cars, mobility, and the high cost of oil

as a kid, there was nothing i yearned for more than the day i could drive.

as i fantasized about that day, it became a more significant milestone than my wedding day or the birth of my first child. the day i open the driver side door, nobody else in tow, and back out the driveway, just me and the open roads of suburban long island.

i spent my toddler years sitting in dad's lap, no memory of seatbelt factoring in, in tubie, the blue toyota, long bar shifter feeling cold under his crushing hand, jerking rockily through a poorly carved out maze i could not envision.

i spent my pre-double digits riding shotgun in the gray colt, my left hand carving out the route between first and second gears, second to third, the tricky switch, and the smooth ride into fourth. no fifth gear on that little go-cart, but what did i know? i was 9. it had over-the-shoulder seatbelts, and that was pretty cool. the colt soon became a social embarrassment but at 14 i had little control over the vehicles my parents chose to keep. it was, however, the first stick-shift car i ever drove on my own, as in, sitting in the driver's seat, turning the key, and stalling. \foreshadow

after a few hours of bucking around in atlantic beach i began to get the hang of rocking a stick-shift. right handed shifting was a new concept. bucking through stop signs and stalling in front of ab security, dad was proud. i was worn out. i swore off the manual transmission. sometime around 20 i changed my mind about that, opting for coolness and novelty instead.

a station wagon and a minivan later, i'm 16, spending my birthday in the DMV. i've studied the book, i'm ready for the test, of course i pass, nobody doesn't, i have earned a learner's permit. i enroll in driver ed through the local yeshiva since only people who turned 17 during the school year can take it for free at my high school. i ask to drive every opportunity that arrives. i drive mom to manicure appointments, dad to haircuts and shopping trips, i even take julie to her friend's houses, she up front blasting z100, mom in the back, solemnly shaking her head no, as both her little girls grow up, and maybe even grow together a little. yeah, no such luck on that one.

sometime about a month before i turn 17, still not legally a driver, yet not illegal to operate a motor vehicle, a friend visits from new orleans. a few days of begging and my freedom begins. i've never even stopped to look back. i drove shaquina, the minivan of love to atlantic beach. to a party i didn't want to attend. with people i didn't care to socialize with. but i wanted to show arielle a good time, and i wanted to be cool. driving equaled cool. i drove that night. no accidents, no horrible twisted metal or teens wrapped around lampposts. i returned the keys, arielle returned to the south, and i turned 17. even got to borrow shaquina a few times to take to school. it was heavenly, parking in the student parking lot. even if i had to sign up for monthly passes. even if i only got one every 3 months. even if i only had the car once every two weeks. i never looked back.

attending college at a large university in a small town made it impossible to live off campus without a car. one would have to rely on the pvta and its sporadic timing and nonsensical routes. my junior year, after moving into my first non-dorm abode, a small century-old farmhouse next to the high speed train track, dad gifted me with an '89 acura legend with 109,000 miles on it, a sunroof, volume control on the steering wheel, and a secret dash compartment for 'storage'. and i drove the shit out of it. i loved that car so much. beautiful, golden sports luxury car. how could i, the girl of the parents who'd decided on a dodge colt, be the owner of an acura? it made no sense, but i embraced it, and smoked the confusion of post-adolescence, pre-adulthood away. and the car went with me, everywhere. towed only once, i kept it until it was taken from me. the transmission blew while i spent the semester in israel and julie drove it her junior year to school. too much estrogen fueled peeling out and other teenage antics had left their toll on my baby. and what would i do during senior year, when i would be living in northampton?

bleary eyed after a sleepless 16 hour flight from the holy land, i arrived to find my family piled into a 93 pathfinder, forest green, complete with cool tire rack on the back gate meeting me at the newark airport. gleeful and exhausted, and not having driven in 6 months, i barreled down the highway, leaving new jersey behind. i kept the pfind for 3 years, as it as a re-lease off a first lease. 3 years, 2 accidents (only one of them my fault), 1 long term relationship, and about 80,000 miles later it was time to return to the dealer. i got high to say goodbye. i don't remember much else.

an ecological awakening happened in my parents. enough with the suv's, they'd decided. only they'd be the ones to drive them. i was offered a fresh lease on life. and it came in the form of purple civic hatchback. pros, amazing gas mileage, parkable anywhere, purple. cons, tiny as hell, no abs or 4 wheel, high theft rate. i held onto it for about a year. we were accident free and only broken into twice. once the stereo was stolen and the other time they ruffled through my stuff, left everything, including a stashed bag of shake. after an excruciantingly long trip back from western mass driving behind an expedition i felt i could drive underneath, the thought crept into my conscious that perhaps a larger vehicle would be better suited for me. mom and dad were selling their jeep and buying a crv, so instead they sold my purple ball and gave me the jeep. in terms of numbers i know i made out like a bandit, but it was their offer.

so me and charlie the 99 jeep cherokee sport began our love affair in 2002. we've been to boston and back too many times to count, to the valley and back dozens of times, she's carried me back to new york and she's never showed a single sign of fatigue. the only time she let me down was in a rainstorm in 06, en route to brooklyn from jersey via 6th ave she blew a tire and kept me up till 5am waiting for AAA. but that's not really her fault.

but now she's 9 years old and starting her slowdown. it's like watching a grandparent die. she's been in the shop at least once a week for the last few months. it began with a busted tps sensor last fall. after replacing that the idle never felt right again. i'm certain it's because we used a generic part instead of oem. but in the last few months charlie started a new trick that i don't much care for. i'll turn the key and she just says no. acts as though there's no juice in the battery. but then i'll open the door, the lights come on, and i'll quick try again, and voila, she starts, only to die after the initial startup rev. so if i gas her while starting, she's fine, stays on, but then as soon as i take my foot off the gas, she stalls out. it seems a pathetic way to go, really. and at only 86,000 miles, she shouldn't be past her prime yet. but we've been getting about 12 mpg, which is terrible for both my bank account and the environment, and i think she's pissed because i keep talking about getting a prius. phil's checked charlie out a number of times, cleaned my battery cables, cleaned all of my fuse connections, dusted her off and she's ok for a few days, but tonight she's at her old tricks again. and it's not even cold out.

tonight we went to the grocery and she gave me hell starting up. i sweet talked her and asked her to please not embarrass me at the supermarket. even gave her a little smooch. she's definitely pissed though because she didn't want to start. i had to do this ridiculous 2 footed drive away, keeping my foot on the brake and the gas while pulling it into gear. she didnt die when i stopped but i parked her next to phils. started in on my serious research and this problem seems common to jeeps, especially 99's, and tomorrow i'll ask phil to check out the ignition switch, starter solenoid, neutral safety switch, crank position sensor, starter, starter relay, and the fuel filter. if we don't have a solution, i'll try d's mechanic, mike, in coney island.

my childhood fantasies of driving are slowly fading away. replacing them are visions of myself zipping down 7th ave on my yellow fuji special tourer, dérailleur humming, rear wheel ticking, as i coast to the shop where i'm about to remove her freewheel and go fixie. as much as i'd like to consider myself a bicycle person i'm not sure i can give up on the car. the prius is pretty much a pipe dream at this juncture. unless i can find a good one that checks out with low mileage, a decent price, and doesn't leave me strapped.

and so, as our bourgeois fades to black, the meiosis clinging to the top and the bottom and forcing us to choose our destiny and become two opposing class structures, i am left in this uncomfortable position of post-kucinich dropout, hoping for obama to resurrect my middle class dreams. i might someday have my prius. and charlie and i will both be in better places. and i'll miss her, but like an unreliable friend who's dropped the ball one too many times to be forgiven, i might just have to move on.

and keep moving on and on.

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