Giving Up the Keys
My first car was a black Ford Escort. My mom and I bought it in Delaware, when I was an intern at the newspaper in Wilmington. I needed a car to get around for some cub reporting, and this was a utilitarian choice that was reasonable in price, and tame in style.
My second car was a hand-me-down from my granddad… and what do you think he drove? A racy little Mazda Rx7. Yes, gramps tooled around in a sports car. By that time I was a full-fledged radio reporter with a decent career underway, and I got myself a vanity plate with “TESS V” stamped on it. Everybody asked me why my license plate said “Tess 5.”
Since then, like many a good American, I owned a series of cars, culminating in 2006 with the car I’d fantasized about since I started driving: a BMW. I was finally able to buy it after a big promotion at work. It was the lower-end of the luxury spectrum, but it felt like success, drove like a dream, and ushered me in zip and comfort through a decade’s worth of Los Angeles traffic. In LA, your car tends to say something about you, and I think it fit my personality — and driving style — to a T. You can infer from that whatever you will. But I loved that car. I loooooooooooooooved that car.
When I left a year ago to travel abroad, some suggested I should sell it instead of letting it sit unused in storage. “No way!” I said. “It’s paid off, it’s a great car, and I’m only going to be gone a year, and when I come back I’m not going to want to buy another car.” Friends were kind enough to let it hibernate in their driveway over the past year, and after arriving back in the states for the holidays, I retrieved it last week, only to promptly drop $1,000 on a new tire, small repairs, and late registration fees (I couldn’t register it until I got a smog check, and I couldn’t get a smog check while I was in Thailand!). I also had to re-up my insurance for the five weeks I’m back stateside. In short, it was a stark reminder of how expensive it is to own a car. It was also strange to drive after a year of not doing so, and I had to remind myself to stay on the right hand side of the road, not the left (!).
My plan was to drive the car up to Portland and store it there, where it’s much cheaper than in LA, until whenever I come back permanently. (I’m returning to SE Asia at the end of the year for an unknown period of time.) I kept telling friends that I didn’t want to give up this car, only to have to buy another one when I return. “Yeah but you keep saying you don’t know when you’ll come back, and that you might NOT come back,” they replied. “Why are you hanging onto it?”
At that point I had to admit there was something broader going on here. The car was the last major piece of my old life that was still standing. Yes, I have a storage unit filled with boxes and small stuff, but the car loomed symbolically huge. I didn’t have a house anymore, or a marriage, or a job… but I still had the car. It was still here, waiting for me for WHEN I returned. Not if. Selling it would be acknowledging that I no longer live here. At all. It felt like a final cord being cut. The last major material tether.
So as I started packing to make my way up California’s Highway 1 — one of the world’s most beautiful drives — I started paying attention to this thing in my gut that was dreading the monthly storage bill and continued insurance payments. I woke up last Thursday morning with a surprising sureness that it was time to give up the keys. Fortunately, the friends who’d stored it in their driveway wanted to buy it (she’s still a great car with only 67,000 miles on her), and by mid-day it was a done deal.
Tomorrow (Monday) I’ll remove all the boxes from the trunk and ship them to my parents’ house, and then I’ll get her washed and sparkly before driving her back to the house that fostered her for the past year. I’m glad she’ll be staying with friends. I know a car is an inanimate object — but when you spend as much time in it as I have (as most Angelenos do), you develop an irrational emotional attachment. It’s easier to let it go when I know friends will get more good mileage out of it.
So that’s it. Pretty much the last of my major things. For the first time in my teen-to-adult life, I am carless. Now instead of driving 964 miles (1,550k) to get there, I’ll fly to Portland, where I’ll be for most of December. Next time I’m back in LA, I think I’ll want to tackle that storage unit. I barely remember what’s in it, and I don’t miss whatever that is. I live with so little in Bangkok, and I’ve gotten used to life that way. I guess the question is if/when I ever do come back to the states, will I bring that feeling with me? I don’t know.
But for now, I’m happy to let someone else take the wheel(s).