Family, Cars and Car-ma

Car designers are just going to have to come up with an automobile that outlasts the payments.
— Erma Bombeck
Are you kidding?

When you leave the house without your keys in late afternoon, somehow it works out, but at six a.m., you've got a problem. It was too early to phone anybody except my son, who was sleeping inside (phone on silent), so I drove several miles to an open supermarket to pick up a few items. In the parking lot, I discovered yet another parking restriction sign: Small Car Parking Only.

Little else could make a person like me laugh before sunrise, pre-caffeine, wearing a pajama top, jeans and too-thick socks with now too-tight shoes. When you're young and you do that stuff, you just look disheveled. Later in life, you look insane. Well, okay then. But was my car small enough for that spot? Was it an exception, like the thirteenth item added at a twelve item supermarket checkout? Who'd be the judge, and would I get towed? Now my head hurt. (I parked in that spot.)

I bought a notebook, pen and coffee and drove to Northport to write, make check lists and watch the sunrise, the juncture when people stir, and cellphones come off silent.

We've never driven a small car, we were either too many or too tall in our family. My son made one further observation about our cars last week: "Ever notice we don't have a lot of luck with cars?" So what were we talking about, I wondered,  negative car-ma? And if I said yes, would I validate a pessimistic mindset, foster a self-prophesying expectation that our vehicles are doomed to break, suffer shopping cart dents, dings, and popped tires? And is it generational? 

Dad always drove used cars when we were kids (now referred to as pre-owned vehicles) and so did most people we knew. If somebody on the block purchased a brand-new car, it was the holy grail. The sticker remained affixed on the window until everybody in Brooklyn gathered around, viewed its features, the price, the prize.

Maybe it wasn't brand-new, but Mom won a car once!


In the era of bench seats, when grandpa stopped driving, my grandparents put their children's names in a hat and raffled off their Mercury Comet that was sitting in the garage collecting dust. Mom was thrilled when she won, just as much for being lucky enough to win something as she was to bring home something that belonged to her parents. For Dad, though, a "new" used car meant fresh risk. 

Each used car proved to be either a combatant enemy or a dear friend, a vehicle from the fiscal pit of Hades, or a faithful "old boat." Our cars were somewhere in the middle, visiting both extremes. Dad knew the quirks of our Chevy Belair station wagon, and he just sank over a thousand dollars into its optimization when Mom won the prize.  All he knew of the Comet, was that it was smaller, and it didn't feature power steering. When you're a NYC Firefighter and father of nine, you wrestle enough. But seeing Mom's joy, he'd never deny her that "win." So he got rid of our station wagon and they went to retrieve the prize. 

The Comet's exterior was a very pretty powder blue, and the interior matched. It was a celestial blue that lit everything inside, even our skin. The Comet and Dad did not bond on the drive home when, along the Belt Parkway, three of the four tires blew out.  Then the next time he and Mom drove out to visit Grandma and Grandpa, the drive shaft fell out and it had to be towed. And it just never got better than that. When my brother was in a collision while driving it. Dad said "Hey, at least nobody got hurt!" And before the engine cooled, he went out and bought one of my all-time favorite cars: the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a station wagon. 

Fast forward to the age of compact cars, fiberglass and three-point seat belts, my husband and I purchased our first brand-new Honda Accord (another favorite.) It was a big deal for us. We parked it in the driveway that first night, like putting a baby to bed. In the morning light, a woman walking her dog stared from the end of our driveway. Our basketball hoop was buried in the car's roof, just above the sticker. Turns out the freezing and unfreezing of wintry weather caused enough evaporation to lighten the base... just in time for a wind storm. (Making the case for sand.) 

While getting a hole repaired in my tire last week, the mechanic looked at the front end and said, "Eh, I see I'm not the only one who hit a snow bank." I cringed, damned fiberglass. Nobody in our house claimed responsibility for the incident, but I suppose we could round up the usual suspects. 

While waiting for the world to stir, so I could bug somebody for a copy of my house key, I reworded the "Small Car Parking Only" sign. 

When the sun rose, the seagulls flew around the dock, the dog walkers were out, and a text appeared... my keys awaited.  


For kicks, here are some model images of our cars. My brother always says that today all cars look like the Ford Taurus. Back then they were each different, and they were tanks. You'd sooner replace a bumper in a "fender bender" rather than total the whole car, but they weren't without costly issues, proving nothing's perfect.

Does anybody else have a car-ma story out there?