City Sprawl: Driven to Inaction

The closer I get to needing a new car, the harder I’m trying to stall.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Simmering on the back burner for some six months now is the understanding that we have to buy a new car. I don’t want to buy a new car. We have a car that’s paid off and running, and that’s the kind of car that suits me. That it’s paid off is my favorite feature of our car, which I delight in filling with Costco gas and never treating to so much as an air freshener.

So we’re stingy with the car. But we’re not stupid with it; we change the oil and take it in for routine maintenance. On the other hand, more than once I’ve been waved over in a parking lot with an offer to pop the dents out of the hood from where the car got hit by a two-by-four that flew off the back of a truck on Interstate 95 in 2010. What dents? I always find myself asking. By now, our car hood’s lacy rust filigree is so much a part of its character I don’t even see it. As for the dents, if the car minds them, it’s never complained.

Talk of a new car began six months ago because that’s when we learned we’re expecting our third child, which has been a tipping point in a couple of ways. When we’ve cried for joy, sharing the news or learning the sex, people have checked to make sure. “How many are you having?” has been as regular a response to the announcement as “congratulations.” A third child also puts us in the position of needing a minivan, and what I’ve learned about minivans so far is as follows: There’s the Toyota one, the Honda one and the one made by Chrysler. The Chrysler one is a hybrid, so I thought we’d go with that, until we looked up Chrysler’s reliability ratings, which range from the American presidency circa 2015 to the American presidency circa today.

That leaves us with two options. Two real options, when you automatically discard my husband’s suggestion that we buy an RV, which I suspect isn’t so much a pitch for a car as it is a house. He’s joking, mostly, not counting late at night just before sleep when we’re staring across the bed at each other, not blinking. D.C. housing prices are on the rise. We now have three college savings plans to consider. The belt’s going to get snug.

Ultimately, the minivan’s not negotiable, which is fine by me, because the last thing I want to do is negotiate over a minivan. Did you know test-driving cars is a thing people do for fun? Like, I guess on a Sunday, if the internet’s out … and maybe their friends are all working … and no one’s told them about food. People not even buying a car go to do this! Or so I’m told. I don’t know them personally, but I can narrow it down. They’re not pregnant, for one thing. They don’t have two small children whose new, all-important undertaking in life is to sully every sideview mirror in the showroom with their fingers and drool. Chrysler, by the way, had the best indoor play space for children, and it matters. Buying a car for a third child means the other two come along with us to the dealership, so that either my husband or I can speak to the salesperson while the other one babysits, dodging worried looks from the floor manager and stealing balloons off antennas.

I’ve tried getting out of this. I’ve asked my parents whether they want a new car, so that they can hand us over their current one, which is a system that’s worked well for me in the past. Let me stress here that I would pay them for it, and that, if you look at it one way, this could be good for them. Maybe they would enjoy shopping for a new car. What I suppose I’m offering is to give someone a large sum of money to go and try to enjoy some component of this while I read a book that doesn’t have motorized vehicles in it.

Because God, I don’t even like to play cars with my kids, and will suggest about 50 different games before having to invent a voice for a purple Hot Wheels. They’ve sniffed out my reluctance, with the end result being there are days when cars are the only thing that we play. As a coping mechanism, I’ve created vastly complex scenarios for the cars, in which they morph into anything other than cars: Santa Claus, jellybeans, a swarm of flying platypuses. Kids love that, by the way. There’s a Hot Wheels shrine in our living room.

Outside the home, I can’t help seeing the Honda and Toyota minivans now everywhere I look. Nothing ever spills out of them short of a clown posse, and I’ve wondered on more than one occasion whether we’re ready for this. Even with just three kids, the post-minivan dog feels virtually inevitable, and everyone knows your life shrinks or expands to fill the space you provide for it. I peer into our future and see cumbersome sports equipment. Large stringed instruments. Camping gear that I won’t have any memory of having purchased; Honda will have just made the assumption and slid an eight-person tent in the backseat as a lease-signing bonus.

Not that we can be won over so easily. Eschewing discussion of and almost all research on cars, I don’t have much of a leg up on the dealers, except this: I have no pride when it comes to cars. Absolutely none. The dents on our hood don’t even blip on my radar. But it goes so much deeper than that.

The very first thing I drove was a pickup truck so old its color was indeterminate. Its interior smell: also indeterminate. Nothing offensive, but there were layers there. And you know something? I loved that truck. All my friends loved that truck. It was the only one of its kind and we bumped all over town in that thing because if it had shock absorbers, they were a gesture. From that, I graduated to a Volvo station wagon whose year I could not tell you, but you know the one. Everything on the car was in the shape of a cube. If you’re picturing it right now, you know that, of course, it was navy.

My father took the Volvo back at some point, and still drives it. I would happily re-inherit it from him if it only had a third row of seats and we could trust it past 10 miles from home. Also, he is not giving it up.

The car we drive now is the one my husband had when I met him. It’s an anonymous gray Ford Escape whose boxiness, for some reason, speaks to my heart. Beyond that, I’ve never thought much about it, other than gratitude for it having repelled the two-by-four that day. I appreciate, too, the window tint masking the carpet of Cheerios in our backseat. A single send-off air freshener may be in order.

As for the van, it has its work cut out for it. We are talking copious quantities of Cheerios here, and a grudge the size of a 60-month auto loan. The new car will last us so much longer than that, though. Oh, yes. Whether it knows it or not, the minivan’s here to stay. If it’s insisting on nosing its way into my garage—and budget—it’s come for the long haul.

So welcome to the clan, likely white Honda Odyssey. The first thing you’ll need are these directions to Costco.

(February 2018)