Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wrecking the Car

I’m lying in bed awake, really early, when Lindsay comes into the room. I can hear her coming—she always slams her bedroom door behind her, and then ours, on the way in. There’s just enough sunlight falling on our curtains for me to see the halo of her bedhead, and her “sucky fingers” thrust in her mouth. And she’s carrying something. Normally she arrives fully accessorized with her Special Blanket and her Lindsay Bear, but this morning she’s carrying something that looks like a pencil. Why would she bring a pencil to bed? She places it carefully on the bedside table and climbs into the bed, sucking madly at her fingers. I reach across her to see what the mysterious object is. Ah: a tire-pressure gauge.

So … did she hunt around her dark bedroom for the tire pressure gauge this morning, or did she go to bed with it and cling to it all night? Either scenario is realistic. You see, that isn’t just any tire pressure gauge. That’s a relic from our ’84 Volvo wagon, which we’d taken to an auto wrecking place the day before. You can’t tell your kids that your car is going away to live on a farm, so we’d leveled with them about our plan for the ultimate demise of our old family car. They didn’t take it well. So, we had a Goodbye Volvo party that morning, and one of the things the kids did was to take mementos from the car, like strips of leather (which pulled easily from its dissolving seats), its old key (the plastic part completely gone), and this tire pressure gauge.

It was a brief party—more of a ceremony, actually. Alexa and Lindsay both made cards. Here is Alexa's card:

This wasn’t just a game, either—several times in the weeks leading up to that day (bureaucratic hassles having dragged out the process), the kids would start crying when they thought of the car. During the ceremony itself, Alexa was composed, solemnly reading a short poem (a limerick, actually) that I’d written, but Lindsay was on the verge of tears, sitting there on the hood of the car clutching the goodbye cards.

There are various conclusions you could draw from this, one being that my wife Erin and I are teaching our kids to be absurdly sentimental. I prefer to conclude that these kids have learned to value things based on age, tenure, and history, not just looks, features, and quality. This is a comforting thought to me as I head toward forty and my forehead becomes more and more dominant, crow’s feet crowd my eyes, and my body grows creaky.

It’s not just the kids who had misgivings about junking our old car. I had the strangest feeling driving it to Deal Auto Wrecking. The car still drove just fine. It started up on the first try (though I’d been charging the battery all morning, an extension cord snaked across the sidewalk in front of the house). Sure, the engine was loud, drowning out the radio, which croaked from the last blown speaker whose wiring was still intact. My seat wasn’t that comfortable, the adjustment knob having broken off some months ago, but the car’s acceleration was smooth, the ride solid. As we approached the wrecking yard, I consciously enjoyed my last-ever double-clutch.

We’d put a lot of money into this car in the last year of its life, not knowing it would be rammed by a teen driver (resulting in a mismatched rear door and unavoidable body rust), or that a gas thief would damage the tank conduit such that the car would occasionally fill up with gas fumes. Those were the dueling death knells of the car.

How much longer might we have driven this old beater, as our sole family vehicle? We’d considered replacing it for several years, having compiled a long list of justifications. At the top of the list was the Joneses: we weren’t worried about keeping up with them, but about irritating them with an unsightly vehicle perennially parked on their street. But nobody had ever complained, and we’d repainted the car a few years before, and it seemed wrong to replace it when it drove just fine.

This attitude was a natural extension of how I’d grown up. In my family frugality wasn’t a conscious decision so much as an inescapable reality (four growing boys at eight thousand calories per kid per day … you do the math). My hometown of Boulder had no shortage of trophy vehicles, but my friends’ parents, some better off than mine, drove humble cars. One family had a Ford pickup with a Gem-Top, and a Ford Country Squire wagon with wood paneling—well outdated even then. Another family had their “new” car, a five-year-old Dodge Aries K wagon, and their old car, a ’67 Dodge Coronet that eventually trickled down to my brother, who drove it for many years, and then to another of my brothers, who finally retired it during the late 90s.

But in the case of my Volvo, was this frugality really appropriate? Even allowing for our aversion to interest payments, my wife and I could have afforded a newer car long ago. We sometimes questioned whether keeping our beater Volvo was a liberal Berkeley affectation, or could at least be perceived as such. But not for nothing did Alameda County offer to pay us $650 for this battered car, with the sole condition that it be wrecked. It was not allowed to become an organ donor for other gross polluters—for that’s what this car was deemed to be—but must be totally destroyed. The county’s generous program begged a question: in waiting this long to upgrade, were we just being cheap at the expense of our air? That’s the opposite of Berkeley affectation.

Honestly, it just hadn’t occurred to me that our car was a gross polluter. Nor had I figured out on my own that flying on commercial airlines was far worse for the environment than driving, or that throwing away biodegradable food waste was vastly inferior to composting. In general I wait to be told these things, and then I adapt. After all, I can’t go out and do my own scientific studies about fuel emissions, landfills, and the environmental cost of creating a new car vs. continuing to drive an old one. That said, I’m fully aware that I’m outsourcing my intelligence in such matters, and I often question whether I’ve struck the right balance between blindly following directions and questioning conventional wisdom. And sometimes the policies pushed out to me are in conflict with each other.

For example, when I finally went out and bought newer car, should I have felt good about making a big, bold purchase during our nation’s much-ballyhooed economic meltdown? Or should I have felt guilty for not bolstering our failing auto industry by buying an American car, and a brand-new one at that? Frankly—though I appreciate that our auto industry supports a wide number of peripherally related jobs—I have a hard time feeling sorry for it. My personal opinion is that too many Americans, goaded by endless TV, radio, and magazine ads, buy new cars too often as it is. If we view the automotive industry’s woes as a real problem, could it be said that people like me, who go a dozen years between car purchases, are a cancer that is eating away at America?

Taking this line of thought a step further, I have to question the belief that consumer activity in general is a good measure of our nation’s health. One of the main barometers of our current meltdown is the slump in retail activity. This is widely decried in the news as a crisis, and the stimulus package seems to have wide support, at least in its general goal. But wait a second—back when consumer confidence was high, I occasionally came across a scolding article about Americans’ abuse of credit card debt and our collective failure to save for the future. What happened to that? Isn’t hanging on to our money instead of buying stuff a totally fine idea?

As I make my way along in our melting-down America, I frankly don’t see the signs that we’re really suffering for all our new-found consumer restraint. I’m not looking at the average Joes around me thinking, “Man, these people are really ill-equipped.” I don’t see threadbare clothes, obsolete electronics, gauche watches, dilapidated cars. In fact, on a recent ski trip I came across what appeared to be a perfectly good snowsuit stuffed into a trash can in the lodge bathroom.

Of course I’m being dense here. As we all know, the point of consumerism isn’t the stuff itself, but the economy. When shoppers stay home, people lose their jobs. Businesses, to be healthy, not only must sustain their sales volume, but must continuously grow it. In most corporations, especially the publicly-held ones, failure isn’t even a simple matter of not growing—it’s a matter of not growing as much as projected. With this ethos drilled into the head of every employee of corporate America, is it any wonder nobody is content with his personal status quo?

The more I think about this, the more I feel like I’m really missing something. How great could our society be, when its very economic health is built on the idea of continuous growth, on continuous buying, on every family having a new car every few years? In this context, I have no problem with my children clinging sentimentally to old worn-out things like that beaten-down ’84 Volvo, rest its soul. My kids’ distaste for newer, bigger, and better may serve them well in the years ahead.


For the complete story of my family's long history with this noble car, click here. We had a lot of adventures together...


  1. The economic thing is a mystery, at least to me. Actually, it appears to be mysterious to a lot of people. Why does everything have to grow all the time? Why are we Americans so encouraged to go deeper and deeper into debt? Why do I get so many credit card offers in the mail? If everyone were to be what I'd call fiscally responsible, would it be "bad" for the economy? Probably... so maybe this economic "melt down" is an adjustment that the economy needs. On the other hand, I know people who can't find work and are really suffering, and of course I worry about my own company, about my friends and family, about retired people trying to stay above water. I suppose there's balance somewhere. I hope there is.

    Then there's the whole notion of wrecking a perfectly good car, about doing what's right for the environment and all that. How much pollution would that old Volvo really have contributed in the rest of its natural life? As much as all the industry that turns raw earth into a brand, new, on-the-lot car, plus what pollution that new car will produce? Are you going to drive that new car more because it's so nice, and you've invested so much in it? But then over here's the economy, that new car must be good for that, right? Or is it?

    Anyway, thanks for starting up this blog, Dana! I look forward to it very much.

  2. My 86 Accord was bought by my grandparents brand spanking new. They sold it to my Uncle who later gave it to me.
    I just re-built the carburetor last weekend and now begins the slow tuning process, maximizing fuel without running the engine too lean and too hot.
    But the Bahnstormer clocks 39 to the gallon on the I-5 going 85-90 mph. City driving gets only 33. So when the county asked me to wreck it, I thumbed my nose at them. New cars brag about 30 highway. PLEASE! My registration is 65 dollars. Beat that suckas!
    Anyways, I help the economy by spending 30 bucks at the junkyard every month or so.
    The Bahnstormer isn't for everyone. It IS needy, demanding lots of love...