I Am Not My Car

Jamie's-SubaruI own a sage green 2006 Subaru Outback with 84,000 miles on it. I park it on the street. In Manhattan. Last year someone keyed a big scratch in the passenger side door (maybe they didn’t like our bumper stickers?). It has a lot of parking dings. I’m good at finding parking spaces, but not so good at fitting in them. I’m also responsible for bringing the car in for routine maintenance, and keeping the insurance, registration, and inspections up to date.

I don’t know much about cars. I grew up in the city and my parents never owned a car. A couple of times a year, if we were coming home late at night, my parents would splurge on a taxi. Mostly, we took the bus, or stayed in our neighborhood. I thought people who kept a car in the city were crazy. Then Donna inherited a little money from her father and used it to buy a house in the country. We got a car. I learned to drive in my thirties.

Friday afternoon, I packed up enough food for a long weekend upstate and left the bags in the lobby of our apartment building. I took Gracie for a walk, and then we went to pick up the car (where I had parked it the day before after the street sweeper went by). I put Gracie in the back, slid into the driver’s seat, and put the key in the ignition. The dashboard lights and the radio came on, but the car would not start.

My brother knows about as much about cars as I do. His coping mechanism is to buy a shiny new Lexus SUV every three years. I wish we had grown up around cars. I wish our Dad could have taught us how to listen to a car, how to parallel park, and how to merge into oncoming traffic safely. I wish I could have called that Dad on Friday.

Instead, I called the auto repair shop I got my inspection sticker from. They said it could be the ignition switch, the starter, or the fuel pump. They told me to call AAA and get a tow. After I assured AAA that I was stuck in a safe (albeit tight) parking spot, they told me it would be about an hour. Gracie and I waited. I called Donna and told her to bring the groceries back upstairs and put them away.

Exactly an hour later, a small AAA SUV arrived and a slight goateed guy in his twenties hopped out and asked me to pop open the hood of my car. I drew a blank. I couldn’t remember where the hood release lever was. I would have let Mr. AAA find it but Gracie was jumping up and down, barking, and bearing her teeth. I finally found it on the left side under the dashboard. I thought “If I was a real guy I would have handled this better.”

Mr. AAA took a look, told me it was probably time for a new battery, and gave me a jump-start. I turned the key, and the engine started up. Emergency over. He told me to keep the engine running for a half hour to hold the charge. I thanked him. I called Donna, she repacked the food, and we drove off. I felt like an idiot.

The truth is that if I was a guy (at least one who grew up in my family) I would have had the exact same problem. My battery didn’t fail because I was assigned female at birth. Car knowledge doesn’t automatically come with the testosterone or from being butch; it comes from experience and growing up in a car culture. I won’t forget where the hood release is or that a battery can be low enough to keep the headlights and radio on but not start the engine.

In the last twelve months I’ve paid for spark plugs, new tires, a wheel alignment, new brake pads, a new gas cap, and new struts. The car is only worth between $4,000 and $5,000. A new battery won’t cost more than $150, but I’m starting to think about when it will make financial sense to buy another car. I’d like to milk a few more years out of this one.

The guys at work tell me it is time to trade up. That I am better than a ten-year old Subaru. They tell me that it was a good starter car (this is actually my second Subaru), but I deserve something flashier. They suggest cars that are sporty (BMW), or luxurious (Audi), or fun (Corvette). When the time comes, I’ll probably replace it with another sturdy, sober, utilitarian, reliable Subaru. For all my identity issues, I don’t identify with my car, or maybe I do.

Notes: I like this post by Jenn Coyle “You are not your car” on the dangers of being sucked into spending more on a car than you want to.

To save money, I park on the street instead of in a garage (over $600/month). This means that at least two times a week I have to move my car for alternate side of street parking (street sweeping). This is a vehicular form of musical chairs, where instead of running around in a circle, you wait for the Sanitation truck to go through and then parallel park as fast as you can to claim a spot. It is a not for the faint of heart, and not something I’d want to do with a brand new car.

30 thoughts on “I Am Not My Car

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The only reason we have it is to go upstate (second home). The car is not otherwise justifiable; it is a big expense and a hassle to park it. Donna loves having a car and driving, but she grew up in California.

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  1. Lesboi

    I can’t imagine owning a car in New York let alone a new expensive car. My bid is to keep the one you have but new cars are a lot of fun and the new Subarus are really nice. I’m still on the fence about what new car to get. The Outback is high on my list.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      In NYC in the 1990’s no one would park a new car on the street – there was too much theft and vandalism. Now I see Range Rovers, Jaguars, and all sorts of specialty cars parked here.
      My main fear is that I will driving upstate and something major will go wrong with the engine/steering/brakes. It is why I am so compulsive about doing all of the routine maintenance and getting a real inspection (as opposed to slipping the mechanic a $20 to get the sticker). So far everything I’ve put into the car was normal replacement for wear/age but I got spoiled by not having to put anything into it except for brake pads and new tires for the first 60,000 miles.
      I have only good things to say about Outbacks – they are the auto equivalent of sensible shoes (or classic New Balance sneakers).

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  2. Kris

    I inherited a superstition that green cars are unlucky from my mom and will never buy one – not that I am a superstitious person by nature, it is probably more out of affection for her and my memories of her. Your Subaru looks pretty nice still. Being weird in the sense that I attribute feelings to inanimate things, I would consider the Subaru feeling hurt about being replaced after so many faithful years! 😀

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I never heard of unlucky green – some people won’t buy red cars because they think the police will see them speeding (?)! I try to take good care of the car. When we first got it we parked it in a garage, but then the price of the garage kept going up and up. It is a little long for parking (I’m usually trying to parallel park it in a space that was vacated by a smaller car) and I’m sure I hurt its feelings every time I bump the car in back of me trying to get it into the spot! It probably has body image issues already.

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  3. Razor Eddie

    Ignore what the guys at work say. Most guys know a lot less about cars than they think they do. They are talking about what they would do, not what is best for you.

    Most of the parts you have had changed are pretty much consumable items. I would suggest keeping the car until it gets embarrassingly tired looking or something expensive goes wrong. You won’t get a lot a lot for it at the end but it will last for years yet. You will occasionally have to replace a few parts but that still works out a lot cheaper than buying a new car.

    I would also recommend enrolling on a basic car maintenance course. They cover stuff that all drivers should know and will give you a much better understanding of how your car works. IMHO basic maintenance should be a part of driver training. The courses aren’t expensive and are pretty easy. They cover things like checking the fluids, changing a wheel and the fundamentals of how the car works. With that knowledge you will be more likely to pick up on issues before they leave you stranded by the side of the road.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I like the idea of a basic maintenance class – I make sure to do (to pay someone else to do) all of the routine maintenance, but what is under the hood is a complete mystery to me.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      My first car was a 1996 Outback. In 2005 it was immolated in what we refer to as the Car-B-Q. The garage it was parked overnight in caught on fire because the guys who parked the cars also had an illegal body shop on the top floor and one of the cars they were working on torched, set off another and another until the whole garage was in flames. Fortunately, no one was injured and the guys all got out alive. GEICO gave us a reasonable amount on it and we went out and got our current Outback. I like the Forester (it would be easier to park) but Donna preferred the cargo area on the Outback (she paints and her canvases lie flat in it).

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  4. AccidentallyGay

    If it makes you feel any better I came from a car culture family (also grew up around a motorcycle club) and being a very masculine appearing guy I still never learned anything about cars except how to set points on a 1988 or earlier car with a matchbook cover. I would be exactly in the same position as you.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Good to know. Because we grew up in rental apartments my Dad never fixed anything. I think we owned two screwdrivers (flat and phillips head), a hammer, and pliers (that is singular, one set of pliers). Any problem, he called the building “superintendent”. I guess I learned city skills instead.

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  5. Riley

    Well, the most common stereotype I hear for Subaru owners is that they’re lesbians with dogs. If that’s true you’re in good company. 😉 I don’t have a car yet (also living in a city, don’t have a lot of money, and am young) but when I do I would love to have one that’s the same color yours is!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think a lot of lesbians have Subaru’s (or Jeeps or Toyota Prius because they are sensible and well priced) but I don’t know what percentage of Subaru owners are actual lesbians – in the North East there are lots of Subaru owners because the all wheel drive is rugged, and handles snow. The sage green isn’t bad – our first Subaru was crimson, but that color wasn’t “in” when we replaced it. I don’t love my car, but I’m fond of it.

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  6. Marcie

    I also live in a city, but on the opposite coast. My partner has had her car over 10 years now, its a 2001 and it had 155,000 miles on it. We use the car to grocery shop every now and then or to go visit my family 2 hrs away, If you use it only occasionally, which it sounds like you do, run that car till it runs out! Who needs a fancy car anyway?! 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You are right, but this year seemed to be the year that everything needed to be replaced, and where the check engine light came on for the first time (spark plugs then gas cap). I was spoiled for the first 9 years of very smooth running (new tires and brake pads only). It requires a mind-shift to have a car that is middle aged (like me).

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Eventually, we will get a nice new shiny car. Inevitably, it will get a parking ding within the first two weeks. The advantage of a old car in good condition is that you don’t worry about it being vandalized or stolen – a 10 year old Subaru has no street cred or value to anyone other than me.

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  7. halitentwo

    I am from a similar family (in many ways). It wasn’t that my dad was so *handy* (if anything he broke two things for every one he fixed). It was more that the testosterone and cultural/societal upbringing allowed my father and my brother to act as if they were in charge, knew everything. Society teaches men/boys to go ahead and tackle whatever they want whether they know what they’re doing or not. I remember calling my upstairs neighbor down (a cis man) to help change a lightbulb in a ceiling fixture I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get apart. He ripped the fucker down with a butter knife, changed the lightbulb and jammed that thing back up into the ceiling in no time. As he wiped his hands on his pants he admitted he had no clue how it worked initially. That easy sense of world ownership I guess….

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      That sounds like me trying to show Donna how to do stuff on her computer (she has Windows 7, I have a Mac) – I just keep clicking on things until I get it to do what I want, but I can not explain to her what I am doing because I am just trying different things until I get what she wants done. So far I haven’t screwed anything up that couldn’t be fixed by re-booting (no raw dangling ceiling wires). Computers I’m comfortable with.

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  8. Bunnies!!!!

    When I was in high school, I dated a guy who’s dad was an editor at Popular Mechanics. Milton adored me because I have small hands. When he was working on a car, he’d have me do the stuff that required tiny, steady hands. Given that this was in the mid 1970’s he was far ahead of his time! He told me the more I knew, the better off I’d be if something broke. And he’s right: when I used to drive my old conversion van, with the shitty electrical system, I carried extra relays, and I knew how to replace them at a moment’s notice. I’ll never own another GM product…

    Anyway, my criteria is that it should be like any other appliance: you shouldn’t have to think about it. Get in, start it, and not sit there saying shit, hope it gets us upstate.

    As long as it does that, good. My current car is 10 years old, has 80K on it, and sadly isn’t made anymore. So when it eventually dies, I’ll get a Honda Pilot, with AWD, to haul dogs around in. I need something that will the beasts and my aging back, on a 400 mile jaunt without complaint. But bottom line is, I want to put the key in, start it, and not think about it till it needs gas.

    A dead battery is no big deal. But if you wind up having a dead transmission, then start thinking about what you need.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Milton sounds nice – none of my partners were mechanically inclined – but I learned a lot about how to match colors in patterns (saturation). Honda Pilot looks nice, but can you fit three big dog crates in it? So far I haven’t had any major electrical or engine issues with the car – it didn’t occur to me that it was the battery since everything else (except the engine) came on. The battery seemed fine during the -10F days upstate.
      And because I live on the exorbitantly overpriced island of Manhattan (no Auto Zone, no Pep Boys, no Costco, no Sears) and I don’t want to drive local through the Bronx if I don’t have to, I will wait to do it until we get up to Hudson.

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  9. anexactinglife

    My rule of thumb for replacing my car is either (a.) I have been told that a major system is likely to fail soon (I replaced my last car when it needed a new catalytic converter for $1400 installed and the trade-in value of the car was under $2000) or (b.) the maintenance, regular or otherwise, for the upcoming year will exceed the cost of monthly car payments. My last car was only 7 years old – I had expected to get 10 or 11 years out of it – and the previous one was 9.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      By calendar year I’m doing OK, but the 12 month rolling average is not. I was due for tires and I didn’t want to get cheap ones, so I’m hoping for another 30,000 miles to get my money’s worth. I need a crystal ball.

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    2. Skip

      This is my rule of thumb, too. And since new car payments are ridiculously high ($500 a month?), I tend to keep my cars a long time. My partner and I have only ever owned a total of five cars between us over the past 30+ years. Two for her (1984 – 200x, 200x – present) and three for me (1986 – 1998, 1995 – 2009, 2009 – present). Only one of those was purchased new, too.

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  10. 1SageFemme

    I’m having the same dilemma as you. My 2006 Mitsubishi Outlander is starting to require expensive repairs, but the cost of financing a new car still costs more than repairing the old one. Luckily, my dad taught me the very basics (check fluids, check tire pressure, change tires in a pinch) and owning a long list of old beaters has taught me even more (how to jump start a car, refill leaking fluids of all varieties, where the usual hood release mechanisms are inside and outside the car, where the fuses are and how to change them, even how to change the headlamp bulbs). But once I brought my car to the mechanic because the window wouldn’t close. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, my car had a button that locked the windows. Another time, I was leaking fluid and brought the car in. It was a hot day and the a/c was on. That’s how I learned that it’s normal for the a/c to produce water. Yet another time, in the the late 80’s, I owned a 1979 diesel VW Rabbit. The engine died on a hot day taking a circular freeway ramp.. .smoke and stench, the whole nine yards. That day I learned that you have to drain water out of diesel engines, or it builds up and actually kills the engine. At least you had to back then. But now, I find myself quite knowledgeable when shit happens. If I don’t know what the mechanic is talking about, I usually say something like, “well, I don’t smell anything unusual, so it’s probably not the catalytic converter,” or, “I had the tie rods changed last year.” Makes them think I might not be a sucker. At least I hope it does…Even though I don’t know a tie rod from an axle.
    And my dad (a car enthusiast) also taught me never to buy a more expensive car than you need. He’s a doctor, and has never bought a “luxury” car. Always a reliable Japanese vehicle. I like that. I’m looking at the new Honda HRV when my Mitsubishi dies. Small but good cargo space. Good fuel economy. Not sexy, but who cares?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’ve been spoiled (or rewarded for doing all the preventive maintenance) by not having had any trouble with this Subaru or my first until it hit 8 or 9 years. Which is why it was a shock (financial and psychologically) when stuff started to go on it.
      And in terms of sex appeal, I’m with you. No car is going to make me look any more or less sexy to anyone who is going to be interested in me. And no car is going to make me feel sexier either (a good meal is a different story).

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