let her keep the car with her at college. This was particularly helpful when senior year came around and she had to go out to a forest and observe birds. (Don't ask.)

Then came graduation. I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, and Helen made the decision that she wanted to be a part of that. Her parents made the decision to give us the station wagon so that we'd have a starter vehicle as we began our new lives on the other side of the country.

The car was 18 years old at that point.

As Helen and I made our arrangements to move to L.A., Helen's parents took the wagon into the shop for a full inspection and as many last minute repairs as necessary. When the mechanics were told that this car was being prepared for a trip to L.A., they placed bets on whether or not it would make it.

The big day arrived. Helen and I loaded most of our Earthly possessions into the rickety old wagon, said our goodbyes to our family, and made for the highway. We went from the snowy Pennsylvania winter down to North Carolina where my brother and his family were living at the time. The next day, we drove to Memphis. Day three, we met up with some family in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The next day, we drove hours and hours and hours through unending desert... and we were still in Texas! It got late, but we forced ourselves to continue driving so we could get to New Mexico. We refused to accept the fact that an entire day's worth of driving in a straight line could leave you still in the same state, no matter how goddamned big that state boasts about being. We made it to the tiny town of Anapra. It was barely past the Texas state line, but that's all we needed.

Day five, after much more desert, we finally made it to Los Angeles. The station wagon didn't hesitate the whole time. We'd been worried about breaking down in the desert. Not only did those harsh conditions seem likely to cause a breakdown, but it also would have been the worst area for us to be stranded. But no, we made it.

Not only did we make it all the way to L.A. in the wagon, but we kept it running for a year after. But eventually, as will always happen to a car, it began leaking and stalling and falling apart. It became more of a liability than a convenience. We decided to cut it loose.

We drove into Marina Toyota one Saturday afternoon just to shop around. By this time, the sound of the station wagon pulling to a stop was akin to the sound of a small plane coming in for a landing. As we opened the car doors, we were greeted by a salesman.

"Someone definitely needs a new car today," he said to us, his squinted eyes casting their narrow judgment over our vehicle.

We left the dealership that day signed to the lease of a new Toyota Echo. We had no idea that we had already driven the station wagon for the last time. But there we were clearing out our belongings, leaving behind the rips and scratches and crumbs and soot of 20 years worth of life.

We turned for one final look before we drove away. There it was, standing alone, isolated from the rest of the cars on the lot. A trooper. A faithful servant. A tour guide. A champion. It accompanied us from the sands of Lake Erie to the sands of the Pacific Ocean. It watched us grow up. It guided us safely into adulthood. It had always been there, always a part of the journey, always taken for granted. And now we forcing it into retirement. Now we had to turn our backs on it.

The Echo was a really great car. Small, zippy, excellent gas mileage. We had it for less than a year before some jackass slammed into us on the 405, rendering it an accordion. Easy come, easy go. I'm glad this was not the fate of the station wagon.

*****

One summer, Helen and I noticed that the odometer on the station wagon was approaching 999999, and that it would soon roll over to all zeroes. A milestone for any car. An event few cars actually achieve. A completely clean slate.

For a full week, every time we'd get into the car we'd take careful note of how close we were to hitting that magic moment. We couldn't wait to see it happen. Then, during one drive, Helen glanced at the mileage and her face dropped.

"Aww," she mourned. "We missed it."

I looked at the odometer. We hadn't just missed it; it was already 14 miles past. We couldn't even pretend that we'd caught any part of it; it was long gone. There was only one thing we could do about it.

"I guess we're just gonna have to go another million miles."