We judge people in so many ways - their height, their weight, their hair style, their laugh, their gender, their race, their religion, their hand shake, whether they make eye contact or not and, oddly enough - what they drive. In early 1996 I was most certainly judged by the golden brown 1979 Mazda GLC I shared with Mitch that was slowly limping to its death. And when I say slowly, I mean it. The car was no longer capable of reaching a speed above 40 or 45 mph max, and that was only on a good day. The front bumper had recently been torn off when Mitch tried to back out of the carport too quickly and the left end of the front bumper hooked onto one of the support poles and refused to budge as Mitch and the rest of the car attempted to reverse. I, of course, was to blame for parking the car too close to the pole the night before. The bumper was reattached with rope. The driver's side door was bent in from an accident a few years earlier leaving a gap between the door and frame that was generally stuffed with grey insulation foam tape. The interior bore not only the imprints of the cigarette lighter I burned into the carpet next to the stick shift as a child but was littered with Mitch's discarded fast food containers, golden dog hairs shed from Stuart and the wear of nearly 20-years of use. Pretty much everything needed to be replaced in order for it to work properly and we (read: mostly Mitch who never wanted that car to begin wtih) no longer wanted to make the investment. While I did not feel the car accurately reflected who I was, I was not necessarily embarrased to call it my own because it had carried me through one adventure after another and the times it failed me were good fodder for storytelling. Mitch did not share my perspective of gratitude for a car we never paid a dime to receive.
He hated the car, treated it like his personal waste basket and ignored the little things that needed extra attention to keep it running and loudly complained when it needed jumps to get it running - my guess is because he never learned to use the jumper cables I stored in the back. Yet he insisted on being the primary driver as I waited at bus stops and tromped around on foot.
For weeks we had been filling our weekends with window shopping for a new car. Or should I say for a previously owned new to us car - they didn't market "previously owned" cars in those days. A "new" car was far outside our budget while a car manufactured within the prior decade or two was only attainable by stepping deeper into debt. With student loan money in hand for a down payment, we were ready to take the plunge. Mitch had some ideas on what type of car he wanted but I was the practical one and the realistic one.
To a degree.
While many people dream of owning convertibles or other fancy cars, my one and only vehicular fantasy was to own something with four-wheel drive. I had often joked that my prior Pontiac 6000 car was a "four-wheel drive in training" and the Mazda lost a muffler once when I decided to drive it on some crazy Jeep road in the Uintas in search of a good place to fish with my sister a couple of summers earlier. At least this was one arena in which Mitch and I were able to agree once I put the idea out there.
We had our eye on primarily on two vehicles - one a Daihatsui Rocky, the second a Dodge Raider - both small SUVs similar to Jeeps at the forefront of the smaller SUV fad. The Rocky was at a small used car dealership located just off the 700 East exit from I-80. I longed to own it each time we sat at the light across the street waiting to turn north onto 700 East as it stared back at us with an out of reach price scrawled on its windshield. The Dodge Raider lived somewhere on State Street and its slightly sturdier shape and size and bright red color spoke to me and popped out of the lot each time we drove by.
Even at 20 years old, long before I would ever have dared to affix the title feminist to my name, I was offended by the way I was treated by the sales man. The Rocky fell fast in the rankings and out of the picture as soon as I dared to take an up close and personal look at the Raider for the first time. I knew next to nothing about cars but Mitch knew even less. I had no concept of interest rates, APR or financing terms. And Mitch knew even less. I was immediately in love with the springy driver's seat and the oversized tires and the red-tinted pop-up sunroof - I had never had a sunroof! The interior was completely utilitarian with the back seat that folded up against the front seats leaving a large cargo space perfect for slobbery, shedding dogs and stacks of camping gear. The Raider was very similar in shape and feel to the old school two-door Landcruisers I coveted and the Isuzu Trooper that reminded me of my first spring break as a college freshman when I piled into my friends' silver Trooper with 4 other adults, a dog and enough gear for a week long climbing trip to Joshua Tree for 5 people - and a dog. The 1989 Dodge Raider had two doors, a V-6 engine and was, of course a four wheel drive. The Raider was the product of a very short-lived rebadging of the Mitsubishi Montero by Dodge. And oh, how I fell in love with it - the look, the smell, the feel of it. A smell I cannot describe but recognize instantly when it wafts its way into the present as it did a few weeks ago as I climbed into a friend's Isuzu Trooper that carried not just a similar shape and style as the Raider but contained its smell.
But the used car salesman lived up to all the many stereotypes and was pushy and seedy and completely misogynistic. He ignored me. I asked questions and he answered them to Mitch. No matter that Mitch didn't know or understand anything residing under the hood any more than I did, the salesman simply wormed his way between us, and pointed things out to Mitch - blocking my view - and pretended I was not there unless he was patronizing me with questions about how I probably just liked the shiny red paint. I knew the type of roads I wanted to take this thing on and I was brushed away like an irritatingly inquisitive child. During the test drive, Mitch drove so I didn't discover until later how boxy and unstable the car felt speeding down the highway despite the salesman's promises of a wider wheel base that lended more stability. I should have insisted on driving it (though that would not have changed my mind) because I was a far better driver as was later exhibited on our second to last drive together when he swore at the poor defenseless Raider for being unable to crawl up a hairy boulder-strewn road in the Uintas which I was able to coax it into mounting with little effort (a slow crawl in 4 low was the answer, it turned out I was the only one listening to the salesman's explanations of how to use the 4wd feature).
Once we were in the sales office, things did not improve. I had the check book, it was my student loan check and I was signing my name away when we ignorantly allowed this man to refer us to a snake of a loan service that charged us 24% interest. Allow me to repeat that slowly so it can sink in with full effect - t w e n t y f o u r p e r c e n t ! It was usury as far as I'm concerned and we were victims of our own ignorance. Normally I would have run the entire deal by my dad before commiting to it but I wanted Red Raider so very desperately and Mitch had lectured me far too often about trusting my parent's opinions over his that I allowed him to commit us to the loan. Looking back, I feel the same twinge of embarrasment over my ignorance about interest rates as I do about my junior high ignorance about gpa's. Much like junior high when I didn't know, understand, pay attention to or care what a gpa was until I was in 9th grade and I was required to maintain a 3.0 to stay on the school paper and a 2.8 (or something) to stay on the basketball team and I thought no problem, until I realized my 7th grade gpa had somehow gotten me off to a rough start down in the 2 point something bad range, I did not look at, ask about, pay attention to or even realize we were being charged such an out of control interest rate until I split with Mitch and sat down to divide our debt. My ignorance is shocking to me since I was only a year away from a bachelor's degree at the time and the irony of my current bankruptcy legal practice is not lost on me.
The one thing I remember wisely insisting when the irritating salesman was typing out the legal-sized carbon copied sales documents of white, pink and yellow was that my name be listed. For whatever reason this awful man tried to convince us that there was "no need" for my name to be listed as a co-owner even though I was absolutely requiredto be listed as a co-debtor on the loan. He spoke to me in a patronizing don't-you-worry-your-pretty-little-head tone and the fiesty, independent version of myself that was cowered in a dark corner of my soul burst out and refused to be cast aside. I knew if I was going into debt for this car I so loved, then I was going to be a real titled owner.
Then we drove it off the lot.
More accurately, Mitch drove it off the lot and I drove the whimpering, rattling, propulsion-challenged Mazda.
Mitch was eager to dump the Mazda back off on my parents with a resounding good riddance so we did not waste much time in bidding it farewell. After picking Stuart up at home to accompany me on the drive, we set out to show off the new car and abandon the less-loved GLC.
The Mazda was in such bad shape that I made Mitch promise to stay behind me the 20 minute non-freeway drive to my parent's house so I wouldn't get stranded. Neither of us had a cell phone and I really didn't want to find myself stuck on the side of the road with my dog.
Our little caravan set off on a beautiful evening in the days crossing over from April to May while the warm sun was still shining and the grass was turning greener and I smiled even as I struggled to coax the Mazda into forward motion. On that last drive I am sure I thought of all the good times that were had in that old car from my childhood memories of throwing our flip flops out the window onto our lawn as my mom pulled into the driveway (whoever got closest to the house won I think) to the high school memories when it was dubbed the Magical Mystery Mazda and carried my friends and I through so many adventures. The windows were down and the day felt perfect as I glanced in my mirror to view my husband driving our new car - its bright round headlights seemingly smiling at me. Stuart panted as he hung his slobbery head near my right shoulder between the seats, trying to extend himself as much as possible into the forbidden front seat area of the car. I realized he would be unable to breach that bit of protocol in the Raider since the folded up back seats would act as a barrier and his relatively smaller 50-pound body wouldn't be able to pant over the seats - no more slobber on my shoulder I thought happily.
The drive was without incident as we slowly, slowly made our way home until we reached Creek Road.
Creek Road was the main route I used to drive to and from high school, to the store, to friends' homes and to the freeway since I started driving nearly 5 years earlier and the windy one lane in each direction road had a maddingly slow speed limit of 25 mph which the majority of the Sandy population ignored and which gave many teens their first speeding ticket. The Mazda was unable to even reach the blazing speed of 25 mph by then and furstrated cars piled up behind Mitch. I was mortified. I was blocking traffic and I knew the irritation of all of those cars behind me because I had felt it so often as I poked along in their place behind some car who insisted on crawling along this major artery. I also knew it was making Mitch crazy because he had always hated the Mazda and never saw anything magical in its mysteries.
Also, people were starting to honk. I was helpless and just willed the car forward because the windy, narrow street had not yet been expanded to its present-day width and had nary a shoulder to speak and no room for anyone to pass me. Plus, I was afraid if I stopped anywhere I would never start again.
A top-less Jeep carrying some rowdy and impatient teen-age boys became overwhelmed by their frustration of the slow-going when they discovered they were following the cause of the crawling pace on the turn-off to Telford Way. They honked and yelled and hit the accelerator as they sped up the short hill on the left side of the residential road passing both Mitch and me and short-cutting around us through a church parking lot that dumped them ahead of me on my next left turn onto Vicounti Drive. I did not take this display personally. I would have pulled over to let them pass me peacably had I not feared the car conking out and not mastering the small hill. I still had two major hills to go standign between me and the slight downhill to my parent's home, I needed to maintain as much momentum as the Mazda could muster.
But Mitch, he took it personally. Not as an affront to me by any means I am sure, but as a sort of dropping of the gauntlet to his macho testosterone driven outlook. The punks - only a few short years younger than us at any rate - needed to learn a lesson so Mitch gave chase. To what end, I will never know. He sped around me and tore after them and vanished around the corner before I fully comprehended what had just happened. And I lugged on.
I turned onto Viscounti and leaned forward in the hopes that would help propel the car forward. But on the first major hill of our journey to its final (or almost final) resting place, the Mystery Mazda gave up. Perhaps it took both the crazed teenagers antics and Mitch's chase personally, I don't know. But midway up the steep hill I lost power.
In retrospect, the smart thing to do would have been to back the car back down the hill to find a safe place to park it and wait for Mitch to return.
That is not what I did.
With all the honking and slowness and finally stopping, Stuart was antsy and ready to get out and take care of business. So when the car refused to climb any higher, I steered the car sort of to the side of the road, pulled up the emergency brake and tried to figure out what to do. Before I had time to think, Stuart leaped out the window and ran straight across the street to sniff around in the parking area which, rather than containing a trim lawn, held piles of granite rocks sized in the 8 to 12 inch diameter range. Weeds poked through in several places and Stuart was anxious to sniff these spots out and mark them as best he could. Not wanting him to dart back into the street without a leash since he wasn't all that inclined to listen much, I ran over to him only to be greeted by a middling aged jogger yelling at me to "GET YOUR DOG AWAY FROM ME!!" I tried calling Stuart but he was otherwise engaged - sniffing and rooting through the rocks and the despartely fearful man picked one of the rocks up and again yelled at me to get my dog as he threatened to throw one of the bigger rocks at the dog or me or both of us.
But just as I grabbed Stuart's collar, the man looked past me in a bit of shock. I turned to see my car slowly rolling back down the hill.
I do not understand what came over me other than pure adrenaline reaction - I chased the car down the hill, opened the driver's door, hopped in, slammed on the brake and slowly steered it to the bottom of the hill. I do not know how or even why I did this other than a fear of it hitting something or someone since wrecking it certainly wasn't much of a concern since it was on its final drive.
I wish I could remember more clearly where the jogger was during this crazy feat and what his reaction was other than a vague flashback to him continuing to yell at me to get a leash for my dog while he stood there with the rock insisting on piling onto my clearly overwhelming problems rather than offering a hand or benignly passing by without worsening my situation.
I called Stuart's name and that time he came to me and stayed by my side as I searched the car for a leash only to come up empty-handed. When I gave up and looked back up the hill, the jogger was no where in sight and the sun felt hotter.
I expected to see Mitch return for me at any moment but knew Stuart wouldn't wait in the car so I began climbing the steep hill on foot, hunched to my right to keep a hold of Stuart's collar so he wouldn't run off and scare any more joggers.