Thursday, November 09, 2006

On driving a junker

(This really is a D-related post, so be patient..)

I grew up in a family that bought only cheap used cars. So I’ve seen my share of real clunkers: the rewired toggle-switch ignition, the horn under the dash, the rusted out gas tank that could never be filled more than half full (well, it could be filled more, it would just run out until it was half full), the speedometer that always read 0 mph. When I was in grade school my dad even had a car that, if he stopped at a traffic light, he often had to open the driver’s door, duck under the side of the car, and hit something with a wrench before he could start moving again (don’t ask me what he did, I think it was something involving the clutch).

So when we were first married, our first car was a true junker given to us for free by my older brother. To be fair, he really thought we would just use it for a weekly trip to the grocery store, not 3 ½ hours of daily commuting in Boston (Callahan Tunnel or Tobin Bridge in a rusted out 1979 Chevy Monza is not for the faint of heart) and for trips back and forth between Boston and Albany at least once a month. That car lasted almost two years, helped out that every time we came home, another brother would rebuild the carburator or something to keep it running. I used to be proud of the fact that I “paid” less for my car than for subway fare; that, by God, it was ugly and clunky but had four wheels and ran (most of the time); and that when you were trying to merge on Storrow Drive you could just look over at the Alfa Romeo next to you and laugh - a car full of holes is a great intimidation factor - and they would always move out of the way.

But there was a downside to the seventiesmobile, as we affectionately called it. We had to get the AAA-plus package, the one with the 100-mile free towing (and actually used a 96.2 mile tow once when we broke down in the middle of the pike); we had to carry at least 2 gallons of water for the leaky radiator at all times; we had to drive with the heat on full blast and the windows open in the middle of July; we had to fill one tire with air every two weeks, and we had to budget a lot for repairs for the times we broke down when we weren’t near family. I could call the local tow company and say “Jim, it’s Val.” and they would ask “are you at home or at work?” not “who are you?”. We had to plan trips around how flaky the car was being, what the temperature was, and how far to the nearest rest stop. And on mornings it wouldn’t start, we had to call in to work, because none of the rental places in town would rent to someone under 25.

Finally the repairs were more than a car payment would be (and the seventiesmobile died with a boing, as the snapped alternator belt richocheted through the radiator leaving nothing but a pile of metal shavings behind). We decided to break with my family tradition and get a real car. It was a life-changing experience. Not only did we not need to run the heater in the summer, it had A/C! We no longer had to say “We’ll be there sometime between 2 and 7” or check that our supply of antifreeze and fix-a-flat was okay before we went anywhere. We could just get in the car and start it up and go.

After a week of having a “grownup” car there was no way we could ever go back. A whole layer of stress I wasn’t even aware of evaporated once I realized that I no longer had to keep track of where the nearest pullover was or how long a walk back to the emergency telephone.

Fast forward fifteen years or so to my diagnosis with Type 1. I feel I’ve got a pretty good handle on things, I’m doing okay with carb counting, and there isn’t a heck of a lot that I want to do that diabetes really gets in the way of. But, it’s like driving a junker. It’s always that background level of stress, that constant vigilance, that keeping track of stuff that nobody else needs to. I want automatic transmission, cruise control, and a stereo system. I want my grownup car.