Note: This has nothing to do with shoes, or pie, or even sewing.
I grew up in NJ, where the legal driving age is 17. That’s right, 17. I know it sounds strange to the rest of you folks, but we didn’t find it the slightest bit peculiar. If you’ve ever driven the pre-industrial-revolution highway system in NJ, you appreciate the extra year we had to mature.
Although it’s possible to get a learner’s permit at 16-1/2, I procrastinated and didn’t finish my driving lessons (with Corky Wallace, of Wallace Driving School, the school that taught kids to drive on Firebirds) and get my permit until the legal-bare-minimum of two weeks before my 17th birthday. I did not drive once during those two weeks. And yet, somehow, miraculously, I passed my test the first time out, and the State of NJ licensed me to drive on any public road in the U.S.
But I had no car.
My friends had cars. Kim would occasionally let me drive her brown K-car when we were out together. My friend Mike, bless him, would sometimes let me drive his 1971 Dodge Challenger during my lunch period, while he was in class. I never figured out how to adjust the front seat, and Mike was a tall kid, so I wound up driving that beautiful hunk of steel while perched on the edge, meaning that I drove even worse than your average newly-licensed teen. There was a “spare” car sitting in our driveway at home, all it needed was a new choke cable, but my family members shun automatics and my dad refused to teach me to drive stick. He wanted me to learn how, of course. But he knew it would involve both yelling and tears, and he didn’t want to get involved in that. My sister was never home to teach me, and besides, while she was a wiz at teaching me to ride a bike, I thought she was a crappy driver (she hadn’t bothered to get her license until she was in her 20s, so she was new to it as well).
Throughout my senior year, I walked to and from school. After school and all summer long, I walked to and from work. Sure, I wanted a car, but dad’s rule was that I had to pay for the entire thing myself. Car, gas, insurance, repairs. My part-time job at the bakery wasn’t going to cover that. Besides, I would soon be leaving for school in Brooklyn, and who needs a car when you can take the subway? Heck, my college didn’t even allow freshman to keep cars on campus.
By the end of my sophomore year at college, the government was slashing education loan programs, and my family had collectively run out of the money required for tuition. I transferred to a state school. It was cheaper, and I could live at home, further cutting expenses. But now I needed a way to get to school. I’d been saving money from my new job as a supermarket cashier, and scouring the classified ads for a car that would satisfy my dad’s parental concerns, but still be cool enough for me to be seen in. Week after week, nothing hit the impossible triangle of cheap-reliable-cool. Time was running out. Finally, the weekend before class was to start, I gave my dad $1300 in cash (approx $2k in today’s economy) and he headed out to buy me a car while I went to work.
Now, many of you might worry about letting your father pick out your first car, but you have to keep in mind, my dad is a Car Guy. And an artist, so he appreciates a good line, as well as good mechanics. We’d been going to car shows together for years, and I knew he wouldn’t come home with anything awful.
Like, for instance, a 1984, baby blue, Ford Escort.
An Escort. In baby blue. I actually cried when my dad called to tell me. But, when I decided to wipe away those tears and just be grateful that I at least had a car, a new fear came over me. I hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car in two years. And two years prior, I could probably count off all of my driving experiences without running out of fingers and toes. Um, like, oh shit. My stepmom picked me up at work in my new car, so I could drive it home. The 1-mile trip was completely unmemorable, which I’m sure is a good thing. And on my day off, I took the car through the rigorous NJ state inspection. Which it failed. The car needed a new catalytic converter. Dad, thank goodness, paid for it. He felt guilty for handing me a car that he picked out, and saddling me with that not-inexpensive repair right off the bat. I had the work done, I passed the inspection, and I started commuting.
Whenever I could.
See, the car had no power. My dad thought I was just being whiney because I’d really wanted an 8-cylinder vintage muscle car, like maybe that ’71 Cougar that I had very seriously been looking at, but really, I swear, the car sucked. My campus was perched on the top of a large hill, and there was no way to get there without climbing up one road or another. My car would chug along, slower and slower, occasionally pissing off the people behind me. Dad finally believed me, and we took it in to a shop, where we found out that only three cylinders were working. More money, again out of dad’s pocket, and the Escort was back on the road. Until the next cylinder went out. Or maybe it was the same cylinder, over and over. All I remember is being towed more than once to an assortment of mechanics, borrowing my grandmother’s car whenever mine was in the shop (she drove a ’77 BMW so it REALLY wasn’t a hardship for me), and shopping around for a new car. We tried to use the Escort as a trade-in, but no dealership would take it. One salesman even told my dad, “I wouldn’t let you pay me to take that car.” I sold it privately for parts for $500, my compassionate grandmother kicked in a matching $500, and I had a small down payment on a brand-spankin’-new, Aztec Red Nissan Sentra a mere eight months after getting the Escort.
Oh, and I’m still not allowed to mention the Escort within earshot of my dad. :)