Daddy Took the T-Bird Away



Yesterday, as I angled my car between a Pontiac Aztek and a Lexus SUV in one of UB's student lots, I thought to myself, "There's something very wrong with this picture."

The Aztek, a $21,500 "sport recreation vehicle" costs more than the price of my entire education here at UB. And the Lexus' luxury version of an SUV - manufacturer's retail price, $34,000 - could finance a year at Harvard, tuition, fees and room and board included.

Worrying for a minute that I had accidentally parked my car in an administrative lot, I was relieved to find a true student car a few rows down from mine. The hubcaps were missing, rust was rotting out the wheel wells, the driver-side door was concave and the upholstery was worn ragged, in some places nearly exposing the frame beneath. Probably no more than a few hundred dollars kept that vehicle in a parking lot, as opposed to a junkyard.

I felt an immediate affinity with the owner of that car, who most likely worked long hours simply to keep the thing running to get back and forth to school.

Every person should have a "first car" experience - the burning smell constantly emanating from the dashboard, the tape deck that only works when you hold down 'play,' the window that sticks, the locks that freeze in the winter or the steering column that squeaks in the summer, the door handle that jams if not opened a certain way and the unique whirs and thumps and rattles and hums and squeals and clunks that are a standard feature of every aging vehicle. Years later, seasoned car owners can share their "war stories" - breaking down on the highway, blowing a tire on the 290, etc.

While my car, a 1990 Toyota Camry, is comparatively in great condition, I take pride in the fact that I am completely responsible for financing it. Car insurance, service tune-ups and the incessant repairs necessitated by a 12-year-old car that long ago surpassed the 100,000-mile mark, all come out of my college student budget.

Those who are handed $20,000 cars complete with bells, whistles and a big red bow may have a flashy set of wheels to careen around campus in and may be spared the trauma of perpetual car trouble, but they seem to be missing out on the pride - and the accompanying responsibility - of owning your own vehicle.

I remember clearly the sense of accomplishment I felt when I registered my new car in my own name, was issued my first set of plates and shopped around for insurance. I meticulously cared for my car, washing and waxing and checking all its essential fluids like a pediatrician monitors her youngest, most precious patients.

For the first year, I took special care not to park my car within 500 feet of neighboring vehicles to preserve its body from scratches and dents and the all-to-frequent dings associated with careless drivers and crowded parking lots. While others canvassed the mall parking lot for the nearest spot or carefully maneuvered between bumper-to-bumper vehicles on the streets of Albany, I made it my mission to find an empty overflow lot or a wide stretch of city road to safeguard my Camry.

Upon returning to my car, I scrutinized every inch of its exterior, cursing the slightest mark caused by wayward doors or protruding side-view mirrors.

I fretted over the first appearance of rust encroaching on my car's otherwise blemish-free exterior, just as an elderly woman bemoans the emergence of liver spots on her Oil-of-Olay complexion or a man laments the retreating hairline that once graced his forehead.

Yet the costs of owning a clunker past its prime can often be tremendous, causing additional stress and slowly chipping away at hard-earned savings.

Last week, I ran over a rock encased in ice which appeared to be, in the pale yellow lamplight of Flint Village, a mere block of snow hurled by the wind from one of the yet-to-be-plowed piles dotting the apartment parking lots.

I froze in horror as my car came to a grinding halt and smoke curled almost immediately from the hood, the smell of burning wire filling the air. My friends and I all piled out of the car to survey the damage and tears nearly sprang to my eyes as I pictured my beloved vehicle bursting into flames as I stood watching powerlessly nearby.

Despite my initial panic and the melodrama that elevates nearly every incident I encounter into a full-scale crisis, a trip to Firestone failed to uncover any lasting damage. It was my first trip to a garage unaccompanied by one of my parents or a more car-savvy friend.

My friendly Firestone mechanic or "service advisor" as my receipt proclaimed, however, informed me that although my vehicle managed to escape from its brush with ice damage-free, nearly every other aspect of my car was in need of dire repairs.

The car which hours earlier had seemed a faithful companion, shuttling me wherever I needed to go, suddenly morphed into a disaster-on-wheels that I should be fortunate did not fall to pieces en route to the service station that morning.

The air filter was dirty, the fuel filter was plugged, the engine needed to be degreased, the brake pads were worn dangerously thin, the transmission fluid was the wrong color, the timing belt had to be replaced, the cooling system was in need of flushing, the tires were tread-less and my car desperately required an alignment, all for a mere $1,324.94.

My head began to spin as the mechanic rattled off the litany of things wrong with my seemingly reliable automobile. I had read up on my copy of "The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Car Repair" the previous evening, but even that trusty manual did not prepare me for the car talk spewing from the mouth of the wrench-wielding Firestone employee.

I almost reached for my checkbook until the mechanic added that my exhaust system - which I had just replaced in May for a sum of $200 - had deteriorated beyond repair. At that moment I realized the laundry list of suggested repairs was due to the stereotype that I was a young, ignorant female driving a car her father/uncle/boyfriend/husband had purchased.

After vowing under my breath never to return to Firestone, I left the garage infuriated. Three days later, after bringing my car to a non-corporate mechanic, I had new brake pads and a new alignment and was ready to roll again.

When my father called the next day and asked how my car was doing I was proud to answer, despite the fact that I was out $205, "It's all taken care of, Dad."

And I think he was proud too.