The Car

I’ve decided I’ll post an essay a week, unless I’m feeling uncharacteristically prolific, in which case I’ll do more. Or unless I’m feeling really lazy, in which case I’ll do less. At any rate, here’s my second offering:

Don’t Count on me to Save the Auto Industry

My first new car was a three-door Toyota Tercel hatchback. I bought it from a dealer in  New Hampshire two weeks after my 24th birthday in 1984. Nineteen years later I donated it to the Kidney Car Program in my new home, Edmonton, Alberta, where it was dismantled, its useful parts sold to raise money for the Kidney Foundation of Canada.

By then my once shiny, red Tercel had more than 250,000 miles on it. Its body was rusting so severely that if you slammed a door too hard, pieces would flake off. The suspension system needed a repair that cost far more than the car’s value.

Still, I had a hard time parting with it. It had seen me through my first two jobs as a newspaper reporter, and then on to graduate school, teaching positions, cross-country road trips, courtship, marriage, and two children.

My son, who was five when we bought a mini-van to replace the Tercel, had an even harder time saying goodbye. In fact, to ease his trauma (and, I confess, mine), we left the Tercel in the garage for three months after we’d stopped driving it, to lessen the pain of separation.

Go ahead. Call me a sap who develops a pathetic attachment to an inanimate object. Now I have a new attachment, to the 1992 Toyota Corolla that my husband and I bought, used, in October 1997, a little over a month before our son was born. It looks worse than the Tercel did when we pawned it to the Kidney folks in 2002.

We call it The Corroda. The rust is so bad that you can see the street from the holes in the trunk. The interior dome light hasn’t worked in three years and we have yet to find a mechanic who can fix it. I tried solving the problem by sticking lights to the ceiling, but whenever we hit a cold snap the lights fall off. The radio crackles so badly it hurts to listen to it, half the dashboard lights are out, and the spring that pops the trunk open from inside broke two years ago.

Every day I hear stories about the increasingly dire state of the auto industry. Just yesterday I heard an analyst suggest that the problem is that we’re not buying enough new cars. I expect that one day soon I will turn on the news and hear a reporter say, “This is your fault, Debby Waldman. You can save the auto industry — if you get rid of that junk heap you’re driving and buy a spanking new vehicle.”

To which I say, I’m sorry. I cannot bring myself to recycle the Corroda.

Admittedly it is ugly. It is not the vehicle one might expect to be driven by a couple with Ivy League graduate degrees. But it works. It is dependable. It almost never needs to be repaired (though by admitting that in print, I’m probably jinxing it). It’s inexpensive to insure. Most important, it gets me and my family from Point A to Point B.

If there is a problem, it’s that not everyone in the family wants to go from Point A to Point B in the Corroda. My husband, who hasn’t bought new shoes in years and isn’t the slightest bit embarrassed that his eyeglass frames haven’t been fashionable since 1977, once pointed out that when we drive our daughter to soccer, our car is the only one that looks like it belongs in a salvage yard.

I hadn’t noticed, but after that I became aware that we’re one of very few parents on the team not driving a late-model vehicle. This doesn’t trouble me nearly as much as it does my husband and our 13-year-old daughter. “I used to get embarrassed when you drove me to practice in the Corolla,” she admitted the other day. “Actually, I still do. I like it better when you drive me in the van.”

I am sorry she gets embarrassed. I hope she will overcome her misguided notion that a car is a status symbol, a billboard on which to advertise one’s income tax bracket, although I can understand her thinking. For as long as there have been cars, people have viewed them either as a mode of transportation or a vehicle for showing off.

According to my mother, when my father was the newly hired rabbi at a new congregation in central New York in the late 1950s, he fell into the former camp, his employees the latter.

“Rabbi,” they informed him one day, in an exchange that I imagine took place in the parking lot, as he prepared to climb into his clunker. “It doesn’t look good for our rabbi to be driving around town in that.”

“It’s what I can afford,” he said. “If you want me to have a nicer car, you’ll have to buy one for me.”

I’m sure he was joking. But the muckety-mucks called his bluff: they bought him a new Plymouth Valiant. Every few years, he traded it for a newer model. It was only after he died, when I was 13, that Mom began running our cars into the ground. She was a widow raising two children. Why get rid of something that worked?

Lately I have wondered, might it make sense for auto makers to manufacture fewer cars, but ones that would work longer, and better, instead of catering to a philosophy that a car should be driven only until its owner craves a shinier, newer model? Would the auto industry be in better shape? Would people’s bank accounts?

I wish I knew, but the only thing I’m sure of is that I am not going to contribute to the auto industry bailout by replacing my trusty vehicle with a new one and, at the same time, incurring unnecessary debt of my own.

As Mom once said about the Tercel, around the time it was nearing the 200,000-mile mark, “That car owes you nothing.” Better yet, I owed nothing on the car. And that made me a lot happier than owning a shiny new model ever could.

Blog Etiquette

Apparently there is something called Blog Etiquette. I have heard of it, but haven’t actually encountered any Blog Etiquette books, so I have no clue what Blog Etiquette is. I fear that Blog Etiquette requires the blogger (that would be me) to create new and spontaneous prose for each blog entry. Ain’t gonna happen. New and spontaneous is for emails and first drafts. I prefer my prose worked-over and polished. To that end, I offer you this, an essay I wrote 17 years ago, and which has languished on my hard drive ever since. Actually it’s languished on four hard drives, because that’s how many computers I’ve gone through in that many years, but I digress. Here, in honor of the end of summer, is my essay about my first (and only) yard sale:

Yard Sale

“I’m telling you,” my friend Betsy warned me when I told her I was having a yard sale, “all kinds of weirdos are going to just come out of the woodwork. And they’ll show up early, so you’d better be prepared.”

I didn’t believe her. Even though I lived right on Main Street, even though my yard sale ad was the lead ad in the Pennysaver classified ad section, even though I knew that my North Country neighbors frequented yard sales the way residents of Beverly Hills frequent Rodeo Drive boutiques, I fully expected that minutes after the sale drew to a close, I’d be be toting my Kitchen and Furniture Items and Odds and Ends off to Father Harry, the priest who runs the local homeless shelter and is always looking for goods he can distribute to the poor. And really, that wouldn’t have bothered me at all; the point of the yard sale wasn’t to earn cash, it was to unload some of the junk I’d been schlepping around with me during the nine years since I’d graduated from college and been living on my own. A good deal of that junk had accumulated during the last five years, during which time I’d gone from being a newspaper reporter to a graduate student to an itinerant college professor. Now I was about to get married and move to western Canada, and there was no way I could afford to move all of my belongings across the border and the continent. Whether I sold things or gave them away was irrelevant, but they had to go somehow. The yard sale was my first choice only because I’d always wondered what it would be like to host one.

However, the possibility of weirdos turning up on my front lawn at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning unnerved me enough that I felt compelled to seek sales help. First I approached my colleague Deborah, a professor of Asian religion and something of a yard sale expert, having furnished most of her apartment with secondhand fare. Actually, I’d tried enlisting her several weeks earlier, at which time she’d offered to donate Odds and Ends. She even told me I could keep the profits. But profits weren’t what interested me: I wanted company, camaraderie, a business partner. I was desperate, and this time I had an edge: since turning down my initial offer, Deborah had been offered a job at a small university in Texas, some 2,000 miles away. She had to leave town. She’d be wanting to get rid of more than just Odds and Ends, and I was willing to bet she’d want to keep her profits.

Next I approached Lisa, my neighbor the sociology professor. An academic gypsy, she definitely needed to unload: her contract would run out in August and she had no job offers. So far her most viable option was to move in with her widowed father in suburban Philadelphia. But Lisa was prickly; I had to be dainty with her, couldn’t let on that I was offering charity.

“So hey,” I called out to her when I saw her on her back porch one evening as I took out my trash. “You interested in doing this yard sale thing with me?” Sure enough, she was.

The last partner to join was Pam, my next door neighbor, the one person I hadn’t considered asking. After all, she and her husband were staying in town another year, and their apartment didn’t look overcrowded. But when she saw how much fun I was having preparing for my own personal Sale of the Century, she couldn’t resist. She even provided her own display table.

The evening before the big event, I hosted a pre-sale pricing dinner. Deborah, Lisa, Pam and Sybil — a first-year East Asian history prof who owned next to nothing and therefore had nothing to sell — were mulling over what we’d do if it rained and no one showed up, when an unfamiliar male voice wafted up through the open kitchen window.

“Hello! Anyone home?”

I looked out the window to the driveway one story below. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties was standing by a half-ton pickup loaded with tools and junk — Odds and Ends in Yard Sale parlance. I figured he was from the university’s maintenance department, come to fix someone’s sink.

“Can I help you?” I called to him.

“You having a yard sale?”

Betsy’s words came back to me. “The professional yard sale people will show up first; they’re looking for bargains, for things to sell at their own sales.”

As it turned out, the man in my yard was more than a professional yard sale person: he was a “dealer,” a shopkeeper whose inventory came from yard sales. When I informed him that he was at the right place — albeit 12 hours early — he started dealing immediately, from the driveway. “Do you have any furniture? Antiques?”

“I don’t have any antiques,” I informed him. I didn’t have much furniture, either, but pride kept me from letting on right away.

“Yes you do,” Deborah piped up.

“No I don’t.” I was glad the dealer was outside. I suspected if he knew that we sales folk didn’t even know what we were selling, he’d assume we didn’t know the value either, and he’d try to rip us off.

“You do!” Deborah pointed to The Yard Sale room, formerly my office. A week earlier she’d left an antique chair and table there.

“It’s yours, not mine,” I reminded her. “He asked if I had anything.”

“Well, I do,” she said. “Let’s let him in.”

I was torn. If he came in, maybe I could make a few dollars before dessert. After all, I had one or two Furniture Items. On the other hand, I had reservations about letting a strange man into my apartment, especially an aggressive professional yard sale dealer. But Sybil insisted that we could take him if he tried anything funny. Sybil is about 4-foot-10 in her stocking feet and has a bad back and fallen arches, but I didn’t dwell on that.

Deborah went downstairs to let the dealer in. By the time she’d ushered him into the living room, she was on a first-name basis with him. His name was Ray. He lived up the road, in Ogdensburg. He was enthralled by Deborah, but then, who wasn’t? Tall, blonde, and impeccably dressed, she resembled Meryl Streep, not just in looks but in her cool confidence, intelligence, and subtle charm, which she appeared to be using on Ray. Eager to get my customer back, I interrupted Deborah and pointed Ray in the direction of my Furniture Items. Immediately he dismissed my oak-veneer self-assembled desk hutch, the scrap-wood homemade stereo cabinet, and the plastic storage unit I’d bought at K-Mart. He turned his attention back to Deborah, who was standing by her chairs looking less like the expert on Buddhism that she was and more like a fair-haired version of Carol Merrill from “Let’s Make a Deal.”

“This one’s good southern maple,” she said as Ray held the chair upside down and inspected it. “I’ve got a couple of T-backs at home. They need to be refinished.”

Ray looked at her admiringly. I didn’t get it. Her chairs were old and flimsy looking. My Furniture Items were sturdy, useful. The only problem was, they didn’t have classy names.  Polyuerethaned Desk Hutch Put Together by Two Yale Ph.Ds lacked the panache of Caned Shaker Rocker. Orange Stereo Cabinet Hand-Built by Providence Journal Copy Editor wasn’t grabbing Ray either, nor was Plastic Kitchen Storage Unit, K-Mart, Circa 1991. I had just about given up when Ray’s attention drifted from Deborah’s Southern Maple chair to the pile of stuffed animals I’d dumped on top of a yard sale box when I was in too much of a hurry to find a more appropriate place for them.

“Those for sale?” he asked.

“Nope,” I told him.

“That green one,” he said, reaching for the pile. The only green thing was a faceless mouse, a handmade Christmas gift from Pam. Shows what he knows about antiques, I thought to myself. That thing’s not even six months old. But what he pulled up was my owl puppet, the one with green marbles for eyes.

“That’s around 33 years old,” I informed him.

“Are you selling it?”

“No,” I said, but I obviously hadn’t been forceful enough, for Ray slipped the owl puppet right over his hand and began studying it carefully. Warm angry feelings began to wash over me. Ray, the snarky salesman with a fake gold chain and bad teeth, was wearing my puppet.

“It’s a Stip, a Stipple, a Steep.” I struggled for the brand name, which I’d heard once or twice in my life, not that it seemed to matter: Ray had probably never heard of the company. He wasn’t listening to me anyway; he was too busy playing with my owl.

“Is it worth a lot of money?” Deborah asked Ray.

I glared at her. She didn’t speak again.

Ray was silent, focused completely on the owl.

I kept struggling for the name: “Steeple, Steeful, Steef.”

“It’s a Stieff,” Ray said. “You want to sell it?”

“NO!”  My vehemence shocked Deborah as much as it did me. I could tell what she was thinking: “Now you’ve blown it. He’s never going to buy my chairs after this.”

He wasn’t going to buy them anyway, I wanted to tell her. But I stayed quiet, my eyes trained on Ray as he removed the owl puppet. I snatched it from his hands and carried it into the kitchen, where it remained until he left several minutes later, empty-handed, but with a promise that he’d return.

He did return, the next morning. Purchased a couple of tiny enamel trays I was selling for a quarter. Years earlier they’d been presented to me by a great aunt who had unearthed them while cleaning out her attic. I’d never been sure of their function, so I’d just dumped them on any available surface, where they collected dust. They were clutter, Odds and Ends, worthless. Or so I thought until Ray wanted them. I found myself wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have charged more — maybe a dollar, maybe a dollar-fifty. But then, if I’d done that, maybe he wouldn’t have taken them.

I second-guessed myself that whole day — about the enamel trays, about the perfectly good drinking glasses I couldn’t sell for fifty cents each, about the brand new heater that didn’t go until I took a customer’s advice and cut the price from fifteen dollars to eight. My salesmanship deteriorated further the longer I stayed on the front porch, which my fellow peddlers and I had turned into yard sale heaven — close to a half dozen tables loaded with bric-a-brac, not to mention two clothes racks and several unwieldy Furniture Items.

Early in the afternoon, my heavy-duty Olivetti Littera typewriter broke down in front of a potential customer, and I felt compelled to give it away instead of collecting the twenty-five dollars I had originally expected to get. Meanwhile, Lisa sold her broken plastic Smith-Corona for thirty dollars. She was also selling cheap jewelry at a rate of about one piece a minute for fifty cents each, and she had moved her futon on to the porch, where, by the end of the night, our downstairs neighbor had agreed to buy it for one-hundred-and-fifty dollars, most likely because it was blocking his door and he figured that paying Lisa was the only way he’d manage to get into his apartment.

I learned important lessons at my yard sale, among them, the more ugly, useless, and worthless I thought something was, the more likely someone else was to want it. My almost-new juice glasses and mint-condition Penguin classics might as well have been used paper towels for all the attention they warranted; our customers were far more interested in Lisa’s cheap costume jewelry and Deborah’s old clothes.

That I am a lousy salesperson was not news to me. I have never excelled at convincing people to spend money. My attitude has always been, if they want it, they will let you know. What did surprise me was how competitive the whole experience made me. When potential buyers approached the porch, I’d automatically assume they were heading for my stuff. After all, the sale had been my idea. When it turned out they were interested in something else (usually Lisa’s costume jewelry) a powerful feeling (okay, I admit, it was envy) would shoot through my body, carried, no doubt, on waves of angry adrenaline.

By dinner time, I was as eager to end the sale as I had been to have it. I hadn’t unloaded all of my goods, but I’d made about $100 and, more important, I was sick of selling. Besides, the weather was turning bad. Rain was in the forecast. The four of us packed up our inventory, tidied the porch, and went our separate ways.

The next morning, at about 8 a.m., I heard a loud clomping noise on the porch. I looked out my window to see Deborah and Lisa pulling out the clothes racks and display tables and unloading cardboard boxes of unsold junk. Beyond the porch, the sky was dark. Rain pelted the lawn.

“You’re nuts,” I told them, but when they offered to sell the rest of my goods — and to forego the commission, yet — I let them. I may be a lousy salesperson, but hey, even I know a good deal.


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