June 22, 2004

Existential Crisis in the Form of a 1998 Oldsmobile LSS

I knew i'd have to get a car eventually. This is America, after all, and while you can slide by without one in some spots east of the Mississippi, once you get left of it, you gotta have more wheels than those on a ten-speed. I slugged along okay with my bike and riding the bus for the first four months or so, but as the temperature rose beyond 100 and i got sick of being followed by hooting pickup trucks and hassled by every creepy guy on the CAT system, it was time. And, well, in the increasingly dark and despairing life i lead out here in sun-drenched hedonism city, the car became a consoling dream.

And i needed all the consoling dreams i could get, as things out here get worse and worse and all i have is time to think about the career i’m settling for because i couldn't get a job doing anything else, the anonymous white-walled apartment, the life devoid of interest or activity or amusement. The increasing feeling that i may as well never have wanted to be any different than anyone else in Poughkeepsie because now there is no damn difference except i have a library card and a higher I.Q. and, really, what difference is that except a way to make yourself even unhappier because you can actually see the walls of this hole you’ll never get out of?

So, it’s not surprising that i clung to the idea of this car. But not just any car. Anyone who knows me—or probably even those who have only seen me--knows that my adherence to a personal aesthetic is so tight as to be fascistic, specific and unshakeable ideas about everything from underwear to flatware. Cars are the same way to me, but even more so. Like any being with an iota of sense, i recognize that automotive design went south in a big way around 1982, when the goal became to have a vehicle that did not resemble an ocean liner, but one that looked as much like a suppository as possible. Would you prefer to glide through the world in something that looks like it should ride the waves of the Atlantic Ocean like a sovereign queen or fall out of your ass into a toilet bowl? A vintage Lincoln Continental, Dodge Stinger, Ford Galaxie—what hath man wrought in the past 50 years that is more beautiful or has more style? I’d always had fantasies of a 1971 Mercedes 280, the voluptuous shape of the headlights and grille, the matching hubcaps, a gold-beige color that would match my hair… Of course i didn’t expect anything so luscious at this point, but i figured at least something in a ‘80 Olds would be possible.

But cars are expensive and, with the mounting pile of student loans required to finance my so-called education (where i take grad-level classes with people who don’t understand what the word “hubris” means, even in context, i.e. the Lakers), my parents graciously offered to front me the money for a vehicle. My father would be out for a convention and we’d have almost a week to purchase me an auto. I consulted with my car-whiz buddy James, who suggested an early-80s Buick Riviera cop car, maybe the surprisingly durable ’68 Mustang, or even a Mercedes 300 Diesel. (Apparently since Dodge bought the Mercedes truck division, the diesel parts are cheaply and easily obtained, unlike other European cars.) But, as i said, more i sat out in this forsaken cowtown with casinos, the more the car became my light at the end of the tunnel. Some big ol' ride for me to cruise the Strip with the radio cranked up to deafening and maybe feel a little bit, well, happy for a change.

So, the car shopping began. My father insisted we try the Carmax out in Henderson because my brother and sister-in-law had bought their minivan at a Carmax and it’s a national company with reliable cars and nothing’s more than five years old and you can get an extended warranty. As you can imagine, aside from a marginally interesting green Camaro, there was nothing i’d want. Or nothing i could afford, including the Camaro. Fine. I had, however, found the name of a place west of the Strip that specialized in vintage vehicles, cajoled my father into at least letting me look and we headed over to a small garage on a side street and… ohhhhhh. The front was all beautifully restored machines, like a private auto show. But, while i’d love a $28,000 tri-tone 1952 Buick, you know.... But there, in the back, in the three-grand section, there it was. A 1969 Cadillac Eldorado, in such a perfect shade of metallic gold that the tailfins glowed 24-karat even in the gloom. I know the look i gave that car was the same as the look I once gave a certain boy i never got or got over across the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel years ago, the look of suddenly finding what i’d been dreaming of my whole life even though i didn’t know it existed.

Alongside this goddess’ chariot were it’s lovely handmaidens, a baby-blue 1972 Buick Skylark and a white 1974 Olds Cutlass, both fine vehicles but, well, not love at first sight (although i would happily fuck either of them). Even my father, who had sworn to sensibility, was swayed by the majesty of the Cadillac and got in a lengthy conversation with the father-son team who ran the joint about just what kind of tinkering would be required. I called James, giddy in love, asking what to check, on my knees in oil stains to thump wheel wells and tug on chrome. I called two other people just to tell them i was in love. I also called my friend Michelle to get the name of the guy who had been her family’s mechanic in Vegas because, yeah, i know, old cars can be trouble. But, as a woman who has wasted her affections on such notorious troublemakers as junkies, hustlers, ex-felons and Harvard graduates, something that would just demand to be taken to a garage didn’t seem so bad. And at least the car wouldn’t make me suck on the gearshift for 45 minutes when it knew damn well there was no gas in the tank. Or drive off with some fat-assed 22-year old slut in bad 80s drag. But i digress….

After spending nearly an hour with the three beauties, i appeased my father by going to an Oldsmobile dealership where i couldn’t afford anything, but i did learn just how annoying a used car salesman can be. Then we went to another Carmax where i couldn’t afford anything either, but at least they weren’t annoying. Of course, it goes without saying i didn’t like any of the cars either. I humored my dad by sitting in some Kias and Mazdas and Hondas and a late-model Oldsmobile, but so what? My mind was made up. If not the Eldorado, then the Skylark or the Cutlass (which only had 34,000 miles on it, being that “owned by a little old lady who only drove it to bingo twice a week” vehicle one sometimes hears of). Yes, i would have a cool car, my dim life would be bright again, or at least have the occasional gleam and flash of a reason to go on living.

But that would be too much to ask, wouldn’t it? Because that night, as i dreamed my Neal Cassady dreams, my father spoke to my mother. And, in the morning, i was informed that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES would i be allowed to buy a car that was more than five years old. Or from a non-national dealership. No Eldorado, no Skylark, no Cutlass. No. It didn’t matter that the cheapest officially sanctioned car was over twice as much and had almost twice as many miles as the Cutlass. No. My father asked where else i wanted to look for cars and i said nowhere. You and mom decide what car you want me to have and that’s the car i’ll get. What’s the point? Kiahondamazda, whatever. It’s all the same to me.

Then i went to the ladies’ room in Caesars Palace and sat in the crying lounge and, well, cried. (Yes, there is a crying lounge—a little mirrored room with chairs and Kleenex where i suppose you’re supposed to do your makeup or gossip, but i often see women sitting there crying. Actually, you see a lot of women “sitting there crying” in Vegas. I guess there’s a lot of reasons.) I cried in a lot of other places for the next day or two, basically whenever my father wasn’t looking and even sometimes when he was, which is part of the reason i always wear the largest, darkest sunglasses possible. We went back to Carmax and i shrugged at a 1998 Oldsmobile LSS, took it for the shortest allowable test drive, stared into space while all the “features” were pointed out to me, signed whatever papers were put in front of me and drove “my car” “home.”

And mom and dad kept saying “But we want you to like the car. You should feel something for the car. It’s your first car, you should like it!” Never mind that it was like being torn from the arms of Clive Owen to be shoved down the aisle toward Karl Rove, I should get attached to this… this… vehicle. And i cried some more. I know what you're thinking: spoiled bitch should be happy to have a car. But i've always taken everything on a symbolic level, which is why one flaky skateboarder not calling back can become an indictment of my entire value as a human being and this... vehicle became another big, evil sign that i was done for. To the blank suburban apartment and the lame civil service job, add the anonymous vehicle.

And i keep thinking: my life has lapsed into this endless spiral of settle for that, settle for that, settle for that. I wonder how much farther it'll go and where it'll end. I know life is ultimately settling for what you can get, but i always thought i was the person--hell, i DEFINED myself as the person who'd rather be alone, rather starve, rather die than settle, than back down. Then i realized you don't die, but you do pass 30 and somehow you’ve signed away your soul for a safe way to kill the next 45 years because you don’t have the fucking balls to kill yourself now.

I deleted all the Viva Las Vegas car show photos from my cameraphone. My father tried to point out one of this town's many Cadillacs on the street and i turned away, muttering about how if you’re married to something, there’s no point in dreaming of anything else. If your sprit is going to be crushed, it may as well be flattened. Easier to pack that way. I thought of selling/returning the car, giving back the money, taking out yet another goddamn loan (if i could get one) and buying the car i wanted, but that would be yet another loan and, unlike the one i'd gotten, would involve interest and a rigid payment schedule. I thought of immediately selling/returning the Oldsmobile and buying the car i wanted, but the fallout gave me pause--you try telling your parents that the seven grand you just borrowed was under false pretenses. Then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t allowed to have an old car is because they’re unreliable. Unreliable as needing to be fixed alla time. But if one could fix one’s own car….

And, to this end (and to get us all to the end), i have signed up for auto repair at the community college in the fall. I’ll take electrical in the spring and then… well, then the 1998 Olds LSS is history, back to the lot whence it came. I have informed my loan officers of this fact and they seem to have accepted it. Everyone needs a dream. And, having given up on every dream i’ve ever had, from a career i enjoyed, to love that was even slightly true (or at least lasted more than three weeks), to a championship ring for Patrick Ewing… well, this is the last dream i've got and, before it dries up and blows away in the desert like all the rest, i want to hold it in my axle grease-smeared hands. Lord knows it won't last long.

Posted by lissa at June 22, 2004 12:06 AM