From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III

Automobile Ambivalence

Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well.

Josh Billings

I know it sounds a little strange since I live in Detroit, the Motor City, but from the time I bought my first car as a new teenage driver I’ve been afflicted with an apparently unique condition. Automobile ambivalence.

When I got my driver’s license I was excited beyond belief. I’d saved some money to buy a little unsightly, plodder of a vehicle, so appearance didn’t matter to me. Of course, not having much money, appearance really couldn’t matter. This was a classic clunker car.

It didn’t matter what it looked like; I was no longer chaperoned. I could drive to school, and I could pick up my friends. (Okay, I admit some of my friends wouldn’t be caught in my car for fear of picking up some strange germs or being convinced the whole thing was just going to fall apart, without warning, at any instant.)

On the other side of the carburetor, my not-that-much-older brother had a passion for cars. He subscribed to all the auto magazines, washed and waxed his car every Saturday morning and kept the inside of the vehicle pristine clean. Our two cars, sharing the driveway, were pretty much the Odd Couple of autos.

Fearing that some strange occurrence would happen to his car being parked too closely to mine, my brother put a blanket over his every night, kind of like one of those jackets the X-ray technician wears to avoid exposure to radiation. My brother was convinced my car was sending out some type of harmful emissions well beyond what came out of my broken muffler.

I admit that his car was clearly the Homecoming Queen, while mine was, well . . . mine was pretty much the end-of-the-bench junior varsity football player who got his uniform dirty because he fell in the mud on the way to the locker room after the game. Not much talent, not much speed, dirty as can be, but still able to move in the right direction. Most of the time.

When I first heard the term “all-purpose vehicle” I believed they were actually referring to my car. My vehicle was multifunctional: It served as a mobile closet, storage area for sports equipment, stockpile for nonperishable food items and a portable periodical section of newspapers and magazines. Every “purpose” was utilized when an impromptu basketball game was organized for the park after school and I needed my gym clothes, a pregame snack, a basketball and shoes.

My automobile ambivalence did create a few problems on the home front. This was clear when my brother was required to borrow my car because his princess of a vehicle was in the shop for probably some type of face lift or tummy tuck.

I gave him the latest briefing as he sprayed a few layers of disinfectant throughout and laid a clean towel over the driver’s seat. The info I provided included don’t lock the door because the key won’t open it, the driver’s side window doesn’t roll down, the trunk light remains permanently on and don’t park in a position where you’ll need to back up to leave. Getting the car to go in reverse is usually a fifty-fifty proposition. It’s not worth playing the odds given the potential difficulties of having to enlist the services of a passerby to push your car into a position where you can actually drive away.

When my brother returned from his jaunt in my jalopy I knew that something was amiss when he threw down the keys and simply stared at me.

“Problem?” I meekly proposed.

“You didn’t tell me it stalls at most stops!”

“I guess I forgot to mention that little peculiarity. However, if you pump the accelerator twice, pull the passenger-side seatbelt once, turn the radio to country music and roll down the rear passenger-side window, it should start right up.”

He was as amused as the time I had to confess to him that I’d backed out of the garage into his car parked in the driveway. I had seen his pride-and-joy vehicle as I’d entered mine but, apparently, my short-term memory wasn’t in full operation that morning. As I heard the sound of metal on metal, I knew it wasn’t a good sign. I told him that maybe having Dad put up some traffic signals in our driveway would be a good idea. He wasn’t amused.

One of the benefits of automobile ambivalence is there isn’t an overwhelming disappointment when a little body damage occurs. Heck, with my car, I’d have been hard-pressed to notice anything. The dents and dings throughout made it resemble one of those antique-looking candelabras you hammered away at in seventh-grade shop class.

Before going to advise my brother of the two-car pileup in the driveway I surveyed the injuries. I remember actually being somewhat pleased that I’d accidentally achieved some symmetry given that the previous huge dent on the rear driver’s side now matched the new dent on the opposite side. I thought, for whatever reason, that maybe I’d now get better gas mileage. Kind of some new aerodynamic action. More wind resistant.

After having had this first car for a couple years, I recall feeling a little sentimental as we approached an important milestone—one hundred thousand miles. Despite my general ambivalence, I did love my car, warts and all. I recall thinking for this big event I’d do something really special. I first thought a drive-thru car wash would be nice, but I was a little hesitant since I felt some of the dirt and rust may actually be holding the whole darn thing together.

I finally decided on a drive-in movie. Just a teenager and his car. In years since, I’ve had more cars and my auto ambivalence remains. But you only have one first car and although it’s no longer intact, my memories are.

Bob Schwartz

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