I like to think of myself as dauntless (in certain domains, anyway: the only bungee jumping you'll catch me doing is the figurative kind). For the last two years, I've been navigating the new realms that open up when you leave a three decades-long marriage and discover how the world works for a woman of a certain age.
I can't say things haven't given me pause. To the contrary, the whole journey has been a kind of punctuated equilibrium (to pilfer paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's term for the fits, starts, and longueurs of evolutionary biology). But now I must admit to being daunted—full stop—over something as prosaic as buying a car.
My faithful used car is ambling toward the automobile graveyard, and must be replaced. Every other car I've driven has been (a) given to me by a kind person when its useful life seemed to be drawing to a close; (b) chosen by a close male friend or spouse; or (c) sold to me by a friend who was moving away or trading up.
None of these oh-so-desirable options seems likely to materialize at the moment. (Unless you know someone who is selling a car, in which case, hurry to my rescue, please!) That means that I must enter yet another new realm, one labeled thusly (with medieval gravitas) on my mental map: "Here There Monsters Be." Gulp. I have to buy a car from a stranger.
I have a friend who knows everything about cars, and he has been generous in providing me with practical advice. I now know that I need to stand outside each candidate car while its engine runs, to check for noise and smoke; to drive on the freeway and surface streets; to pay attention to the brakes; to ask for car repair receipts; and to have my mechanic check out thoroughly any vehicle I actually contemplate purchasing. I've supplemented his advice with significant time on relevant Web sites, such that I can rattle off car-buying orthodoxies with evident (but not actual) conviction. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the catchment area for used cars stretches fifty miles in every direction. Just imagining driving that distance to pretend I know the slightest thing about kicking tires, just imagining how I might negotiate with the seller to drive back to the mechanic's shop, just imagining the sum of money involved and its risks, the paperwork, the aftermath…. Just imagining these things makes me feel approximately 12 years old, deeply stupid, and utterly powerless.
This is kind of a longshot, but hey: do you think gender has anything to do with it?
I know there are women out there—you, perhaps, dear reader—who feel very comfortable under the hood of a car and right at home in auto parts stores. So of course I know it isn't intrinsic to my gender to feel this way. On the other hand, I've told my story to several female friends, and what I heard last night has been typical of their responses: "I did all the research and knew what I wanted, but I asked So-and-So to come with me and stand there while I negotiated; I knew just having a man along would make it work better." In my automotive version of punctuated equilibrium (the lull between my car purchases has been half a dozen years), I've found myself happily able to go for very long stretches without feeling the least bit of discomfort over my indifference to automotive charms, even to the kind that rouse (certain) men's passions. But when it comes to acquiring a car, things are different.
Most of the men I know have strong opinions about cars. They recognize makes and models at a distance, without having to peer at the car's rear end to read what's written there. On TV, when the detectives ask men what kind of car the villain drove, they blurt out a complete description: "White Explorer," a character said on the program I watched the other night, "with a bicycle rack." I had to google "Explorer" to know what he was talking about.
My indifference to all this is at first amusing to my male friends, I see. But immediately after the amusement comes a heroic effort to suppress a condescending smirk. And I understand it, really I do. It's the same smirk that creeps across my face when one of my male friends (whose knowledge of food matches mine of cars) asks me if bread has carbohydrates.
I'm a fairly confident person (and an indefatigable researcher), but in the automotive realm, I feel so devoid of knowledge and sensitivity that I talk myself into a kind of paralysis, like one of those computers on the old "Star Trek" that chattered itself to a standstill trying to reconcile two conflicting programs. The heap of information my friends have provided only makes me feel worse. I find myself wondering why the feelings are so intense, so irrational in proportion to all the complex responsibilities I have shouldered without comparable reactivity. I can see that on the deepest level, it plugs into my feelings of orphanhood: where is the parental presence to hold my hand while I do this thing that makes me feel so much more helpless than anything else I have faced? Despite the evident caring of my friends, the tremendous generosity they have shown me so many times, it plugs into my epic reluctance to ask for help. It plugs into my cellular fear that the answer will be no.
I am not proud of my disability. But neither do I want more pragmatic advice of the kind my friends imagine will cure it.
My problem is not practical. I know what would solve it, and it's pure magical thinking: help from you, the Car Fairy. I imagine you looking like one of the Car Guys on NPR, but with little wings, like a really butch Tinkerbell. I want you to gently nudge into my critical path a friend of a friend who has a safe and reliable car to sell. I'm not fussy: however you want to get it done will be perfect, I'm sure.
"What kind of car do you want?" asked my extremely knowledgeable friend. "I want something reliable and affordable," I told him. "I don't care about make, model, color." He had a lot of trouble believing that. He suggested a few older cars that might be good values—Nissan Maximas and Altimas, Infinitis. (What language is this? I wondered.) He encouraged me to stroll through supermarket parking lots to look at some of these cars, and I did. He encouraged me to find a likely prospect and actually sit in it, drive it, try it on for size—all in the sincere conviction that familiarity will breed attraction.
Telling myself I was following his advice, I spent hours on Craigslist without making one iota of progress toward acquiring such a vehicle (unless you count as progress calling people who never call you back, presumably because their cars have already sold). When after a week of this I hadn't actually driven one of the advertised cars, my friend suggested that I lower my expectations, drastically. "Maybe you should put up some notices on bulletin boards," he told me. He thought it was a good idea to ask my mechanic, but when I did, my mechanic told me all the cars people tell him about are at the end of the line. "Like your car," he said.
If only my knowledgeable friend lived 3,000 miles closer, I would cook him delicious dinners, offer free editorial services, play on his sense of responsibility toward the deeply daunted, and otherwise persuade him to perform the rituals of car-shopping for me while I stood at his side, fingers crossed, hoping the first car we looked at would be the one that met all the important criteria.
But he doesn't. So I have been lighting candles to you, the Car Fairy: please send me the help I need. It's even working a little so far: just thinking about you gave me the courage to tell a friend how I was feeling, and he offered to help. Now I just need the right car….
Here's musical offering to lubricate the wheels: "Key to The Highway" might do the trick, the Big Bill Broonzy version; and for lagniappe, an awesome blues harp version by Little Walter; plus Mr. B.B. King, not wasting a note.