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.