firsts and seconds

My first car was a 1989 Chevrolet Caprice Classic. Picture every American police car and taxi cab from the 1980s and that’s bascially it, except mine was baby blue. It was a lurching, roaring metal box on the front of which were slung two long rectangles for headlights. The fender wrapped under the grille and around the sides in a sort of pained grimace. 

It looked like a cantankerous old man, wincing its way along the road.

Seriously questioning my parking methods at this rest stop in Ohio in December 2001.

I can’t say it was my first choice of car — hell, I didn’t have choices. My father bought it used and drove it to work for about a year with the intention that I’d in turn buy it from him. I did so at 17, and steered it 3,000 miles to college in California with my brand-new Hewlett-Packard desktop computer boxes and some long twin sheets from Bed, Bath & Beyond in the backseat. 

I loved my car, of course, in that proudly defiant way you do when you own something ugly and out-of-date. Young men were continually leaving chickenscratched notes on crumpled scraps of paper under my windshield wipers, asking if I’d sell it. No! I shall do no such thing, sirs. I will not turn a cheap profit by enabling you to do unspeakable things to its rims.

I liked my car just fine the way it was. The dash featured faux wood inlay, and the back license plate flipped down to fill the gas tank. I had a cranberry-scented Yankee Candle air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror, a “Kill Your TV” sticker on the trunk, and a smudged inkjet printout of The Cure taped to the inside the rear window.

There were fuzzy armrests. Of course there were fuzzy armrests.

But by my third year of college the old Caprice was failing. Replacing the transmission hadn’t fully soothed its troubled spirit. So my father, in the way some fathers do, took it upon himself to start keeping an eye out for a replacement.

One day he saw a post on an internal listserv at work. A coworker’s elderly mother had died, and he was selling her car. It was eight years old, and had 57,000 miles on it.

He was intrigued.

And so my second car became a 1993 Toyota Corolla. Once again, my father bought it and I bought it from him. We made the vehicle exchange while I was visiting my parents on Christmas break in 2001. 

I was proud.

Pretty girl in January 2002.

I was going through my box of paperwork recently when I rediscovered all the documents from the first owner that had been included with the sale of the car. There they were, a clutch of papers filled out in ink with a grandmotherly scrawl.

My Corolla originally belonged to a lady named Dorothy who lived in northwest Philadelphia. She traded in her 1982 beige Ford Escort towards the purchase price, which was $15,074.

Dorothy had custom-ordered the car to her liking. She had an alarm put on it, and power locks, and a cassette deck, but left the windows and transmission manual. I was always sort of impressed that an elderly lady would choose to drive stick.

The purchase documents say my car is the color of “Sunfire,” which is news to me. Here I’ve just been putting “red.”

Dorothy kept everything. Every single scrap of paper anyone ever handed to her about the Corolla, she diligently stowed away. I have the yellow copy of an printed invoice for a small tube of Sunfire-colored touch-up paint, for which she paid Champion Toyota $4.73 in cash on April 26, 1995. That tube lives, as it always has, in the glovebox next to a striped kitchen dish towel. I’m not sure what Dorothy meant the towel to be used for, but I am grateful she left it there because over the past twelve years it’s alternately been used to mop up spills, dust the dashboard, and dry my tears.

My absolute most favorite nugget of information in the file is on the car’s original tags. The kicker is that Dorothy was rolling around Philly with a vanity license plate that read DOTSROD.

Hand to heart. What a gal she was.


The last time I riffled through these papers I couldn’t help but notice the Corolla’s purchase date: April 7, 1993.

“My car is turning 20 on Sunday,” I told my mother on the phone last week.

Ohhhhhhh!” she exclaimed, her voice rising and falling in that same way she uses to praise her dog.

“I’m thinking about baking it a cake,” I said, seriously. I mean, it’s not like I have any friends, so whatever’s clever.

“Are you going to take it out to the car and let the exhaust blow the candles out?” she asked.

Fair enough, mother.

I didn’t end up baking anything. What happened was, the beau and I went hiking in the foothills above Golden. We had a nice view of some trees and the Coors brewery. I turned my ankle on a rock running back down the mountain, which is unrelated to the story about my car, but I thought I’d just jam that tidbit in there because days later I am still icing it. Rocks, watch out for them, because they want to kill you dead.

After the hike we went to a novelty sandwich shop in downtown Golden for lunch. If you’re wondering why I described it as a “novelty,” consider this: the sandwich I ordered had sauerkraut AND peanut butter on it, among other incongruous things. And oh my goodness gracious gravy boat, it was delicious

As we were paying for our food, the beau admitted that it was our first time there. “Then you’re in luck,” the cashier said. She reached over and plucked two saran-wrapped brownies from a bowl, and slipped them in our bag. “First-timers get a little incentive to come back.”


And so back at home I found myself, on April 7, 2013, sticking a candle in a double chocolate fudge walnut brownie and lighting the wick.

“Sing Happy Birthday!” I called to the beau. 

“Uh, you start,” he replied, and promptly slunk off to another room.

I didn’t sing Happy Birthday. I didn’t even take the brownie outside, because it was too windy and I also just couldn’t be bothered to put on pants. What I did was give a little toast, jabbing the air with my fork in the direction of where my car was parked outside.

“To you and me, for twenty more years,” I said, and I meant it.

Tell me about your cars.

32 Responses to “firsts and seconds”

  1. This is off-topic, but thank you for posting your wedding ceremony; we based our ceremony on yours. There’s a short film of our wedding day here:

    Thanks again!

  2. The pages I could fill about my cars.

    (I loved this.)

    (Also, I wanted you to know that my friend from childhood was briefly a stripper in college and her stage name was Caprice Classic. Thought you might appreciate that.)

  3. I love this, especially because it reminds me of my friends who had cars in high school, and who were devoted to their own quirky, father-bought cars. They had cars like two-seater Fieros that broke down every other day, and boxy Oldsmobiles named Maude.
    I’m still driving my first car, a 2000 Saturn sedan that I bought when I graduated college and moved to Philadelphia. I exasperated all the dealers in my area by insisting I wanted to buy a car with a manual transmission. “Why do you need a manual?” they’d ask. “Automatics get just as good mileage these days!” I just want it, salesman. Find me what I want to buy.
    Weeks after I bought it, I drove it a few hundred miles to Philadelphia, where I wrecked it not once, not twice, but three times. At least all the panels still match, but the unscrupulous South Philly repair shop stole my spare tire, and I didn’t find out for another three years.
    Right now, my little plastic car has practically shaken itself to bits, the interior is broken to pieces, and it squeaks and shivers and rumbles (I think I need to replace the exhaust, ugh). But it’s all mine, bought and paid for, and I think she’s still got a few more adventures in her.
    To all our cars: may they run forever.

  4. First, Golden is my hometown, and I am *dying* to know the place where you got a peanut butter and sauerkraut sandwich, because I have clearly been missing the highlights of my birthplace.

    My first car was a two-door Honda Civic — purchased used, bright turquoise, impractical dark interior with a black steering wheel that got too hot to touch on bright summer days. Once upon a time I could fill its tank for a mere $10. I abandoned it to go to college and my dad used to drive it sometimes, allegedly to keep the battery running (I think he wouldn’t admit it, but he liked the color). Then a hailstorm damaged it and my mom sold it to a local college student who needed an inexpensive, reliable ride. I hope it was as good to her as it was to me.

    • It was D’Deli on Washington Ave! Not sure how long they’ve been there, but judging from their outdated website, it seems like it’s been a while.

      I love that you had a turquoise Civic!

  5. My first car was a 1993 Pontiac sunbird. It was a turquoise color, convertible, v6 engine. My parents got it for me as a graduation present; it’d belonged to a friend of the family and she wanted me to have it when she passed. I loved that car. I loved driving at night (in the day as well) with the top down. The speakers were good, which I really appreciated during my hip hop phase. And it was fast! I won several races in that little thing. One michigan winter, I was on my way home from work and i spun into a ditch. Some guy towed me out and then into the opposite ditch. Anyway, it finally broke for good last summer when the rear struts gave out and now I’m driving a 94 Honda accord station wagon that we bought from Derrik’s grandfather.

    • Ohhhh man, I feel like everyone from Michigan has a ditch story. Also, jealous of your old convertible… I’d love to drive a car with the top down one day.

  6. When I was in high school I drove one of my parents giant Oldsmobiles and a extra-giant Chevy that had been my grandfather’s. The doors on that thing were so heavy that I had to lean my while body out and hold on to something on the inside of the car, like the steering wheel or a passenger, in order to be able to pull the door shut. The Oldsmobile was less heavy, but was painted rather shark-like.

    My first car, though, would be one that went from my grandfather to my dad then to me. It is a 1993 Ford Escort station wagon and I am still driving it. It’s birthday is also April 1993, so it is now 20. I hope it lasts forever too. I am kinda amazed at its tenaciousness, surviving extreme winter climates in its elderly years… My husband’s car is an even older Mercedes. 27 years now I think. It’s diesel and it has a lot of patina. We usually drive mine though because it handles the winter better. His dislikes starting when it is -20C. Mine usually does.

    Here’s to old cars! And happy birthday to yours!

    • Ah, the two cars from my grandfathers were from different grandfathers…

    • “It has a lot of patina.” That is a perfect description.

      Wooot, joint car birthdays! Happy 20th to yours. I appreciate that you are both rocking elderly vehicles. If it ain’t broke…

      • Yes to “if it ain’t broke!” My husband and I have decided we are perfectly content and happy with our old cars. It’s way less expensive, more unusual (which is interesting/fun to us), and it removes the stress of “What if something happened to my car?” Though I must admit I will be sad when the time comes to put her out to pasture, but at least I will know that she had a nice, long life of being useful to my grandparents, my parents and us…

  7. I got so weirdly excited to see this post about your cars. It may have something to do with the fact that I’ve been car-less for 4 years since I moved to the city, and damn, do I miss driving.

    My first car was a teal 4 door 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix I received (I still have some guilt about that) from my parents in the fall of 2002, when I was a senior in high school. My friends and I put miles and miles and miles on that car, just driving around our boring small town, doing nothing but singing along to the radio and mix tapes we’d made. I called her Bonnie. Bonnie’s transmission quit almost 4 years later and so my dad and I went car shopping. Somehow I convinced him to help me purchase a 2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport, which was the BEST car (his name was Chick. I don’t know why, but then I glue a little pipe cleaner chick to the dashboard. Oh, college.) But then my husband (then boyfriend) totaled it a year later. He was driving, we were t-boned in an intersection and the jeep rolled onto its side, J wound up kicking out the windshield to get out. With the insurance money, I got a little, low to the ground Volvo with a high safety rating. When I moved to New York after grad school I sold it to my parents for $1. Now my mom drives it.

    • Man, I remember how in youth driving was so much about freedom. Just driving around for the sake of going places, even if those places were nowhere.

      Also, WHAT A SCARY ACCIDENT STORY. Nightmares!

      PS, love that you named your first Bonnie. I named my second Constance.

      • Yeah, it was not a fun day. There was a hospital trip and everything, but thankfully everyone involved was fine.

        And the Pontiac was named Bonnie after the famous outlaw, and my best friend, who bought her first car right around that time, named hers Clyde. We were such dorks. Whenever I go home, I still find myself taking the long way places if I’m driving by myself, just to try and recapture that feeling.

  8. My first car was a 96 Subaru Legacy that my Mom had bought from my Aunt. My mom was driving my sister’s car, a 2000 Mitsubishi Mirage because my sister got a new car when she was learning to drive and I got my Mom’s hand me down because I couldn’t handle a stick shift. When my sister got to have a car on campus, she took her car back, my mom took hers back, and my Dad bought my grandfather’s Ford Taurus off of him to keep him from driving, so that became my second car. I hated driving the Taurus and eventually my mom wanted a new car, so she got an Outback and I finally got her old Subaru back. We sold the Taurus to a friend, and then my Subaru got t-boned by the guy who writes parking tickets on campus. It never worked properly after that and then my other grandpa went into a nursing home so I got his old 1996 Subaru Legacy, this time in white. I drove that car until 2010 when my Dad sold it after I complained about the squealing noise it made while breaking, the rattling on the highway at speeds over 50mph, and it wouldn’t start in bad weather.
    So now I drive my husband’s 2006 Toyota Corolla. I had to learn to drive stick, and to share, and it’s been 3 years now but we’re doing okay.
    I’ve never had my own car. I don’t think my husband understands that when I talk eagerly about buying a second car someday, that part of it is simply pride of ownership. I want my own car, in my name, or at least with my name on the title, that I pay for, that I pick out, with the features I like in a car. But I kind of hate driving, so I’m pretty okay with putting that off. I did pay $375 for a hybrid bicycle back in 2007, and that felt really, really good.

    • Ellie — a ’96 Subaru Legacy is what Beau drives! Also, hit by the parking ticket dude? That’s crazy.

      I hear you about the pride of ownership thing, and also about the not really enjoying driving anymore. I think it would be cool to pick out a custom car tailored to my likes, but I’m also afraid that I would actually be too nervous to drive it after that for fear of door dings and rogue pebbles hitting the windshield. Oh well, at least I don’t have to think about it just yet…

  9. THE G MOBILE!!! awwwwwwwww. I still have pictures you sent me (along with a 15-page handwritten letter, I’m sure) of CJ sitting in the front seat of the G Mobile in front of your house in Centreville.

    As to my car, well you know that story, but I am still mourning it. A battered 93 Civic, stick shift, with a bunch of cosmetic damage. Broken glove box. Dying tape deck. Flickering electricals that got worse in the winter. A wildly inaccurate gas gauge. A bumper I reattached (twice!) with JB Weld. I loved that car, and it broke my heart to get rid of it. No lie, two of my friends drive new civics, and I find them totally inferior to my beloved piece of shit car. Poor Miss Kitty. We had some good times. RIP, little buddy.

  10. I have had two cars in my life. The first was a 1992 Toyota Camry that I got when I was 16. I did not get this car on purpose. It was meant to be my mother’s but I just never got how to drive a stick and crashed the much older manual transmission Camry that my mother was going to pass down to me and refused to ever drive stick again. Why she ever agreed to give me the brand new car and drive the old one herself still remains a mystery. I had that car until 2004 when I bought my 2004 CRV. I am planning to keep it forever.

    My husband is a car keeper. He has owned four cars and still has three of them. The fourth fell apart as we pulled it into the Pick n’ Pull. The average age is 23 with one of them being brand new.

  11. Errrrr…..I can’t drive. So ‘no cars go’ here. (Whenever I hear that song I think of that dumb car your family had that somehow made it to Canada and back.)

    Really liked this post. And at the risk of sounding like a therapist I don’t find it at all surprising that your car’s rite of passage and its history is especially important given your recent move across the country. 12 years is a bloody long time! Several moves, a couple of relationships, numerous jobs – it’s with you and still kicking. Or driving, whatever. Is special.

    • Moz, you know just how to get in my head. Earlier I was thinking about how this car has been through four states and countless states of “being,” for me. I know you and I both tend to get a bit too attached to objects, but it’s just hard not to when they’re with you through so much.

  12. It was a gold 1988 ford escort 2door hatchback that my grandfather gave me. I loved that little car with its tape deck and no ac so much, even though it cost me. It had been left sitting too long and so had hidden issues. By the time I rolled it into a junkyard three years later I had replaced the fuel pump, gas tank, starter, sparks, battery, 4 air filters, and the tail light. At the end it did this thinh where I would lose all resistance on the gas pedal. The epectric stayed on, the car was still running, but I could only steer and brake. At first it would reengage after a second, but then I started having to pull over and restart it, and then it stopped restarting all together. I still miss it.

  13. Hooray! I drive a 1993 Toyota Corolla, too! I bought it in 1995. It’s “Rose Quartz,” which looks like a pinky-beige. It’s got over 300,000 miles on it and I’m planning to dive it until duct tape won’t hold it together. The speedometer stopped working, the interior light doesn’t work, and the headliner thing is falling down. It’s time for a new one, but I have such an emotional attachment to it! It only had 23,000 miles on it when I bought it, so we’ve been a LONG way together.

  14. G-MOBILE!!!!!! ( I haven’t perused the other comments yet, but I highly suspect that at least one other person has already exclaimed this). You know, I have a picture of it in front of my parents’ house; I sometimes think about framing it. I have some pretty fond memories of Constance, too. (Also, Hi!)

  15. My first car was a 1981 Toyota Corolla-Tercel. My mom bought it for me in 1989 for $1,800. It had been owned by one little old lady for the purpose of driving to the grocery store and had 23,000 miles on it (in 8 years!). Based on that car’s crazy gas mileage, I think she probably had to fill the gas tank about once a year.

    It was a little silver box on wheels that could drive like the wind. I could drive to and from Phoenix (back then, 2 hours each direction) on 1/4 tank of gas — with a 10-gallon tank. If anything broke, I only had to change a 50-cent fuse and it would start working again. No joke: car won’t start — change a fuse; radio isn’t working — change a fuse; a/c is on the fritz — you got it, change a fuse.

    Sadly, my brother had talked my mom into buying him a gas-guzzling, constantly-breaking-down flashy 280ZX T-top, and then the war hit and gas prices skyrocketed. She sold the 280ZX, bought me a newer Honda Civic in 1990, and gave my sweet little ride to my brother (whom she didn’t trust with a newer car because he used his cars to lug band equipment around to gigs). The Civic had been in an undisclosed accident, though, and the trunk always leaked so the car always smelled bad. It was rear-ended about 6 different times, and finally totalled in a winter black-ice accident along the I-70 corridor near Glenwood Springs. I never had a love for the civic and wasn’t sorry to see it go, but I still miss my little Corolla-Tercel, which my brother drove for nearly 15 years.

  16. My first truck was a gorgeous dark green Toyota Tacoma. It and I drove to North Carolina, and I thought that its awesomeness would help me get laid. Not so much. Second car was a silver Saturn that I bought for $3000. It did not have power steering, but I loved it anyway. I used to drive it through [place redacted] singing loudly along to Lucinda Williams. Current car is a twelve-year-old Volkswagon (I’m moving up in the world) that someone with kids sold us. It smelled like crayons the first year we owned it, and we found shotgun shells beneath the front seat.

  17. Woo, almost a month late!

    My first car was a ’98 Dodge Neon. I got it brand spankin’ new for my 16th birthday. I really should say ‘is’ because I’m still drivin’ that baby. 15 this summer, and still going strong. Well, not *strong*, exactly, but still truckin’ along, doing fairly well. It has manual locks and windows, a tape player (I don’t have any tapes!), and the a/c is long gone, but I like to think of it as ‘lived in.’ It’s got a few dents in it, which I think is good . . . when himself crushed the lid to the gas tank a couple of months ago when he was backing into a parking spot, I didn’t lose my shit. What’s another blimp on the car? I’m a bit afraid of getting a new one. I hope I don’t have to for quite some time. Your story gives me hope. Glorious, glorious hope.

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