09 September 2005

Three Breaks: Part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Part 4:

For my second automobile, my parents graciously gave me my mom’s old car because she was due for a new one. Smelling faintly of True Blue 100s, maroon instead of red, it was another 4-door sedan: no tape deck. Within a couple of months, open windows and fast-food overcame the odor of cigarettes; I positioned a new Vassar sticker on the back windshield, and I fell in love with the variable-speed windshield wipers. The car started to feel like it was mine.

That fall, I quit my job and set out to explore the country, to find the optimal place to live. As much as I could fit was densely packed throughout the trunk, footwells, back seat, and front passenger seat. The car became my closet, pantry, and sanctuary; it was the only space that was truly mine.

After several months on the road, nowhere felt perfect, but I was ready to call somewhere home. I was back in California, enjoying my last day in LA before moving to San Francisco. Rush hour had just begun as I slowly made my way back to Los Feliz to spend the night at a friend's apartment.

A stoplight turned green, so I pulled forward. In my peripheral vision, I saw a white car running the red, and I hit the brakes. Seemingly in slow-motion, the oncoming car started to veer around me. Wow, that was close. Then it slammed into me, pushing me into an SUV in the next lane.

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. My sedan, however, was “a complete loss” according to my insurance adjuster. It had only lasted a year, and this time, with no hand-me-down car to inherit, I was on my own to find a replacement. San Francisco would have to wait unless I followed the advice of some friends to try living there without a car. The last time I had visited the city, it had taken me an hour to park, so I knew the suggestion had merit. However, I couldn’t get past the idea that giving up personal transportation would mean giving up freedom.

The car hunt was on. Having no confidence in my ability to assess the reliability of a used car from a private seller, I chose to go to a dealership to find something with a warranty. I never should have gone inside after the test drive; I should've walked away. Naively, I gave the salesman my credit card as he went to check something, and then he held it hostage all afternoon. When I asked for my Visa back, he consented, but returned instead with a printout of the blue book value for the car.

While I kept trying to leave, he kept reducing the price. Elements of his own pitch formed my best retort to his guilt tactics: “If this type of car is so hard to keep on the lot, you should have no problem selling it to someone else.”

In the end, I paid $3000 below the special Memorial Day weekend sticker price and got him to fill up the tank since it was about to run out of gas. My metallic beige, certified used Toyota Corolla seemed like a decent purchase. It had a little wear on the trunk lining, but it also had new tires and, finally, a tape deck.

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