Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My $500 Learning Experience

Five hundred dollars seemed like a ton of money to me at the time. My dad bought it from a tenant of his, and the title was on a piece of notebook paper.

I didn’t have a job yet and I had to keep bumming five bucks off my mom for gas money. I got my driver’s license right around the time when the gas prices jumped from hovering around a dollar per gallon to an insane two dollars and twenty cents per gallon.

Once I ran out of gas in the middle of Adams Street on the way to my boyfriend’s house and a passing patrolman sat behind me with his lights flashing while we waited for my dad to come with a gas can. I was so embarrassed, both my dad and the policeman gave me the same look but didn’t say anything: you’ve got a car, so it’s time to get a job, kid.

On my birthday my friends broke into it and put a steering wheel cover on the steering wheel and left a bumper sticker sitting on the dash. Despite the fact that it had pink crowns on it, I left the cover on the steering wheel and taped the bumper sticker inside the back window. I’ve never been a bumper sticker person, and it said something like “Beware of the Princess” and I’ve never been a “princess” person, either. Not that I was ungrateful, it was either that or a flame motif, which my friends thought didn't fit me as well.

The dark blue 1988 Dodge Raider was to vehicles as Doc Martens are to shoes. It was big and heavy and clunky. I once ran into one of those big orange construction barrels with it accidentally, but all I felt was a little jolt, while the barrel went flying, bouncing down Cornhusker Highway.

It had 2 doors and passengers had to crawl into the backseat. The windows in the back slid open instead of rolling down. One of the locking clasps was broken, so anyone who knew about it could slide the window open from the outside and unlock the passenger side door. I'm sure it would have come in handy for someone who likes to lock their keys in the car, but I think I only did that once. 

The rear door wasn’t hinged at the top or the bottom but was instead hinged on the side, opening like a normal car door, only larger. The first time I stayed late to close the restaurant where I had gotten a job, my mother was concerned at the late hour and had made me promise to take someone out with me to check to make sure no one was hiding in the back. I had the same mixture of exasperation and amusement the first time I opened the back door to find nothing as I did many times afterward, and checking became a ritual. Walk around to the back of the car, open the door, kick inside, no one’s waiting to murder me, close the door, walk to the driver’s side, get in, start the car.

It was the only vehicle I’ve ever had that was an automatic. I learned how to drive on a manual, my dad’s little Suzuki, but my brother claimed that as his first car when he turned 16. The Suzuki had more get up & go than the Raider did, but there were a few times I got it going pretty fast, and once even got it up on two wheels accidentally while going around a corner.

There was an electrical problem that caused the brake lights to ignore the fact that I was stepping on the brake. I used to turn the parking lights on and off whenever I had to start slowing down. Driving at night was dangerous, and I would keep the headlights off for as long as possible so that I could keep using the parking lights to let other drivers know when I was stopping. We took it in to get it fixed once, and the solution that the mechanics came up with was to put electrical tape across the button that controlled the hazard lights and tell me never to use them. The brake lights actually worked after that, though I remember flopping back in my seat and groaning when, several months later, someone pulled into the turn lane beside me and said through my open window, “Did you know that your break lights are out?” and I had to go back to flipping the lights on and off every time I stopped.

One day, the summer after I graduated from high school, I limped the Raider up a private drive near Branched Oak Lake. I’d gone to meet some friends and after driving around where they’d said they were going to be and finding nothing, I’d given up in a huff and turned the vehicle homeward. When it started to chug and belch blue smoke, I turned toward the nearest house I could find. I probably scared the inhabitant, a nice young woman who was concerned that something more tragic than my car breaking down was going on. Through tears, I assured her I was fine, and since I didn’t have a cell phone, asked if I could use their phone to call my dad.

It seemed like it took forever for my parents to show up, the same way a funeral seems to last far longer than it actually does. I babbled incessantly to the poor woman I’d imposed on, trying to distract myself from the fact that my car was dead. She pressed a glass of water into my hands, with a look on her face that told me she thought I was being a bit too emotional over a scruffy old SUV, probably hoping that if I was drinking something that I would stop talking.

I can remember sitting next to my mother as we towed the Raider home. I can’t tell you what caused it to die, because I’m not a genius mechanic like my brother; something with the oil, I think. I never drove it again. I crawled into it and gathered up my stuff: a faded pok├ęball with a Raichu inside which had dangled from the rear view mirror, hair ties that perpetually hung around the gear stick, the bumper sticker that was still taped to the back window, and the steering wheel cover that had worn from pink to a gross tan color.

Not too long after we towed it home, my dad bought a little green Chevy Tracker for me to drive, and it cost him far more than five hundred dollars. I liked it; it was a little SUV, and I’d upgraded to a manual, but it wasn’t the same as my Raider. It was like deciding to wear a cute little pair of flats all the time instead of your Doc Martens.

There are so many things you learn about while driving your first car: how close to follow people (so that you don’t get yelled at by someone who gets out of the car in front of you to give you a piece of his mind), how to park (and the fact that you hate parallel parking), and how to motivate yourself to use your time wisely so that you can get places on time (such as your choir practice that meets before school).

Driving the Raider taught me all these things and more. Everyone’s first car is a unique experience, and the Raider was the perfect little vehicle for me. And it only cost my dad five hundred bucks.

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