It’s morning rush hour, February 1984. I’m driving my 1967 Mercury Cougar on my way to work; the Cougar that has been passed down from sister to sister through my family and finally ended up mine. I had been desperate, about to graduate college a few months earlier with no car, finding it parked at our house with everyone afraid to drive it, and so one day I just drove away with it back to school.
I’m driving west through section of north Phoenix I live in, down to a mountain pass that will get me into the city itself since we’re still about ten years from getting a freeway here. I’m in a rush on my way to my first job post-college, post Bachelor Degree in History: Credit Authorizer at American Express. I make $10,000.00 a year and am in a training class for this job which lasts three weeks; a training class filled with 20 high school graduates and me; twenty people who smoke and me, the asthmatic, an ashtray placed in front of each of their training manuals. Twenty people who moved up into this job from worse jobs in American Express that paid even less and who are, even now, making less money than me for the same job. Twenty people who think that I just stumbled into this plum of a position with my fancy college degree from outside the company.
Our instructor, a sixty-year-old African American woman with frizzy orange hair, perfectly done make up, and wardrobe consisting of double-breasted, shoulder-padded, suit jackets and slim skirts, smokes too – an endless supply of menthol Virginia Slims. She takes a week’s worth of training material and stretches it out, out, out, until we can barely finish our training because we’re so busy learning about Vicky’s rotten ex-husband, why Patty left her job at the hospital where she was a nursing assistant, Pam’s tips on how to get the most mascara on your wand each morning, since she used to work at a makeup counter (twirl it around and around after you unscrew it, but before you pull it out), and what exactly happened to my car that morning.
In our family, our cars make a lot of noise, this is normal and has always been normal. There are normal noises and there are abnormal noises. Any change in the regular noise is considered bad. We look at our cars, mystified as the regular growling rumble is suddenly accompanied by a wheezing clunk or an annoying ping. We pretend to be knowledgeable; we prop open the burning hot hood, we check the oil, fill up the radiator with water, add some power steering fluid because we know that particular whine well and can easily tell when that goes out since suddenly just turning the corner requires both the driver and the front seat passenger to pull on the steering wheel.
But everything else is just a wish and a prayer. When my six sisters and I were in high school, our mother sent us out in these exploding, overheating cars, out into the 120 degree Arizona desert, armed only with the phone number for AAA, and, of course, no phone. Where would we find a phone in the middle of the desert, in Phoenix in the middle of the 1970s when there was nothing for miles, where we ran out of gas just driving to get gas because the gas stations were so far away?
Our cars embarrassed us, they humiliated us, they appalled us, but they did get us where we were going. We collected cars on the acre behind our house in the late 1970s while my sisters and I were still in high school, so that it resembled a used car lot. There was a 1969 Ford Town and Country station wagon, a 1970 Chevy Impala, an exploding gas tank Pinto station wagon, a bland, beige 1975 Chevy Nova, my sister Sandy’s orange Karmann Ghia, and my now-dead father’s 1970 Chevy Silverado Truck. All parked, all moldering. We’d pick one each day, guessing which one might work, which might take us the miles to school and then to our family produce market.
When we’d pull up at stop lights, the engines rumbled like we made them that way on purpose, and guys would pull up next to us, admiring that rumble, not knowing that the sound was really our transmission about to hit the pavement. They’d rev their engine at us where we sat in the car, our legs stuck to the vinyl of the front seat, sweating, not touching any of the chrome because while the car was parked it heated up to over 200 degrees. We’d smile wanly at the guys. The light would turn green and they would blast off. I’d say to my sister, “Go get them, Debbie! They were cute!” Mainly I’d say this because I was fifteen at the time. She was seventeen; perhaps she should have known better. At least she should have known our car better. So she’d press on the gas just a little too hard, we’d hear a wheezy airy sound, and the car would come to a dead halt. She’d check her wallet for the AAA card and we’d begin walking for a phone.
Mom could get us towed off any roadway with her handy AAA membership card. It was transferable to any member of her family, luckily, and so during our teen years we almost ran AAA into bankruptcy with the seven of us breaking down all over Arizona in the various household cars, in our boyfriend’s cars, in Mom’s boyfriends’ cars, in everyone’s cars, all breaking down, at least one a day all over town, the tow trucks’ flashing lights beating a path to wherever we were stuck.
But once towed, we weren’t sure where to take the cars for repairs. Normally the cars were just towed back home to our acre out in the empty part of Phoenix occupied only by roadrunners and tumbleweeds. They’d get deposited there, steaming, overheated, clunking, delivered by the tattooed tow truck drivers, all of us piling out of the cab of their trucks and thanking them for the ride. Then we’d just let the cars simmer there, let them lay fallow, stir in their own juices. We’d hope that maybe, just like the human body sometimes can heal itself, the cars would heal themselves; that they’d want to get better. So we’d let them sit there, dormant and stagnant, hoping that something would reset and we’d go back out there in about a month or two, put the key in the ignition, and they’d work.
But then there was Bob Pitt – the scrawny rooster car repairman Mom had taken an interest in. Though my mother was in real estate, she was different than all the other real estate agents who tried to specialize in selling million dollar homes to wealthy clients. My mother specialized in selling the most crumbling, ruinous houses to the poorest people on the planet. She was a one-woman Habitat for Humanity, believing everyone should own a house and that it was her job to get them into one, no matter what she had to do to make it happen.
Once she got a client, my mother became deeply embedded into their family, attending weddings, christenings, confirmations. Her life became deeply intertwined with theirs so that she’d try to figure out a way to fix every person in the family, normally by finding them all a house. Owning a house, she felt, could transform someone’s life. Her newest project was Bob Pitt.
When Mom took a personal interest in Bob Pitt, he became our car repairman, showing up showerless for days, maybe weeks. He drove a truck of indeterminate age, the body partly rusting, partly fading, all over dented, but with brand new tires and an antique vehicle license plate, and he’d tow our cars off with a chain. He’d tinker, he’d fiddle, he’d peer, he’d guess, he'd ash his cigarettes into the engine, and then he’d bring them back, until they broke down again, the next week or the next month.
That morning as I rush off to that smoke-filled training class at American Express, I am dressed as a 1984 professional. I am wearing a beige skirt, a white blouse, nude hose, and brown heels. I have my work badge on, clipped to the waistband of my skirt, and I’m carrying my beige leather purse. I drive along, happyish, beigeish, plotting my journey through the mountain pass, adding up the money that will be mine by trading the next eight hours for $5.15 each. I savor this money; I am amazed by this money, and amazed by the fact that I can trade each one of those endless, listless hours I would normally spend doing nothing at home but watching TV, for money, for professionalism, for benefits.
So I roll along in the Cougar that someone sometime had painted a flat yellow from its original translucent green so that now it looks painted and chalky. My window doesn’t shut all the way but that isn’t my worst problem, my worst problem is that the driver’s side door doesn’t open at all, leaving me to crawl out over the center console whenever I get somewhere, hiking my skirt up over my hips, showing the tops of my legs, the control top portion of my beige pantyhose.
Although it’s a wreck, I find that my Cougar helps to equalize me, to bring me down, to make my coworkers like me. It’s a democratizing element for me and the other members of my training class. When they first hear of me and my fancy college degree, I’m the subject of derision. When they hear that I was hired at $5.15 an hour while they’re making only $4.85, I earn their fury and contempt. But when we pour out of the building at 5:00 each day, our hose sagging, our curled hair now limp, and they see me climbing in the passenger side of the Cougar, the window crookedly stuck one-third open, with no air conditioning, the engine rumbling loudly and sometimes backfiring as I try to leave the parking lot, they begin to like me a lot more.
Their own decisions to forgo college in favor of the loaded Trans Ams and pristine Camaros they drive, in favor of car payments, insurance payments, and gas expenses, seem to be justified now, as they see me with my fancy degree in my embarrassing car, and earning only thirty cents an hour more than them after studying for four years (little did they know – it took me five!) And then, finally, they like me. They can be magnanimous because I am so clearly pathetic – wasting all those years in college, when I could’ve spent those years buying a really cool car, as they had.
So I’m driving along that morning in 1984 on my way to that training class at American Express when I smell some foul odor in the air and I think, “Gosh, whose car stinks so bad?” And I think, “Why doesn’t that driver just get that stink bomb off the road?” And then I see smoke coming out from under my hood and I realize my car is the stink bomb.
I leave the Cougar that day, its wheels poised in the middle of a turn, all the traffic behind me swerving around it, and I walk away in a huff, tip tapping in my professional leather-lookalike pumps through the hot asphalt intersection to the sidewalk. I know I’ll never see it again; I’ll refuse to ever see it again. We’re through. I walk away on my beige high heels, over to a neighborhood filled with houses and people just waking up on that weekday morning, hoping my American Express badge will make me look legitimate. Someone finally answers the door, lets me in, and I call home for a ride. Mom calls Bob Pitt to come get the car, and it is gone.
When I get to work at about 10 am, I find that my training class has been taking an extended smoking break that morning, waiting for me. Then my teacher has me regale the class with the rousing story of my breakdown for hours. It takes a full training day to discuss my car, to hoot and holler over the way I wrinkled my nose at the stench in the air that turned out to be my car’s stench, at how I stomped away from that damned car in the intersection, at how I have to ring a few doorbells before someone will let me in to use their phone.
My mother gives identical gifts to my sisters and me when we graduate college, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Beauty College, Pet Grooming Institute, or the State University. We all get five hundred dollars. I had been hanging onto that gift but once the Cougar breaks down that final time, I use my $500 to buy a 1976 Mercury Bobcat - the car twin of the Ford Pinto. This is pretty exciting because not only have I moved up 9 years in car newness, but it’s also kind of a compact car, if you look at it just right, like a pretend Toyota or Datsun. If you look at it wrong, it looks like an M&M rolling down the street on its wide side.
After I get the Bobcat, my boyfriend Ron and I make quite the striking pair: he has a 1976 dark green Pinto and I have a 1976 light green Bobcat. It’s nice to know that Ron is looking out for me so carefully, that he helped me in my car search, making sure that I find just the right car. He says, “Are you kidding? Your Bobcat is much nicer than my Pinto, Linda! Look at your seat gussets! You’ve got contrasting trim! And, even though it doesn’t work, there is air conditioning. My car doesn’t have air conditioning.” I nod. He’s right: this Bobcat is a class act.
Even though I’ve managed to get a new car and unload the old one with the door that wouldn’t open and the window that wouldn’t close, somehow my coworkers at American Express still seem to feel sorry for me, which I don’t understand. I’m inordinately proud of my car. After all, I no longer have to watch my car recede into the distance, towed away by a chain attached to Bob Pitt’s truck bumper.
Somehow my new car still seems to work as an equalizer for any differences between me and my coworkers, still balances out our educational differences; it’s still, apparently, an embarrassment. At the end of the work day my coworkers rev up the engines on their Trans Ams on their way out of the sloped parking lot of American Express while I’m putting along, nearly rolling backwards down the slope because I’m just learning how to drive the stick shift and don’t quite know how to work the clutch yet. And I see them inside their air-conditioned interiors, barely visible behind their tinted windows. And they wave.