Auto Focus: The L.A. Version of the White Picket Fence

Car trouble is something I associate with the turbulence of youth, that period in my 20s when I was struggling for a foothold -- job, education, status, self-definition -- and the lack of a reliable car was part of the struggle. The broken door handles, roadside breakdowns, tows, blown head gaskets, and so forth was part of a rite of passage that I and many of my friends went through as we tried on various jobs and relationships and got first apartments.

We were stretching our wings, and the quasi-lemons we drove reminded us that we had a ways to go before we could really take off, miles to travel before we had really mastered the art of sound decisionmaking. Yet it was all right because we understood we were in flux, that the car instability was part of the greater drama of our lives that we assumed would have a happy ending in the reasonably near future. We would come out on the other side in our 30s (certainly no later than that) confident, gainfully employed, and -- not insignificantly -- driving some sleek, shiny new thing paid for monthly, an arrangement we could easily afford and totally deseved. Call it the L.A. version of the white picket fence.


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Today I am undergoing the greatest car instability of my life, with no real end in sight. For the last six months or so my '99 Chrysler has been sidelined with a near-fatal condition (the jury is still out) that first evidenced itself with a breakdown deep in the Inland Empire, well after dark. The tow back into town was seventy miles, an adventure I never had in my 20s. Since then I've been driving not lemons, but loaners -- my husband's Grand Marquis, which looks like a standard police car even though it's blue, or a Ford Focus that his mother crashed in an accident about the same time my Chrysler started tipping into senescence.

Both are actually more reliable than the cars I had thirty years ago. But my expectations are different now, which means I am slightly mortified that the Focus has busted-out airbags, no working radio, and an engine that roars like a 757 on takeoff. I also have to roll the windows down by hand.

The Marquis is bigger and more luxurious, technically, but it has old-school eccentricities that I thought I'd never had to put up with again: mysterious sloshing sounds behind the passenger-side dash, one automatic window that creeps instead of zips up and down, a finicky air conditioner. This is not drama, part of a bumpy road that leads to somewhere greater: it is a kind of defeat.

The unglamorous fact is that I'm driving this way because I have to, because I can't afford a new car or even regular car payments. Stability, we've all learned, is not something that happens just because you get older. It is a lifelong process, like self-acceptance.

But some of that's been happening, too. My car mortification has been somewhat tempered by a post-consumerist maturity that assures me that I am not what I drive. When I'm behind the wheel these days I truly forget what the car looks like on the outside, nor do I care what people think about the fact that a fashionista like me (because I'm still what I wear -- I haven't matured a hundred percent) is driving a Marquis or a battered Focus and not a Prius or Lexus or one of those snappy crossover vehicles that are evolving as fast as smartphones.

At 51 I am officially behind the curve, and in many ways that's okay by me. I still have places to go, and I'm getting to them one way or the other, in one car or the other. When I do fantasize about cars I mostly dream of getting my '99 Chrysler back in pre-crisis working order, not buying a shiny new thing via monthly car payments. In this economy, that idea lost its romance a long time ago.

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