I 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.