Monday, August 8, 2011

Roll Me Away

A man and his car.

It’s as personal and sacred a relationship as there is. From a young age, guys are taught that the car is their domain, that taking care of it is one of their primal responsibilities, like providing food and shelter. That’s why so many men spend their weekends in the driveway, tuning the engine or tightening the belts, making sure that everything is in tip-top condition.

Of course, I can barely tell the difference between a spark plug and a piece of squash, so the last place you’ll find me on a Saturday is underneath the hood, face speckled with oil, tweaking my restrictor plates and blasting White Snake.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve been any less attached to the cars I’ve had.

More than just a body type or a VIN number, each has represented a different era of my life, and they’ve all been special in their own particular way. My first car was, what can I say, my first car, and its hatchback window was the perfect place to write “Champ City” in shoe polish when the Houston Rockets won their first NBA title. My college-and-beyond car was a gift from my grandfather, and it kept me connected to him even though I was living far away. And the Buick I got from my great grandmother? Well, it had a pull-down gear shift and sat six…comfortably.

But the one thing they all had in common was that they were my source of freedom. Ever since I got that first set of keys, I’ve been able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and for someone who cherishes that type of independence, I am eternally indebted to the vehicles that made that possible.

So every time I’ve had to part ways with one of them – even though I was fortunately moving onto something bigger and better – the experience was more bitter than sweet. Last week was no different when I finally had to get rid of my 2002 Toyota Highlander.

An absolute workhorse with over 175,000 miles on its odometer, my Highlander had been showing signs of fatigue for the last several months. When I’d take it in for an oil change, it was never just an oil change. There was always some sort of filter or injection system that wasn’t working properly. The tech would come out and explain what was going wrong, and I’d nod as if I had any clue what he was talking about, asking insightful questions such as, “Um, is that, like, not supposed to be happening?” Fearing I’d end up on the side of the road engulfed in a plume of smoke, I’d inevitably OK the repair while mentally crossing off that extra jar of peanut butter from my grocery list.

It had gotten to the point where it would’ve been more efficient for my paychecks to be directly deposited into the mechanic’s checking account, so I knew that it was time to mercifully put the Highlander out of its misery. But that didn’t make it any less painful.

Not wanting to barter with Kramer for Hollywood memorabilia, I’d decided to take it to CarMax, hoping they’d give me something with a dollar sign in front of it. On my way over, I was so consumed with thoughts of how long I’d have to wait and how much money I’d get that I didn’t really slow down and appreciate that I was driving it for the last time. I didn’t get a chance to reminisce or give it a proper goodbye, and before I knew it, I was signing over the title as an attendant removed its license plates. The whole process was all so rushed, so impersonal.

And just like that, it was gone.

As I walked to the Metro station, dragging the golf club travel bag I’d accidentally left in the trunk, I felt a pit in my stomach – that disheartening, sentimental sensation you get when something’s over, like when you’re leaving somewhere you know you won’t be going back. I rationally understood that it was just a car, that it was just a way to get from point A to point B, but it still felt like a loss, and I couldn’t help getting nostalgic over all the times we’d had together.

We had first connected back in the fall of 2005. I was living in Houston at the time, and in early September, there was a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that was projected to come right through downtown. Having witnessed the Katrina disaster just a few weeks earlier, a panic enveloped the city, and people wasted no time heading for the exits.

My parents and I were no different, and along with a close family friend, Mallory, we piled into the Highlander and set out for Austin. What we immediately discovered was that it is impossible to efficiently evacuate a population of four million people. In my life, I have never seen traffic like that…it made leaving a Yankees game or commuting on the Capital Beltway seem like a care-free Sunday drive. You’d sit at a put-it-in-Park standstill for inordinate stretches of time, and the mileage signs listing how much further you had to go gradually transitioned from being informative to taunting.

And the longer we were out there, the more desperate the surrounding scenes became. It looked like the end of the world. Most service stations were out of gas, and the ones that had any left were mobbed. With their tanks on empty, people started abandoning their cars, turning I-10 into an automotive graveyard. And while I’d filled up right before takeoff, I was continually eyeing the gauge, wondering how long it could fight off gravity.

But somehow, someway, the Highlander never flinched.

I swear, it was like a fuel camel, perfectly balancing the idling and the stop-and-going and the blasting AC, until it got us through the chaos unscathed. I don’t know how it did it, but over the 150 mile, 14 ½ hour odyssey, that bad boy used just over half a tank of gas. To this day, it’s one of the great unsolved mysteries I’ve ever been a part of.

But the display of toughness I’ll remember most came less than a year later, in May of 2006. I was struggling through a rough, transitional period of my life, trying to come to grips with the past and move towards the future, all at the same time. I was lost and confused and terrified, grasping for anything that made sense, and I became convinced that the answers were somewhere – anywhere – other than in my hometown of Houston.

So I loaded up everything I owned into the back of the Highlander and set out to find what I was looking for.

I’ll spare you the gory details – it’s another story for another time – but over an agonizing, gut-wrenching three week stretch, I covered approximately 4,300 miles, traveling through 22 states and stopping over in eight different cities before ending up right back where I started – on my parents’ doorstep in Texas. Along the way, I cried countless tears, hurt people I cared about, ate approximately 83 Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwiches and pretty much made a complete jackass of myself.

You’d describe that as a nervous breakdown, wouldn’t you?

It was one of the darkest times I’ve ever experienced, and I look back on it with nothing but shame and regret. But through it all, through all of the judgment and the uncertainty and the embarrassment, my one rock, my one constant, was my car. I knew that whenever I got overwhelmed or if the anxiety became so suffocating that I couldn’t breathe, it was there, waiting with open arms, with everything I needed – my clothes, my iPod, and most importantly, a map to somewhere else.

Sure, maybe I was running away from my problems, so I guess you could say the Highlander was an enabler of sorts. But it was also my lifeboat, and given the fact that I felt stifled and trapped by the world around me, that’s exactly what I needed. And even though those three weeks were excruciatingly difficult, when I was out on the open road, the windows down and the music up, with nothing but white lines in front of me, I had never been so free.

We’ve fortunately had some lighter, more uplifting adventures since, like surviving Snowmageddon 2010 in D.C. and picking up my girlfriend on what was our first Friday night date. But like many relationships, our bond was forged during those tough, trying hours, and it’s a connection I already miss.

It’s not going to be easy looking for a different car in the parking lot, but I know that my new ride is an upgrade in every sense of the word – fewer years, fewer miles, fewer (knock on wood) headaches. I just hope that it can uphold the gold standard that’s now been established. The Highlander was a good soldier, an uncompromising warrior, and I am proud to have called it my own.

So rest in peace, old friend…lord knows you’ve earned it.

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About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?