It’s just a car

August 29, 2013

Draft essay, unfinished, written in the summer of 2002:


Henry Miller Library in Big Sur

I drove my brand new BMW to the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur yesterday.

There was something anachronistic about the half a dozen drummers pounding a tribal rhythm while shimmering young women clad in little more than metallic paint undulated before the stage, the dangling chains of coins draped around their hips keeping time.

Sitting under the redwoods I swayed to the beat, closed my eyes and went back 30 years. I was sitting cross-legged in my dorm room, stringing love beads and smoking pot, an arm band sporting the then-ubiquitous peace symbol hanging from my bed post. We espoused peace, love and brotherhood and questioned the Establishment’s materialism, even as our middle-class parents put us through an expensive private college.

Our generation would be different. We “had our priorities straight”.

The war ended and we grew up, most of us finding jobs in the Establishment we so derided. I’ve passed 50 now and by Establishment standards I’ve “made it.”  I live in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation, travel often for work and pleasure and can afford both a therapist and a meditation teacher as well as a shiny new BMW.

But I’m restless and discontent.

Living in the Bay area, home to Silicon Valley and dot-com millionaires, it’s easy to go along with the way things are.

A tiny, 50-year old tract home in a crummy neighborhood costs half a million dollars?  Sure, I’ll take it.  Home ownership is a rite of passage for grownups.

Sit in an hour of commute traffic morning and night to make the fat mortgage payment? Oh, it’s not so bad, really. I can check email on my Palm Pilot or return voicemails from my cell.

The beat got stronger, heavier, more primal as the Big Sur Natives pounded their drums. I opened my eyes to see that several women in the audience had removed their tops and were having their breasts painted blue, green, red and white. A woman who looked nearly 70 danced topless, her painted breasts sagging even as they bounced to the beat. She swayed joyfully through the audience in a herky-jerky dance I remembered from the 60s. Onlookers applauded respectfully.

When the performance was over I gathered my things and walked across Highway 1 to my car.  Under the redwoods, key in hand, I hit the remote. The car beeped and blinked.  The sound and motion were jarring. The silver-blue metal glinted in the sun.

It was an epiphany.

1951 Plymouth Foldout-04I still remember our first family car. It was a 1951 Plymouth and we had it a long time. To a little girl, a long time was seven or eight years, I think.  It had a personality and seemed like a member of the family. When we finally sold it to a friend who had a farm, I was sad.   “Can we visit it?” I asked my father.

It’s been obvious for a while that I’d have to relinquish my sturdy car, now in its 13th year, and fairly soon. And yet, I’d been reluctant.

Back in 2002 I was still giving myself great birthday presents and that year it would be a car. It was my habit to buy a car two or three years old, but at this stage in my life, I’d longed for a particular kind of car. Back in the late 1980s I was dating a guy who’d emerged unscathed from a bad car accident. His BMW sedan saved his life.  I always remembered that. I liked the solidity of the car, how it felt around me. I’d always wanted one. Now, I had saved up the money.  But I couldn’t find a single two or even three year old midsized BMW anywhere.

Then, I had a dream. My parents had not been fans of used cars. “Why buy someone else’s problems?” they’d say, and in the dream, that’s what my late mother told me. I had my marching orders. So, off to the closest BMW dealer I went, checkbook in my purse.

I stood in that California dealership some 10 minutes. Salesmen were all around. No one approached me. Apparently, I didn’t look like a serious customer.  As I drove out of the parking lot, I called the dealership sales manager. “I was just in your showroom,” I told him, “with my checkbook and ready to buy a new BMW. No one even said hello.”  Aghast, he said, “I’d love for you to come back and let me help you personally.”

“I’m sure you would,” I said, as I drove away.  The next week I was working in Florida. The same thing happened at a dealership there.

Finally, I called a dealership some 50 miles away, told the salesman on call my story and he invited me in and sold me a car. Right there. That day.

I loved my car. The doors were so heavy I sometimes had to use my leg to push them open. It wrapped around me like armor and became my safe haven.  The sound system rocked out.  I liked the way it looked. The way it handled. Over the years it crossed the country at least six times, maybe eight.   It drove the curves of Highway 1 to Big Sur hundreds of times, including down a dark, woodsy canopy road while my companion reminisced about childhood trips. It could navigate the hairpin turns around Highway 17 and the Santa Cruz Mountains without my touching the wheel. Its turning radius sucked, but other than that? It was a driving machine. Oh, yeah.

2013-08-28 13.52.04In a way it was also a symbol of my independence and of the life I’d made for myself far away from my hometown and my family.  It was a lot of money for me then (and a lot now) but I never regretted it, not once. Once in a while I felt like owning it communicated something about me  that wasn’t entirely accurate. Even that first month it was the catalyst for thought  in the draft essay I began just weeks after I got it. But overall? I loved everything about it.

We made a start at buying a new car in 2011 and I chickened out.  I wanted to keep my car longer and I did, two more years.  But in those two years, little and big things started going wrong.  A few hundred bucks here and there, then a thousand or more.  A few months ago we thought it was time. I thought I was ready. But I wasn’t.

“Let’s keep it a bit longer,” I said, my hand on its silver blue hood.

bye BMWLast week the dealership gave us a $1,300 estimate for replacing the driver’s seat mechanism.

“It’s time,” hubby said.

We knew what we wanted: a small SUV crossover, loaded, because we keep our cars a long time.  We found one. A Subaru Outback.

The trade-in value of my BMW was peanuts, compared to its purchase price and its value to me over 12 years.

And then, it was time to say goodbye to my trusty vehicle.  It’s just a car, I told myself. But I knew better.  It was the repository of the hopes and dreams of a mid-life professional. It was another dream I’d made come true all by myself. It was my companion, mute witness to a life fully lived. It had held me in its embrace the January day I left my Carmel house headed for Big Sur, having just made the decision to leave a husband. I’d gotten only as far as Missionary Beach when I pulled over and cried, tears falling on its beige leather seats. One trip across country had been an awakening about the realities of a tough relationship. Through it all, more than a house, an apartment, a condo–it had been solid, stalwart and trustworthy.

One last look, a touch and I stepped resolutely toward the future.

I turned the key in my immaculate new SUV and turned on the back-up camera. I tuned the radio to Sirius, 1960s oldies. I set “Home” on the navigation device.

The wheels turned smoothly out of the dealership driveway. The seat’s lumbar support had just the right amount of give for an aging back. I settled in and accelerated.

I caught a glimpse of my old blue car sitting by itself in the parking lot, empty of the CDs, books, umbrellas and bags that signified our life together, smiled and gave a little salute as I made the turn for home.


It was never just a car.

Welcoming the Starship Enterprise, a 2014 Subaru Outback Limited

Welcoming the Starship Enterprise, a 2014 Subaru Outback Limited

Introducing the Starship Enterprise. a 2014 Subaru Outback Limited

The thing practically flies..

4 comments on “It’s just a car
  1. I hear you. Driving has always been close to my heart, and I said goodbye to each of my cars over the years with a heavy heart. (Well, maybe not the Audi. That thing sucked.) Enjoy the Enterprise! And boldly go…

  2. My 2007 purchase of a Lexus IS 250 represented some sort of proclamation for me. It was going to be the new-er me…getting older and confident. It’s a sexy car and maybe it was the harbinger of my new career? Who knows… Funny how we have so many memories tied up in cars, but we do.

  3. hank says:

    evocative, poignant, wistful. My gawd, you write well. Even in 2002 before Adair…

  4. Barbara says:

    What a great piece this is. I love me a road trip so I totally get your feeling of a car being so much more than a car. They become one of our companions. Funny parallel? I drove a BMW 535XI for years and in 2011 traded it in for a 2012 Subaru Outback. My Outback is black though. It’s a much better car for Colorado winters and I have a crush on it too. You’ll so enjoy your new Starship Enterprise and travel/fly with her so well. Happy trails!

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