Cars: An Unrequited Love Story
My first car was a 1957 Buick Riviera, a big boat of a car, a tomato-red barge wrapped in chrome everything– bumpers, door handles, hood ornament, strips running along each side. Most spectacular of all, it had chrome tail fins that lit up like sparklers when they caught the light. In fact, it didn’t need sunshine to sparkle. On cloudy days, it gathered all the light in the neighborhood and just glittered away. Even at night, when it was sleeping in the garage, it conjured a silvery glow. It was the perfect dream car for a sixteen-year-old child craving all the attention he could find.
Alas, my automotive beauty never returned my affections. The first time I drove it to high school, the front headlight fell out for no apparent reason. I was just sitting there, my car idling quietly at a stop sign, and, sprong! There it was, dangling like an eyeball popped out of its socket. The police officer untangling the before-school traffic jam witnessed the whole thing. After he stopped laughing, he came over and gave me a warning ticket and said I couldn’t move the car until I replaced the headlight. My relationship with my beloved never recovered.
As disappointing as this event was, it’s not the only one that broke my heart. My older brother and I had been able to put aside our sibling rivalry long enough to pool our resources to purchase the car for the bargain basement price of one hundred dollars, with me pulling my share from the nickels and dimes saved from my paper route — my entire net worth. That car wasn’t around long enough for our relationship to develop into a long-term romance. It disintegrated one part at a time until its only traces were the oil stains on the driveway from its constantly weeping underbelly.
No, it was my second car, the one I bought in college, that iced my passion. This car was also a beautiful thing, a forest green Pontiac Le Mans souped up to look like the legendary Pontiac GTO. The previous owner had added a purely cosmetic air scoop to the hood and poked a hole in the muffler so that it roared whenever I fired up the engine. My faux GTO was in fact an unmitigated disaster, far worse then my previous. On the first night I owned it, I was cruising down the highway with my girl friend curled-up like a cat next to me when my car started fluttering, shuddering, and flapping around like a wounded duck. When I got out to examine the damage, my front tire was so flat it looked like a puddle of spilled ink. As I was changing the tire, my jack bent over like a paper clip. A few months later, the muffler with a hole in it rusted out and fell off on the way to work one morning. By the time I made the last payment a year later, it was missing on so many cylinders that even little old ladies were giving me the finger as they sped around my huffing and puffing automobile.
For a long time, I thought my relationship with cars was forever cursed, my head-on collision with reality teaching me that these were not the effortless vehicles to glory I wanted them to be. After all, I started out thinking of cars as magical things that would make me like Elvis and his hot rods, things that would give me instant freedom and independence. I wanted to be like those two guys from the movie Route 66, their red Corvette cruising and their personas eternally cool. After my first two cars, my feelings whipsawed to thinking of cars as wild animals too feral to turn my back on, my original love now more an acidic affair that burned holes through bone and tissue.
But as time passed, my feelings mellowed. I stopped wailing and gnashing my teeth, and I took automobiles down from their pedestals. I began to think of cars as the functional objects they are. Practicality, reliability, and gas mileage became my criteria, not sex appeal or self-centered freedom. Never again would I put so much signifigance on material objects. I remember some wise words I once read, “Consumerism thrives on emotional voids and sends us on a wild goose chase for happiness.”* My early relationships with cars showed me I wasn’t finding happiness so much as chasing it in the wrong direction.
Perhaps my love wasn’t so unrequited after all.
Before retiring, Scott Peterson was an educator in the Mattawan, Michigan schools. He was a teacher-consultant for the Third Coast Writing Project at Western Michigan University and taught writing classes at the university. His essays and poems have been published in The Plain Song Review, Topology, Beyond Forgetting: Poems about Alzheimer’s, and other magazines and journals.
*Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story.