Monday, May 23, 2011

Hell on Wheels

I know I owe you all a bus post but I've had so much going on lately I haven't had time to joy ride on a city bus.  For one thing, I had to buy a new car.  It was a race to find a new car before the engine seized on my old one, a boring but dependable 2000 Toyota Sienna.

When we bought the Sienna, back in 2005, I was driving an ancient Volvo 240 wagon with a slipping transmission.  Driving home from the house of the couple in Ruckersville who sold us the Sienna, the Volvo dropped 4th and 5th gears and Jon had to drive the entire 16 miles home with the car revving like crazy in 3rd gear.  It then sat in our driveway for four years serving as a mouse hotel until Jon sold it without my consent.  We bought the Volvo in 1997 after a spectacular breakdown in my old Subaru station wagon.

True story:  Halloween.  Dark and rainy. We were on our way to a party at my mother-in-law's house.  All of us were in costumes.  Grace was a baby, Brigid was four and Ian was five.  Jon was wearing a dreadlocked wig and full face paint.  The Subaru's engine quit (dropped timing chain) on the transition between the Scajaquada and Kensington expressways in Buffalo.  This picture doesn't show the exact spot where we broke down, but it's nearby and it does illustrate the lack of shoulder, insurmountable concrete wall and shitty neighborhood.

Luckily, where we were stopped, the wall wasn't so high, although it was topped by a chain link fence.  Of course we didn't have a cell phone.  Jon had to use rain on the windshield to scrub the paint from his face and then hop the wall and climb the chain link fence and wander out into the surrounding neighborhood to find someone who would let him use their telephone so we could be rescued.  The rest of us sat in the car and I freaked out every time a car came speeding at us and swerved at the last minute, prompting Ian to say, "Mommy, if you are going to panic, please do it in your HEAD."

That same car a year earlier died suddenly while I was driving on a city street.  I had to stick my leg out the door and use it to propel the car to the curb and then walk home a mile with the three kids--Grace was an infant and Ian and Brigid were 3 and 4.  I attempted a short cut (and edifying architectural tour for the kids) through the grounds of the state psychiatric hospital and we got lost and wandered among the patients for many minutes before finding our way out. The beautiful walk almost made the ordeal worthwhile.  The old psych center:

My very first car, a 1981 Subaru DL, died for good when I was at the bank getting the money to buy my next car.   Jon and the guy who had sold me my new car had to come rescue me.  The only way to get the car to go was to push start it in reverse--it was a stick shift, of course.  We rolled it into the middle aisle of the bank parking lot.  Jon and the car seller pushed me backwards as fast as they could run and once I had some momentum I was able to start it in reverse, then while the car was moving backwards, quickly jam it into first, an operation that produced a thrilling gear-grinding crunch, squealing tires and a very satisfying cloud of smoke.  The car roared away and just made it to its final resting place. That was the most exhilarating drive of my life.

So when I say we drive our cars into the ground, I'm not kidding.  My Sienna had either ruined valves or a cracked head gasket.  It was burning copious amounts of oil and at one point I had nearly driven it dry before adding more.  Foolish!  Foolish!  But I was tired of driving a minivan.

Naturally, the kids had strong opinions about what kind of car to buy, Grace especially.  "What about a Volkswagen?" I suggested, eyeing a cute Passat wagon.
"No!  It's pretentious."
"Oh, look at that Subaru Outback.  I could drive that," I said.
"You'll become someone who goes to potlucks and holds hands with the neighbors," Grace objected. (Indeed, later my sister-in-law complained about the phalanx of subarus that surrounds the fab Black Rock coffee shop on Saturday mornings.)

What I really wanted was a Honda Element.  This provoked the strongest objections of all.
Grace:  It's a lesbian car!
Me: So?
Grace:  It's a coffin!
Me:  It looks nothing like a coffin.
Grace:  It's a jack-in-the-box on wheels.
Me:  That only makes me want one more.

The Honda Element, it turns out, is hideously impractical for families.

Jon left for his annual retreat to the Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe.  I decided to go ahead and buy a  car.  Don't freak out.  Jon had said it would be nice if I bought a car while he was away.  I went to the small, friendly used Volvo dealership down the street.  They let me borrow a Cross Country wagon for a few hours.  I am such a sucker for a Volvo!  The satisfying clunk of the doors shutting.  The feeling of being immersed in luxury.  The tight steering radius. ( I need eight lanes to make a u-turn in my Sienna.) Seamus came home from school and we took the Volvo to Whole Foods and on our other errands.  What fun.  I was ready to buy it then and there, although I had a few objections, such as the fact that it's not as fuel efficient as I want.  I wasn't sure I wanted to be "Ivy Mom."

We returned the Volvo and went to the dealership that bills itself as being "the way car buying should be."  A dreary experience indeed.  We looked at a few cars and test drove a Toyota Highlander.  The salesman insisted on coming with us.  I had barely started when he interjected with, "Why don't you go ahead and check the mirrors and make sure you can see."  I was all casual: "Oh sure," like I'd planned to start driving and THEN stop to check the mirrors.  He dictated our route too.

We hated the Highlander.  On to a different dealer who produced a 2009 Nissan Cube and a 2008 Scion XB, both in my price range and both with good gas mileage and both about the size I was looking for.  I rejected the Cube because it had been a rental car and had an accident on its record.  The Scion is zippy and fun.  It's fuel efficient and roomy. It's a stick shift, and that's what the cool kids drive.  It was one of the brands I was considering. I made a decision, with a small tinge of regret for the Volvo Cross Country.

I'd never bought a car from a dealer before.  I've always found my cars through the classifieds.  I planned to trade in the Sienna.  "It burns a quart of oil a week," I said.  The salesman closed his eyes as if pained by my simplemindedness.  "Don't tell me that, " he said.  I didn't tell him about the rattling of the furiously overworking oil pump, the plastic garbage bag that got sucked under the car on a windy day and melted to the drive train, the ominously shaking steering wheel, the missing hubcap.

It was a Friday night and just Grace and me, as Jon is off being a Buddhist and Seamus was at a weekend orchestra camp at JMU, and Brigid was out with friends.  How about a mother-daughter night on the town to celebrate?  We went to Bang, my favorite place for cocktails.  I had the "sin city," my favorite martini and they made a non-alcoholic version of same for Grace. No one raised any eyebrows at the site of an adult woman with teenaged girl in a bar.

I may have been rash in getting a car with manual transmission.  I was also worried about Jon's reaction, but when I told him, he said, "Cool!"  I know how to drive a stick shift--my first three cars had stick shifts and I used to feel very scornful of manual transmission drivers.  Charlottesville is so hilly that driving a stick shift is a little scary.  Plus, while it's the sort of skill that's like riding a bicycle, there are certain subtleties that you lose without practice.  Right now, driving with me is a jerky experience.  Pulling out of my uphill driveway Saturday, I gave the car too much gas without releasing the clutch and peeled out, squealing my tires, like Daisy Duke on the run from Boss Hogg, with the neighbors out on their porch as an audience.

There's a two week learning curve for stick shift driving and I've only had the car two days, so I need to be patient, but I am definitely not ready for Cherry Ave yet. I consulted the internets, naturally, and found all sorts of amusing web sites and movies about how to drive a stick shift.  I still stall the car occasionally and try not to get flustered at other drivers who are impatient.  As one of the websites said, "Don't worry.  They're just manual transmission drivers!"


  1. I drive a Sienna, too. It's a nice comfortable car, but I am really looking forward to driving something small and zippy again. I love driving a stick.

  2. Congrats on the new car. Your family's comments about the different brands are similar to conversations that Pete and I have about cars, in that we have certain prejudices that may or may not have merit.

    Five years ago, I started driving a manual transmission again after a five year hiatus with an automatic. It's odd at first, but you will get used to it.

    For whatever reason, there is only one hill in this entire city that gives me pause as a driver. It's at the light at Rugby Avenue and Preston/Barracks. Whenever I'm stopped at the light on Rugby Avenue, waiting to take either a left or right, that hill stresses me out, particularly if there's a car right behind me. I usually rev things too much and peel rubber through the intersection. I had problems 20+ years ago when I first learned to drive a five speed, still have problems now, and probably will until the day I die. I finally concluded that it's a confidence thing, very much like the fact that of all the hills that I bike in town, only a small number freak me out to the point of getting off and pushing.

  3. Smart choice on not getting the Cube. It was on my list briefly when I bought my Kia Soul but that curved window was plexi-glass.

  4. Jen, even with an automatic transmission, that hill on Rugby Ave makes me roll backwards.

  5. "Mommy, if you are going to panic, please do it in your HEAD." = Classic

    I tried for a long time to learn how to drive a stick shift. When I was a teenager, the only vehicles available to me were ones with manual transmissions, so I was quite motivated. However, I never did manage it. I was able to get the car in first gear and drive it a few feet a couple times. Then I had an experience driving an automatic transmission, and it was like my body said, "OMG, why would anyone want to make driving harder than this?" and I was never, never able to get a manual transmission in drive again. It was incredibly frustrating and violence-making-wanting (if you can guess at what that word might mean). So that's why I did not get my driver's license until I turned 19 and my parents bought a car with a manual transmission. I have not attempted to drive another stick shift in the last twenty-one years. I could write a whole blog post about this subject--actually, I think I already have, somewhere--but instead I have put the abridged version in your comments section.

  6. I burned through two clutches in five years which I blame on my daily navigation of the hill on Cherry when you cross Ridge leaving the hospital, terrified I was going to roll back into somebody. Resist the urge to ride the clutch!

  7. Isn't it incredible how cars come with baggage?
    I miss stick shift.
    I love your daughter's remark about "panic in your head."

  8. I never thought I'd enjoy a post about cars so much. The dialogue made it especially fun. :D

    My mom always bought $100-200 cars out of the want ads, so I sometimes hop into my Versa and wonder how long I'm going to have with it. My mom had a new car every few months to every year, so it sometimes amazes me I've been with the same car for four years (and 70k-ish miles!) already. Here's hoping for at least another 70k more!

  9. Your car adventures are legendary. You make me feel as if I haven't really lived.

    I like driving stick. I've always had a manual until we got our minivan, but even then my husband's car is still a manual, so I've never had the chance to get out of practice. I do, however, prefer the minivan when I drive in the city. Manual + Seattle's steep, rain-slicked hills=Suckville.