Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Horse Power

We moved to Phoenix in 1973, when I was thirteen years old. Things were a little primitive around here. Of course, I had come from Chicago, where things were pretty urban. There were the dirt roads. There were the pick up trucks. And there were a lot of cowboys and horses, but not exactly how I had seen them in the movies. These cowboys lived in the houses around the school I went to and when it was time to go to school each day they'd ride their horses there. It was a little bit like living in a Western movie.

We also owned a scrubby acre in north Phoenix just like everyone else, with the back part given over to a bunch of tumbleweeds, the middle section holding the house and swimming pool, and the front being a vast expanse of rocks, which we called a lawn. However, since my family was filled with teenaged drivers, the empty part of our acre was also filled with something else: cars.

This area of our acre, generally crowding around the garage, looked a little like a used car lot. There was a 1969 Ford Town and Country station wagon, a 1970 Chevy Impala, an exploding gas tank Pinto station wagon, a bland, beige 1975 Chevy Nova, one sister’s orange Karmann Ghia, and our father’s 1970 Chevy Silverado Truck. All parked, all molding in the Arizona sun. My sisters would pick one each day to drive, guessing which one might work, which might take us the miles to school and then to our family produce market. It was an important decision. There were absolutely no service stations for miles.

Luckily my mother had one ace up her sleeve to rescue us from every situation: her AAA card. With it, she could get us towed off any roadway. And it was transferable to any member of her family, so during our teen years we almost ran AAA into bankruptcy with all of us breaking down all over Arizona in the various household cars, in our boyfriend’s cars, in Mom’s boyfriends’ cars, at least one a day all over town, the tow trucks’ flashing lights beating a path to wherever we were stuck.

Once towed, we never knew where to take the cars for repairs. It's not like we had any money. If only we'd had a horse. Normally they were just towed back home where they’d get deposited steaming, overheating, and clunking. Then we’d just let the cars simmer, let them lie fallow and stir in their own juices. We’d hope that maybe the cars would heal themselves. So they'd sit there dormant and stagnant, with us hoping that if we went back out there in a couple weeks, put the key in the ignition, they'd work. And the strange thing? Sometimes they did.

Before I ever knew how to drive, I knew how to open a radiator cap gingerly and put water in it to stop it from exploding or power steering fluid to stop it from groaning around corners. My first car after college graduation college was so broken that the driver's side door didn't open; when I went to job interviews I had to crawl out of the passenger's side in my suit, over the center console.

And even though it's been over twenty years since I had a really bad car, the legacy of being seen as trashy because my car was trashy has stayed with me. Each day when I go out to my car in the garage and I see it I'm filled with gratitude for what it's not. Let there be no mistaking it: I love you, Car.

Did you ever drive a car you dreaded to get in? An absolute embarassment? Are you still traumatized by the memories like me? Did any of your classmates ride horses to school like mine did?

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