Saturday, December 6, 2008


From as far back as I can remember, cars have descended through my family tree. They bounce from branch to branch like significantly larger and more expensive acorns -- and not just along the usual parent-child channels.

My parents currently drive one Lexus (gold) they bought from my mom's parents, and another (white) they bought from my dad's sister. The Audi they had been driving for a decade passed on to my young cousin Alex, while my sister drives a Jetta she bought from another cousin. The very first car I learned to drive was a blue Honda CRX of the exact tortoise-like shape of a computer mouse or the ship from Flight of the Navigator, in which car at sixteen I experienced my very first solo accident: rear-ended by a Jeep when I stopped at a light. Rendered unreliable in my parents' eyes, the CRX was sold to my uncle, a more experienced driver.

The entire back hatch of the Honda had crumpled inward like a crushed can under the force of the Jeep's impact. I believe this caused my parents to overcompensate in the direction of automotive sturdiness, because I was subsequently given my great-grandmother's 1978 Pontiac Grand Am. We paid one whole dollar for it, and my great-grandmother bought a brand-new Subaru Outback, which was easier for her to get groceries in and out of every Sunday.

The Pontiac was a big, red, hulking, hard-edged behemoth made of steel and velour. The front bumper came to a point -- like a train's cattle prod, or He-Man's sword -- and was fixed to the body of the beast by a potent combination of duct tape and prayer. There was a yellow swipe of paint from an accident one of my uncles had been in before I was born, and a cigarette hole burned into the front seat from the days when my great-aunt was a rebellious, nicotine-fueled teenager. The trunk lock was hidden beneath a swiveling Pontiac logo made of still more steel, and the seat-springs in both front and back bench seats made passengers and driver bounce rhythmically, oceanically, on bumpy roads. Only the front two windows rolled down. It looked like this.

And oh, that car had an engine. It roared like nothing I'd ever heard before or since. There was probably way more power behind that mass of metal than anything a green teenager ought to be driving.

Not that I realized this at first. I remember taking driver's ed, and being constantly urged to go faster by my instructor -- which seemed foolhardy to my nervous young self. I could hit somebody! Somebody could hit me! There were two other driving students I knew in the backseat waiting to become accident statistics! No, it was obvious that only fools drove over 15 miles per hour. But then something happened. At this snail's pace I began to realize -- with astounding, irrational clarity -- that every time I hit the brakes, the brakes had already been hit. After a couple of easy maneuvers, I turned to my instructor. "Do you have a brake over there?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

So I was being taught the rules of the road by a man who would lie baldly to my face.

Something about this ruffled my feathers, and launched me into what was perhaps my one true act of reckless teenage abandon. I was not a drinker, not a smoker, and those cushy bench seats were useless for a girl who still worried that holding hands was frighteningly close to foreplay. Years of not acting out, not testing my boundaries, not pushing my parents to the brink welled up in protest, and somewhere deep inside of me a tiny red light went bing.

We came to a four-way stop.

I took my foot off the gas.

There was again that telltale moment of hesitation, then a stronger surge of pressure, and the car came to a gentle, natural stop -- unaided by any effort of mine.

The instructor turned to me. "Why didn't you stop?"

I looked at him calmly. "Why did you tell me you didn't have a brake on your side?"

"Just stop next time," he said.

"Fine," I said. And I did. But after that it became a relief to go from a crappy white Honda with secret deception brakes to a stalwart crimson tank that was as uncomfortable with acceleration as I was. Gradually I grew more confident -- the tragedy of growing older -- and realized that, although the car was huge and heavy, the engine was as strong as the frame and more than usually responsive. I grew attuned to the sound and the purr, to the slight rhythmic lag between my foot on the gas and the surge in forward motion. I remember the day half the fake wood strip on one side came off and bounced against the pavement, sending sparks up alongside me on the freeway bridge heading out of the city. At long lights I would worry that cigarette hole in the front seat; every now and again I would make sure the duct tape on the bumper was still holding. Friends cursed in astonishment when I told them no, those back windows don't roll down and no, there is no air conditioning. They were appalled -- but then, they drove normal, newer cars, purchased from strangers, unghosted with guardian shades. Their cars gave comfort to the body -- but I had solace for the soul.

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