04 Apr Why My Car Looks Like Hell

When Jill reminded me, just yesterday, that my car is 13 years old, I was shocked. Or nearly so. I bought my Toyota in 1998. It was the first new car I’d ever owned. And even then it was discounted because it had been a floor model, used for test drives by prospective buyers. At the time I thought, Oh, wow, so this is why people buy new cars! A new car makes you feel like you’re a success, like you’re doing what the American dream said you could do, you’re turning people’s heads — you’re surrounded by the New Car Smell!

Driving my then-new car, I imagined that I’d make a habit of buying a new car, say, every seven years the way my father did. It was a fleeting fantasy and, even then, I knew it wouldn’t be possible. Still, I didn’t imagine I’d be keeping the same car for twenty years — which is now my goal.

When I was young, my car was everything. I washed it every week, waxed and detailed it every month. The interior was immaculate. This was easy to do because, being young, I didn’t have much else to occupy my time or money. Now, well into middle age, I wash my car maybe twice a year. And wax it once a year, if that. It’s battered on all sides from city driving — and I’ve done nothing to touch up its many scrapes and scratches. The interior is as littered as the floor of a movie theater after a triple feature. I clean it out only when I know I’ll have to carry passengers. Then I’ll don a hazmat suit and do a kind of Superfund site clean-up.

When I was twenty, I never imagined I’d live like this. It’s not the I’m disappointed in myself; it’s that I’m surprised at how life turns us around in so many ways. I mean, I was really judgmental of people with cars as messy and beat up as the one I now own. Looking at someone like me, I’d think, What the f–k is his problem? Why can’t he get his act together?

The truth is that my act isn’t in my car. Not anymore. It’s in a hundred other places. Had I the time, maybe I would do more for my car. But maybe not. Not long ago I wondered if I should be embarrassed by my battered old Toyota, but then I considered: it’s not like I’m on the dating scene or trying to impress a prospective employer. I’m a long-married, middle-aged man on a budget. That’s my American dream nowadays. So I drive my beater with a perverse pride, determined to run it hard until it coughs, sputters and dies. I aspire to be that guy whose car is so old and beyond hope that, in an odd way, it’s kind of cool. I’m not there yet. And that, too, is a part of the dream: I’ve got a destination for my drive.