lessons in adulthood from a 1999 Chevy (and my dad)

Some people have an emotional attachment to the first car they drive. Some people have memories of being sixteen, driving around in the sticky July heat, singing along to Cat Stevens with their best friends at midnight, or making out with their first love in the backseat while parked in the driveway of their parents’ house, or buying that first car freshener that is supposed to make the interior smell like “Hawaiian breeze” but really just makes such a small, enclosed space wreak of old lady perfume. Some people look fondly at the small dent in the door and remember the time their best friend crashed a bike into the side of the car during spring break.

I am not one of those people.

For the past three years, I have driven a 1999 Chevrolet Lumina, and for the past three years, I have loathed that car with my entire being. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have a car that my generous parents graciously allowed me to haul all the way to Michigan, because living at boarding school in the woods without a mode of personal transportation would have made me certifiably insane. I don’t know what I would do without my little old Chevy. I just don’t have any warm fuzzy memories about this car in particular.

My car is named Oscar, a name that my sister gave it as soon as she got her driver’s license and inherited it. In addition to me, Oscar has been driven by both of my sisters, my uncle, and my grandfather, who originally owned it. I feel the need to explain this to anyone who rides in Oscar, based on several factors:

  1. It is extremely obvious that this car used to be owned by a senior citizen. The color is what I like to refer to as “tumbleweed,” a muted tan-brown color that only a senior citizen would select when purchasing a vehicle. You know the color. Tumbleweed is the safe choice, because black and white show dirt too easily, and red and blue are just too flashy. You don’t want people to get the wrong idea when you’re driving to church or the pharmacy.
  2. This car was made when car phones were still relevant. I know this because there are two forms of car phone devices inside Oscar. One is a plastic receiver that looks like a toy phone sprouting out of the floor between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. It doesn’t stay mounted to anything in particular, so it just gets kicked around because the curly cord that attaches it to the floor is ridiculously long. The other is an arm-shaped mount and/or charger from 1999 – when cell phones were still the size of a ketchup bottle – coming out of the (mostly non-functioning) car stereo. It doesn’t fit the floor receiver because that would make too much sense, but instead just interferes with most of the stereo buttons on the right side and makes it impossible to see the clock from the passenger seat. However, it does function as an excellent hanger for trash bags and other miscellaneous items.
  3. There are two bumper stickers on the back, neither of which I selected myself. One reads “world peace” and the other “I (heart) sushi.” While the former is obviously something I support, and the latter is an absolutely true statement about my feelings toward raw fish rolled in rice and seaweed, neither of these proclamations are things I would have chosen to state publicly by slapping stickers on the rear end of my vehicle. I don’t even have a problem with the overall concept of bumper stickers. In fact, there are many nice stickers I’ve come across that I have considered adorning my car with. But, since my sisters both drove Oscar before I moved to Michigan and took him with me, the world peace and sushi stickers are stuck there for the entire world to see. Sometimes, I imagine someone driving behind me and cursing me when I suddenly slam on the brakes because a rabbit is crossing the road: “GODDAMMIT! What’s your problem, sushi lover?!”
  4. The car still smells like old people, despite the fact that it hasn’t been driven by anyone over the age of 25 in almost ten years.

Oscar is not the kind of car I thought I would be driving at age twenty-four. But he is fully paid for, so while my friends who drive flashier, newer vehicles are emptying their bank accounts every month to pay off their cars and undergrad student loans, I’m able to spend excessive amounts of money on nail polish, clearance-priced sweaters, air fresheners, and shampoo every time I set foot in Target. I’m effectively still a broke-ass twentysomething, but at least it’s not because I drive a car that’s too fancy for me.

While I like to think of myself as an independent woman most of the time, the truth is I have my dad’s number saved in my phone favorites for the exclusive purpose of calling him whenever something goes wrong with my car. Eventually, my dad purchased Triple A for our family, and I am convinced it is because of the number of times I have called him from Michigan because my car won’t start. I still call him out of desperation every time, though, and he still replies every time, “Sorry. Call Triple A and have them jump it for you.”

On one recent night, as I made a treacherous winter drive into the closest town to where I live, my turn signals mysteriously stopped working. Instead of shrugging it off and figuring I would deal with it once I got to my destination, I veered off the road and into the first gas station parking lot I could find. I pulled my fingers out of my mittens, still frozen from scraping the daily layer of snow and ice off of Oscar, and frantically dialed my father.

“Dad!” I exclaimed when he, surprisingly, answered the phone. My dad hates talking on the phone more than anything. He is notorious for not answering, and when he does, our conversations usually last no longer than two minutes before he asks if I want to talk to my mom.

“Hi, Maddie,” he said, his voice echoing suspiciously.

“Am I on speakerphone?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’m, uh, I’m playing MarioKart,” he replied.

My family owned no gaming systems until I was ten years old. Then my parents gave me and my sister a PlayStation for Christmas. My dad, who picked out a few games for us to start out with, ended up playing a game called “Spyro the Dragon” all night on New Years Eve, and it became clear that the gift was more for him than us. Years later, when the Nintendo Wii was released, my mom gave him one for his birthday, along with the newest version of MarioKart, which was really exciting because you could use the controllers as actual wheels. Five years later, my dad still plays MarioKart for at least a half hour a day (usually during his lunch hour – he comes home, makes a sandwich, and plays a few races before heading back to the office), despite the fact that he has beat literally everything you can beat within the game. Instead, he races online against other players who, for some reason, are also home in the middle of the day. I suspect that my father’s main opponents are college students and competitive stay-at-home moms whose children are napping.

All things aside, MarioKart is some kind of release for my dad, and I guess that’s not a bad thing, really. He doesn’t have many other hobbies, unless you count watching The History Channel, reading political blogs, and making specialty drinks with his expensive, state-of-the-art espresso machine.* Plus, his MarioKart addiction has led me to acquire mediocre skills in the game because of the number of times I’ve played against him. Skills that I have been able to unveil at several different parties, much to the surprise of most of my male friends, who assume I’m useless at video games** because, well, I spend most of my free time writing, pining after fictional characters, and painting my nails. I’m also not a competitive person by nature, hence my aversion to team sports of any kind, but put a Wii Wheel in my hands and I will cut a bitch.

“Okay, well, I have a question about my car,” I said, choosing to ignore the video game sound effects on the end of the line. “I’m not sure if you can even help me, but I thought I’d try. The turn signals aren’t working. Like, even when I try to use them, they don’t blink on the dash at all.”

Victorious music erupted from the game before my dad said, “Hmmm, yeah, it’s probably either a fuse or a switch.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you will need to replace the fuse if that’s what it is.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“Well, you might have to wait until morning and go to an auto shop, then.”

“Dad, I’m on my way to town! I promised John I would go to his gig!” I had reverted back to my teenager-y speaking tone. But in my defense, I was on my way to town to see my friend John play drums in a local band, and I was already running twenty minutes late.

“Just drive carefully and brake slowly anytime you’re going to turn,” my dad said. He sounded only mildly exasperated with my helplessness. “You can always use hand signals, too.”

“WHAT?!”

“Hand signals. You know how to do that, right?”

“Well . . . yeah. But I’m not doing that, Dad.”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly legal option.”

“Nope, not happening. Um, how hard would it be to change the fuse myself?”

So my father, nearly 700 miles away, talked me through finding the fuse panel (on the dash, next to the passenger side door), reading the key in the manual (page 6-56), and where to buy extra fuses at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night (a superstore that is open 24 hours a day). And in the parking lot of Meijer, wearing skinny jeans and boots that were made for fashion, not function, I knelt down in the slushy parking lot and singlehandedly located and changed the appropriate fuse in an attempt to get my turn signals working.

The fuse in question did not fix the turn signals and I ended up having to take my car in to the mechanic the following week, but the entire experience of hunting for the fuse panel, buying the right kind of replacement fuse, and managing to yank the old one out like a decaying tooth in a dark parking lot at 10:00 p.m. made me feel undeniably like a grown up, independent woman. Despite the fact that I had to get step-by-step instructions from my dad from two states away, I had managed to troubleshoot a problem on a car that I usually held nothing but lukewarm feelings for.*** Driving home from town that night, I started to think that, after three years of having a full-time job and living far away from my family, I was finally starting to become an adult. I was able to do my taxes without my dad’s help (thank you, TurboTax!), I knew how to get basically anywhere in town without using my GPS, and I had finally learned how to cook eggs beyond scrambling them. I could make it on my own . . . as long as I had my dad on speed dial.

Tune in next time, when I use my newfound empowerment to change a tire**** and shop for household appliances.

* I’m not joking when I say this is the most complex piece of equipment in my parents’ kitchen. When I was home a few months ago, my dad was tinkering with it, and when I asked him what he was doing, he replied simply, “Upgrading the software.” Leave it to my father, the computer programmer, to have an espresso machine with software.

** An assumption that is mostly accurate, with the exception of MarioKart and any rhythm-based dance or music game. Go ahead, challenge me to Guitar Hero. I dare you.

*** But a few days later, when the cigarette lighter that I plug my iPod transmitter into (the only feasible way to play my own choice of music, because the CD player in Oscar’s stereo skips madly every time I make a left turn) crapped out on me, I was able to fix it by locating and replacing the fuse . . . no phone call to my father necessary!

**** HAHAHA.

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2 thoughts on “lessons in adulthood from a 1999 Chevy (and my dad)

  1. It warms my heart to know that I’m in your speed dial only because you might need help with your car. Lol.

    Even though it might smell like it, grandpa probably never drove that car.

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