May 28, 1999

Take me for a ride in the car-car,
Take me for a ride in the car-car,
Take me for a ride, take me for a ride,
Take me for a ride in the car-car.
— a song from the Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert album
publishing info not provided on the itty-bitty cassette cover

Well, it’s good I got a start on cleaning the trunk of my car [on May 11]. By 3:00 this afternoon it has to be free of personal items, extra fast food napkins, and other assorted junk so that I can trade it in for a snazzy new 1999 Toyota Corolla in cashmere beige with cruise control, power windows, and a moon roof.

The car I’m giving up is a 1988 Silver Blue Corolla with 156,000 miles, a dent in the front passenger door left by the iceberg I hit in the Blizzard of ’94, and a fairly new back end (courtesy of the truck that hit me during an ice storm in 1996). It also has permanently glued to it a Penn State grad student parking permit, a window decal declaring “I’ve been to Dublinia” (a museum in Ireland — I’ve been there, not the car), and a bumper sticker that advises “WARNING: I brake for cemeteries.”

My (present) husband says I don’t buy a car, I marry one. I do tend to stick with a car longer than some people stick with their spouses. In fact, in 1976 I acquired a new Plymouth Volare, a stray cat, and a (practice) husband. Seven years later I still had the car and the cat.

When I bought the ’88 Silver Blue I thought it might be my daughter’s first car — she’s almost 14 now. It’s going strong despite the fact that I change the oil once a year (if I remember to) and have never waxed it. It is making a strange whining sound, but only sometimes, and if you turn the radio up you can’t hear it as well. A friend says I don’t need a new car, I just need a louder radio.

I’ve been driving since 1964, was given my first car in 1965, and have owned only five different ones in 34 years. I learned to drive on a 1961 white Chevy automatic. We were a one-car family, despite the fact that we lived in an outlying suburb of a city not well served by public transportation. I depended on friends for my social transportation needs.

When I entered the local community college in 1965 my parents bought two new cars — a Chevy Impala for my father and a turquoise Corvair for me — make that “for me to use to get to school, not to go gallivanting.” Taking the bus to classes would have meant an hour’s ride after a two-mile cross-township hike. The car was a practical measure, to afford me more time for important duties like studying.

I loved that Corvair. It gave me a small measure of independence and autonomy despite the fact that I was still living at home. I didn’t know it was unsafe at any speed, that its empty front end, its lack of seat belts, and its engine the size of a frog’s brain afforded about as much crash protection as a sheet of typing paper. I drove it for two years.

I wasn’t allowed to take it with me when I transferred to a state university (sleepaway school), so my sister used it to drive to her school — she was in 11th grade, for God’s sake!! She wrecked it in less than two months — trying to adjust the radio, she plowed into a tree on someone’s lawn. The car and the tree were both totaled, my sister had turquoise paint embedded in her lip for a year, and we became a one-car family again.

When I graduated from college my father bought a gold Cadillac Seville and gave me his Impala. This was a serious, sober car, so big it seemed its front end and back end occupied two different time zones. I had my only my-fault accident in that car, plowing into an embankment off a snowy curve. When my father came to pick me up he didn’t even ask if I was hurt. He just growled that he certainly hoped the goofball I was with (of whom he definitely disapproved) had his own ride home.

After that uncomfortable post-grad year living with my parents I got a new job and a new 1971 electric blue Chevy Vega. I liked the name — Vega, a star of the first magnitude in the constellation Lyra, which my new boyfriend (not the goofball) showed me as it hung over my new apartment building one sultry August night.

I went places in that Vega — North Carolina, Vermont, Montreal, Hummelstown (5 days a week, 180 school days a year). It was essentially a two-seater, with a little bench in the back that had barely enough room for my school bag and a single grocery sack. In the summer I pushed the bench down, popped the hatchback, and loaded up my typewriter, a knapsack, and a bicycle, and took off for wherever I felt like going. I was single and unshared, a designation that now suggests freedom and romance, but that after a few years spoke to me only of loneliness.

By the summer of 1976 I was married and living in a brand new suburban two-story in a neighborhood that had until recently been someone’s rolling farmland. The Vega sputtered to a standstill after 60,000 miles, and I bought a ’76 Plymouth Volare in a conservative burgundy with a white vinyl roof. It came from the Chrysler dealership that was two blocks beyond the back gate of the school where I taught. The purchase (said my father) was supposed to demonstrate my commitment to the community I was serving as well as make it easy to obtain service.

I am perhaps the only person in America who truly liked her Volare. It was recalled several times, once for new front fenders that wouldn’t corrode and twice for wiring defects that could have made it blow up while it idled at a red light. It was the car I used to follow my students in schoolboy and Legion baseball for five glorious seasons. The analog clock stopped working after two years. I set the hands at five before six. It meant that in my Volare you were always on your way to a baseball game.

I got 120,000 miles out of that car, but only because at about 85,000 miles I acquired a student who was a true Mopar-head. He loved the car, he loved working on it, and he had a cousin who repainted it in the original burgundy and refurbished the top so that it looked like a brand new car. For three years I had virtually free labor. But then the kid graduated and moved away.

The ’88 Silver Blue was a true suburban mom’s car — four doors, child safety features , and a trunk so wide and deep I could line up two rows of five grocery bags each (that is until I filled it with the detritus of 29 years of teaching). I was reluctant at first to buy it — I told the salesman that I hated digital clocks, my last car had cost $4000, and it would be a cold day in hell when I drove a foreign car. (His response: “I think we can disconnect that clock.”) I’ve loved this car for the places it’s taken me — the pediatrician, the kindergarten carpool, the flute lessons, the fiction workshops (those, of course, mine — but then, the writing career is made possible by the joy and security I have in my family life).

I don’t know what internal force said Now for a new car. Maybe I just don’t have the same sense of adventure anymore — I want to go to D.C., Massachusetts, Ohio, and Maine in the next few months, but that unidentified whine in the ’88’s engine could turn into a thud at any time, and the prospect of being stranded in a funky small town just doesn’t have the appeal it once did.

The first car I looked at this time was a gold Toyota Avalon with leather seats the color of a wild palomino.

“Avalon,” I sighed, running my hands along its glossy flank. “Oh this car was made for me!!”

“Why?” my husband asked.

“Because that’s the island paradise of Arthurian legend,” I told him, as if everyone should know this. “Jean Shinoda Bolen wrote a book about it — about finding your true self at mid life. It’s the place of apples, near Ireland.”

Never send a poet to buy a car. I took it for a drive, and it was beautiful, and I felt that I could sail it straight on through the mists that hang between heaven and earth out on the Island of Iona. But then I dawdled when a light turned green, and somebody honked at me, and I realized that the cost of all that fantasy over the cost of a sturdy new Corolla could buy my daughter a master’s degree. I may be a poet, but I’m a practical one.

So cashmere beige with interior the color of sand at sunset it is. And shall be into the next century.

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