How I Became Car-free
I was tailgating the beach-bound Beamer in front of me, when my radio went out.
Three weeks earlier, Claire (my 1994 Nissan Sentra) and I had made the move from Boulder, Colorado, to Washington, D.C. Now I was escaping the city for a weekend at the beach with a couple friends. We were meeting in Rehoboth, Delaware, a beach town 150 miles or so outside the District. Claire and I were about 20 miles shy of Rehoboth when Gnarls Barkley (this was summer, 2006) was cut off mid-wail.
Then, Claire began to lurch and, filling the silence the dead radio left, came noises I’d never heard Claire make before – and I’d heard her make a lot of noises. I pressed down on the accelerator. Claire decelerated. I pulled to the side of the road where Claire stopped.
Up till now, I’d had a plan:
- Locate that gorgeous Columbia Heights rental I had my heart set on.
- Move all my belongings – now piled in my sister’s kitchen – into said rental.
- Bid Claire farewell.
I’d been anticipating her passing, wanting it even. For the past four years, I’d used my car with a lesser frequency than most people use their vacuum cleaners. I’d lived in the car-free-friendly Denver-Boulder area, and I’d walked, biked, and bussed for about 90 percent of my trips. Claire
wasn’t an essential part of my life anymore, and besides she had been through a lot in her life:
- Two cross-country moves with her packed so full it took her shocks two days to rebound.
- A few forays above 8,000 feet, during which she clung to life by a thread.
- A hard hit on the back bumper while parked on the street, which totaled her but didn’t kill her.
Claire and I were both ready for her to go, just not this weekend.
As I sweated in Claire’s un-air-conditioned confines, I envisioned my friends already slipping into their two-pieces, rolling up beach towels, and heading to the beach. Maybe I could find someone to give me a jump.
On the other side of the street was a house with a Bronco parked in the driveway with one of those ribbon-shaped “Support Our Troops” magnets on its rear panel. I approached the house, and as I did, a man came around the corner of the house into the front yard. He was clean-shaven, t-shirt clad, not burley but close to it. He introduced himself as Dale. I told Dale my story and asked him for a jump.
“I tell you what,” Dale said. “I can take a look at it, but I quit workin’ as a mechanic years ago.”
“Do me a favor,” Dale said, “and just try to start ‘er for me, just to try it.”
I got in, turned the key, and Claire purred to life – not even a stutter.
“I thought that might happen,” Dale said. He explained to me how sometimes, with older batteries under extremely hot conditions, something doesn’t connect somewhere, causing this intermittent problem.
“It might get you to Rehoboth,” Dale said. “Then again, it might take you five miles down the road and do the same thing to you. You say you have a cell phone?”
I assured him I did and thanked him, touched by his concern. Dale crossed the street and went into the house. I looked at my watch and calculated whether I could get to the girls in Rehoboth before the pizza was ordered.
I steered Claire back onto the highway, and we drove together, me crossing my fingers that her speedometer needle would stay at 50, her doing that clicking thing she’d done ever since I took her to Arapahoe Basin ski resort. We drove together, the wind in my hair, the wind in her grill, the wind rising above the stone-still July heat of the mid-Atlantic. We drove together, our final mile. Claire’s
needle dropped to zero.
I called my friends to pick me up. When they arrived, we took pictures of Claire, posing in our bathing suits in front of her open hood. I called the salvage company, got a last good look at Claire, and left her on the south side of Delaware Highway 14.
Then, I moved on, determined to enjoy my beach weekend and my car-free future.