I had no idea that Rusty was so good at grief counseling.

“What with the leaking radiator and the water pump problem, your water level is always low. That’s why the car’s overheating all the time.” The mechanic spoke patiently to his customer from behind a counter spread with work orders.

Rusty paused for a moment: it was time for straight talk. “You know,” he said, “when you’ve got a car worth a hundred and fifty dollars and it needs a thousand dollars of repairs… it’s time to make a decision.”

But she wasn’t ready for that.  In the five stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – she was still on “bargaining.”  Perhaps she didn’t have a thousand to spare – but could not live her life without a car.

“Can I at least drive it in town?” she asked plaintively. Sitting across the room with the magazines, I could see her only from behind. But it was clear that she had entered middle age, and not a very prosperous one.

“Yes,” Rusty answered. “But check the radiator a lot. Keep the fluid level right up to the neck.” He sighed. You can go ahead and use water if you want.”

Meaning, the radiator was toast, and the water pump was leaking badly. No use putting in coolant, because it wouldn’t stay around long enough to be useful.

“So, I just pour the water right into the top of the radiator, right?” came the hesitant question.

“That’s right,” Rusty said. “And keep it filled to the top.”

From Rusty’s words she mined a glimmer of hope. “Do you think I could still drive it over the hill… if I went at night?” she ventured.  The Hill” is the 2000-foot-high mountain range between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley.

“I think so,” Rusty answered, though his face said, ‘I wouldn’t.’ The Hill shows little mercy on cars with weak cooling systems.

The two of them concluded their business, then she left to retrieve her car. I approached the counter and Rusty shoved a work-order at me: $417 for exhaust system repair. Rhumba and I mainly drive just one car, a hybrid; but we also keep a very old Honda Civic for emergencies; and it had failed the smog check. The car is pretty decrepit, but we use it so seldom that we only fix the most serious problems. Rusty’s aware of this, and doesn’t bug us about the many optional repairs that  the car could use.

I wrote him a check; out the window, I could see the woman driving her car off the lot. She peered through the windshield as if she saw trouble ahead; and she was probably right. Her car was a Honda Civic almost as old as ours. Our Civic has seen fire and rain, and bears more dents than a golf ball. Her Civic was very similar.

“I dunno,” I told Rusty. “My car looks as bad as hers; just, maybe we don’t use it as much.”

He grinned crookedly. “I think even your car’s in better shape than hers.”

“You know,” I said, “I work with two women, older women, who don’t have cars anymore. They can’t afford them and still and keep a roof over her head. Been years since a real raise. Maybe this woman can’t afford to replace that car.”

“Yeah,” Rusty said. And that’s all he said. He’s a good man.

This week the news channels reported that Americans were driving less. Those who had cars drove them less, and many young people were not buying cars.

The theories were endless. The American “love affair” with cars was over; or, cars had lost their “macho” appeal; or, cars did’t make sense to the young people who were settling in dense urban areas.

But I know another reason: people are driving fewer miles, in part, because fewer people can afford to keep cars. I think of that woman herding an ailing Honda over the Hill at night to avoid the hot weather, and “desperation” is the only word that comes to mind.

Desperation: among the stages of grieving, that’s similar to “bargaining.” And after bargaining comes depression, and finally acceptance.  If that woman can’t keep her car, I hope she finds a way to make her life work without it.  And I truly pray that she does not take all the blame for her misfortunes upon herself.

Because the ones who rule us depend on that.  The day when enough hard-working people stop accepting all the blame for their failure to be prosperous, is the day when things start to change.

And you can accept that.





2 thoughts on “Bargaining

  1. azure

    What’s the mass transit like in Santa Cruz? The 5 county small town/rural/tourist land area I live in got a grant to expand the various county bus systems the various county transit systems had managed to put together & more or less coordinate. In the land of driver’s license at 15, people driving w/license suspended then license revoked & no insurance because driving is a “right” isn’t it? the buses are needed but aren’t rarely full. I’ve ridden the local “loop bus” for several years–managed about 3x/week in the summer (avoiding tourist traffic as much as possible, it’s easier to walk 1/2 to one mile when it’s sunny or foggy out rather then raining)–until this spring when the transit agency decided the “numbers” meant that there’d be no service to my part of town from 3 pm to 6:30pm–and you had to request the 6:30pm county bus make a stop 5 blocks away from my house. I don’t ride the bus often anymore–I’d counted on taking the 5pm bus.

    But while the grant lasts, I’m taking an early morning bi-county bus trip to/from a work place I travel to once a week. I get up at 5 am to drive the 3-4 miles to catch it–but the round trip is 120-130 miles (once a week) so it’s great that I can arrange my schedule so I can take it once a month (maybe get up to 2/month in winter). I can also get to the nearest Amtrak station (70 miles from my town) using this bus–and from there to much of the US (eventually . . .) or the airport. The bus fare is very reasonable. But I suspect that when the grant runs out, at least the early bus will disappear–I’ve been the only passenger in the early am (16 to 20 pax bus) both times– and was the only pax taking the last (6pm) bus back last week. Since my destination is a college town, and my departure town is a tourist/fishing town by the ocean w/great beaches, it’s got to be partly the complete lack of advertising that accounts for the lack of passengers. The bus has a rack in front that can take two bicycles–it’s a great way for college students (possibly w/out a vehicle) to go to the beach for a day or overnight. The bus does 4 RTs/day.

    Even though it’s not my job, I’ll probably contact the university to see if there are places to post the bus schedule (physically & online), maybe e-mail a few student organizations. See if a little effort can increase the number of bus passengers. Plenty of students take the train & Amtrak Thruway buses.

    The inland (college) town doesn’t have as many bicyclists as Davis, CA, but it has many (like Davis, the campus & land around it is flat; there are bike lanes & separated paths as well). Even so, in the “green” PNW, it seems that for many people, driving a personal motor vehicle is the first and perhaps only way people think of traveling any distance. Certainly on the coast it is–plenty of McPickups w/extra large tires, SUVs, and even a fair number of Hummers here. Not to mention the large number of megaRVs w/local plates, plates from CA, ID, MT, UT, AZ, WY, MT, Canada . . .

    Outside of the major cities , there is no vehicle inspection either, so it’s easy enough to drive a substandard vehicle (w/bad tires).

    I do know some people who drive less then they did for the reasons you list. But there are still so many who drive everywhere, even places they could walk to. The buses and train are just too too inconvenient . . . and walking? No way.

    1. admin Post author


      We do have public transit county-wide, and it’s a fairly small county. But people are also spread-out here and there. Inside Santa Cruz, it’s okay; the college kids take the bus a lot, the university pays for extra routes to campus (actually, the students do through the “transit fee” on their bill.

      But in a county of maybe 250K people, easily 40K go “over the hill” to work, 25 miles away. Santa Cruz is all ag and tourism and civil service/education, mostly lower-paid. The real money’s over the hill. It’s a grim commute, tough on cars, and potentially hazardous. You can’t get by without a car around here, and frankly some of the most insecure work requires a car the most: daily labor jobs that can change location daily, substitute teachers who move from school to school, health care workers who do the same, temps, real estate agents, independent salesmen, what have you.

      I don’t claim that a car is everyone’s right, but in an environment like this, losing your car means your whole life may have to change in ways that you don’t want to face.

      Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Jim/Boomer.


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