I've never owned a really cool car. I've always been thankful to have a vehicle to drive, but at times I've wished my wheels were a bit nicer. Always used, usually at least six years old; whatever cars I've driven, they have had problems. But last summer, my 7- and 9-year-old cousins made me feel as if I were driving in style.
I've owned a string of clunkers. The first one I bought for $1,200 that I'd made one summer. It was a light blue, boxy old car that was at the height of unpopularity that year. Certainly no one in high school would be caught dead driving it. But I didn't care. I was finally able to drive to school. A few of my friends even envied me. Better to have an old car to drive than none at all.
After my time was up with that old car, I had a few others that did the job. But my most recent automobile, the one I have now, has been through a lot. I had it through most of college and I've been out of college a few years now. When I got ready to move to Chicago after living in my college town in Indiana, I found it needed some repairs - $1,500 worth. But I didn't have the time or the money, so I made the drive with my car completely packed and nearly falling apart. After I'd been there a little while and had made a little money, I was able to take it in for repairs. When the mechanic took a look, he seemed shocked.
"You drove this thing from Indiana?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "Your axles are nearly shot!"
Needless to say, he started working on it immediately. The job, he said, would take a few days. Much needed to be done and they had to order some parts. Happily, I was able to borrow my aunt and uncle's new minivan to drive to work. I worked at night, after everyone was home for the evening, so our schedules didn't conflict much.
I didn't admit it openly, but I really looked forward to driving a new vehicle. The van had a sound system comparable to that of a rock-concert arena. It drove so smoothly, and was so big, I felt like the queen of the road. And I never thought I could so look forward to going to work.
After about a week, I got my car back.
I hoped no one noticed I was a little disappointed to go back to driving my tiny red car. Especially after driving the big shiny silvery-gray minivan that I secretly referred to as "the bullet."
"Well, here you go!" the mechanic said as he dropped the keys into my hand. "Should run like new!" And it did. It was a smooth ride from then on. Though I liked my little car, I sometimes wished that it had a different exterior. Maybe if it looked a little newer or weren't so tiny, I thought, I wouldn't feel like such a twerp driving around in it. It was comfortable enough otherwise, and I was certainly used to it. I'd worn in the seats the way one breaks in a new pair of shoes.
Once I had my car back, I was able to do some of the things I hadn't been able to do with my car in the shop. Sometimes when my aunt was busy, I was put in charge of doing some shopping or picking up my little cousins from school. The first day I had my car back, I went to pick them up. I parked out front among the mighty SUVs of the other parents and babysitters.
I walked to the front double doors of the school and stood outside waiting for the children to be dismissed. Like a tidal wave, the kids poured out from what had seemed a moment before to be large doors. Hundreds of them flooded the grounds, running around, making it almost impossible to find any one or two in particular. After searching many little faces for the familiar smiles and freckles, I was finally able to round them up.
As we walked to where I'd parked, I hoped that they wouldn't feel uncomfortable in my tiny car. They were so used to the roomy, sweet-smelling, shiny new van, I hoped I'd cleaned out my car sufficiently. I spotted the minuscule scratches on the door all the way from the schoolyard.
"Where's the van?" Andy, the 9-year-old, asked, swinging his bag over his head.
"Uh, we're taking my car today buddy," I answered, hoping it wouldn't be followed by sour sighs and whispers.
"Your car?" little Emily asked, dragging her bag behind her.
"Yep," I said. "Sorry, Mommy has the van today. She asked me to pick you up."
"Really?" Emily asked with her eyes widening. "Cool!" they said in unison. With that, they tore off toward the car and jumped around it as if it were a maypole.
Absolutely unable to believe my eyes and ears, I fumbled with the keys to open up the passenger side door. Little Emily sat in the backseat and Andy sat in the front.
"Here we go!" I announced.
"I love this car!" Emily said as the wind hit her face. "It's just my size!"
"Cool!" Andy said. "You roll the windows down and up with a crank!" he cried with fourth-grader fascination. Suddenly, I was the coolest person on earth. Forget what cars I could be driving. I had two kids who wouldn't have traded places in any other car in the world.
"Are you going to pick us up again with your car?" one of them asked.
"Probably." I said. "Would you like that?"
"Yeah!" they answered. I smiled. They'd made me happy to be driving it. This thing, my old, tiny, beat-up car, was a lot of fun. I saw it with new eyes. It didn't matter that it wasn't the coolest or shiniest or best- performing car. It was mine; it was fun and cute and it got me around.
And maybe coolest of all, I could roll the windows up and down with a crank.