Back in 1998, one year out of college, I got into a car accident with the Plymouth Sundance my parents had handed down to me. It wasn’t a terrible accident, but it was enough to total the car. Since I was a member of the working world at that point, I was in the position of having to buy my first car.
My Dad was always a Chrysler man, so just to be contrary, those cars held no appeal for me. I had my heart set on a Toyota or Honda. I test drove a Civic and didn’t like it, then test drove a Corolla and loved it. I had intended to buy a used car, but the sales guy at the dealership convinced me to lease a brand new one. Skeptical, because his level of enthusiasm about leasing set off some kind of instinctual alarm bells that this couldn’t possibly be to my benefit in the end, I brought in my Dad to help me make my decision. Probably not the best idea, since he was more enamored than I was by the fancy Japanese engineering and the suave sales guy. So my first car that I got all on my own was a leased 1998 Toyota Corolla (in white). It had a souped up tape deck and cloth interior!! I felt like I had arrived into adulthood. I loved the car immediately. At that point, I was always living close to the city and taking public transportation to and from work every day, so staying under the 12K miles per year was not a concern for me. Keeping it pristine in this crazy world, however, was. I’d had it for no more than a year when it was damaged while parked on the street. There was a deep gauge in the driver side rear panel one day, seemingly out of nowhere. There was construction at the end of the street during that time, and I was convinced one of the construction people did it with their equipment. I couldn’t prove anything, but did get into a fight with the foreman one day, who surely thought I was a lunatic. Without proof of them being at fault, I had to pay to fix the damage myself.
At the end of the 3 year lease, I had to decide what I wanted to do. Did I want to start the lease cycle over? After I got the car, I got a job at John Hancock and was surrounded by financial wizards, each one telling me how infinitely stupid it is to lease a car. Overall, it’s a really bad long-term financial move. So I didn’t want to lease again. I thought I would buy a car, but I couldn’t afford a new one, so I had to buy used. I still liked Corollas, and even still liked mine. I came to the conclusion that if I was going to buy a used car, I may as well buy the one that was used by me. So I bought out my lease with a 4 year loan. I essentially paid for my car for 7 years. It was painful at points, but paying it off felt great, and I swore I wouldn’t have a car payment any time before I absolutely had to.
When I decided to move to LA, I drove my car out here. I was still making payments on it at that point. My dad and brother-in-law helped me fill it up with all of my belongings, Tetris-style, so I could drive it across the country. When you are moving some place unfamiliar, and everything you own in the world is in your car, your car starts to take a bit more importance than it normally would. It is your mode of transportation, and your shelter of sorts (not that I ever lived out of my car, but it did hold that was dear to me in this world).
When I was in graduate school, I made my final payment to Toyota. As part of my financing, they had given me a warranty for the life of my loan. Two days after I put my final payment in the mail, my “Check Engine” light came on. I brought it to the nearest dealership and found out it needed about $2000 worth of work. I had no job at that point, and was totally panicked. The man who was the manager of the service department of the dealership was some kind of angel sent from Heaven, and took pity on me. He called the Financial Services people and told them I’d been trying to make an appointment, but they were busy and had to put me off. So certainly it wasn’t my fault that I was a few days past my warranty? They agreed to cover most of the work.
A few years later, I started having battery issues. I brought my car to the mechanic I was using at the time, and they changed my battery. Well, turns out, it was the alternator, so my problems persisted. One day as I was running errands, my car wouldn’t start in the parking lot of my bank in Toluca Lake. I called AAA and they came to jump my car. The tow guy asked where my mechanic was, and I said, “North Hollywood.” He said, “No problem! You can drive it there yourself! Anytime you’re stopped at a light, just rev the engine to keep the battery charging.” Dubious, but without concrete knowledge to refute this statement, I attempted to drive the less than 2 miles to the mechanic’s. Unfortunately, I got caught at this notoriously massive intersection in North Hollywood, where Lankershim crosses over with Vineland and about three other major streets. I just missed the light, so I had to sit at the red light while my car slowly died. I revved the engine like a mad woman. Surely, everyone around me thought I was a weirdo. As soon as the light turned green, my car died. I was all the way to the left of about seven lanes of traffic and had to get to the right. To this day, I don’t know how I did that without killing myself or anyone around me. I had to call AAA again and I think the same guy came back, and this time just towed my car the rest of the way. I knew only one person who wasn’t at work at that time, and luckily she was available to come and get me off the streets of NoHo.
After that, my car was great for years. I found a much better mechanic who knew how to check the difference between an alternator and a battery. I took care of it as needed, and it worked well for me. One day, leaving for the gym at 6 AM, I was coming out of the underground parking garage of my old place as someone was coming in. I tried to move over to make room for him, and ended up driving the side of my car into a pole (that until that day, I hadn’t even known existed because it was painted the same color as the building behind it, camouflage style). I was in this awkward position that any move I made just made the damage worse. I had a massive dent in the rear passenger side. It was also covered with the paint from the building, a terrible peach color, on my white car. A few weeks later, parking in a garage for a restaurant, some car wash detailing guys offered to get the paint off for $20. It was money well spent, because even though the dent was still tragic, it looked a lot better without peach paint all over it. I came to the conclusion that, at that point, with the car being almost 10 years old, the damage had to be more than the car was worth, so it made no financial sense to fix it. So I left it as it was, and it remains that way to this day. It’s embarrassing to drive it around, especially in a city where everything is about status, and people on food stamps are still driving BMWs and Mercedes (I don’t know how or why that is). If I have to valet my car anywhere, it is a humiliating experience.
Still, with all of that, I love my little car. Because the damage is on the passenger side, I can often convince myself it’s not there. Over the years, I’ve had to put a little more work into it, but nothing so expensive that it made sense to get a new car. Until recently.
A few months ago, I left my car at work overnight on a Friday. I went to pick it up the following Saturday morning, and on my drive home, the battery light came on. It was strange, but the car seemed to be driving ok. Still, I was paranoid. We tried to start it the next day and the battery was dead. I called AAA the next morning and they came to jump it, and said it was fine. Having fallen for that before, I just had them tow it straight away to my mechanic (I couldn’t bear a repeat of the North Hollywood incident – see above). The call from the mechanic later that day was a real bummer. His exact words were: “It’s a mystery!” At that point I concluded that you never want to hear the words “It’s a mystery!” from 1) your doctor, or 2) your mechanic. He said the battery and alternator were both testing completely normally. So it was most likely that the problem was electrical, but it was hard to pinpoint that. So he said it would be ok to drive around, but to be careful if the battery light came on again. Driving the car after that freaked me out. I was always waiting for the battery light to come on. I felt insecure driving it anywhere, because I would always wonder if was going to start again when I needed it to. Or worse, would it die on me while I was driving it?
At this point, my 1998 Corolla is 15 years old. It makes zero sense to attempt to fix an electrical problem in a 15 year old car. The writing is on the wall. It is time to say good-bye (a direct quote from my Dad: “That car owes you nothing.”). I got my tax refund back a few weeks ago, which I can use for a down payment. I got pre-approved for financing through USAA. My boyfriend and I test drove some cars yesterday, and I’m leaning towards a VW, probably a Golf because it will be nice to have the extra space a hatchback can offer. And, after having had a sedan for 15 years, it will be nice to have something different. The idea of something new after all this time is sort of exciting, even if I am apprehensive about having a car payment again after so long without one.
But more than that, I’ve realized, is the fact that I’m actually really going to miss my car. It was my first! Those always have a special place in your heart, right? That car has been a constant in my life for 15 years. I’ve lost friends, gained others, broke up with my college boyfriend, drove across the country, went to graduate school, got married and divorced, lived in 5 different places in LA, and have had 3 different jobs. Through it all, it was just me and my Corolla against the world.
Of course, I am not one of those wackos in love with inanimate objects. I know my car does not have feelings. Still, I cannot help feeling sad that it won’t be around anymore. It has been good to me over all of this time, and it’s a weird feeling to have something that you’ve relied upon for so long to no longer be a part of your life. So, with a heavy-ish heart, I bid adieu to my white, 1998 Toyota Corolla, with fondness and gratitude for seeing me through so many important life moments.