I was nervous about selling the car. If my dad and I didn’t have a car to talk about, did we have anything else to discuss?
From our fourth-story window, I watch the traffic below. Taxis creep by, brakes squeaking from overuse, horns blaring from frustration. Workmen in panel vans stop a little too long and the idling engine attracts the attention of our cat. The van is purring too loud and must be investigated. The cat loves the passing crosstown bus most of all, the largest of the giant metal strays.
Parked just below us is an old red Mustang convertible, a new red BMW convertible, and a Vespa placed perpendicular to the rest. None of those cars are mine. Nothing I own is kept in a glove box, left in a trunk, or lost under a front seat. Everything is in my apartment or in my pocket. I'm no longer concerned with traffic reports. I wake and make our coffee. I shower and get dressed, pet the cat and kiss Helena good morning once more before I head out the door. I put my headphones on and start walking. I walk so much now.
New York forces you to spend time around strangers. The train is a showcase of people in all shapes and situations. Sidewalks are full of people in a hurry, people and their children, people and their dogs, people and their concerns swirling all around them. I never saw them when I was driving in Atlanta, spending hours every day commuting back and forth to work.
Earlier this year, I sold my car. It was a 2010 Nissan Sentra or, as Helena called it, the Noble Sentra. The Sentra was the first and only car I’d driven new from the dealership. Almost 80,000 miles passed under those four wheels. The Noble Sentra saw me through work commutes, took me on road trips, hauled lumber for building, even firewood for burning. It was Onyx Blue, TARDIS Blue, and I’ve never owned a more dependable car.
I’d moved from Atlanta to New York City for love and for work. I’d been told by friends and family to sell my car before I moved, but I’d ignored that advice and parked the The Noble Sentra in my parents’ driveway just south of Chattanooga, at the house where I grew up. I expected to return for it in a few weeks, a few months at most.
Through the winter, I researched parking in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, New Jersey. I looked into registering a car in New York State, and the cost of moving my insurance coverage from Georgia. The math was undeniable. It made little financial sense to keep the Sentra, no matter how noble it was. I had to make a phone call home, to tell my parents what needed to be done. To tell my dad.
I was almost forty-three years old, and I dreaded this conversation. I was nervous that once I sold the car, my dad and I would lose a major component of our relationship. If he and I didn’t have a car to talk about, did we have anything else to discuss?
I made the call. We considered the logistics of selling a car from 700 miles away. I thanked him too many times for helping, then confessed that my appreciation for cars was something I'd picked up from him. He laughed and wondered if that was much of a good thing to pick up.
Then I asked him something else. "Why have cars been so important to you?"
His Southern accent has become broader as he's grown older. He takes time to draw out words and give them weight. "Well," he answered, "that's from growing up with nothing." Once he'd made something of himself, he bought a car of his own. And then another. Since moving away from home, there hasn't been a moment when he was without a car. Not just any car, but one worth bragging about. As for me, having a car made me feel like a real person, almost like an adult.
Growing up in the American South taught me several lessons: fear God, love Mom, and cars are sacred. As a kid, to get anywhere that matters, you depend on the kindness of parents, reluctant older brothers, convincible aunts. They take you to the movies, the mall, and the library. Every taking reminds you that someone with a car is making this possible. You can't go anywhere without a car. And if you can’t go anywhere, you aren’t really anyone, certainly not an adult. Adults are people with cars of their own.
My dad worked as a plant foreman for most of his adult life, but during occasional slow-downs and layoffs, he made ends meet as a used car salesman. Once work settled down, he kept those skills alive as a hobby. Vehicles cycled through our driveway: a van for my mom, a truck for him, and another truck because he’d found a deal or needed a spare for pulling a boat trailer. The occasional motorcycle would find its way into our garage. Dad dealt in Fords and Chevrolets, hardly ever a GM product; he didn’t trust GM.
On long vacations and road trips across state lines, my dad insisted I ride in the passenger seat. From the co-pilot's seat in vans and RVs, I saw most of Georgia and a fair amount of Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and both Carolinas. I'd play navigator, a road atlas spread out before me. I learned the makes of other cars, the models he would point out along the way. Often would he point at some classic car, something two-tone or bedecked with fins, saying casually, "Oh, I had one of those for awhile," leaving me starstruck and wondering why he would've ever gotten rid of anything so wonderful.
As for what cars I liked or would drive someday, I had some ideas. I didn’t want a Chevy Nova or a Ford Pinto. I’d seen too many of them in the high school parking lot, stripped down to primer brown and piloted by dudes who never left the vocational hall. I didn’t want a Yugo or a VW Bug. I needed a cassette deck, not an 8-track, preferably a Sparkomatic like I'd seen advertised on TV. And if possible, I’d really like a Corvette. A yellow one, please. To that, my dad told me that if I finished my sophomore year of high school with straight As, he would consider the Corvette option.
My grades never soared so high. My first car was a 1976 Ford Granada. He paid $300 for it.
The Granada was "Dove Gray," aside from the corners that were more of an unintentional crackle finish, rust red peeking through. The interior was a blood-red imitation leather and the dash was a faded memory of dark brown. The car itself was all right angles, like a kindergartener’s rendering of “CAR.” The roof was flat, the hood was flat, the trunk was flat, the grill and fenders fell sharply in straight lines. Not as long nose-to-tail as an LTD or even a Thunderbird, the Granada was Ford’s attempt at making a compact car without being too sporty. Heavy and lumbering, the thing was a cinder block of a car.
And I loved it. I loved it before I could even drive it.
The week my dad brought it home, before my fifteenth birthday, I started making plans for it. I sketched it. I drew diagrams of how many of my friends could possibly fit in the car, including the trunk. I drew a logo for it, something with flames. I wanted to give it a code name, something like “The Grenade.” The nickname that eventually stuck, however, was courtesy of a classmate with less than a pocketful of Spanish. “The Gray Nada.” The Gray Nothing.
After I passed the driver’s license test, I could make my own way to school and back. I could drive to church and back. I could drive to my first job at Burger King and back. I could drive to the movies and back, so long as I was home before curfew. There were some rules:
No picking up friends.
No straying from the route.
No letting anyone borrow the car.
And don't even think about speeding or doing anything to merit a ticket.
I followed them as best I could, thrilled to be behind the wheel of anything. I was no longer bound to the range of my own two feet or the borrowed wheels of others. A car of your own is sovereign territory.
The Granada had a glove box (insurance card, cassette tapes, paperback books, a pocket knife, a small notebook), an ashtray (quarters, dimes, guitar picks), a floorboard (magazines, more cassettes), a backseat (a jacket, a softball glove), and a trunk (baseball bats, backpack, still more cassettes). This space moved with me, went where I decided to go. It was mine, a personal space that was apart and owned.
Weeks after my sixteenth birthday, early in April, I drove alone to the empty gravel parking lot of Lake Winnepesaukah, an amusement park a mile from home, closed for the season. With the setting sun making long shadows of the Cannonball's wooden roller coaster tracks, I pushed a flea market counterfeit of Led Zeppelin's fourth album into the stereo, turned the volume too far to the right, and shut my eyes against the glare to hear Robert Plant sing, "Hey, hey, mama, said the way you mooooove . . . "
Nobody could tell me to turn it down.
Since then, I've driven or owned eleven vehicles. The Granada was sold to a cousin. The Renault Fuego was short-lived because it broke. The Chevy Malibu was a station wagon my dad bought from a neighbor up our street, a 1968 with Camaro wheels painted orange. The fuel and water pumps gave out simultaneously. The Oldsmobile Firenza had some kind of electrical problem, much like the always short-circuiting Ford Ranger that followed it. The Ford Flareside was a loaner from my dad until he found a listing for an inexpensive Honda Accord. The Accord had belonged to a Baptist minister. I drove that until my brother was kind enough to let me buy his used Acura Legend from him. The Legend is how I moved away from home post-college, to my first job in Atlanta. Five years later, I traded in the Legend on a 2000 Ford Focus, a green one.
The Ford Focus was the first car listed in my name only. It is one thing to drive a car and quite another to be responsible entirely for a car, to pay on it monthly, to keep insurance current, to maintain it even when there’s a warranty. After the driver’s seat broke in half, I traded it for another Focus, this time a silver one, a used hatchback just a couple of years younger. I resented it. It didn’t feel like a step forward; it was a step to the side. After less than a year, I drove that Focus to the Nissan dealership and asked to make a deal on something better, something newer. I drove off that evening in the Noble Sentra.
In February, I surprised Helena with a weekend in Savannah. Winter in New York City had been particularly brutal and my initial southern boy fascination with falling snow was almost gone. A couple of days away from the ice would be welcome for both of us. Our flight south was delayed just long enough for the car rental desk in Savannah to cancel our reservation. There was a book festival in town, as well as something to do with too much golf, so cars were scarce. At the last counter, I said to the agent something like, "We will take whatever you have, even if it's weird." Weird turned out to be a giant Ford Expedition with leather seats and room for Jesus and his Apostles. A couch on wheels.
Minutes after settling into our hotel room, a notification appeared on my phone saying our return trip was canceled and the airline would be in touch. No clue at all as to when. I passed this news along to Helena. And for the first time in weeks, we were both ecstatic about New York’s winter weather. We were thrilled to stay a little longer. A Valentine’s Day weekend, extended through Tuesday, was a welcome respite from the grey slush-ice covering our neighborhood. The hotel in Savannah understood, said we could keep our room as long as we needed, but the car rental company needed their vehicle back on Sunday afternoon.
We pulled into the rental returns at Savannah’s tiny airport. You park your own rental there, so you have to pass all of the other rentals waiting to be driven away. That's when we saw it. A bright red Ford Mustang, a convertible. It wasn’t the Corvette of my high school dreams, but it was not unlike a Corvette. I could feel my high school self tugging at my sleeve.
Half an hour later, we drove the Mustang off the lot. After twenty-five years, I was behind the wheel of an American Legend. I was going to head out on the highway and look for adventure.
As it turned out, it drove heavier than I expected. Compared to the Noble Sentra, it handled poorly. There was a delay between turning the wheel and steering the car. Here was all this American muscle, and I couldn’t help but think of my first car. It drove like my old Granada.
Later that night, making a late-night run to a suburban Savannah drugstore, it dawned on me that I was a person without a car driving a car that wasn’t mine. This Mustang wasn’t a substitute for another elsewhere because there was no other. And because the Mustang wasn’t my car, my very own car, the space within wasn’t mine either. It was like a hotel room. It didn’t belong to me.
A couple of days later, New York City thawed enough to let us come home, our extra days in Savannah had turned a little cooler, and we missed home, missed our apartment, our cat. We took a long way back to the airport, listening to Beyoncé and letting our eyes gather up enough hanging Spanish moss and greener-than-green marsh-scape to get us through to May. I stopped at a gas station about a half-mile from the airport—there always is one—to fill up the tank.
I parked the Mustang and pulled our bags from the trunk, giving the backseat one final look. Nothing left behind. The rental desk agent was too busy to look up, so I dropped the keys in a box marked Returns. Tapped the top of the box with my fingers, just to be sure.
“You ready?” I asked Helena, lifting a bag to my shoulder. “Yes,” she said. She has the best smile. We walked to the gate, boarding passes in hand.
Helena tells me that I’ll have another car someday. And she’s right. Owning a car is inevitable, possibly even in my DNA. But today, right now, I’m making my way without a car. I’m getting there.
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“We have become so good at seeing our environment—our planet and the people upon it—as a rolling scroll of film.”