I was not quite as sad when I ran a red light in a dream state and was T-boned by a work van and totaled the next car, a used 1984 Toyota Corolla. It was also paid for, but I had recently sunk thousands of dollars, paid with credit cards, into something called engine gaskets (I have no idea about motors) to keep it alive and the 10-year-old car was near death still. I was without a husband at the time so I had my first and only experience as a clueless woman buying a car and did pretty good, finding a Mercury Tracer for $3,500, which I also bought with a credit card. I drove that for another eight years, even after blowing out the engine and having to put another one in for $3,000. We got two more years out of it before we let it go, without much regret. The red paint job was always fading, but it was the only Just Married car I ever rode in, adorned in streamers on a warm night in July 2001, everyone on the highway honking their best wishes.
Next came the new 2002 Mazda Protégé. I was a few months into a new job that paid an amazing $10,000 a year more than the job I had been fired from and since we had managed okay on my old salary, that extra $10,000 was like mad money. The car was financed for just four years at zero percent interest, so by 2006, I was driving a paid for car and by spring 2015, it was still running, still paid for, and had only 97,000 miles on it since I rode the bus to work and seldom went out of town.
In those twelve and half years, even though my salary went up another $20,000 and my husband’s almost doubled as well, we degenerated into just barely getting by. We bought a house. He bought a cargo van. A roof had to be fixed, a fence repaired, a rotting deck rebuilt. My husband became a walking kidney stone factory and there was mounting medical expenses. I was helping my son out. I accepted that my 2002 car was my last car. I had hopes to retire at least by age 67 when my husband’s van was paid off, and I wasn’t going to drive anymore. I was going to live like a hermit. With Internet, cable TV, and Amazon, who needs to ever leave the house?
That fantasy ended when a 31-year-old manboy in a Chevy Tahoe decided to rear-end my little car while I was stopped at a light. The light had turned green, but the first car in a line of four had not moved because people were still in the crosswalk. Cars one through four were patiently waiting. Car five, the Tahoe, coming up behind me, was looking at the greenlight, not the stopped traffic and gave me a very solid hit. The Protégé was mortally wounded, even though from the front, you could not tell and it still drove. The back was just gone.
After 13 years, you would think I would have mourned that car more, but I had buried three beloved cats in those years and knew real heartache should be saved for the living, not the inanimate. Although I often attribute feelings to inanimate objects (i.e., are my Christmas ornaments bored and unhappy, sitting in a box in the closet most of the year? Will this blouse be sad if I donate it to Goodwill?), strangely, I felt nothing much this time except the sheer frustration of having to face a car payment again until I am flipping 70 years old! It was all about the bottom line this time, not whether the car was depressed about being towed to a salvage yard. I had four tires on it that weren’t even a year old and my husband and mechanic had conspired to force me to do “scheduled maintenance” on it with a new timing belt and water pump just months before. (My philosophy is if it’s not broke, don’t replace it.) All that cost $1,800, of which $1,400 was still on the credit card.
I have had used cars in the past, a 1967 Pontiac that drove like an aircraft carrier, a Ford Pinto with a gas tank that could turn it into a ball of fire at any moment, the rickety aforementioned Corolla, and the rickety but running Mercury Tracer. A new car was out of the question, and my husband was against anything older than 2010 or with more than 50,000 miles on it because…who knows why. Man brain. I pay the bills and he doesn’t and he has always had a very casual attitude about what we cannot afford. If you can get it, then you can afford it, is his philosophy. Let the woman figure out how to pay for it. This time I would not have the economic luxury of finding a little piece of crap car I could buy with a credit card advance check.
Back in 2002, at first sight, I had not really liked the Protégé because it was white, but I came to love that color. I’m visible at night! No one will hit me. (Apparently that doesn't apply to Chevy Tahoes and broad daylight.) It was my husband's first experience buying a new car and he did not know how to play the game (and still doesn't.) We were rushed by salesmen when we went looking and agreed to too many extras and add-ons, but in the end, I made a good deal. It was a simple car. The radio worked. The CD player worked most of the time. The air conditioner developed an annoying rattle that made the car sound like a bicycle with baseball cards in the spokes. A video of that noise became my second most viewed video on my YouTube account. But it was the little Mazda hatchback from the zoom-zoom commercials and looked quite spiffy. (Mazda only stuck with the design for two years, then changed to a more turtle shell-shaped design.)
I am not happy that we were rushed into buying a car again because my husband would not get out of the chair and leave the showroom no matter how many times I said I was not ready to buy and wanted to keep looking. The price went down $1,500 the minute I stood up, and that made my husband’s butt stay stuck to the seat even harder. I don’t like that they just glanced at my letter of credit from the credit union and financed it with an evil bank that advertises on TV all the time. I don’t like the slate gray color. I don’t like all the knobs and buttons and computer-y things. I don’t like the Bluetooth the salesman and my husband set up so the car takes over my phone whenever I am near it. I don’t like the gearshift or the mysterious way you can easily shift into what-the-heck-is-M and the car suddenly feels like it is driving on boulders. I don’t even like the way the dashboard actually displays “Hello. Zoom-Zoom” when I get in.
And I really don’t like the prospect of car payments. Or the fact that keys for newer cars, even this 2011 Mazda, cost $100 and you have to go to back alley locksmiths who work in secret like abortionists of yore, grinding out keys that the dealership would not approve of because they want you to buy their $450 key insurance and be your sole source. And don’t even try to find a keyless remote that will work on your car for under $300! Are you kidding me? The era of the spare key, the key you give to mechanics or valets, is over. I need insurance for my frigging keys now.
Maybe it will grow on me. I wonder about its past life, its previous lovers. The Carfax says it was a "corporate car" that started life in San Antonio, Texas, and then mysteriously shows up in Arlington, Virginia before coming to rest at a dealership down the highway in Richmond. How did all that happen? And where do we go now?