Driving an old car can be embarrassing.
In order to save face, I’ve purposely parked blocks away from places so nobody I know would see my car. I’ve ducked down and hid when spotting someone I know coming my way (while parked, not while driving). And I’ve distanced myself from it by saying I’m just borrowing it from somebody because my car is in the shop.
But the car I started driving out of necessity has turned into a car I’m driving out of choice, and it I were to ever get rid of it – and it will happen someday – it will be really hard.
My parents bought the car in question, a gray 1998 Toyota Camry, brand new. It was my mom’s car, and my dad pimped it out by adding some custom features that only older folks would need or appreciate.
He added a red light to the center console that flashes when the turn signal is on. He did that because sometimes he or my mom wouldn’t hear the noise of the turn signal and would drive around with the turn signal on, ostensibly creating a safety issue and also – I can only imagine – annoying the hell out of other drivers. So this little red light solved that.
The other thing he added was another red light, this one on the driver’s side under the vent. It looks like he drilled into the console and built in a light that has a steady blink, every second or two, and it never stops, no matter if the car is parked and cold, or if it’s being driven. There’s no way to turn it off, it just blinks and blinks.
The reason for this light is to deter thieves. My parents read that Toyota Camrys are the most stolen vehicles out there (at least they were back then) so they bought the anti-theft package when they purchsed the car, so I’m only guessing that this light was added to supplement it. Or maybe he installed it after the anti-theft package expired, who knows. They lived in a nice, safe suburb and parked it in the garage every night, but I guess it made them feel better. And, hey – it was never stolen!
The other thing you’d notice if I took you for a ride are these two rose applique stickers on the center console. The car was primarily my mom’s, and she was very Catholic, and I remember her telling me that the roses symbolized the church’s anti-abortion beliefs. I almost removed them a few years ago but Mike stopped me, saying she put them there so I should just leave them. So, they’re still there.
I started driving it in the fall of 2012 after my dad had his stroke and it became clear he wouldn’t be able to drive anymore. My own car had a lot of problems and I felt unsafe driving it, so I had to get rid of it.
But, my newspaper reporter salary made a new car pretty out of reach. I started driving the Camry, reluctantly. It only had around 75,000 miles on it at the time, pretty amazing for a car that age. After my mom died my dad maintained it well, so it was in good condition. There was no reason not to drive it, but it felt so uncool.
Mike sold his own car years ago because he didn’t need it – we live in Philly and he takes the subway to work – so the Camry became our only car.
I changed jobs last year and the irony is that I can afford a new car now. But because I work from home, I no longer need one. I drive Tuesday nights when I volunteer at PAWS, and Mike and I go to Trader Joe’s and maybe Target on the weekends. It sits parked the rest of the time. We take the subway, walk, rent a Zipcar or take a cab rather than giving up our parking spot.
Every few months we talk about selling it and just relying on Zipcar to get around when we need to, but it’s a halfhearted conversation. Insurance is $82 per month, and there’s gas and routine upkeep, but it’s not really much. So overall, it’s cheaper to keep the Camry.
And really, even if it were more, I’d still keep it.
My parents are both gone now, and so it means something to be driving the vehicle they loved. I didn’t think I had a sentimental attachment to it until after my dad died in October. I kind of feel a duty now to drive it, even though I haven’t been the best guardian. It has some dings, scrapes and dents from being in the city, and it always seems to be spotted with pigeon poop. I think Mike took it to the car wash once. I never have.
I was always amazed at how my dad would react when he saw the Camry parked in my sister’s driveway when I’d go to pick him up for lunch, or to visit.
As if forgetting that it’s an outdated model and overlooking that fact that it’s seen better days, he’d always say the same thing.
“Man, that’s a nice car!” he’d say.
It’s possible that he was just being nice, like when in a dark and vulnerable mood while in college I called my parents crying and asked them to pick me up and take me home for the weekend because I was completely stressed out and couldn’t handle my life anymore and all I wanted was to be back home in the suburbs.
When I got into the car – the Camry – I could tell they were taken aback that I had dyed my hair jet black. I apologized for it and started to explain that it had been a mistake and I knew it looked bad, but my dad interrupted me.
In a resolute, insistent, don’t-argue-with-me-this-the-final-word-on-this sort of way, he said, “It looks good!”
So, while some people might see the Camry as a hooptie, I see it as an extension of my parents. And when I drive it, I feel a connection to them that brings me so much comfort.