Friday, March 31, 2023

Car Stories

This month has involved a lot of car stuff: driving, searching, buying, donating, moving plates, fixing, parking, and a couple of trips to the car wash.

We started March with one set of cars, and are leaving it with a mostly different set of cars. It's an exciting change!

The cars I grew up with were green. I have a vague memory of a blue car that something was profoundly wrong with and went away quickly enough that I don't remember what it was. And we had a white Pontiac Sunbird for a while, which was convenient because that was the same kind of car they had at our high school for driver's ed. (Do any schools still have an on site driving practice area like that now? We had a whole course beyond the athletic field where about half a dozen of us would drive around and around during summer driver's ed, and I remember the true skill we were honing was being able to turn the radio off when we got back around to where the instructor outside would hear it.)

But the true cars of my childhood were the 1972 Chevy Monte Carlo, and the 1980-something Ford Grenata. Both green. Both before shoulder harnesses in the back, or air bags, both with ashtrays and cigarette lighters (standard), dial radios, pull up door locks that reminded me of golf tees, and crank roll down windows.

The Monte Carlo was huge. Just a long, boat of a car, and when my dad started driving us to high school, my brothers described it to their friends as "the Limo" when we would pick them up. "The Limo" was famous toward the end for raining little bits of rust on the driveway every time we slammed the doors. My dad would insist we leave the doors UNlocked when we parked that car in downtown Detroit in the hopes that someone might steal it, but no, we had that car forever. That was a hell of a thing to practice driving in, but it was solid. It still worked the day my dad took it to the junkyard. I think he got $25 for it.

The first car that was mine was a blue Buick Cutlass Sierra that my grandma gave to me a few years into college when she was retiring it for something new. We went down to the DMV to transfer the title, and they insisted there had to be a sale for it to be legal, so Grandma charged me $1 for it. (I don't think she took the money, though.) She told me she'd had it all checked out first to make sure it was in good condition. That was something Grandpa had been serious about, making sure to put things like new brakes into a car before he sold it. He would say that anyone buying a used car like that wasn't going to be able to afford certain repairs, and he wanted people to be safe.

The Buick was a good car, although at some point the connection was broken under the passenger side of the big front bench seat, so it would slide back and forth as you sped up or came to a stop. I loaned the car to my brother at Cornell for a while (I think when Ian and I were backpacking around Europe after college), and he dubbed that feature "the pleasure seat." 

My friend Gabby and I drove that car across the country, from Detroit to Santa Fe and up the continental divide to Glacier National Park. The big bench seats made it possible for us to sleep in the car to save money. (Although the backseat was better than the front, because there were seat belt things sticking up in it that you had to cover with something so they didn't poke you all night.) We slept in the parking lots of some of the finest hotels in that car.

Ian and I took that car out west twice, and drove it across most of Canada over two different trips. We got into a fender bender while visiting people in Seattle, and wound up having to stay extra days there to get the Buick fixed. The best man at our wedding said in his toast that he knew watching us deal with unexpected car trouble, and still have fun, that we would be a couple that could last.

When I say "fixed," I mean only sort of fixed. The driver's side door wouldn't close at the top, and insurance refused to pay for it. I'll never forget the official looking woman at the desk saying, "We've determined the amount of the repairs exceeds the value of your car, so we're declaring it totaled." And she held out her hand expecting us to hand over the keys. To a car that still ran. From people who were on the other side of the country with no other transportation home! We protested. They agreed to let us keep the car, but we could only have insurance to cover other people, not the car itself. We spent quite a while putting up with rain getting in that side of the car before we were able to afford a replacement door that was sort of the right shape, but it did close all the way.

The Buick was with us while we lived in Pennsylvania for a couple of years, and our move to Milwaukee. But eventually we reached that point where adding oil to it all the time and paying for repairs was getting ridiculous, and we traded it in for a used Ford Taurus (white). 

The Taurus was the most frustrating car I've ever had, and caused me to swear off Fords forever. Probably unfair, but that particular car left me stranded so many places. I hated it, and when it finally blew a tire on one of my endless commutes back from school out in Oconomowoc, I think about then we called it done. With that flat, I mostly remember thinking something weird had happened to the road, then figuring out it was the tire and pulling over, and being stuck in the middle of I-94 for a long time.

This was in the late 1990s, so not as many cell phones out there, but I did have a big clunky one we kept in the glove compartment for emergencies, and the first person I called was Ian to thank him for the phone. He told me to call AAA and ask if the tire could be patched when they got there. A cop stopped at one point to tell me he'd gotten lots of calls about me sitting there, and made sure I had help on the way. I didn't dare step outside of the car until there was a tow truck to provide cover from the traffic, and when I did finally walk around and see the tire, I laughed, because it was completely blown to bits in a full circle with cables and bits sticking out all over. I went ahead and asked, "Can it be patched?" and the guy looked at me as if I were insane.

After the Taurus was a used Hyundai Elantra (also white). I figured even used, it still had a good warranty, so it would work out better. I really liked the Elantra. That was the first car our kids knew. That was the car I brought my babies home from the hospital in. 

The Elantra had one fatal flaw, though. If you had the lights on, and shut the car off, the parking lights would remain on, but there was no alarm to warn you about it before you got out of the car. So if I started driving when it was dark, and it was light out by the time I stopped, it was very easy to not realize I had left the lights on and the battery would be drained by the time I got back in the car. That happened to me once when I took Aden and Mona to Michigan and back on the Lake Express ferry. We parked the car on the Michigan side in line for the boat, went off to play on the beach for a couple of hours, and came back to realize the car was dead. They loaded everyone else around us onto the ferry while we got our battery jumped, ran it for a while, got on the boat, and hoped with all our hearts that it would start when we got to the other side of Lake Michigan. (It did, thankfully.)

My dad made me the funniest set of little cards to help with this problem. They were little reminders for the dashboard telling me to check the lights. Little poems with sayings like "If you don't want a fright, shut off the lights!" I still have them. They still make me laugh.

In 2006 we bought a used minivan. We'd gotten by okay with just one car (despite it being tricky on drill weekends when I was home alone with kids and no car), but Aden and Mona were 4 and 2, and Quinn was on the way, and we could not fit three car seats into the sedan. Plus we were headed into a time where two adults and three kids was going to get complicated without a second car. So after some online searching we found a 2005 Kia Sedona in Kenosha. Green. Apparently I was back to green.

The girls had so much fun crawling around that new car when we brought it home. So much more room than in the little Hyundai!

I assigned seats in the minivan, because Aden was the only one old enough to get herself in and out of the buckles of her car seat. She was relegated to the far back corner where I couldn't reach anyway. She objected. Now she feels out of place anywhere else. Mona and Quinn were in the middle seats where they were easier for me to buckle. Unfortunately when Ian was deployed the first time, Mona figured out how to open her 5-point harness, and I had to stop driving on freeways because I would be driving along in the minivan and suddenly I'd realize Mona was standing next to me. There was a long stretch of having to pull over every couple of blocks to get her back into her car seat. 

And after a few more years, we decided it was time to replace the Elantra with a new sedan, and found a used 2008 Hyundai Sonata. "Sage," which was really just a way of saying "light green." Which is funny, because my only request for the new car was "not green."

I have lots of fun pictures of us in the minivan, but probably because that was the adventure car that went to national parks and far flung states. Apparently the sedan did much duller things that did not inspire photographs, so here it is on its last day at our house (missing door handle and all):

The introduction of the Sonata did not go over well with the kids. Well, Aden really. Aden was not always big on change, and she was determined to dislike the new car in loyalty to the old, and she got her siblings on board with that idea. They were so sulky and grumpy! It was amusing at first, but then eventually Ian and I explained that buying a car was a big deal for us, and should be something to be excited about, and she was raining all over the parade. Years later she understood she was being inconsiderate and did apologize, and I think that factored into her not expressing too much sorrow over the retirement of both the minivan and the sedan this month.

Here are all the girls enjoying a final trip to the bakery in the Elantra on our way to trade it in.

The minivan was a good car. It survived a couple of small accidents. One happened on our short drive to violin lessons where we were smashed into by a grumpy nun. Hit us right in the brain! (A magnet gifted to us by my brain-mapping brother.) I had to keep my kids occupied on the sidewalk for a long time before the poor car got picked up. They spent much of that time saying over and over, "The tire is flat! Our car is leaking! The tire is flat! Our car is leaking!" I was mostly alarmed to learn that inside the bumper was just a lot of Styrofoam.

In all these years the minivan only left us stranded twice that I can recall. Once near Chicago on our way back from the cottage, and once in Michigan on our way to the cottage. We took that minivan on Mold-A-Rama adventures as far away as Knoxville and Florida and San Antonio. It's been back and forth to New York City several times, and all the way to the Badlands and Yellowstone. It's made more trips to and from Michigan and Ohio than I can remember. It's hauled more instruments and children than I can count.

Our kids grew up in that minivan, and we showed them as much of the country as we could with it. And we've developed a tradition of enjoying Christmas morning at home, then driving all day to Detroit for Christmas dinner with my mom. I felt weird about condemning them to Christmas in the car the first time we did it, but it's become one of their favorite things. My kids really like a road trip. We once gave them the choice on our way back from Florida to break up the drive and stay overnight somewhere, or simply go non-stop back to Wisconsin, and they all instantly said, "All the way home!"

But that poor minivan has been falling apart. The rust holes in the doors put the ones in the old Monte Carlo to shame. The side doors stopped opening from the inside. The heat didn't work anymore, so we started referring to it as our "three season car" with "solar heat," which in Wisconsin where even spring feels like winter half the time, is not great.

At the same time, the poor Sonata after years of reliable use was also coming to bits. The driver's side mirror cover was a cracked mess, the engine was making weird noises even after an expensive repair, and one day about a month ago one of the back door handles simply came off in my hand. The last straw was driving with Mona in a storm and the windshield wipers stopped working. We slowly and carefully made our way home, but that was one problem too many. I just wanted something reliable, and the 18 and 15 year old cars weren't it.

So when Ian came across a good deal on a 2017 Nissan Leaf, we went out to try it on my birthday. I had not been sold on the idea of an all electric car, because I wanted the security of still being able to get to Detroit at a moment's notice if my mom needed me, or still doing long road trips, and I liked the idea of that option in any car we had. But the truth is for daily driving to and from work and the grocery store and rehearsals, we don't go very far at all. We could get rid of the minivan and use the Sonata for any distance driving a bit longer. And the Leaf was affordable so I told Ian we should get it.

The Leaf is adorable! It plugs into the outlet on our deck near the driveway, and we'll never have to buy gas or oil for it. It has a rear camera for backing up, and GPS, heated seats, and a HEATED STEERING WHEEL. I never knew I needed a heating steering wheel, but apparently I do, because it is the best thing on a cold morning. There was nothing this fancy in any of our previous cars, so this is exciting. The Leaf also plays weird little clown music when you turn it on which makes us laugh. It's odd getting used to it being so quiet, and my biggest problem is remembering to shut it off when I get out for an errand, because I don't need a key. As long as the fob is anywhere on me, I can turn the car on. The only issue we had with the Leaf was in the first week it would act weird if we made a brief stop, refusing to start while showing us all the dashboard lights and not playing the clown song. After some internet research, Ian figured out the little battery in the car probably needed to be replaced, so we called the dealer and they installed a new one. With luck, that will be the last thing it needs for a long time.

We decided to swap out the minivan when we got the Leaf. We wanted to donate it to public radio (good NPR listeners that we tend to be), but they needed you to produce a title on pickup, and we didn't have one. We also didn't want to pay upwards of $150 dollars for one, so we settled on the Kars4Kids charity which didn't require a title, just proof you owned the car. They were beyond efficient! Arrived first thing the next morning and took the minivan away.

The most amazing thing to me about the story of the minivan is we bought it while I was pregnant with Quinn, and Quinn was the last one to drive it. She parked it across the street from our house after her evening of driving practice with her dad.


We decided the next car to replace the crumbling Sonata should be big enough to haul cellos and seat not just our family but guests, and we wanted a hybrid. Since Ian picked the Leaf as the car that satisfied his needs in a car, we decided I could choose the next one, and if we stumbled across a good deal on that particular thing, we would go look at it. No rush. But then I decided a Toyota Highlander Hybrid ticked all the boxes, and I found one in town to test drive the same day that we bought the Leaf.

The hybrid has a third row of seats that fold down, so it can hold eight people if we need to, but otherwise it's just got a big trunk. It will be great for trips to the cottage and various road adventures. We found a 2019 one that we could afford and a reasonable amount of miles on it, so we got it. Signed papers for it about eight hours after we signed the papers for the Leaf. Which is crazy. But there we are. No heated steering wheel, but heated seats, sunroof, and fancy settings that will do things like readjust the seats the way you want them when it recognizes your fob in the driver's seat. I can't wait to take a road trip in it!

We went through the same thing again with contacting Kars4Kids and the next morning the Sonata was gone, too. (And just a side note about donating the cars: I had started to fill out the online form for a donation for public radio and stopped when I got to the part about the title information. Someone from public radio contacted me anyway the next day, I explained I already donated the car without the title, and that I would keep them in mind the next time. The guy should have left it at that, but no, he tried to make me feel bad, and ended with, "Good luck, Sweetheart." Um, no. I hope the call was recorded and someone explains to him how unproductive that was. I'm still a bit annoyed. Kars4Kids may have a jingle worthy of being the national anthem of Hell as portrayed in The Good Place, but they were super efficient, polite, and appreciative. No "Sweetheart" stuff there.)

We are adjusting to the new cars. We even have a third one, which is an old Prius that was Ian's mom's that he drove back from Oregon a couple of months ago. That's a hybrid that we think of as a car for one of the kids when they should need it. Currently Mona's in charge of driving it to the opposite side of the street every night. 

I will admit to a sense of guilt as a Detroit-born girl that all our current cars are Japanese. But....

I love not caring about the prices at the gas stations since we now very rarely go to one. I love the push-button trunk door on the Highlander, and the defrosting side mirrors, and the compass, and the blue-tooth connection to my phone, and the built in GPS, and (you know) working doors with handles!

I'm sure a lot of this sounds run of the mill, and both our new cars are pre-pandemic, so there's probably even fancier things out there, but for us this is exciting. Mona even said as we were driving the hybrid home and admiring the blind-spot warnings on the mirrors and enjoying the map displaying what street we were on and the direction we were going, that "Cars sure have improved in the past several years!" I told her I remember hearing a review of the latest cars on the radio at one point, and the guy said that really, you can't buy a bad car anymore. They're all excellent and simply competing over small luxuries. 

I think that's true, but it makes me wonder when my kids recount the list of cars from their lifetimes, what about these new cars will seem antiquated and clunky. What will be their dial radio and roll up windows? Hard to know. I just hope whatever adventures they have on wheels are as fun. 

Oh, and both the new cars? Not green. RED. Opposite end of the color wheel. Finally.