Old Friend

In the fall of 2006 I flipped my hunter green Honda Civic off a state route just south of the Santa Cruz County border. I was coming around a corner, half an hour after a steady rain had set in, when I hit a slick spot and the car wrenched sideways. One moment I was fighting the wheel, the next everything dissolved into a roar of white noise. When I came to I was hanging by my seatbelt. A few seconds later I heard someone calling from outside the car, asking if I was okay. Miraculously, I was.

The holidays came and went. Then in the spring, a guy from my church who I had never met called me and told me he'd heard I was looking for a new ride. This was technically true. I was living with my parents at the time, and borrowing one of their cars, but I was planning a move to Seattle and needed a vehicle. I just hadn't been looking very hard. 

"You going to be at church on Sunday?" the guy asked. 

"Yeah."

"Ok. Meet me in the parking lot before the service." 

When I arrived, my fellow congregant was waiting beside a white 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 sport coupe. Though I would soon learn the car was nearly ten years old, I could tell it was in excellent shape. The guy shook my hand, and introduced himself as Nathan. He hooked a thumb toward the Ford. 

"My wife and I have been looking for somebody to give our car to."

I blinked. "Give," I said.

"Yeah."

Nathan had a calm, unassuming presence that extended to his manner of speaking. Nothing flashy, nothing grandiose. Which made what he was saying even harder to compute.

I felt a confused grin contorting my lips. "Huh."

I remember sliding into the driver's seat, running my hands lightly over the steering wheel, marveling like a child at the generosity I was the sudden beneficiary of. A couple minutes later Nathan signed the car's title over to me. To this day, it is one of the single greatest material gifts I've ever received. I never saw or spoke to Nathan again.

+  +  +

I soon learned my new chariot could get up and go. When I gunned the Ford to merge onto the freeway, or execute emergency maneuvers to avoid a bus, or because I was in my mid-twenties and sometimes I just gunned it to gun it, it would cough out a pleasantly throaty roar. I mean, it didn't necessarily put on a corresponding burst of speed, but the noise was great. Driving a stick shift is something a certain kind of person talks about with salty reverence, as if it's a skill that correlates directly with freedom and competence and self-sufficiency. Hemingway would have driven a stick, they imply. John Wayne. Davy Crockett. Achilles. Stick shifts. My experience is that driving a manual transmission consists of long periods of annoyance punctuated with occasional moments of not being safe. This is particularly true in a hilly city like Seattle, where the opportunities to stall out and roll backwards into a Mercedes are endless. 

While the Ford had a certain sporty quality, it also had other features—some people in my life have called them "problems," but I don't want to quibble about semantics—which came to the fore over the course of my first few years of ownership. 

The car's poor cabin insulation left me partially deaf for several hours after any significant period of highway driving. Also, the Ford did not have not air conditioning, which meant I sweated like a pig in the summers. On the other hand, the windshield wipers didn't really work very well. This probably had something to do with my not changing them, ever. I once went so long without replacing the blades that they ceased to actually clear water from the glass. A friend offered to buy me a new pair after I nearly T-boned a minivan I hadn't seen through the wall of water. 

But the heat worked fine, I got great gas mileage, and I was young and carefree. I didn't mind a barebones ride. After my accident, I'd gone to the junkyard and pulled the stereo out of the Honda. The Ford's stock speakers sounded great, and I blasted my tunes while tooling around the city.

I commuted to work and graduate school in the Ford. I took numerous long road trips in it. I picked up women for dates. I gave friends rides. Time passed.

+  +  +

I did not maintain the Ford. Or, I maintained it at such a minimalist level that it was as if I was running a field test on how long a car could go without regular maintenance and still keep operating. About ten years, it turns out. 

I moved to Portland, got married, and continued driving the Ford every day. If something vital broke, I fixed it. Other than that, I blew past recommended oil change deadlines like the "expiration date" on a package of Red Vines, rarely washed the thing, and never had it aligned. I spilled coffee on the carpet, with and without half and half. I allowed an ornamental moss garden to take root in the weather stripping of the doors. One of the wheels constantly bled an orange gunk, the provenance of which I never did discover. At one point I let a friend borrow the Ford while I was out of town for the weekend. When I got home, the interior door handle on the passenger side had been ripped off. My buddy swore this had "just happened." For the next five years I instructed passengers to grab the map pocket and yank extra hard. 

Towards the end of its life, the car's master cylinder would start bleeding off once or twice a year, resulting in an extremely dangerous scenario where the clutch pedal would stick to the floor whenever I shifted gears. I'd have to pop it back out with my toe. Every single time. I eventually got to a point where doing anything over forty miles an hour made the entire vehicle wobble and moan like a biplane in a dogfight, and I committed to never taking it on the freeway again. 

Then one day a few months ago I was driving down Burnside, headed towards the river. Just as I was passing the Laurelhurst Theatre, the Ford suddenly shuddered and died. The power steering had given out along with everything else, and I had to wrestle the car to the curb. I had it towed to my faithful mechanic, Gary, who told me the timing belt had thrown a ball bearing. When he quoted me a price, I suspected it was far more than the Ford was worth.

My wife and I were expecting our first child, and had been saving for a family car for some time. Given that our "nice" car was a seventeen-year-old Toyota Camry with a cracked windshield and some kind of skin condition that made the roof look like it had been repeatedly dipped in acid, letting the Ford go was an easy decision.

I called a local junkyard. They offered me $72. 

+  +  +

I never knew how nostalgic I would feel for the Ford until it was gone. The day I went to Gary's for the last time, with keys and title in a manila envelope for the tow truck driver (I had decided to donate the car to my local public radio station instead of suffer a $72 indignity), I was overtaken by memories. 

I thought of all the trips I'd made in the Ford, back and forth between Santa Cruz and the Northwest, including a memorable journey down the coast in which I camped on the sand outsides Dunes City. The next morning I had locked my keys inside the car at Moonstone Beach in Humboldt County. A friendly stranger loaned me a coat hanger so I could break into my own vehicle. Which, actually, was nothing compared to the time I locked the Ford while it was running in the parking lot at Emerald Downs racetrack. 

In the summer of 2008 I made an epic and ill-advised death hike along the extreme Northwestern tip of Washington State. After a fifteen mile scramble back out along a beach strewn with boulders the size of Volkswagens, in a driving rain, the interior of the Ford welcomed me like a cave offering solace to a neolithic hunter. Did I mention I had accidentally burned one of my socks whole in my campfire the night before? The Ford's heater probably didn't save me from hypothermia, but no one can prove it.

I cruised Seattle from Phinney Ridge to Seward Park, blasting Cold War Kids and Arcade Fire and Good Riddance on the Ford's stereo, my bandmates crammed in the back seat, which was often dragooned into services it was never intended for, like holding three guitars and half a drum set. I would regularly jam the passenger seat as far back as it would go, recline it all the way back, and crush it with a giant keyboard amp, which is probably why the stitching gave out at some point, and the stuffing began migrating outwards like straw from the dislocated shoulder of a scarecrow. 

I slept in the Ford. I strapped things to the Ford's roof. I picked up the woman who is now my wife in the Ford on the night we were reunited, Thanksgiving Day, 2010, and sat near the entrance to Mount Tabor Park from midnight until five o'clock in the morning. I cried in that car. I laughed in that car. I prayed in that car. I listened to baseball games and made phone calls and ate peanuts in that car. I lived my life in that car for a freakin' decade, and it kept on giving right up until the end.

+  +  +

On the day I said goodbye, Gary helped me pull out the stereo. I knew I probably wouldn't put it in yet another car, but it seemed a fitting gesture, like taking the Ford's heart with me. When we were finished, Gary ambled inside, leaving me to clear out the trunk and the glove box. After that there was nothing to do but leave, but I wasn't quite ready. I sat down one final time in the driver's seat and ran my hands over the steering wheel. It had started disintegrating a couple of years earlier, and a tacky smattering of granules came off in my hands. I looked at my palms. 

"Man, I am not going to miss you one bit," I muttered to myself.

I knew it wasn't true.