So, I'm talking to my old man about a new car. He's giving me the skinny on how to keep the dealers on their toes. "Cash on the barrel," he says to me. "Then you just walk away."
I'm hemming and hawing about emptying my entire savings account in order to acquire something reliable vs. dropping a few thousand on unpredictable CPR on the Saturn. Then he says to me, "You gotta wonder if you're sending the wrong message about your worth."
That one stopped me cold. Worth? As in, my worth as a human? My net worth? Maybe he's talking about my value as potential mate or a job candidate. This is an intriguing question. If I'm wheezing and grunting around town in a beater, am I telling the world this chick has got things together?
It's not as if the old man's question had never crossed my mind. Pull into any Shell station or Safeway in Fairfax County, and you'll see very few scarred up 2000 Saturns. Even the kids zipping out of the public high school parking lot are driving nicer cars than I am. Hell, they're driving nicer cars than my parents are. So, yeah, if anyone is taking account of such things -- and someone must be, because even my dad voiced the question -- it's entirely possible that the run-down mess I drive is seen as a proxy for the run-down mess of its driver.
The thought of an affordable new-ish car, of shedding the mileage and rusted out clutch, appeals. But the truth is, I am not swimming in liquid cash. If I were to drop the money on a car, I would not be squirreling it away into Bug's college fund, my own 401K, or my get-outta-dodge account. At the brink of any decision, an open field of affirmatives awaits. Say a single Yes, and at that very moment, you say a dozen other Nos.
Underneath the financial echoes of the immediate decision is a quieter strain. It has to do with honoring and maintaining the choices already made. Our world is full of disposable things. Razors and soda bottles give way to electronics and automobiles. How much of this before one fails to see the resilient potential even in other people? Just because the old hunk of metal is limping along, it is not a piece of trash. It is a machine in need of attention and repair. After that, it requires careful handling, ongoing maintenance, and adaptation. Isn't this true of all the things we invite into our lives?
My Saturn's scars should make clear to those phantom judges sharing the road with me that I don't have a ton of cash to spend on frivolous things. The cluttered booster seat in the back might even help explain my priorities.
The waffling goes on for a few tortured weeks, but I finally come down on the only side I ever could have. As I bypass the showroom and pull around to the service bay, I tell my old man that the message about my worth is exactly right. If the car I drive communicates that my bank account is not a frat party, then I ain't stuttering.
By fixing the clutch, replacing the valves, oiling her up and getting her back on the road, maybe I'm attempting to walk the talk. Live lightly, make things last, care well for the long haul. I aim to hang on to this one as long as she is willing to ferry me through this congested tangle of urban streets. A car is an incomplete messenger. It can only offer a fractured glimpse into a person's value. It can, however, shed light on what a person chooses to value.