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Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link.]

My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called the Vanwall. As you might guess, my father was a car nut. My younger brother is Cooper, but don’t call him Mini Cooper.

You’d think I’d be a car nut myself. But apart from primal male lusting after Corvette Stingrays and the Maserattis and Ferraris we see tooling around Katonah, I’m not. In fact, I’m a very cautious, even anxious driver, the old guy who never exceeds the speed limit on the Saw Mill Parkway.

Still, I need to get around. I was very happy with a 2004 Hyundai Elantra I bought in 2005 at the Hyundai dealership in Stamford. It was a corporate car, barely used and I happily drove it for over 13 years. That is, until the steering seized up and the engine started smoking a few weeks ago. Rather than get it repaired, I decided to put the money into a down payment for a new car. 

Me, a new car! The Elantra lasted longer than cameras, cell phones and computers. But for all my mooning over American muscle cars and curvy Euro roadsters, my practical turn of mind drove me in another direction. All my research, especially Consumer Reports, pointed to the Toyota Prius. Reliable, good for the environment, and I could get from a local dealer—a big issue since Hyundai dealerships kept closing on me.

So last week I bought a 2015 Prius at Rivera Toyota in Mt. Kisco. The leap in technology is amazing. Besides the battery power, the Prius has a CD player. Was I the last person in Bedford, NY, to drive a car with a tape deck? I drove around with boxes of tapes in my car so I could groove to Miles Davis and the Texas Tornados; now I’ve donated most of them to Goodwill. I even donated the Elantra to Goodwill.

I picked up the car on a Monday and faced my first test on Tuesday as a nervous driver. I had to go to Norwalk for a dental appointment, then to downtown Stamford to serve as the photographer at an event at my employer’s office. That’s not much mileage, but the day had pounding rain . . . and I was driving a new car . . . and I had to drive on I-95 . . .

Actually, for me, the anticipation is much worse than the reality of doing. That applies to all kinds of life activities. I steered the car to Norwalk, a good warmup. Then, true to form, I missed the convoluted entrance onto I-95 in South Norwalk, but finally found an entrance a few miles away in Rowayton. I immediately got the full I-95 fun ride: Rain, big trucks, meandering lanes.

But what happened? Knowledge kicked in. I’ve driven I-95 plenty of times before. I knew where I was going and the traffic patterns. I knew exactly what to expect when Exit 8 for Elm Street appeared. I found the company garage, parked and that was it. The car worked fine and I liked the windshield wipers that didn’t go “skree, skree” like a crazed raven when I used them.

Little waves of relief rolled over me when I packed up my camera to leave. All I had to do was get home. I hoped for blue skies that late afternoon. Instead, the police had blocked off Elm Street under I-95 because the downpour was flooding the roadway. Cars going north on Elm Street created waves like speedboats. Rather than risk stalling my shiny new wheels in the sudden pond, I exited on East Main – with traffic bumper to bumper, I couldn’t move over to turn left. The street carried me east, further from where I needed to go. Years ago I would have broken out in a cold sweat. This time, however, I drew on my reptilian memory of having lived in Stamford for seven years, so I knew the place.

I saw an intersection coming up for Glenbrook Road, which goes north to where I used to live in Stamford. I turned right, turned around in a parking lot, and headed north. The Prius crept north in the monsoon, wipers slamming back and forth. I felt calm in the situation, like I had threaded the needle of proper response. The GPS from my phone, cradled in my lap, told me where to turn. As long as I kept moving north, I’d eventually get return to the snug confines of Katonah, and I did. Once again, I learned that a little life experience goes a long way in coping with anxiety.

I’m still making the car my own. My sense of space is filling it in, that sensation when you and the car merge, like a hand in a glove. I’m still plowing through the instruction manual, which has about 25 pages on how to lock and unlock the doors. I’m putting it through the paces of the familiar ant trails I use to get around the area. For the first time in my life, I set up that Bluetooth function on my phone to connect it with the audio and map display of the car, although I haven’t figured out how to use it. But that’ll happen. As I have learned, experience on the roads counts for a lot.

I’m looking forward to selecting a stack of CDs to keep in the car. Which one will have the honor of being the first to spin in the CD player?

Maybe I don’t need to feel nostalgic for the Elantra’s tape deck after all.


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