Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Horse Power

We moved to Phoenix in 1973, when I was thirteen years old. Things were a little primitive around here. Of course, I had come from Chicago, where things were pretty urban. There were the dirt roads. There were the pick up trucks. And there were a lot of cowboys and horses, but not exactly how I had seen them in the movies. These cowboys lived in the houses around the school I went to and when it was time to go to school each day they'd ride their horses there. It was a little bit like living in a Western movie.

We also owned a scrubby acre in north Phoenix just like everyone else, with the back part given over to a bunch of tumbleweeds, the middle section holding the house and swimming pool, and the front being a vast expanse of rocks, which we called a lawn. However, since my family was filled with teenaged drivers, the empty part of our acre was also filled with something else: cars.

This area of our acre, generally crowding around the garage, looked a little like a used car lot. There was a 1969 Ford Town and Country station wagon, a 1970 Chevy Impala, an exploding gas tank Pinto station wagon, a bland, beige 1975 Chevy Nova, one sister’s orange Karmann Ghia, and our father’s 1970 Chevy Silverado Truck. All parked, all molding in the Arizona sun. My sisters would pick one each day to drive, guessing which one might work, which might take us the miles to school and then to our family produce market.  It was an important decision. There were absolutely no service stations for miles.

Luckily my mother had one ace up her sleeve to rescue us from every situation: her AAA card. With it, she could get us towed off any roadway. And it was transferable to any member of her family, so during our teen years we almost ran AAA into bankruptcy with all of us breaking down all over Arizona in the various household cars, in our boyfriend’s cars, in Mom’s boyfriends’ cars, at least one a day all over town, the tow trucks’ flashing lights beating a path to wherever we were stuck.

Once towed, we never knew where to take the cars for repairs. It's not like we had any money. If only we'd had a horse. Normally they were just towed back home where they’d get deposited steaming, overheating, and clunking. Then we’d just let the cars simmer, let them lie fallow and stir in their own juices. We’d hope that maybe the cars would heal themselves. So they'd sit there dormant and stagnant, with us hoping that if we went back out there in a couple weeks, put the key in the ignition, they'd work. And the strange thing? Sometimes they did.
Before I ever knew how to drive, I knew how to open a radiator cap gingerly and put water in it to stop it from exploding or power steering fluid to stop it from groaning around corners. My first car after college  graduation college was so broken that the driver's side door didn't open; when I went to job interviews I had to crawl out of the passenger's side in my suit, over the center console.

And even though it's been over twenty years since I had a really bad car, the legacy of being seen as trashy because my car was trashy has stayed with me. Each day when I go out to my car in the garage and I see it I'm filled with gratitude for what it's not. Let there be no mistaking it: I love you, Car.

Did you ever drive a car you dreaded to get in? An absolute embarassment? Are you still traumatized by the memories like me? Did any of your classmates ride horses to school like mine did?

I didn't mean to, but I guess this is my second entry in the Momalom Love It Up Valentine's Day Challenge. Thanks, guys, for letting me reflect on how grateful I am for not having to drive those old wrecks anymore!


  1. my mom drove a pinto.
    It had no back started with a toggle switch, and it had no radio.
    I used to sit in that pinto at the witbeck's kroger in clare and watch the people with their pretty cars pull in.
    I remember that now when I pull into a walmart parking lot in my minivan. I see some kid sitting in an old chevy car with rust and no hubcaps. I remember how it felt.

  2. Where do I start with this one? I LOVE the writing--it's so vivid and evocative. I can feel the dry heat, smell the hot leather of the festering automobiles. LOVE this.

    I am also jealous of your sister's orange Karmann Ghia; I've always wanted one of those cars (although perhaps not orange).

    We had several vehicles of shame growing up. The bright orange Travelall with wood siding. The Ford Pinto that my father got an a-MA-zing deal on...turns out, the most popular boy in junior high had a father who carbon monoxided himself in that car. Eek! The Ford Taurus that never started and my dad would turn the engine over and over on cold mornings, waking the neighbors.

    But no horses in my hood. That must have been something.

  3. No horses here but I look at the cars in my driveway at the moment and figure one is just itching to breakdown still! As a matter of fact, #1's just stopped on his way home from that commute last night - two miles from the house. Karma!

  4. When I started prep school in the 9th grade, I was mortified to be dropped off in my family's Mitsubishi station wagon (a make and model that my parents tried to have declared a "lemon" by their car dealer) while many of my classmates were being delivered to school in BMWs and Mercedes.

    I think that there is an important and universal rite of passage that comes with being embarrassed by your family's circumstances, whatever those might be.

  5. What a delightful read!

    I walked, took buses, took the subway. No horses in my childhood!

    (And I agree with Kristen. There's always something enormously embarrassing in childhood.)

  6. I agree with Kitch that this is such a fabulous piece because you can hear and see and smell the surroundings of your hot, dry land and all those damn cars.

    There were a few cars of shame in our family--particularly my dad's K Car which was so worn the floorboards had rusted out and were chipping off, so you could see the road as you were driving along. I was always afraid that my feet would get chopped off. Real Safe, Dad...ha!

    Yes to embarrassing things in childhood. They are there no matter what. It's only later on that we realized we actually did learn something from it all. Radiator caps and power steering fluid? Good lessons, right?

    You Rock, Linda!

  7. YES!! We had a HUGE 15 passenger van. I was mortified whenever we went anywhere as a family. I was sure people looked over at our car and thought of some strange cult.

    I still don't like those big vans. I prefer my toyota previa. Even if it is like a million years old.

  8. Chris, we used to drive 20 miles there and back to our rinky dink family store in our stupid little Pinto just quivering in terror that someone would rear end us and we'd explode! It changes you a little, I think, this driving around in the most embarassing car on the road!

  9. TKW - "Vehicles of Shame" - the perfect title for my life story told in cars! Love the miserable Pinto story, especially with it being haunted by a dead guy. Wow!

    I love the idea of your dad being so persistent trying to start the Taurus that he wakes up all the neighbors. Until he flooded the engine, anyway (why can't I forget this stuff?).

  10. Nicki, One of the scary things in our worlds now: unreliable cars. I know!

  11. Kristen, I love that your parents tried to invoke the "lemon law" on the car they ended up driving you to school in. Like that's going to make you feel better. Just when we're paranoid about so much, being teenagers, there's this new thing to be paranoid about: social circumstances.

  12. BLW, let me tell you, it was a shock - that horse thing. Bad enough being the only brunette in all of Phoenix, not to mention the only Jew. I think I knew right away that fitting in was going to be difficult!

  13. Sarah - the notorious K car! Do you love how all of our fathers managed to get the crappiest, most embarassing cars they could find? And totally scary on the rusted out floorboards! Sounds a little Fred Flintsone-y! But, like Kristen says, maybe these really are the necessary rites of passage from childhood to appreciative adulthood. Right?

  14. Amber, that is so funny that you had such a huge car! It must have been like driving a motor home everywhere! And I like how now you drive a teeny little car, even with two kids. Do you think there's a van in your future? :)

  15. When my husband and I were dating, he had this old VW hatchback. It was so awful that in order to get over this steep mountain pass (called Point of the Mountain) between Salt Lake Valley and Utah Valley we had to make it go top speed on the inital downward leg. Then we would start the climb, getting slower and slower until we were barely crawling at the top. I learned to drive a manual shift on that car and still miss it sometimes.

  16. Oh, I like this post! And the lovely comment you left on my blog.

    I drove a bright yellow Toyota Tercel in high school. It had no a/c. Did I mention I grew up in Las Vegas? So the inside was an incinerator during the summer. Still, I loved it, it was my ticket to ride. (And I think I just might have to write an essay/blog post about this now! Thanks for the inspiration!)

    PS: I'd take the orange Karmann Ghia any day. That was my dream car in high school, but my parents refused, saying they'd be too much maintenance. (sigh)

  17. Charlotte, Oh my, the mental image of the VW just sputtering to make it up that hill (like the Little Engine That Could?) is so funny! At least he will always know you weren't dating him for his cool car!

  18. Terresa, Thank you so much for visiting my blog and your comment. I enjoyed looking at yours too the other day. Lucky you, with a Toyota Tercel! I would have loved something so normal looking!

  19. I grew up here, too and remember when we traveled everybody asked, Oh, you're from Arizona? Do you ride a horse to school? Ha! Thanks for the memories! And thanks for jacking up the AAA rates!

  20. Lisa, Of course, like we all lived on ranches! Of course, my classmates DID ride horses to school... but still, I apparently retained my Chicago-ness.

  21. Well, my car situation is pretty sad lately. But still, I enjoyed this! Thanks for linking up. (So sorry to be so late. What is it with this LIFE?????!!!!)