When I was 17, after already failing my road test once and nervously bullshitting my way through a second one, failed parallel-park and all, I finally got my driver’s license. For my efforts, I was granted shared custody of my Dad’s Jeep Cherokee whenever it was available. The car was small and cramped, and always felt like it was going faster than it actually was. I’d drive it to school most mornings — a welcome change from taking the city bus, or mooching a ride off my parents — and to hang out with friends whenever I could. It wasn’t quite my own car, but my dad wasn’t using it much at the time, and I definitely put more miles on it than he did back then.
The Jeep drove well enough, but it had a few problems. It would frequently stall when it was stopped for too long at a traffic light, and for a while it was having difficulty with keeping a charge. At one point, I was driving a friend to a bus stop when the radio and clock both suddenly shut off. I have no idea how I managed to get that car home, and I can’t remember exactly what was wrong with it, but needless to say I wasn’t able to drive until it was fixed. The steering was also a little wonky, but that was partially my fault — I’d crashed the Jeep into a road sign on a median soon after I started driving it.
I knew a kid back then who got a Porsche as his first car. But a first car should be practical and well-worn. It’s a safer investment when you’re first getting a grip on driving, and besides, there’s something endearing about driving a crappy car. I remember leaving school with my iPod plugged into a cigarette-port FM adapter, listening to my favorite songs through a static haze. I remember driving my friends around, squeezing four in the backseat or forcing a friend to sit in the trunk, and wandering from place to place, talking about nothing particularly important but having the time of our lives. The kid with the Porsche probably had cooler memories, going zero-to-sixty on the short stretch of roadway that flanked my high school’s athletic field, feeling a surge of testosterone as the wind tousled his hair. But I wouldn’t trade my memories for his.
When I graduated high school, I got my first actual car: a 1999 Nissan Altima, or as I called it, “The Altima.” I owned that car for the better part of four years and, frankly, I’m surprised it lasted that long. The car had been bought at a discount off of some guy who’d neglected to tell my family that it had been in a flood. Or, at least, that’s the only way we could explain the car’s persistent rust problems. With each subsequent winter, I would expose more and more of the car’s interior husk every time I dug out my car, the snow underneath staining brown from the rust. While I only managed to get into one real accident the whole time I had the car — in front of my own house, no less! — the outside was scratched from careless drivers in my campus parking lot and from my knack for scraping against stationary objects. It was certainly a sight to behold.
The Altima barely ran better than it looked. There was always something clunking around on the inside, even when there was nothing broken. The car would sputter as it went up hills, as though it were taking its last dying breaths. Whenever I took it above 65 on the highway, it sounded like it was about to explode. I drove that thing four and-a-half hours to Syracuse once, and it was a damned miracle that I made it there and back. The only real luxury I had was a new radio with a USB port to play music off my phone. But even that eventually broke — after a year of use, the radio somehow got stuck on Demo mode, and we could never figure out how to fix it. By some miracle, I could still listen to music, but I couldn’t change any of the settings, and the radio would flash like lights at a rave.
Maybe I would have liked a car that drove without a hitch better. Maybe I would have been happier with a newer car. But I don’t think I would have. Four years of nothing but alarming noises and close-calls and broken features, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The car became sort of a running gag. I was the only one of my friends with a car for most of undergrad, so I was usually the designated driver. We’d drive around Staten Island — or elsewhere, if the occasion called for it — playing music loud enough to drown out the noise, forgetting that the car could break down at any moment. It seemed like every month there was something new wrong with the car, and when I would tell my friends they would laugh in the way that people laugh when danger no longer alarms you.
Could those memories have come out of a new car? Possibly. You make the most out of what you have with the people around you. Yet I’ve driven new cars — the Fords that my parents have leased over the past few years — and they just don’t feel the same. The drive is smoother, but something doesn’t feel right. You lose the sense of speed that you get when a car struggles to go over fifty. You miss the jolt of a car with a shot suspension every time it hits a bump in the road. Perhaps a new car is more impressive. It’s a status symbol, or some sort of show of power that a crappy car, by design, does not bestow on its driver. But still, it’s not the same.
My dad still owns the Jeep, but I don’t drive it anymore unless my car is in the shop. And the Altima’s been sold off to a girl who needed something to drive to beauty school. Right now, I drive my grandpa’s old car, a bright red Toyota Corolla that he and its previous owner had barely used. The car slips and slides in the rain, and sometimes squeaks when I hit the brakes. The armrest compartment in the middle of the car fell off a couple of weeks ago, and it refuses to go back on. The cup holders are placed such that I can’t drink anything and drive at the same time, and the electronic locks don’t always work. Another crappy car, third one in a row — not that I’m complaining. I wouldn’t have it any other way.