Shortly after getting my master’s in journalism in 1986, I landed a job at a Florida newspaper in a town with no public transportation. With $1,200 to move and buy a car, I quickly combed the New York Times classified for my first set of wheels.
I wanted a shiny candy apple red Porsche that screamed, “I’m a hip Yankee woman of promise, and I’ve arrived.”
What I got was a rusty 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass, spray painted a flat florescent orange, with no heat or air conditioning and a slow leak of radiator fluid. So it only seemed fitting to embellish it with a pair of hot pink fuzzy dice and a bumper sticker that said “Go ahead, make my day.”
“Desi” and I were together for three long years — one in Florida and two in New York. Navigating a southern summer with no air conditioning and a northern winter with no heat was sobering, to say the least. There was something both terrifying and character forming about stopping my car every several miles and lifting the hood to pour in more coolant before the engine started steaming.
Already existing on a cub reporter diet of ramen noodles, car repairs were out of the question. So when a newsroom assignment required a two-hour trek to the other side of Florida across deserted Alligator Alley, I carried a crystal talisman and prayed with the fervor of a TV evangelist.
Someday, I thought … someday I’ll have a car that’s not so rusted out that my feet get soaked when I steer through a puddle. Someday I won’t arrive at every destination spotted with so much sweat, I look like I’m wearing a cheetah print.
When Desi and I returned up north, driving with no heat or defroster meant navigating snow and single-digit temperatures with my windows rolled down. So I clutched the steering wheel with one hand, while the other wiped away frost with a junk towel.
But the elements weren’t the only perils Desi and I faced. We also experienced the unforeseen dangers of crank windows.
After moving back to New York, I landed a job teaching American lit and journalism at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. As the faculty advisor for the school newspaper, I hoped to be an inspiring mentor who would made a real difference — like my high school journalism teacher, Marty Kopelowitz, whose passion spurred me to become a professional writer.
I began my new position midway through first semester, replacing a teacher whose students made her cry so many times, she finally left one day and never went back. By the time I stepped into her shoes, she had returned her grade book via Federal Express, and her students had been abusing substitutes for a month. I wasn’t two periods into the day when I realized I stood more of a chance of teaching Suzuki violin to a room full of baboons than getting these hooligans to listen.
That first day was a disaster. Most of my students were bigger than me and wouldn’t sit down or stop talking. When I turned to write on the blackboard, one young comedian shouted, “Look at the teacher’s big old fat ass.” When I tried commanding these future residents of Attica to sit, one of them — who I swear could have stunt doubled for Mr. T — crossed his arms, towered over me and said, “Make me.”
As I wearily left the building late that day, the streets were deserted, except for a group of teens congregating on the corner. They must have stayed after school for a club meeting, I naively assumed, as I got in my car and rolled down the windows.
That’s when the group started walking in my direction. I spotted an ominous farm-fresh carton and began furiously cranking up my manual windows. But they were only halfway up when the better part of a dozen eggs came sailing in. I pulled away from the curb, holding back tears, as globs of yolk ran down my hair and face, oozed off the steering wheel and seeped through my dress and pantyhose to my underwear. By the time I got home — bundled in my signature eighties oversized black men’s coat — my hair was matted into frozen clumps and black mascara trailed down my cheeks. I looked like an ice sculpture of Boy George.
Desi and I bonded — literally. My clammy thighs stuck to his vinyl seats in every heat wave. I couldn’t wait for the day when I could finally afford a new car — one that I could drive with both hands, as a built in heater warmed my buns.
I’m not sure kids today know that longing. I learned to drive in my father’s Cadillac, but I wasn’t handed one when I graduated. My daughter’s high school lot is filled with brand new Range Rovers, and I often wonder if these lucky teens can truly appreciate the value of such extravagant gifts, with no frame of reference with which to compare such luxury.
I’ve continued to upgrade in the years since Desi, but sometimes I feel just a bit shot down as toddlers zip by in Jeep Hurricanes and Wranglers … Range Rovers and Cadillac Hybrid Escalades. In fact, a recent visit to the Toys R Us website didn’t reveal any non-luxury vehicles in the battery-powered hit parade.
I saw Volkswagens, Corvettes, Mini Coopers, Ford Mustangs, Audi R8 Spyder 6s, Porsches and BMWs. There was even a shiny red Ferrari, with a description boasting that it’s “a car that screams opulence and exclusivity” … “a car against which all other children’s cars will be measured.”
So apparently toddlers are having their appetites whetted for foreign luxury, before they can even eat a carrot that isn’t cooked and mashed. And I ask you: What happened to the right of passage? Once there was a natural order to things:
Big Wheel … bike … beater … better … Beamer.
If your kid starts out with a Ferrari, where do they go from there?
I remember buying my first new car when I was 28. I savored the “new car smell.” I fondled the upholstery. I put the a/c on “max,” aimed it at my face and pretended to be Cindy Crawford.
When I first met my husband, he drove a sporty red Chevy Beretta that we dubbed “the red bomb” in its final years. By the time we got rid of the beast, the driver’s seat was in a permanent reclining position, so he had to hoist himself up by the steering wheel, like a little old lady. I used to watch him drive away and shout, “Where’s the beef?”
The turn signals were rotted, forcing him to resurrect the arm signals he hadn’t used since driver’s ed. The muffler sounded like the Concord. And the a/c had crossed over to the other side. He arrived at every destination shvitzing like he just did the hustle in a polyester suit. And to add insult to injury, the padded interior was disintegrating, so he showed up at work having to brush chunks of foamy yellow dandruff off his head before entering the building.
But boy were we grateful for that car’s replacement. When we finally bought a new “pre-owned” Seabring convertible, we put down the top and drove the family to TJ’s Freeze for some soft-serve cones. And from the way we were smiling from ear-to-ear, you’d have thought Ed McMahon just paid us a visit.
Today I drive a peacock blue Honda Civic — the first new car I’ve owned since my twenties. There’s no satellite radio, which a Broadway aficionado such as myself would surely enjoy. I’ve still never upgraded to butt warmers, another feature to which I aspire. But it did come with Bluetooth, so I can answer a call without taking my hands off the wheel.
But what I recently realized is that after years of aspiring to a fancy car, I’ve lost the passion. I want something reliable and safe that protects me from the elements, and I want it in a pretty color. But somewhere along the way, a car stopped being a reflection of who I am. I stopped dreaming of a shiny red Porsche and started viewing my car as nothing more than a means to a destination.
Maybe someday, I’ll “arrive,” and little silver letters on the side of my ride will spell out the name of a luxury brand. If and when that happens, I hope I remember that if those tiny letters were truly for me, they’d be on the dashboard, where I could see them.
Until then — though a Civic is apparently too degrading for those whose finer tastes include drinking grape juice out of a Dora sippy cup, while playing Peek-a-Zoo on mom’s iPad — I’m thrilled with my new car.
You see, after Desi and the red bomb, anything is an upgrade.
There’s a reason they call them beaters.
Mine beat some sense into me.