My Very Own Carmageddon

It's official: my car is breaking up with me.

It's a done deal. But even at this late stage in our relationship, I'm in a lingering haze of denial. I don't want it to break up with me. I've done everything possible to maintain the connection. I've bent over backwards, doled out a few thousand dollars for a half dozen-plus repairs over the last year to repair a car that is certainly worth less than that. Even now, as it sits across town in a service station that after two days of sweat and research has pronounced it unfixable, I resist the idea of changing horses. Because frankly, I like this one. I have since the moment I chose the 1999 Chrysler 300M over a similar-looking VW Jetta that just didn't have the Chrysler's soul.

We've been through a lot together, it and I. (I love my car but never assigned it a name or a gender -- it's a machine -- even though it does have a soul. Which means that I didn't fall in love with it like Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the digital voice in the movie "Her," but I certainly got attached.) We've traversed the city in style, chauffered around more dogs at one time than it has seats. In thirteen years I've rewarded its forbearance by sticking by it and resisting fluctuating auto trends, from mammoth SUV's to smart cars and Fiats, ignoring the statistical reality that people change cars every five years or so. And I have been hopelessly, and until recently, happily loyal.

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In my eyes, the Chrysler has been a model L.A. citizen -- sleek and well-turned out but casual, efficient, flexible. A struggling actor who never looks like he needs a job. It's also congenial: this may sound obvious, but my car always went where I wanted it to go. It listened to me when I talked aloud during my rants or moments of reflection occasioned by freeway gridlock. It crept along obligingly until the traffic dissipated, at which point I recklessly floored the gas pedal and it burst forth, a speedboat heading for open water. Magic.

But now I can't justify the love anymore. Or afford it.

The latest mechanic somberly told me that the only thing that can save it now -- maybe -- is an open-heart operation. After endless repairs (really, I've lost count) it comes down to a defect in the interior of the computer, which these days is a more significant and mysterious part of the car than the engine. The final frontier of repairs. The only entity in the world that even has the tools to attempt the job is a Chrysler dealer, and that, as every car owner knows, would be a fortune. Unthinkable. But believe it or not, my impulse is still to fix it, whatever the cost.

I know that's stupid. I know it's more about fear of change and denial of catastrophe at work here. But it's also emotional. I had the same fear and denial of catastrophe a year or so ago when one of my dogs went into the emergency room one night with a mysterious liver ailment that had caused her to stop eating. She didn't come out of the ER because we simply didn't have the money to go ahead with the expensive procedures that might have saved her. They quite likely would not have, but the chance of success, however slim, felt worth the price to me. My husband didn't agree, not that Trixie wasn't worth the effort, but that her condition was beyond repair, however much it would cost. The vets tacitly agreed with him. But I still feel like I failed Trixie, like I didn't believe hard enough.

A car is not a dog, of course. I've already acknowledged that it's a machine. But like a dog, it's been entirely committed to me, supported me, put up with my moods and abuses (I've kicked a few tires and slammed a few doors in my time, one time causing damage to the lock -- abuse I would never dream of inflicting on a dog.) The commitment has failed only when it's been sick. Now it's got a fatal condition.

Get rid of the car, my mother told me. You've had plenty of signs. She said it's high time for a Nissan or something similarly bland, but reliable. She offered me a phone number of somebody who had given her a flier with the advertisement, "We buy junk cars." Junk? I was insulted. The Chrysler is still sleek, albeit in need of a wash. It doesn't look done, even though its heart is failing. It deserves better than turning it over to the equivalent of an animal shelter and walking away. I think I'll bring it home and let it die here. And maybe when it's here I'll discover the problem isn't as serious as the mechanic is saying. We could get back together. There's always hope.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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