Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Tuna Can Pedal Car Odyssey

I'm not sure what I did to anger the transmission gods but they must be REALLY ticked! The transmissions in BOTH of our minivans have gone out in just one month! And there is no hope of fixing or replacing them anytime in the foreseeable future.

This is particularly painful because my 2004 Toyota Sienna should NOT be dead after only 130,000 miles. A hold-over from more prosperous days, I bought it new because I was willing to pay big bucks for side-curtain air bags. In 2004 you could only get them in the Sienna and the $60,000 Volvo SUV. So, I paid $36,000 for my dark blue Sienna. I made five years worth of painful $600-a-month payments which is totally against my principles. And now it's dead.

Ok, I'll admit some fault. I didn't maintain or service it well. But, when you're paying for gas with coins, you kinda can't afford several hundred dollars worth of maintenance costs. Or even an oil change. The last time I took it in for maintenance the final bill was $1150! NOT in the budget lately!

So, my sweet husband and his sweet mother loaned me Bonnie.

Bonnie is a 1995 Ford Aspire. It belonged to my beloved late father-in-law. He obsessed on fuel prices and hated to pay for "petrol" so he LOVED Bonnie because Bonnie is a teeny tiny little thing that gets 47+ miles per gallon!

Bonnie is a zippy shade of metallic eye shadow blue. It's cute in a teeny tiny way. The "Aspire" emblem has fallen off the back so, in the course of wondering what it was I was driving, I conjured up a new name and dubbed it a Ford Gnat! I do like "Aspire" though. Because Bonnie, with all her zippy enthusiasm, clearly does aspire to be something else. I think she aspires to be a Bug (as in Volkswagen)! But she has some serious growing to do to be even that!

This morning I was driving Bonnie when we came upon a two-door Geo Metro driving down the street. We passed it like it was standing still as I cheered, "Laugh at it, Bonnie! Laugh at it!"

My intimate association with Bonnie came a couple of days ago when I drove her the four hours back from my home town. Boy did I get an education!

First, let me explain that my nerves were a little hypersensitive as I was leading my 16-year-old daughter in her "new" car (a really hot-looking 1995 Firebird that she paid for herself) on her first ever 4-hour road trip. The most she's ever driven is an hour our so and I've never let her drive through big cities or anything. So I was pretty anxious.

And then there I am in little Bonnie feeling scared and vulnerable and very, very MORTAL in this little tuna can. No one would be surprised if it was pedal-powered, believe me! I can grasp the entire thickness of the driver's door comfortably in my hand. Try that on your Suburban! As I drove, I felt a keen awareness that I could easily be squished and that being squished would probably HURT!

Bonnie also lacks air conditioning. Well, actually, she has air conditioning, it just doesn't hold coolant so, therefore, it is not cold and, therefore, useless. So, it's the middle of a sunny summer day in August and it's 90-some degrees and I'm driving with the windows open, sweating, getting buffered and beaten up by the wind. There is a distinct hurricane-force wind in my left ear and I can't hear well enough to talk on my cell phone which is how I usually spend long drives so as to take advantage of the uninterrupted expanse of time. And forget listening to the radio (which, Bonnie actually does have, it just doesn't display the correct time or pick up any stations).

So, pummelled by the inside winds, I was also pummelled on the outside by actual meteorological winds in the 40+ mph range. Every time I went under an over pass or across a bridge or passed a semi or came alongside any sort of windblock, I was rocked by the sudden change in wind speed and felt the kind of on-the-verge-of-losing-control that causes one to freeze and pray that the precarious moment passes safely. Which it did, thank God (the real God, the big God, not those hateful transmission gods!)

Bonnie also lacks a properly-functioning speedometer. A label my father-in-law left on the dashboard says, "SPEEDOMETER READS 10MPH SLOWER THAN ACTUAL SPEED". Actually, based on my calculations from the toll booths' automated speed read-outs, it's more like 17-18. Which makes for complicated mathematical calculations while rocketing down the road at a high rate of speed. If the speed limit is X and the speedometer says I'm going Y, then solve for Z as my actual speed. It would be SO much easier to just subtract 10mph! By the end of the drive I would have kissed any highway patrolman that might have pulled me over out of sheer gratitude at being able to ask how fast I actually WAS going. My daughter's car didn't help any in this dilemma because her speedometer is off too (though only by perhaps 5 mph but I wasn't about to let her lead so I could find out!).

So, as I drove out of my hometown for what I hoped was NOT the last time, I felt keenly aware of my current in-the-grips-of-the-financial-Anaconda status. And the jealously began to creep in. Envy bred in my heart as I was passed by shiny, detailed, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled, leather-lined, surround-sound equipped luxury vehicles. But, you know, I get better gas mileage and am spared the gargantuan car payment and the painful depreciation! And, after the first hour, as my husband always says, I acclaimated. And Bonnie became an extension of me. And I was somehow past caring that people were laughing (or worse yet, PITYING!) me in my little clown car and wondering how I fit my gigantic shoes in it.

I realize now that, in cars, as in many, many financial things, the less fortunate have a whole host of things to worry about and struggle with that others don't even think of. The fortunate just get in the car and drive with a full tank of gas and listen to music and adjust the air and focus on stupid details like that one bug speck on the windshield and know that they could pay the ticket or the tow truck if the need arose. And then there is another category of people who just feel lucky to have wheels underneath them that actually GO. And they have to worry if the coins they spent bought enough gas to get them where they need to go. And if there are enough coins under the seat to get them a few more miles down the road if it didn't? And how far the walk to the gas station might be. And what a gas can would cost? And how they would ever be able to pay for the ticket if they did the speedometer calculation wrong and got pulled over for speeding? And how much more heat can they take. And are the children and the dog in the back seat getting enough air? And will they get there at all? And what if they don't and have to miss a day's pay? And exactly how much ARE those other drivers looking down their noses at me?

I was getting more than an uncomfortable drive. I was getting a lesson, AND a blog post, and a new category of compassion out of the experience that I hope I will not soon forget.

And I learned something else along the way too! Did you know (and I hope you are fortunate, hermetically-sealed, and climate-controlled in your vehicle enough NOT to know!) that, when you drive with your windows open, you can SMELL things? Really! The river smelled like motor oil (unfortunately), the water slide smelled, amazingly, like an array of everything from SPF40 to deep tanning oil, Arkansas smells at times like the earthy livestock aroma of chicken houses, at one point the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils wafted through the air (I can't explain that one but it DID!), a roadside restaurant smelled like hamburgers, and road kill smells like, well, road kill (unless it's a skunk which is self-explanatory)!

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