As essential to our lives as cars have become, I truly have a love/hate relationship with
them. I don’t think that many people stop to contemplate how utterly dependent we are on our
automobiles. They are miracles of machinery, but they seem to break down at the worst possible
times. They can take us on amazing adventures, or they can just as easily bring death and misery.
Without my car, I can’t even get to work or feed my family. Does that make it my best friend, or
does my car hold my entire life hostage? With cars being so intimately entwined in our lives, it’s
no wonder that some people become attached to them, even going so far as to give them names.
While I don’t think that my car is going to come to life and kill people like in Stephen King’s
Christine, it does sometimes seem that cars have a personality all their own… and that those
personalities are out to get me.
When I was in kindergarten, I remember that my parents owned a brown-striped white
van. It seemed enormous and could hold a small army of people. It had a sink, a mini-fridge,
curtains, mood lighting, and the back seats could be converted into a bed. It even had a tiny table
you could set up with four cup holders built into it. It was, in one word, comfort. On long trips
out of state, my siblings and I would doze off in the back of this mobile love palace while audio
cassette fairy tales floated out of the surround sound speakers. Some of my most peaceful
childhood memories are of sitting in the backseat of that van and simply staring at the scenery as
it rolled by. My parents traveled often and had family all over the state, so I logged plenty of
hours in this dreamlike trance. Sometimes I would try to count the trees or the stars, but I never
felt anything but safe. Perhaps it’s because I was a small child untouched by the horrors of car
accidents, or perhaps it’s because like its descendants the mini-vans, that old grandmother of a
van was very good at taking care of children.
One would think such a large vehicle would be a veritable cathedral of safety, but to their
parents’ dismay, children will always find ways to flirt with death. Our favorite way was going
“van surfing.” Here’s how you play. Don’t wear your seatbelt. Then stand up and hold your arms
out horizontally. Whoever can stay standing the longest wins. For years, and in spite of my
mom’s repeated shouts to SIT YOUR ASS DOWN, I always won. Then one day, there was a
horrible accident. My mom had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, and I was suddenly
launched forward. I tried to regain my balance, but my mom had purchased a VCR at a garage
sale that day, and I swear somebody must have sharpened that thing to a razor’s edge. My foot
came down hard on that VHS player, but it didn’t hurt very much. It wasn’t until a few minutes
after I had decided that putting my shoes back on would be a wise choice, that I noticed my right
shoe was now full of blood. It turns out that the VCR nearly severed my big toe, and my mom
had to rush me to the hospital. After some stitches and weeks of foot baths, it was fully healed,
but I never went van surfing again. The van finally met its demise during my early teens, when a
collision with a large deer rendered all but the driver’s side door inoperable. I was there for every
traumatic moment of it, and even helped to remove the little brown and red chunks of deer that
had fused to the van. My parents, low on money, decided to cut their losses and junked the
vehicle. The illusion of cars as a safe place was gone forever.
Our next family car was a red Jeep Cherokee, and this was the once-proud warhorse that
would introduce me to the wonders of curb painting. My parents are very fond of being “self
employed” and have run a moderately successful address painting service since 1985. My
siblings and I were drafted into the family business from a young age, and I was only nine when
I learned how to dash up to a front door, snatch a payment envelope, and file the paperwork
while my dad did the painting. It wasn’t long before he also had us distributing flyers door to
door. It was a very eerie and tiring experience to walk through so many front lawns where the
mailman was welcomed and I was not, but this sort of work would consume the majority of my
summers until the age of 20.
I’ve spent way too much time in a Jeep of one kind or another.
One day, my dad had a revelation. Why were we tiring ourselves out with long walks,
when we could simply tape the flyers to the mailbox post as we drive down the wrong side of the
road? While this harebrained idea led to many battles with local post offices and police
departments, my dad always seemed to win people over with a combination of silver-tongued
flattery and feigned naivety. Once this business revolution took place, I suddenly went from
being a walker to a taper. I would simply sit in the passenger seat and put masking tape on a
flyer, then hand it to my father. This went on day after day, for hours at a time, while his self-
help cassettes droned on about how to build personal power and achieve my goals. Working
from the Jeep was faster, but any additional profit was likely negated by the obscene amounts of
gasoline our frequent starts and stops were burning. With such rough treatment, the engine would
often overheat even on a cloudy day; angry steam rose from under the hood to mix with paint
fumes, and the Jeep’s bright green antifreeze tears wept out onto the asphalt. The constant
starting and stopping also made me sick, and inevitably I would throw up before we had finished
the day’s work. Then my dad would apologize, and we’d go to the gas station for pizza and pop.
Over the years, I worked so many summers curb painting with my parents that the passenger seat
of a Jeep felt like home, and a restaurant was more familiar than our own kitchen.
Once my father’s abuses had finally succeeded in murdering the Jeep, and he had wasted
enough time and money trying to revive it, then it was time to buy yet another used car that
would fall apart at the most inopportune time. The Chevy Lumina was a smaller car, but it came
at a bargain price and served well for a couple years before also succumbing to ill fortune. That
was the night in 1998 when I stood on my front porch, which had become a pier, and watched a
couple of my shirtless neighbors in Indian headdresses paddle a canoe down my street. I waved
goodbye to our garbage can as it sailed downstream, strewing its contents everywhere. Our only
remaining car was now completely submerged. If you peered into the murky depths, you could
see it there gleaming like a silver fish. What’s even more insane is that no other street in the
whole town flooded. A localized pipe blockage had caused the sewers to back up. Are you ready
for the most incredible part of this tale? My dad spent weeks tinkering with that car and always
trailed the smell of sewage back into the house. You see, my father fancies himself a renaissance
man that can fix anything with no training. He did get it running somehow, but from then on the
engine always whined and moaned like a tortured ghoul that should never have been reanimated.
And no matter how thoroughly we cleaned the interior, it always smelled faintly of sewage.
Being driven to school in this stinky car was like enduring a mild gas chamber.
When we moved to Illinois, and my younger siblings and I were approaching the age of
sixteen, my dad decided that the vehicles we drove should be as similar to a tank as possible. Just
as a millionaire might hire some beefy bodyguards to protect each of his children, he purchased
not one but three Jeep Grand Cherokees. They all had over 100,000 miles and ended up needing
repairs every other week. Fixing cars was a regular and frustrating part of our family’s life, and I
hated those buckets of bolts so much that I avoided using them whenever possible. Instead, I
preferred the thrill of a 21-speed mountain bike and became addicted to the feeling of wind in
my face. But you can’t bike from Byron to Rockford and expect to make it to classes on time.
That’s why I finally manned up and got my driver’s license at the ripe old age of nineteen. I had
to drive down Route 2 every other day, which was a nightmare. To this day I have not
encountered a highway that is more winding and dangerous. It had only two narrow lanes, with
thick woods on one side and the Rock River on the other. The posted speed limit of 55mph was
usually ignored, and numerous white crosses marked the sites of roadside deaths. When I
acquired my first real job at the UPS air hub in Rockford, I discovered that driving along Route 2
at three in the morning was downright spooky. A great number of deer often crossed that road,
and their reflective eyes filled me with terror. It was many months before I actually hit one, but
when I did, I made sure to make it count. It was a solid head-on collision, and the deer was sent
literally flying into the air like one of Santa’s reindeer. It fell somewhere in the woods, but
nobody could ever find it. The front end of my dad’s Jeep was completely destroyed and the
radiator was leaking profusely. I limped it home and woke my father to deliver the unpleasant
news. More financial hardship.
That very same December, I had to drive home from work through a terrible blizzard.
Snow danced through the air and carpeted the unplowed highway; I could no longer distinguish
between the two lanes. I drove slowly and carefully, trusting in the Jeep’s 4-wheel drive. It
looked to be a somewhat frightening, but easily survivable drive home. I later found out that my
little brother had deactivated the 4-wheel drive to save on gas while delivering pizzas. And so
when I hit a huge patch of black ice, it was my mom’s Jeep that was marked for death this time.
The vehicle did a couple 360 spins across the highway that would’ve made any figure skating
coach proud. As I spun about like a human shuriken towards my death, I remember being very
calm and angry about it. I cursed in a very resigned tone of voice just before snapping the
guardrail like a twig and careening down the hill towards the river.
This is what the right side of my mom’s Jeep looked like before I completely smashed it.
When I finally came to a halt, the Jeep was resting on its right side just a few feet from
the riverbank. The engine continued to run perfectly, and the radio continued to play my favorite
classic rock hits. I was completely unharmed. For more than a minute I just sat there, held in
place only by my seatbelt, and tried to pretend that nothing had happened. Then I turned off the
engine, silently climbed out of the wreck and jumped down to survey the damage. The right side
of the Jeep was completely totaled, and anyone sitting in the passenger seat would have been
destroyed. I had forgotten my cellphone at home, so it took me the better part of an hour to
successfully flag someone down on that desolate highway at 3am during a blizzard. Most people
didn’t stop, assuming I was a dangerous hitchhiker. The nice middle-aged lady who did stop was
absolutely terrified that I would attack her at any moment, and said so. Once she dropped me off
in front of my house, it was time for me to wake dad and deliver the unpleasant news again.
More financial hardship. But like a good bodyguard should, the Jeep had taken a bullet for me.
My 1983 Chrysler Fifth Avenue was an old car and hard to drive, but I loved it. This is
the car my parents let me keep when I moved to Dekalb in 2006, so I like to think of it as my
first real car. It was aged and rusty, but carried itself with a palpable air of swagger and
charisma; the ladies still begged to go for a ride. I lost my virginity in the back seat of that car.
I’ll miss you, wingman. You were rusty and steered like a shopping cart, but you were still classy.
I have great memories of driving around town with my sweetie. Before we married and
had a baby, my wife Shawnee and I used to love cruising down the highway and listening to
music. She can sing a nearly perfect karaoke of Heart’s “Crazy on You.” A few times each year,
we would make the 4-hour drive from Dekalb, IL to visit my grandmother’s house in Des
Moines, IA. While driving back home in the summer of 2007, we were in a horrific accident. A
speeding semi truck tried to use the passing lane, but failed to notice a minivan there. The
minivan was hit and spun out of control, slamming into the passenger side door where Shawnee
was sitting. Then all three vehicles went bouncing into the ditch. Shawnee’s leg and abdomen
were badly bruised, and her face had been sprayed with shards of broken glass. We were both
very lucky to walk away from the wreck without needing hospitalization. Once the police
determined that the Fifth Avenue’s engine and tires were still fine, they ordered us to get back in,
drive out of the ditch and into the nearest exit! We were traumatized but somehow managed to
drive up that steep hill and back onto the 70mph Interstate. My memory of the whole experience
is very blurry and surreal. I know that at some point one of the wheels started wobbling pretty
badly and I thought we were going to get in yet another accident.
Surviving the wreck doesn’t mean that the difficulty was over. The only car that had ever
been friendly to me now had to be euthanized, and the insurance company took their time in
getting us any money. Without a car, we were stranded at my grandmother’s house for about a
month, during which I had no choice but to return to work for my father as a curb painting
apprentice. Meanwhile, Shawnee struggled every night to breathe in my grandma’s house since
her asthma is triggered by dust. We were miserable.
When we finally made it back to our cozy little apartment in Dekalb, we fell in love with
bicycles and buses. We went for months without owning a car, and it felt great. But we spent so
much time at home that we became hermits, and eventually the inconvenience was too much to
bear anymore. We purchased a ‘97 Chevy Cavalier from my father-in-law. The car was purple
and had the same qualities as its owner: it was ugly, in bad shape, reeked of cigarettes, and
wouldn’t let anyone in. The passenger side door was the only one that opened, and with 250,000
miles of experience, the car was just waiting to break down when it would hurt us most. That
happened about a month ago, when I was driving to a New Year’s Eve party. The car just stalled
at a stoplight without warning. Just a few days earlier, we’d had a fight with my father-in-law
and he disowned us. So now we see where that purple piece of junk’s loyalties lie. It wasn’t
going to talk to me either.
Perhaps you can now understand why I have no love for cars; most of them seem to be at
war with me. Does the theory that cars develop unique personalities hold any water, or is it just
as full of holes as my dad’s radiator? They are involved in the deaths of thousands of people each
year… but can cars become our grandmothers, loyal steeds, bodyguards, wingmen? Just like a
pet, they need proper care and feeding, but they also demand much more respect. Be nice to your
car; acknowledge its power; but never trust it for a moment.