- On-Air Playlist
- Program Schedule
- Community Calendar
- Sponsor Directory
- Featured Programs
- Arts & Life
- Support KRCC | Underwrite
On a recent airplane trip, the tiny television screen just in front of my crammed knees played over and over, in a continuous loop, an ad for luxury SUV’s. Three multi-raced, fashionable and young American couples test-drove and debated the merits of a BMW, a Lincoln, and a Lexus. The subliminal message was clear: you are what you drive.
I know it’s politically incorrect in this era of $4 per gallon gasoline and a fossil fuel crisis to confess love for a car, but because we are Americans, most of us, unless we grew up in New York City, have been in relationship with a car. We remember four-wheel affairs that fell flat, and plenty that were merely serviceable — dependable, reliable, and dull. But if we are honest, many of us have to admit that at one point in time, we had a fling with a car that thrilled us.
I couldn’t help but wonder where these young couples got enough money, in the middle of this Great Recession, to buy $50,000 cars. The cars my husband and I drove when we were first married were his ten-year old giant green 1960s Buick, and a Chrysler New Yorker, older and even bigger, passed on to us by my husband’s grandfather when he died. We floated down the streets of Memphis in those long cars that moved like slow boats over water. The Chrysler was an object of curiosity for passengers. It was equipped with hand controls for the brakes and gas pedal; my husband’s grandfather had been wheelchair-bound and paraplegic since his military service in World War II. I could drive it with no feet, and comfortably fit five wiggling little girls from the Girls Club where I worked across the back seat. Don’t even ask about seat belts.
Both of those cars expired in the parking lot of our apartment complex, and we had to pay a tow truck driver to take them away to the car cemetery.
As our fortunes changed over the years, so did our cars. In our lean early years, we bought a used Datsun that over-heated every time we drove it the 200 miles from our home in Nashville to visit family in Memphis. We kept gallon milk jugs filled with water in its shallow trunk.
The year we moved to Hawaii, where my husband would work for a government hospital and draw a steady salary, we splurged wildly and bought the car I loved most, a yellow Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. Every morning I put the top down, loaded up my daughter, and zipped down the H-1 freeway through Honolulu to our respective schools. In the afternoons, we drove the long, circular route home around Diamond Head, up the coast to Waimanalo and around to Kailua, then across the Pali Highway and through the clouds to our cinder block housing at the top of a mountain above a pink hospital. That car remained my great love and became my daughter’s first car more than a decade later.
I remember the let down of having to switch from a sporty convertible to a functional Toyota mini-van when our needs, in the middle years of our marriage, included enough room and adequate hardware to secure three plastic baby seats. It was a fine, safe car, a bore that smelled more often than not like spit-up milk.
Two years before our marriage ended, flush with cash and relocated to the Wild West of Colorado, we drove his-and-her black Jeep Cherokees, mine a ragtop, his a hardtop. The Jeep was like the good-looking, muscle-bound guy in high school you went out with because you didn’t really know what was beneath the hood. The romance was short-lived.
My sons, sweaty soccer and hockey players with massive bags of equipment, picked out my post-divorce car on a Saturday afternoon in a used car lot: a white Dodge Caravan with bordello red plush seats. I think they chose it for its prominent and numerous cup-holders. It was my work-horse, shuttling loads of boys to playing fields for years, until it threw a rod one summer morning, just as we were cresting the mountain pass before Buena Vista. A nice tow-truck driver hauled us back to Colorado Springs.
Out here in the middle distance, I have enjoyed a ten-year, 100,000-mile relationship with a red Subaru. It rarely surprises me, has never taken my breath away, and always starts on a dime. The acceleration’s not bad either. What else could I want at this stage of the game? It’s the car I’ve been looking for all my life.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.