Farewell, My Lovely

Sunday, August 25, 2013

black mazda 323 in front of white farmhouse

Me & My Car, Blawenburg, New Jersey — Fall 1989

After I graduated college and found my first job, the final order of business for my parents to launch me into adulthood was to get me set up with a car. The arrangement they offered was to make a down payment on the new vehicle of my choice and to co-sign on a loan for the balance, with payments of around two hundred dollars a month for three years. (The amount of the down payment would depend on the amount of the car and the interest rate of the loan. Implicit in this arrangement was the idea that the car I picked out would be reasonable. No Maseratis.)

[And for the record, if you are a car-buying kind of family and can afford this, I think this is a great strategy. Your kids go through the car-buying process to learn how that works, they get to start life with a good, reliable car that is unlikely to start having mechanical problems for quite some time, and by paying off the loan, they get a credit history. Also they feel like they earned the car, it wasn’t given to them, because they are paying for it every month for three years. It’s always better to earn things yourself than to be given them.

And then once they are done with the car loan, they can save the money they’ve been paying on the note for something else. My mom pointed this out to me once, she said, “When you’re done paying the loan, you can save that two hundred dollars a month for the down payment for your next car.” And I said, “Okay,” while thinking, “But I have a car, why would I need a new one?”]

So that was the deal.

We went out car shopping and I test drove a bunch of different cars and liked some and didn’t like some and the car I ended up selecting was a black Mazda 323 with an “off-black” interior. (I remember this detail because I told a friend about it, and he said, “Hmm, off-black … Would that be … gray?”)

I took possession of the car in September 1989 and packed it up and drove it off to my new life in Princeton, New Jersey, with pretty much everything I owned stuffed inside. (One of the nice things about the car was that it fit much more than you would think, the trunk was positively huge, and the seats folded down giving you a very large interior space.) My parents brought the leftovers with them a few months later when they came for a visit, and then I really did have everything I owned with me.

The picture above is from my parents’ visit in the fall of 1989, I think in October. I’m standing with the car, in all its shiny newness, with my mom (and my housemate’s Volvo) in the background. The car is parked in front of the house I lived in, which was a very beautiful old farmhouse built in the 1700s. It had a little plaque on the door that identified it as the Bernardus Van Zandt House.

[In case you are wondering about the house, at that time it was split into two parts, the upper left quadrant of the house, top three windows in the picture, was a separate apartment. I sublet a small bedroom for four-hundred dollars a month, utilities included, from the person who rented the main part of the house. For the first year or so that I lived there, Susan and I were the only people living there — plus one standard poodle, named Daisy, who was a very smart and funny dog — and Susan was gone most of the time. The whole process of finding a place to live in Princeton was an ordeal, but it turned out okay in the end.]

On Friday, August 23, 2013, I sold the car. Which I had had in my possession, and driven as my primary vehicle, the entire time, for almost exactly twenty-four years.

It still drove great and got great gas mileage, and I probably would have driven it for the rest of my life, except that last year, I got a new car.

This is my new car.

red miata convertible parked under a tree

Red Miata Convertible

The Miata belonged to my Auntie Fran, who passed away in December 2011. Through a slightly complicated series of events that I will spare you the details of, I ended up with the car.

It is a 1990 and had just over 41,000 miles on it when I picked it up at my parents’ house last August. Prior to that, it had spent its whole life on an island (Lopez, in the San Juan Islands of Washington State) and was not my aunt’s primary vehicle. There’s not really anywhere to go on Lopez, it’s hard to put a lot of miles on a car that you just drive around the island for fun.

My aunt liked sporty cars. I remember she drove an MG for a while when I was young, and then later had a white Jaguar with a red leather interior that was very beautiful, but was forever going into the shop.

One of the reasons I am enjoying driving the Miata is because it reminds me of my aunt, the fun and interesting things about her.

Since I picked up the Miata last year, I’ve had two cars. Now, I barely even need one car, I certainly don’t need two. And the thing about driving is that it’s mostly instinctive. You get in your car and do what you do. You don’t think about it.

After I got the Miata, and still had the 323, I would switch back and forth between the cars, sometimes drive the Miata and sometimes the 323. I quickly realized that this was a bad idea. The cars are similar in many ways — they are both Mazdas, both made around the same time, both stick shift — but the way they drive is completely different.

The Miata is a sports car. It is very low to the ground. It has good pickup, and can take turns at high rates of speed. It is designed for zipping around.

The 323, to say the least, is not.

I would find myself driving along in the 323 doing what I’m doing and inadvertently making very bad decisions. I would see a yellow light where I was turning left and think that I could make it, no problem. But I wouldn’t have enough pickup to get to the light in the time I thought, and then I was going much too fast for the turn. Whooaahh….

Made things exciting. But I was like okay I think this is not going to work.

Also once I started driving a nice, solidly built car with less than 50,000 miles on it, my 323 started to feel like a tin can. I noticed all of the quirks, all of the rattles, all of the broken things. Not to mention that I had to pay to register and insure it, and I still had to maintain it and put gas in it.

I knew it was time.

It was time to find the 323 a new home.

I thought about donating it but the first organization I contacted did not get back to me after I told them how many miles it had on it (for the record, 162,345, not bad for a twenty-four year old car). So then I reached out to friends to see if anyone knew someone in the market for a sweet, reliable,  little used car. (I said I felt like I was trying to find a new home for an aging pet.)

A friend I used to work with said she might know someone. She put us in touch, we emailed, they came and took the car for a test drive, I gave the prospective buyer my printout from the database I kept with all of the work I’d ever done on it from 1989 to the present.

She was smitten.

She had lost her car last year in a wreck in the middle of Kansas while driving with a friend to Burning Man. Her friend was driving, she was sleeping in the back seat, it was raining, they got sideswiped by a semi. The car was totalled. (Fortunately, neither of them was seriously injured.) She works for an artists’ collaborative in Greensboro called Elsewhere, where no one gets paid hardly anything, they’re like indentured servants there. She hadn’t been able to find a good car at a price she could afford. I agreed to sell her the car for a hundred dollars.

I delivered the car to her on Friday. Earlier in the week, I took it for an oil change and a once-over by a mechanic to make sure it all looked okay. (It did.) Before I dropped it off, I filled the tank with gas. (When I told her it had a full tank of gas, she said, “Oh my gosh, you’re like my fairy godmother!”)

She has a new car now. This is its new home (though not its new owner, just some folks enjoying the window swings).

man with pink hair on a swing in the window of the Elsewhere Living Museum

Elsewhere Living Museum — Greensboro, North Carolina

I think it will like it there. So much more interesting than my house.

I texted a friend after I delivered the car, telling her I’d sold it. I said, “The person who bought the car is WAY more excited to have it than I’ve been about that car in a long time.”

So that is all good.

I no longer have to worry about taking care of a car I don’t need, and someone who didn’t have a car is completely thrilled to have it.

But right now it still feels really weird to not have that car in my life.

Wait, What Do I Do Here?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I recently purchased an Android phone (but not a permanent phone plan — possible future post coming about The Sometimes Phone, a long-awaited and finally realized dream).

The phone part I can take or leave, but I liked having a camera in my pocket wherever I went on my last trip.

One thing I noticed is that having a camera with you all the time serves to highlight what you find interesting. You see something and think, oh I should take a picture of that.

Having a camera with me all the time has highlighted for me the fact that I have a small fascination with signage. I guess it makes sense, I’m someone who spends a lot of time trying to explain things to people; of course I might find it interesting to see what other people do when they are trying to explain things in as few words as possible.

It turns out that I especially like oddly specific signs.

Like this one.

sign in front of door please press button stand in front of door and announce yourself

Building Entrance, Southeast Portland, Oregon

I don’t know, it just seems so … thorough. Like anyone who suddenly found themselves in front of that door and didn’t know what to do was totally covered. It’s okay, honey, here’s what you do.

If only every door we ever found ourselves in front of was so accommodating.

Good Advice for All Occasions

Friday, August 2, 2013

sign at Otsego Lake, Do Not Throw Stones

Otsego Lake, Cooperstown, New York

A friend of mine taught art at an elementary school down the street for a while a few years ago. One of her projects involved collecting a small portion of the leftover campaign signs that litter our highways and byways during election season, and having her students make campaign signs of their own out of them.

So one day, on my way to somewhere else (probably Scrap Exchange), I walked past to see the grassy area in front of the school carpeted with colorful, hand-drawn signs with all manner of advice.

I couldn’t tell you if there were common themes, because I don’t remember what most of them said, except for one. It said, “Be nice to everyone, even at school.”

Except that “nice” was spelled “niss,” and “school” was also spelled in some alternative, highly phonetic manner, so I had to study it for a minute as I walked by to try to figure out just exactly what it said. But once I made sense of it I loved it, and wish I had taken a picture of it, because the words alone fail to capture the true essence of the sign.

Be niss to everyone
even at scoul

I think of that sign often, and was reminded of it when I saw the Very Official signs in Cooperstown, New York advising us all not to throw stones.

Hard to argue with either of those.