The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond. — Edward McDonagh
One damp December morning, while frantically twisting the key this way and that in an attempt to pinpoint the elusive left-to-right combination that would allow me to open the damn door, a magical thought entered my mind: What if I got a new car? Having finally gained access, I sat in the driver’s seat, laid my hands on the wheel at the “10” and “2” positions, and dismissed the idea of a new car as ludicrous. This is reality, I thought, as I buckled my loose and sagging safety belt and slid the corroded automatic gearshift into reverse. My 1998 Toyota Corolla was practical, reliable, and familiar. A new car would not only be unnecessary, it would be downright frivolous. So what if my defective shocks made my teeth clatter every time I ran over a pebble? Who cares if I never liked the mocha latte color of the interior? Sure, the Barb-mobile was a bit dilapidated, but it got me from point A to point B, and that, I have always said, is all I ever wanted out of a car. My modest vehicle was a point of pride. It said, “Look how sensible I am.” And, anyway, I told myself, if I needed to get another car, I would get a used model of the same comfortable and dependable variety.
A week after the traitorous idea had entered and then summarily been shooed from my head, David asked if I’d go with him to the car show being held at the convention center. Because he knew I was about as interested in motor vehicles as I was in who was making the playoffs in that sport with the tight pants and the pointy ball, David promised me that if I accompanied him to the show, I could dictate how long we stayed. The alacrity with which I agreed to join him surprised us both. “Hey, who knows,” I said, “maybe I’ll find something I like. Not that I need a new car, or that I’d even want to buy one new, but just to get an idea for what kind I’d want to get in a few years, when mine craps out.”
I’d never been to a car show before. As David and I drove downtown in my Corolla, I conjured images of half-naked women sprawled on shiny metallic hoods and futuristic concept cars that looked like they’d flown straight out of an episode of The Jetsons. As anyone who has been to an auto-dealer expo might imagine, I was horribly disappointed. I walked into the convention center expecting the car-show version of Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and what I got was Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. I saw only one concept car, and it wasn’t anything at all like a slick flying saucer — it was boxy and dorky looking, like a Styrofoam station wagon; the only “cool” part about it was the interior seating and its “outside the box” orangey-pink lighting. With the exception of three fancy, expensive cars, which I was not allowed near enough to see, the giant space was taken up with row after row of the same old boring sedans and SUVs.
David and I walked around, occasionally trying out the driver’s seat of this or that nondescript make and model. I have a few friends who are able to name cars at a glance, and for this I confer upon them savant status. I identify cars by color and not much else. Four wheels, a few doors — they kind of all look alike. Only 30 minutes had passed when I began to feel the weight of dejection. “I’m calling it,” I said. “This sucks, let’s bail.”
“We’re almost to the end,” said David. “Let’s just walk the last two rows over there and then we can go get something to eat.”
“Fine,” I grumbled.
I trudged along behind David until he stopped next to a Mini Cooper. “Want to sit in this one?” he asked.
“I’ve sat in, like, five already,” I said in the tone of a pouty teenager. “It’s just like all the rest, only smaller.”
“Come on, I think you’ll like it.” David pulled my arm, opened the door, and gently pushed me into the driver’s seat.
When I stopped glaring at him, I let my eyes roam around the inside of the car. “Ooh, what’s this stuff?” I asked, fiddling with some oddly shaped, gleaming knobs. “Is this mood lighting? Check it out, beh beh, it’s all blue. Now it’s red. Now it’s blue. Wow, from in here, it looks like…a toy.” As with anything that catches my interest, I was at first enchanted with the funky little car, and then I became fixated.
One’s car, like one’s dog, can speak volumes about its owner. I wondered what my Corolla had been saying behind my back all these years. A nondescript, champagne-colored sedan like thousands of others didn’t seem like me at all. There was the case of my vanity plates — “GO BARB” — but those don’t say much about who I am now; getting those plates was an act of irony for the 16-year-old Barb. My first car was a multicolored beater, a Dodge Colt, tattered and sad, that my father bought from a neighbor for $500. Each morning, the pathetic machine would putter slowly up H Street on its way to Bonita Vista High. Friends would pass in their new SUVs or their parents’ Volvos and call out, “Go, Barb! You can make it!” The encouraging phrase stuck in my head; I thought it would be amusing to get vanity plates that insinuated speed on a car that began to convulse at 40 mph.
After my Colt (with me in it) kicked the bucket on the freeway, my parents bought me a brand new 1994 Corolla. The color was “sunfire red pearl,” a metallic burgundy, and I loved it. Rare is the teenager who can appreciate and assume responsibility for something so easily obtained. I murdered the car in due time with neglect. When I finally accepted what I’d done, my guilt was immense. I had only just realized what it took to keep a car happy and healthy (such as changing the oil more than once in five years, etc.) when mine was taking its last few burnt engine breaths. This time, the onus was on me alone to pay for a replacement. With my impatient, creature-of-habit nature guiding my quest, I chose another Corolla, only this time my decision was based on price and what was available on the lot. I slapped my “GO BARB” plates onto a used, matronly colored thing and drove it home.
When I sat in that Mini, my brain’s entire concept of “car” began a lightning-speed transformation. Shifting into high gear, neurons rerouted, connections were made, and synapses fired as the car transitioned from “tool” to “toy,” from “apparatus” to “accessory.” I wanted one. Online, I discovered I could customize my own, choosing everything from interior/exterior coloring to add-on packages, so that it would be tricked-out to my specifications upon purchase. This is terribly impractical, I thought, as I selected the red-and-black leather interior. It’s a waste of money to buy a new car off the lot, let alone one that’s customized. I selected the “convenience package,” which includes an iPod adaptor and rain-sensing windshield wipers. It’s not like I’ll be racing; do I really need a sports version of the car? I selected the “sport package,” which includes enhanced suspension and wider wheels. Standard sound is fine; it’s probably a lot better than what I have in my old Toyota. I selected the HiFi sound system with Sirius radio. While examining the finished Mini mockup on my computer screen, I thought, from point A to point B. That’s all this is. Just a bit more, Barb.