We have a 2001 Volvo station wagon with approximately 177,000 miles on it that we call Lil Red. Lil Red drove us around New York and New Jersey when we lived there and drove us across the country when we moved west. My father gave us the car after our son, Max, was born. It was just sitting in their garage and he knew that my wife, Nicole, was teaching dance a lot at a studio that was far from our house. We lived in Jersey City at the time, right across the Hudson from Manhattan. Nicole had decided to go back to work after Max was born probably a little sooner than she should have, but that’s the way she is; she works hard and doesn’t like to be standing still for too long. She likes to constantly move forward, and though she will stay in one place, I can always see her start to get antsy, waiting for the next thing. When she gets there her behavior starts to change ever so slightly. A little restless, maybe a little snappish, which isn’t saying much because Nicole doesn’t really snap, and when she does, you have to ask her if that’s what just happened. When she snaps it is so nice that it just feels like she suggested something helpful rather than getting upset with you.
When Nicole was working again she would take the bus, with our son, in his baby seat, an hour into inner Jersey City. If you’ve ever been there you know inner Jersey is really is inner, it’s far, and parts of it are, for the uninitiated, kind of scary. The kids at the studio where she worked grew up, for the most part, poor, and this studio was only one of a few connections to culture that some of them had. It was hard work. She would come home and tell me about her experiences with some of the kids there and I would marvel at her patience and fortitude.
It made it even more amazing that she did all this by bus. I told her she should think about quitting but we both knew that we really needed the money. So we did this everyday until my Dad gave us Lil Red and the world shifted. Now she could drive to work. Talk about an amazing change. It made the world a little more bearable and we found our way through that period, with a newborn baby, two jobs, and not putting our son into daycare (mostly because we couldn’t afford it, but also because if we had that would have been her entire paycheck).
The time finally came for us to start thinking about moving back to Seattle right about the same time Lil’ Red started occasionally not starting. There was no rhyme or reason for it. We would slip in the key and nothing and nothing would happen. There was power, but nothing else, no turnover. Then fifteen minutes later we would try it again and it would start right up. It would do that about once a month until we would forget about it and then it would do it again. 3 mechanics looked at it and none of them could find anything wrong, so we proceeded with our move and prepared the car for a cross country trip.
The day we left was traumatic for us all, but mostly for Nicole. We slept in the floor as a family after giving away most of our possessions, including our bed, and were going to get up and finish loading the car. Nicole however could not sleep and got up at 2 or 3 and decided just to load things herself. It was then she discovered that the careful measuring we had done of items and space in the car was terribly flawed. Not even half the stuff we thought we could fit in the car would make it. This then became Nicole in the middle of the night deciding what to pack and what to leave on the curb for people to take. In the tristate area this is very common. If you leave things on the curb for free they will get taken. I promise. It’s like a club. Like Costco on the curb, you can find anything, and sometimes in bulk. This was all done so quickly and in such a haphazard manner that items of great love were left there. Things we wondered about later. Every now and then we would say, “What ever happened to xxx thing?” and we would assume that it must have been left. That those items were scattered about the Hamilton Park section of Jersey City, those pieces of us, adopted by strangers, and taken to a whole new life.
When the trip started it was much as you would expect driving with a toddler and two cats. There is a picture someplace of that first day and Nicole with a tired annoyed look on her face, stuffed into the car like a sardine. Eventually we left some items at various stops on the way and had them shipped to Seattle. The cats were never coming with us as we were stopping in Washington DC to bring them to their new home, so after that, things were a little easier and the trip became, though still stressful, more of an adventure. It was in Pagosa Springs Colorado that Lil’Red decided not to start. We had just had dinner at a little local brewery and got in the car to leave when she did her thing. There were several reasons this was stressful. First, we didn’t have much money. We had planned this trip pretty carefully and I was trying to make sure we had enough money for the things we needed when we arrived in Seattle, so a tow truck and a mechanic were not on the budget. Second, weather. We had been out running a series of storms all the way across the country. These storms eventually caught up to us in Utah, and thwarted our plans to stay in Arches, when a flood warning was announced. Finally, they actually hit us in Salt Lake City, the moment we walked in the door where we were staying. It poured so hard that trashcans were floating down the street and lightning was hitting trees. I have to say that it felt pretty good watching that deluge and knowing that if we had stopped earlier as planned we would have been stuck in flooding that lasted for days. How often do we get actual validation that you made the right decision so quickly? Still, there we were sitting in Pagosa Springs with a toddler in the back and everything we owned in the world and the car wouldn’t start. I freaked out a little for a few minutes and Nicole calmed me down, as she does in moments of great stress, and then, like always, fifteen minutes later the car started.
That was the moment, on that trip, when it regularly became stressful to start the car. Every time we got in we would look at each other with that cross your fingers look and turn the key. As far as I remember it didn’t do that again for our trip. It did other things, but not that, and eventually, we made it to Seattle. Lil’ Red did ok for a spell, and while we got it serviced as quickly as we could to make up for the many miles we put on it, it was never quite the same. I attribute this to, not just the trip, but two really nasty New York Winters that put more wear on the car than any winter on the West Coast ever could.
Eventually she started doing it again. Turn the key and nothing happens. At this point four mechanics had looked at it and still no one could tell us why it was doing what it was doing. When we eventually found a place to live we moved into a house next door to a guy who really loves Subarus. It’s sort of a joke in Seattle because everyone has a Subaru and so of course we would move in next door to a guy who loves to fix them and fix them he does, for almost nothing. He loves to just get his hands in there and work. Neighbors, friends, friends of neighbors. When we first met him he said his name was Tom, though I heard Tim and I called him Tim for about a month until he polity corrected me. When Max asked me who that man was I told him it was our neighbor Tom. Max looked at him and started waving and then yelled out, ” Hi Neighbor Tom.” Tom, who looks a lot like Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec, smiled a big mustached smile, and yelled back, “Hi neighbor Max.” To this day it’s the best call and response I’ve ever heard and a year and a half later they both still do it.
One day I casually mentioned to Tom the car’s strange habit of not starting but only every so often. He tells me he would be happy to take a look but assures me that the starter is on its way out. I ask him why none of the four mechanics that have looked at the car have been able to tell me that. He said it’s because the only way to know something for sure is to take out the starter, crack it open, and look at it from the inside, but if you have to do that then you have to replace the starter anyway so if it is working at the time thy have no real way of knowing for sure. After checking the car over he tells me that the battery is “Hot as Hell” so he doesn’t think it is power related. It was funny because, though I don’t know Tom well, I’d never imagined him as the type of guy to say hot as hell, he always stuck me as slightly conservative, the kind of man who might go to church on Sundays, or raise an eyebrow to cursing. Now I know that to be far from the truth and though I still don’t know if he is conservative or not, I know he has a sense of humor that expands beyond what I expected. One day, when we were away, and there was a bad storm, Nicole texted him to see if he would check on our house. He texted back, “I got you Grrl.” Again, I have no idea who this man is past the fact he likes my son and he loves his cars but this much I do know. He ordered us a new starter and as of tomorrow will be installing it himself. We will pay him, but whatever we do pay will be much less than what our normal mechanic would charge. So though I know he enjoys the inside of an automobile, I also know he is kind and willing to help us out.
Lately Nicole and I have had some hopes fall through. Didn’t get the grant, residency, fellowship or job. Some of these things we really hoped for because we knew they could start us on a more financially stable path while still practicing the arts we both love so much. There has been a lot of disappointment in that respect, and a lot of questioning about how we start to move forward rather than feel like we are in a cycle. Like we are trying the same things over and over again with the same results. This was actually a good year for me writing wise, as I got some recognition, something in short supply with playwrights, but still, nothing visible actually moved career wise. The invisible is always moving and that just leads to the “who knows” of these thoughts. I won’t dwell on that as it does no good to linger too long on those kind of things.
Now life is suddenly changing again and as Max gets older it seems like we are constantly entering a new kind of existence, one where where we must shed a little of who we were to become who we are. Four years into this parent thing I think I am just now realizing what it means to really change with a child and grow. A lot of people say they like their family. My family is amazing. I love them so much some days it hurts. My wife has more will and natural love than anyone I’ve ever met. My son has all of her great qualities and none of my terrible ones, that I know of yet. I’m sure those will all arrive when he is a teenager and then god help us all.
When situations happen over and over, when there is a pattern you can see, I think that means it is time to crack it open, go inside, and figure out if you need a new starter. It might cost us a little more and leave us inconvenienced for a while, but in the end at least we can keep this adventure rolling, and let me tell you, in this family, we roll.