The spring after my father died, Mom insisted on selling our two minivans and getting a PT Cruiser to replace them. My parents had ridiculed the PT Cruiser mercilessly when it first came out, but after Mom had a chance to ride in one, she fell in love with them. What was most striking about her insistence that we get this car, though, was that she hadn’t been driving for years, and I’m fairly certain that her driver’s licence had expired years earlier as she began losing sight in her good eye; she was pretty much legally blind by the time we got the PT Cruiser. She still got to ride in it a few times, though, so I guess there was that.
At the time, I was kind of ambivalent about the change of cars; my own first car had bitten the dust about a year earlier, and I had some sentimental attachment to the minivans, but unlike my father, I’ve never had any significant interest in cars apart from their functional value. I asked Mom to let me know before our old minivans were picked up, so I could have a moment to “say goodbye” to them, but she must have forgotten, and soon after that I was at a used car dealership about a mile south of my house, trying to navigate my way home with a new-to-me car during rush hour on one of Toledo’s busiest streets.
In retrospect, of course, the change of cars was more than worth it. Apart from one temporarily-lived satellite campus, driving to the places I taught at in Ohio and Michigan always took at least twenty-five minutes, and sometimes my Ohio-to-Michigan same-day teaching excursions took over an hour, even without traffic problems. We got the PT Cruiser just before gas prices spiked to four dollars a gallon for the first time, and I’m willing to bet that the money I saved on gas over the next decade, to say nothing of repairs, more than made up for the purchase cost. Even when I had larger things to haul around in that PT Cruiser, it always had the room I needed, and it certainly handled a lot better than the older minivans I’d been getting used to driving in the previous year.
The PT Cruiser wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, though. Part of that was because I had to ask a lot of it — I can still remember the semester where I basically earned nothing from teaching in Michigan, because nearly all of my pay for that term went into repairing my car’s suspension after the toll that Michigan’s roads took on it — and it always had its quirks, like its tendency to start blaring its horn out of nowhere, as if its alarm system had been tripped, when it didn’t have an alarm system. Something in the engine was causing the batteries I put in it to drain rapidly as well, and none of the mechanics I visited could ever trace the source of the problem.
Mom sold the PT Cruiser to me for a dollar back in 2012, the first time my name had ever been put on a car’s registration. I’d had some experience handling car-ownership responsibilities with my first car (even though my father insisted on keeping it in his name), but I had to learn a lot of other new tasks there, and I was never really that comfortable with them, even when they were just mundane paperwork. I needed a car for the teaching I did, and to help Mom with various tasks, but as convenient as cars were for me, I never really cared for them. Maybe my bad experiences with my auto-loving father are clouding my vision here, but I’ve always felt like cars and driving are things I have to put up with, not anything I could ever conceivably enjoy.
The day Mom passed away led to the most profound driving experience I’ve ever had, though. After I got the phone call that afternoon, I drove over to the care facility she’d been staying at, so I could see her in the flesh one last time. I’ve written here before about how I drove to Meijer to do some grocery shopping afterward, just to help me remember that life was going to go on, but I swear that as I got back into the PT Cruiser after leaving the care facility, I felt Mom in the passenger seat with me there, if only in spirit. She’d wanted to go home for over six months, and in my way, I took her home that afternoon. Every time I got in the PT Cruiser after that, especially as I drove home from teaching in Michigan in those weeks after her passing, I felt her there with me, trying to help me sort out just what was going to become of my life from that point.
Because of factors that I can’t talk about quite yet, when I moved to Colorado at the end of 2017, I couldn’t take the PT Cruiser with me. I left it behind with my friend who’d been giving me a place to stay in my final months in Toledo, with the intent of having it shipped to me when I needed it in Colorado. As it happened, though, I moved to Wisconsin before I ever needed the PT Cruiser in Colorado, and I got an apartment in Wisconsin so close to work that I didn’t need to drive right away. Adjusting to rural life wasn’t always easy for me, though (hardly a week goes by when I don’t wish at some point that I could go grab some Little Caesars pizza), and I kept starting and stopping plans to get the PT Cruiser here in Wisconsin with me. I’d made one last big push at the start of 2020, when I thought that I’d be coming back to Ohio that May for commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State Massacre, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those plans.
After getting vaccinated this past March, though, I figured that it was safe for me to start thinking about getting my car back again. More to the point, I’ll be teaching on two different UW campuses this coming year, so there was no question that I’d need to have the PT Cruiser at some point this summer. As this past spring semester was winding down, I started asking my friends back in Toledo if they could help me with getting my car over to me here. Before I could pursue those plans too deeply, though, I was informed that the motor of the PT Cruiser was deader than dead. Needless to say, replacing the motor would cost far more than the car itself is now worth (to say nothing of transportation costs and the like), and even with the ties I have to that car now, it’s just not worth it to me to try to get that car working again, especially since it’s not exactly suited to wintertime driving here in Wisconsin.
The good news is that this all happened before I started spending the money I’d been saving up for repair and transportation costs, so I should be able to afford a decent used car to get me through the next year. The bad news is that I am worse than clueless when it comes to buying cars, and the only thing I know for certain about buying a used car is that customers like me are prime targets for rip-off artists. I’m hoping that one of my colleagues here in Wisconsin can connect me with one of their friends who’s looking to sell a used car right now, but I know I can’t count on that, and I may be about to go through the most stressful purchase of my life, replete with relearning a lot of the pains of owning cars because they do things a lot differently here in Wisconsin than they did in Ohio. All of this is coming as I’m still dealing with toxic levels of stress from the demands of pandemic teaching and its aftermath (including a multiple-day Internet outage at my apartment just as my summer class was winding down this past week), and to say that I feel overwhelmed right now would be a massive understatement.
Just like when I drove away from the care facility feeling Mom’s spirit beside me in the PT Cruiser, though, I know that I will find a way to get through this. I’m in the middle of donating the PT Cruiser to my hometown public media broadcaster, WGTE, so at least I know that the car will have a good “final home.” The distance between campuses here in southwest Wisconsin pretty much guarantees that I’ll have a long time to get used to my next car. I just wish I could think about the difficulties to come here without feeling like I’m about to throw up in my lap.