Friday, May 25, 2012

In Cars

Being in and around vehicles was, at one time in my life, a relaxing thing for me. I had a stressful job I loved and then grew to hate - and through it all, the one time I didn't have anyone nudging me, asking me to do "just one more thing, baby," or just giving me some kind of hell when things were going badly was when I got into the car, sat down, blasted the radio, and put the pedal to the metal.

It's probably helped that no one has put impossible time constraints on my ETAs to this very day ("You HAVE to get this package there in ten minutes!" when, in reality, it takes twenty minutes, has never been slapped on me), and, when I have to be somewhere at a certain time, I plan accordingly.

A memorable midweek trip I once had to take with members of my Yiddish chorus had us traveling from midtown Manhattan to a place in New Jersey to perform, and we had no choice but to muddle across the Hudson River (well, actually, under the river via the Holland Tunnel) during rush hour. The chorus members I ferried to Jersey and back couldn't believe how calm I was the whole way. I've simply learned over time that I can't do a thing about traffic, so there's no point in getting crazy over it. It felt better to chat with my passengers during the 45 minute wait to get in the tunnel than it did to agonize.

All of this was well before I had to reckon with things happening inside my car, though. These days, stuff going wrong under the hood seems guaranteed to put me on the road to bursting a blood vessel or two. If my mechanic hadn't just told me how incredible my car is even after all the times it's been repaired, I'd be a perfect candidate for a padded room. I'd give anything for one year - one measly year - without anything more serious than an oil change.

This is what it means to be a mother with some part-time jobs, a child in a school that is not in the neighborhood, and some after-9-to-5 activities because, by God, I'm still a person despite the parenthood and all: I have to drive. An adage of fairly recent vintage - "Only degree I need when I have a child is a driver's license" - is so damn true it hurts. It hurts even more when the car isn't working, your mechanic is in the next city, and it takes a good day or two at least for your car to simply be looked at. And my husband wonders why I want to scream when a single warning light flicks on on the dashboard display...

Before I had a family, this wasn't a horrible cross to bear. It could even be funny.

My first car needed a ring job so badly it shouldn't have been funny. It was held together enough, however, that I still drove it, adding a quart or two of oil every few days just for good measure. A trip to a local oil change place proved that I needed to take it to the shop for something far more serious - with the hood up, one of the greased-up guys put the transmission in gear and took in my face as I saw the entire engine block nearly jump out of the car due to a broken motor mount.

Towing my car? There wasn't much point to that if it was still drivable (and I didn't have Triple-A service), so I drove it. "I couldn't believe it," my ex-boss told me after she followed me across the Huey P. Long Bridge to my then-mechanic's garage in Avondale. "Smoke's pootin' out the back of your car from all the oil burning off, the engine coulda fallen out right there on the bridge, and you STILL drove that car like a bat outta hell!"

Duh. It needed the repairs. "It was a quart low," the mechanic's wife/office manager said to us after the engine was secured and the oil was no longer burning. My ex-boss and I guffawed in unison. "It's always a quart low!"

This week...things are different. The "low oil" light blinked on and things went to hell. Within 48 hours, I had to add ten quarts of oil. Monday morning found the dashboard lighting up like a slot machine as the car hit bottom. True to form, after adding a few quarts, I drove it to the mechanic's with my pal Edie following me. I wasn't mortified when I was told I probably should've had it towed, but I hated having to call my current boss to tell her I wasn't coming in.

Two days after I get the car back, it has to return. There's no driving it once it massively overheats after ten minutes on the road. There's only me, forcing my husband in an instant to pick up my son from school and take him to his baseball game. There I am again, waiting over an hour for the tow truck to arrive. And once more, when I beg Edie to pick me up from the mechanic's for the second time this week and she tells me I need to find a good mechanic who lives much closer to my house.

I hate that I can't do anything except ask the people close to me to rearrange their lives for a 16-year-old car's occasional ailments. I hate that all of this is still cheaper than getting a new car. I hate that I don't have a job that pays well enough so that these troubles are less worrisome - although, the way this car's going, I'd have lost that kind of a job by now.

Just give me a working car for a year, I say. And a good traffic jam.

Anything but this.

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