In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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After years of searching, R. said, he’d finally found a perfect master. This was the real thing, R. insisted: a spiritually evolved being who operated on a completely different plane of consciousness, a living saint who could set him free.
I told R. I was happy for him. I didn’t say I’d heard him talk this way before. Some of my friends fall in love every year or two with a different lover; R. falls in love with a different spiritual teacher. Maybe it doesn’t matter how our hearts are broken.
The waiter brought our lunch. R. asked how I’d been since we’d last seen each other. I had no complaints, I told him. The magazine was thriving, and I loved my work. I loved my wife. My daughters were in college. Life was good.
R. said he was happy for me. We ate in silence for a while. Then he put down his sandwich and looked at me earnestly. Was my life, he asked, maybe a little too good? What about the ache in my heart to go home to God? Was I forgetting my spiritual hunger? Was success distracting me from the only thing that really mattered?
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t meant to sound boastful, merely thankful for my good fortune. Besides, I knew from experience that if being happily married is a distraction from the spiritual path, so is being lonely; if having a few dollars in my pocket is beguiling, so is being broke. I didn’t think my blessings stood between me and God. But I didn’t want to argue with my friend. I certainly didn’t want to compare my spiritual hunger with his, as if we were comparing the length of our penises. So I assured him that I was no less ardent a seeker than I’d ever been, then changed the subject.
After lunch, R. asked me to give him a ride. We walked across the street to my car. When he saw my beat-up station wagon, he looked at me quizzically. I thought things were going well, he said.
I laughed. After fourteen years, my Toyota has become an embarrassment to me. On the inside, the car is as neat as the day I bought it — no cans or newspapers or unfolded maps on the floor — but the upholstery is in shreds. One door won’t open from the outside because the handle has fallen off. The body has rust spots bigger than my hand — and I have big hands.
I’m not very successful at looking successful, I admitted. But, I assured him, I’m shopping for another car.
My wife, Norma, shows me an ad for an affordable, late-model sedan — one of the makes I’ve told her I like. She asks if I’m going to call. Later, I tell her. After I finish this story I’m reading. After I mow the lawn.
Norma finds this amusing. Every time she hears me tell someone I’m shopping for a car, she shakes her head and smiles, the same as when she hears President Clinton make another campaign promise. It’s reassuring to know she’s going to vote for him anyway.
I study Consumer Reports. I look through the classifieds. I ask friends for their advice. When I finally make a choice, it will be a wise, considered choice. Still, it’s a decision I’ve been postponing — month after month, year after year.
I ’m not sentimental about cars. I never gave my car a name, or imagined it wasn’t just like millions of others that came off the assembly line in 1982. But in its unassuming, unspectacular way, my Toyota Corolla has carried me more than two hundred thousand miles — nearly the distance from here to the moon. Whether my car owes its long life to the diligence of Japanese workers, or to regular oil changes, or to my mother’s love, I’ll never know.
The car was her gift.
Fourteen years ago, I was so broke I could barely afford a tank of gas, let alone car payments. Yet every other week, I was driving hundreds of miles to pick up my young daughters for visits; they were then living with my ex-wife. My jalopy du jour — a battered old Ford I’d bought a few months earlier for four hundred dollars — spit and sputtered between stoplights, where it heaved a grateful sigh for a moment of rest; I never knew whether its next breath would be its last.
One night, my mother called. She was worried, she said: in the car I was driving, anything could happen. I told her not to be concerned. Of course, that’s what I’d told her after the divorce. That’s what I’d told her after my ex-wife decided to move nearly two hundred miles away.
My mother wasn’t reassured. Go out and buy a car, she told me — a new car. She’d make the payments.
I was stunned. My mother had always tried to be generous with my sister and me, but she wasn’t a wealthy woman. She couldn’t afford to buy me a car, I protested. She insisted she could. She regretted not having been able to spoil me when I was younger, she said. Now that she had a few dollars, nothing could give her more pleasure.
I knew there might be strings attached. My mother had a disconcerting habit of boasting about her good deeds; she never seemed to understand that saintliness is conferred by others. Yet, even during our worst arguments in the years that followed, even when her insecurities and painful self-absorption got the best of her, she never tried to make me feel guilty for accepting the car, never brought up those four years of payments as evidence of her devotion. Then again, I knew that’s what they were.
After years of driving old wrecks redolent with the odors of previous owners, I reveled in the unspoiled promise of my new Toyota. I breathed in the new-car smell, ran my eyes over the gearshift, the dashboard, the floor mats — lingering over every detail as if studying the face of a sleeping lover.
The boxy station wagon wasn’t richly appointed, but by my standards it was luxurious; just sliding behind the wheel made me feel vaguely prosperous. To my surprise, I liked the feeling — even though, more than a decade earlier, I had walked away from the kind of well-paying job that makes such comforts affordable. Since then, nearly everything I owned had come from thrift shops and yard sales, which made the shiny Toyota even more of an anomaly.
I continued to refer to it as my “new car” even after the odometer passed fifty thousand, then a hundred thousand miles; even after the padding fell out of the driver’s seat and the springs started poking into my ass. Today, however, even to my admiring eyes, my Toyota is past its prime. The engine has started making grinding noises, like an old man clearing his throat before an important announcement.
My car is so beautiful, and so ugly; such a marvel of engineering, and such a piece of junk. It’s an evil machine, poisoning the atmosphere a little more with every mile. But the miles on it are my miles. When I look at it, I recall the places I’ve loved, the people I’ve loved, the roads to and away from them. How many amazing conversations I’ve had in it, how many stupid arguments, how many stolen kisses at stoplights. How many tears I wept on those trips back from my ex-wife’s house, when my daughters were six and four.
Hasn’t my indefatigable Toyota been a teacher to me, teaching me dependability? Endurance? It’s gotten me where I’ve needed to go no matter what I was feeling — parting the darkness with its headlights, eating up the long white line, yet stopping on a dime.
I don’t know much about cars. I’ve never rebuilt a carburetor or even changed a spark plug. Where I grew up, you were either a kid who got under the hood with your older brothers or a kid who got his homework done on time. Still, it takes more than a mechanic to keep a car running year after year. I believe cars, and other inanimate objects, are just as soulful as we are, and no less mysterious or contradictory. For this reason, I’ve stubbornly refused to replace the seat, worrying that the car won’t run anymore if I do. When you own an older car, my theory goes, you must take care of mechanical repairs promptly and without whining; they’re your responsibility, like feeding your child or walking the dog. Fulfill your responsibilities, and your car will start in the morning, your child will love you, the dog won’t pee on the rug. Cosmetic repairs, on the other hand, are a way of tempting fate: replace the missing hood ornament, or drape your seat in sheepskin, and the gods will roll their eyes, nudge each other in the ribs, and strike your engine dead.
The older the car, the more elaborate the theories.
Until recently, my unwillingness to trade in the Toyota made perfect sense; with my modest wages, I had no choice but to be frugal. But I earn a good living now, and so does my wife. We live in a comfortably middle-class house in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood, where no one else’s car is as old and beat-up as mine.
Before we moved here, living on the fringes was part of my identity. My raggedy clothes and long hair were meant to communicate that I had dropped out of the system. Independent to a fault, I believed Wendell Berry when he said, “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.” I sided with the have-nots of the world.
Today, I still wear my heart on my sleeve, but my sleeve is neatly pressed. I’m still stubbornly independent, but my hair is trimmed. Yet when I imagine driving a new car — one I paid for myself — I feel uneasy, as if I still need to define myself in terms of what I can’t afford and don’t really want, even when I can and do.
If I buy another car, will my friends no longer be impressed by what a basically basic guy I am? Does my clunky automobile prove I’m still a man of the people, even though many of the people I champion would sooner walk than drive a car like mine? More likely, it proves merely how narcissistic I am, still needing to advertise my freedom from material desires. How facile to pretend that driving a rusty Toyota vouches for my personal integrity — or for my commitment to social justice.
I slow down as I drive past dealer showrooms. I think about power seats and power windows. I think about a CD player. Yet I also think of Stewart Brand’s warning that one of the dangers of a life of “voluntary simplicity” is the possibility of achieving some kind of success, “which leads to temptations, which lead back again to involuntary complexity.”
I have a friend who, every time he wants to change his life, buys a new car: a Porsche when he was going through his midlife crisis, a Volvo station wagon when he was trying to convince his girlfriend he was ready to settle down. I don’t share my friend’s belief in the redemptive power of automobiles — his ex-girlfriend didn’t either — but I envy the ease with which he buys and sells cars. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become so attached to my Toyota that I’ll keep driving it until it dies — or until I do. Perhaps the car has become a symbol for me of my own endurance: If this car can run forever, maybe I can, too.
But I know everything is impermanent. My Toyota will end up in the junkyard one day, and so will I — perhaps on a day exactly like today. Maybe I’ll have just eaten, or maybe I’ll be thinking how hungry I am. A movie I want to see will be opening the next weekend. One of my daughters will have just mailed me a letter I’ll never open.
Of all the world’s wonders, asks the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most wonderful? That each man, though he sees others dying around him, never believes he himself will die.
I used to hope the Toyota would keep running until my wife finished with medical school and residency; that was four years ago. My mother died a year later. During her last few months, we never argued; she barely remembered who I was.
This morning, I eased behind the wheel of the car she bought me, and put the key in the ignition. The engine started right up.
In “My New Car” [November 1996], Sy Safransky says he believes inanimate objects are as soulful as we are. This sentiment is an indication that we have put our faith in things in this culture, instead of putting our faith in one another; and I find relationships with people more satisfying than relationships with things. A relationship with a thing is a mere extension of the ego, a fear of being left with nothing. If people really thought about all the destruction and suffering that goes into making a car — all the environmental damage from coal mines, oil refineries, chemical plants, and steel mills; the massive amounts of energy wasted in processing and transporting raw materials; and the horrendous working conditions involved — perhaps we would just walk where we are going, or maybe ride horses. What kind of soul does a thing have that required such destruction and suffering? What kind of soul does a nuclear weapon have? Our culture’s demand for things has superseded our concern and compassion for one another.
Safransky quotes Wendell Berry: “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.” Berry is on the right track. But resistance is only the initial stage of becoming detached from this materialistic, consumerist society. To truly detach from society, one must have an alternative. Unfortunately, alternatives to our culture exist only as isolated, dispersed enclaves, so people who resist risk being isolated and lonely. We have only two choices: remain in the shallow, materialistic mainstream, or wade into deeper waters alone.
Thanks for your magazine; it truly reflects the alienation in today’s culture.
I totally agree with Sy Safransky [“My New Car,” November 1996]: if you do something fancy to your old car (like any repair that costs more than $150), you can expect a breakdown. It’s like a curse. It reminds me of when, early in the day, my wife promises me a hot night in bed. None that night!