Sunday, April 27, 2008

. . . do you believe in life after love?

Last summer, my boss at the farm bought an old, fixer-upper camper van. I inquired as to whether he might be willing to sell it to me after fixing it up. “Sure,” he said. “What are you gonna use it for?”

I told him, “I’m taking a trip across country to promote my new novel. I’m going to be hitting 48 states—or at least, I’m going to try.” I didn’t tell him the novel was very much unfinished.

“Do you know anything about cars?”

“I know how to change tires and oil, that’s about it.”

He shook his head gravely. “I’d sell you this van for $400 if you really wanted it, but you don’t really want it.”

Since that brief exchange, I’ve been noticing cars a lot more. Whenever I see a van, I look at what condition it’s in, I check to see which manufacturer made it. These are things I never noticed before.

(Before we go any further, I want to address the fact that I refer to mini-vans as vans throughout this blog. Please don’t judge me too harshly for it. I just can’t bring myself to write the words my mini-van.)

According to the NPR Car Talk guys (and other experts), the most reliable vans out there are Toyota Siennas and Honda Odysseys. A couple months ago, I began searching for them on the web. I discovered there is a direct relationship between reliability and cost. In general, Siennas and Odysseys seem to cost much more than other vans with similar mileage and features. But, due to my lack of car repair knowledge, I decided to keep hunting until I found a Sienna or Odyssey within my price range.

So about two weeks ago, after lots of internet searching, I found an Odyssey with 100,000 miles on sale for $3,800 on Craig’s List. This seemed like a pretty good deal, so I sent my father to look at it (I was out of town at the time). Although the van’s actual mileage was 138,000, my dad still thought it was a pretty good deal for a van in near excellent shape. He gave them $200 to hold it until I got back.

As soon as I returned from my trip, I went in to see the van. In the time between my dad’s visit and my arrival, the small dealership in Quincy, MA was supposed to change the oil and fix the ABS system if there was a problem (the light was on). When I got there, neither of these things had been done, but I bought the van anyway. The interior was pretty clean, and to me, this was the most important factor.

I didn’t haggle with the salesman, a man in his eighties who joined the army in 1945. The noise his leather jacket made when he moved made me nervous, so I just handed him a bank check for $3,600.

While filling out the paperwork, Bill, the salesman, began telling me about the owner of the dealership. He was in the Marines; hence all the Marine stickers and bulldog stuff. And he’s very much into extreme sports; hence all the scuba diving stickers and sporting paraphernalia. When I asked if the owner was an ex-wrestler, Bill said no. When I pointed to the wrestling shoes behind Bill, he looked, very slowly, leather jacket crinkling noisily, and then looked back at me without saying anything.

Bill handed me some forms to sign and got mad at me because I didn’t sign my middle name even though he had written it on the form. I apologized.

My dad drove me to the insurance guy, a friend of his, who asked me about my driving history. I was glad to have zero accidents to report, but I had to admit about my OUI. He said something about how we were similar, and this made me feel better. My better feeling didn’t last long—my insurance for the year would be around $1,300.

With my insurance information in a manila folder, my dad drove me to the registry. I got new plates. It wasn’t as exciting to hold them in my hands as I thought it would be (I’ve never bought a new or used car before). The numbers on them didn’t mean anything to me.

The next day, my father, a very patient man, drove me back to the dealer to pick up my white, hideously ugly, soccer-mom Odyssey.

Bill was in a very different mood; he seemed friendlier post sale. He asked me about my road trip. Up until that point, I had no idea my father had told him about the trip.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m going all the way to California.” I didn’t tell him I was coming straight back to Brockton, MA after hitting the West Coast—I thought the trip would seem more impressive if it lacked a definitive (and rather lame) ending.

“Do you surf?” Bill asked.

I admitted I did not, wondering why this dealership was so bent on crazy-ass sports.

“It doesn’t matter. Just make sure you bring a board with you, or buy the cheapest one when you get there. Girls don’t care whether or not you know how to surf; they just wanna see that board.”

I nodded profusely, and suddenly felt mystified by the old man.

He helped me screw my new plates into the Odyssey, and as I started up the vehicle and put it into drive, he said, “Change the oil regularly—you’ll make it to Huntington Beach no problem.”

Although his sentiment was nice, I immediately regretted not telling him I had to get back home in the Odyssey. What if he was selling me this van thinking I wouldn’t need it past California (past California?)? What if he didn’t realize my trip was going to be 8,000 miles both ways due to my penchant for zigzagging? What if the van was only good for 3,000 miles? What if it was only good for a straight shot? The trip I have planned is anything but.

I pulled out of the lot and immediately turned on the radio. I hate driving without music. The last station the last driver (hopefully a person obsessed with routine auto maintenance despite the holistic medicine brochures s/he left in the glove box) had listened to was 100.7 WZLX, classic rock, a station I listen to on a regular basis. The song playing was Phil Collins’ Take Me Home.

In the days before purchasing the van, I’d been hoping the first song I heard in it would serve as a kind of omen. I’m a person who often asks, when I first meet people (at bars), “What song would you want to be playing on the radio if you died in a car wreck?”

Take Me Home was a bad omen. If I could have picked any song to NOT hear when I first turned on the radio, I probably would’ve picked Take Me Home—seriously.

Although I felt an incredible urge to change the station, I listened to the song through to its conclusion—this seemed important somehow. When a commercial followed, I changed the station repeatedly, desperately searching for something uplifting, or fun, or something. In the entire ride from Quincy to Brockton (25 minutes) I found nothing. It felt like an incredibly long time to not find something nice.

The next day, the day I’d been dreading the most, I took the Odyssey to my mechanic, my friend, Mike the Married Mechanic (no one calls him this to his face). He’d just gotten married two weeks earlier. I was an usher in his ceremony, and I appreciated the fact that he’d saved me from having to pick out my own clothes.

I pulled the car into the lot of his garage. Mike approached after waving from inside one of the bays.

“Should I shut it off?” I asked.

“You afraid it won’t turn back on?” Mike asked, shaking his head. Mike’d wanted me to get an American car. I’d wanted an American car also, but was worried when I didn’t see any of them atop the list of most reliable vans.

I shut off the van.

I was out of my element, Mike could sense this; I would’ve admitted it. I’ve done my best in the course of our friendship to conceal my ignorance of all matters motor. I feel like a dog outside of his yard when I bring my car to Mike’s garage. I’m a couple years older, I’m bigger, and I’m probably a bit stronger than Mike, but when I’m in that garage, my tail is between my legs. Of course, I’d still rather bring my car to him than anyone else.

Whenever Mike and I go out, I find myself nodding and saying, “Yep, yep, yep,” when the subject of cars is inevitably brought up. I’m sure he can see right through me. He doesn’t drink much.

After finishing up the car ahead of mine, Mike took the keys from me and brought the Odyssey into the bay. Once inside, he held the wheel and looked at me. “It’s hesitating,” he said, shaking his head again. I was sure I’d purchased a $4,000 lemon—the book trip would have to be cancelled. My company/I couldn’t survive a $4,000 loss.

Mike shut off the van and checked under the hood. He pulled out a spark plug (I think) and showed it to me. “It doesn’t need a tune-up,” he said. “But I will put in some acid, some de-gunker.”

“Is that a big deal?” I asked.

Mike shook his head and continued looking. He slammed the hood shut and raised the van up on the lift. He searched the undercarriage for oil leaks and any other problems. Then he took off all four tires and checked the brakes. He was surprisingly quiet during all of this. I took his silence as a bad sign.

After lowering the van, I asked if anything was seriously wrong with it.

“Nope,” he said, shaking his head, and I could see he wasn’t happy to have found no major problems. “This thing will get you where you need to get.”

I shook his hand and thanked him.

“It’s gonna fail inspection,” Mike said. “There’s a leak in the exhaust. But it’s no big thing. The dealer will repair it. They have to.”

Mike was right. It failed inspection.

I brought the Odyssey back to the dealer, and after a bit of arguing, they agreed to replace the offending piece of the exhaust (a life-changing victory for me). They also agreed to change the oil. My dad picked me up at the dealer, and then drove me back four hours later when they called to say the van was ready.

I pulled out of the parking lot, without protesting the fact that they still hadn’t changed the oil, and, fearing the worst, turned on the radio. Between the time I dropped it off and the time I picked it up, someone had turned on the radio and changed the station. I’d left it on a classic rock station, but the song pumping through my feeble system was Believe by Cher.

Really, this isn’t a song I would normally rock out to—but if you’re ever looking to recover from Phil Collins, listen to Cher’s Believe. You will be confident in your Odyssey . . . you will believe in life after love.