My Wheels

January 7, 2009
By Kara Fitzpatrick, Manasquan, NJ

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the ticket collector tapping his fingers impatiently as I sift through my bag for the six dollar ticket fare. By the time I find my money, I've emptied more than half of my bag's contents. After I pacify the collector, I start putting everything back in when I see my Volvo car key sitting among the mess. A bittersweet feeling runs through me because that key is now a reminder of the past rather than a tool of the present. Taking the train, riding the bus and begging for rides are the ways I'm forced to travel now. Not having a car is simply the unfortunate endpoint of the path I chose when faced with a crossroad last year. Now, as I notice that I'm being glared at by the creepy passenger across from me, I wonder how I could have possibly offended him. I also wonder if the reasons I had for choosing that path were worth having to ride the train just one year later.
About a week before my seventeenth birthday (the day I acquire that little plastic card known as Freedom) I had a decision to make. I could go out and buy a cheap bang-up car and have one in time for my birthday and still have money to spare. Or I could spend all my time working for several months or more and empty my savings on a brand new, reliable car, and put my license on the back shelf until then. Well, about a week before my birthday I happened upon an ad for a ‘90 black Volvo 240 selling within my current price range. A few days later my savings had halved and I smugly parked the car in my driveway. As much as I’d like to cite spontaneity and a carefree attitude as the reasons behind my actions, the true culprits were impatience and laziness. And so began, the long, winding journey down the road less traveled... a road less traveled for a reason. Parking my car in the driveway that first time I never would have imagined the scene I would witness a year later on a trip to the flea market.
I pulled up to the front of my friend’s house and waited, there was no need to honk as she no doubt heard my noisy car from the end of the street. Over my engine, I heard “Come Sail Away” blaring through her closed windows and in mournful retrospect I see that song as an omen. Anyway, when Gabby got in, I pulled out to the street and drove smoothly for all of three blocks. Stopped at a light, my car started to bounce and sputter and we both knew what was about to happen. So, I turned on my hazard lights once again as Gabby searched for my AAA card. When Gabby got out to push the car while I steered it to the side, an old, very old, man stopped to help us out. I was a little nervous as I watched him strain and struggle to push my car all the while puffing away on his Marlboro. When my car was finally in a safer spot I was amazed that the man hasn’t croaked from the effort or his ceaseless smoking habit. Regardless, I appreciated his help and thanked him before Gabby and I sat down on the curb to wait. At last, my good friend Gabriel (last name Towing) arrived and I watched regretfully as he sailed away with my car for the last time.
Watching that tow-truck drive away with my car was the last of a multitude of problems my car threw at me. Somewhat to my credit though, I did buy the car knowing it was a far cry from a luxury vehicle. The automatic steering was a little stiff and it sounded like a lawnmower, but other than that I assumed it would always get me to my point B just fine. I figured that the biggest drawbacks were that it didn't look as cool as my brother's sports car or run as smoothly as my friend's BMW, and I never thought that those facts would bother me. As time progressed however, more and more problems arose. Though, what did I expect, the car was older than me! I was definitely naïve to think I wouldn’t encounter plenty of problems. I should have known right away that smooth sailing was not an option when my car broke down on the very first day I had my license! Obviously, my state of disillusionment didn’t much longer after that, one more breakdown and a broken radio to be exact. After that, each miserable problem drained my savings and my patience even further. When the radio died and I replaced the stereo, my antennae disappeared leaving me without radio once again. Next, my windows grew finicky, only obeying the buttons on the driver side. Following that, my dome-light came detached and hung from the roof by one twisted wire. Then, I got home one day and discovered that my grill was gone, apparently having fallen off somewhere along the way. Excellent, as if my noisy engine didn’t attract enough attention. At this point, I’d had my car for a couple of months and was only a fraction of the way down on the list of problems I would encounter.
Yet, as I recall these problems now, I do so the way a person might note a lover’s flaws as endearing quirks. I relish the memory of every dent, every scratch and every mishap. While they drove me to the brink of insanity during those first few months, they became something else to me when I learned how to embrace them and look at them from a different perspective. They helped me to reach a turning point in the way I deal with those bothersome metaphorical lemons.
In the beginning, I had spent a good amount of time wishing I had a car like my friends’ BMWs or my brothers’ sports car and jeep. I even borrowed my dad’s tacky-blue Taurus whenever I had the chance because anything was better than my noisy, piece-of-crap car. But after a while I finally realized all of the benefits of having a crappy Volvo versus a nice BMW. I began to embrace my car, and its crappiness became a positive rather than a negative. There was no single event or occurrence that sparked this revelation, just some delayed observations. After a while, I noticed more and more how careful my friends and brothers had to be about many aspects of their cars. Beverages of any kind were banned from Dan’s sports car. Rain was the sworn enemy of my jeep-owning brother, Kevin. And as for all of my BMW driving friends, there were few things not feared. So, with a shift in my attitude, I enjoyed the bountiful fruits of owning a crappy car. Even my dogs enjoyed this shift. Since my mom would only let them in her car if a trip to the vet was the difference between life and death, they rarely had the chance to run around in an open park or field. My mom worried that the dogs would tear up her leather seats. Not having that concern, I allowed my dogs to enjoy frequent visits to the huge playground at a nearby elementary school. Many more good things came from this revelation. For instance, I am now an expert on burning the perfect mixed CD, since I had no radio. Take, for example, Death Cab and The Beatles… oil and water, but Guess Who and Creedence Clearwater Revival… peanut butter and jelly. Also, my friends and I have mastered the art of doing donuts in empty parking lots, something we would never attempt in any of their parents' luxury cars. And while the value of that skill is debatable, there's no question that we had some good times cultivating said skill. Although my car broke down several more times, it didn't bother me at all the way it did at first. The heat was one of the few things that did work, so whenever I was stranded, luckily never alone, we would crank it up full blast and put in a good CD. We enjoyed every relaxing moment before it was time to go do homework/study/SAT class/etc. And even when we broke down on our way to somewhere we actually wanted to be, it only made the concert/boardwalk/flea market all the more enjoyable when we finally did arrive (usually in someone else’s car). At, this point, me and my car were the best of friends. Despite our rocky beginning, I learned how to deal with my loved one’s flaws, and in a bigger sense, how to handle anything less than perfect that comes my way. Who knew I could learn a life lesson from an old Volvo that sounds like a lawnmower and is missing a grill?
So, several stops later, after much reflection I still have a question to answer. Was it worth it? Did I really need to have a car right away or should I have toughed it out and worked as much as I could? I had spent one full year with my Volvo and as I sit here on the train, creepy passenger still glaring, I think it’s clear exactly what was worth what. Having a car in time for my birthday was not at all worth being without a car only a year later, but what I learned while driving that car... priceless.

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