Thurber, 1993-2007

Last Tuesday, I spent ten minutes wandering around a Kroger parking lot, wondering what the hell had happened to my car. The grocery cart’s wheels rattled and squeaked on the pavement. The bags of food and toiletries rustled. The guy in the security cart crept by me again and again. I figured the gorgeous, balmy weather must have gone to someone’s head. I half-whispered to myself: “Who would steal a dinged-up, 14-year-old Honda Civic with stick shift and no power windows?”

That’s when I remembered: I was looking for a car that was never there in the first place.

The night before, I had done something completely new in my 15-year history of driving. I bought a new car—a silver 2008 Honda Fit, four-door liftback, with automatic transmission, power windows, rear window wipers, a sound system that’s worth a damn, and side-impact airbags. It’s beautiful. That car was the one I’d driven from home to work, and from work to the grocery store. The car I was imagining, that I know the contours and idiosyncrasies of as well as I know those of my seven-year-old cat, now resides at Paul Moak Honda. I traded it in with I bought the Fit. It’ll probably be stripped for parts or end up in some used car lot. So. I had spent ten minutes roaming around in search of an afterimage.

As much as I love the new car, it’s obvious that I’m not quite used to her.

Yes, it’s a “her.” As soon as I stepped inside the Fit, inhaling that new car smell of plastic and fresh cloth, I knew it was a girl, though I haven’t decided on a name. Zora? (For Ms. Neale Hurston.) Zadie? (But I’ve already named my computer after Ms. Smith.) Teela? (After the Masters of the Universe character.) It’ll probably end up as Maysie, simply because I don’t know how that name popped up in my head; it’s go no prior associations for me, but it seems to have stuck in my mind.

But this essay isn’t about my new Fit, but instead it’s about a boy. A boy named Thurber. I owe him a tribute; he’s been good to me.

My dad bought Thurber for me for Christmas, in 1993. I was 17, and—unlike most boys my age—not much interested in driving. I hadn’t even gotten my driver’s license until four months before then, though I’d turned 16 the previous October, and I still hadn’t embraced driving in general. I walked from my school bus stop to my house—45 minutes or so—five days a week, and didn’t see any reason to change this. When I shook the awfully-light, gift-wrapped box, I knew that a key was inside. Dad led me to the garage.

I wish I could say I jumped up and down, or wept, or hugged my dad, or did anything normal or respectful of the tremendous purchase he’d made, and the alarming degree of trust he’d put in me. I wish I had said something that I was proud to remember.

Instead, I shrugged, and sighed. I thought to myself, Isn’t life stressful enough without this added to it? Dad probably should’ve slapped me. Instead, he began excitedly showing me the features of this 1994 Honda Civic DX, semi-dark blue, and explaining that he would start giving me lessons on driving standard transmission—I’d learned on automatic; I had never even pressed down on a clutch pedal before—the next day. Great. All I had wanted was the new Public Enemy CD and a book or two. Why did he have to go overboard like this?

After five minutes or so, I tried my best to be as animated about the Civic as Dad was. I ran my fingers along the hood. I ooohed and aaahed. I paid attention to the hour-long lecture on maintenance, faking an understanding of what Dad was pointing at under the hood. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “you must be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be.” Sure enough, by the end of the day, I was hooked on the idea of having a car.

Ideas, of course, differ from reality. From day one, the car frustrated me. That first day of driving the car, starting at a steep incline especially picked out by Dad to test my ability to shift gears, nearly drew Dad and I to blows. With 2 x 4’s and baseball bats. Even on flat terrain, I stalled out the car regularly. The car hadn’t come equipped with a radio, so there weren’t even pop songs to entice me into the car. The Dallas freeway system, particularly the Mixmaster, scared the pee out of me. For the first three months of driving, even after mastering the foot-hand coordination of the clutch, I was never comfortable behind the wheel. The car never felt like an extension of me.

Because of this, I never even thought about naming the car. It’s not a part of me, I thought. It’s this weird, noisy, rattling thing that frightens me. Sure, it was useful—I no longer needed my parents to drive me everywhere, though it should be noted that my vehicular privileges during that first year were limited. It wasn’t, however, part of my routine, my day-to-day life.

Gradually, this changed. Oddly, the affection for the Civic began on a night in March 1994, when I hurt the car. Eric and I had just emerged from Poor David’s Pub, where we had seen a friend play a show as part of her folk-rock trio (the Ideal Females), and we needed to get home before our parents busted our collective asses. We jumped into the car, turned on the heat—it was freezing—and I backed out, all in what I thought was a single fluid motion. The parking lot was cramped and tight. The back side of the car in front of me, which I wasn’t watching since I was looking behind me as I drove in reverse, got scraped by my front headlight. Compounding the issue, the car belonged to the same friend who had just finished singing inside.

“Oh hell,” I said, “I fucked up my car.”

My car. I had never before made that sentence construction. For better or worse, it was a part of me. After taking down Emily’s insurance info, and driving Eric home, I faced a long ten minutes from his house to my home, wondering what on Earth I was going to say to my parents. All the while, I kept saying that I can’t believe I hit someone. “I hit someone.” There was that “I” again—the car and I were one, after a long apprenticeship.

Things went better than expected. Mom and Dad didn’t yell (much), I was grounded, and driving privileges were revoked until further notice. But I didn’t end up hanging by my toenails in a dungeon, and there were no beatings, so I considered it moderately successful.

The newly re-implemented walk from the bus stop to home afforded me lots of time to reflect, and to consider a name for my car. I nursed a James Thurber fixation—my stepdad had showed me his copy of The Thurber Carnival a year before, and I’d never been the same since—so it’s no surprise that I named the car after my then-favorite writer. After all, the car, with its fresh smear on the front amidst an otherwise unblemished exterior, was somewhat comical. The color was all wrong—blue’s my favorite color but, hilariously, Thurber was clad in the only shade of blue (not quite purple, not quite sharp blue) that I disliked. It lurched when I drove it, because I still wouldn’t completely master the stick shift for another year. I was taller than it was. Seen from a distance, it was squat and cute. But it had verve, and handled smoothly, much like the tart and no-nonsense prose of Thurber, whose efficient sentences hid delicate absurdities.

Sound systems never lasted long with Thurber. The JVC system I bought in Summer 1995 had to be fixed two years later, and replaced four years after that. The speakers blew within 18 months—it’s amazing what a steady diet of Sugar and De La Soul can do to subwoofers—and the sound remained a little grainy from that point on. Five years ago, the radio antenna snapped off (long story), and a year later, the left speakers decided to quit working.

Performance-wise, though, Thurber was fantastic for over a decade. It got close to 28 miles per gallon in the city, and I boasted that I could drive from Vicksburg to Dallas—about 400 miles—on a single tank of gas. (I rolled into a Dallas gas station on fumes, sputtering, on two occasions, just to prove the point.) Thurber survived hail, a blown axle caused by my driving over a curb at 20 miles per hour, crappy Auto Zone batteries, fast-food stains, and a New Year’s Day ice storm that left us slip-sliding along I-20. Its exterior gained inexplicable dings, and I never washed it as often as I should have, nor did I touch up the paint where I’d scraped Emily’s car.

All the same, though, Thurber got me through 145,000 miles in 14 years. He lived long enough to have the timing belt replaced twice.

By the end, though, he was struggling. The fuel efficiency petered out around 21 miles to the gallons, its lurches were no longer caused by my lack of hand-foot coordination, and the wheels wouldn’t stay aligned for longer than a month or two before needing to be re-adjusted. (Multiple mechanics were baffled by that last problem.) The shocks blew out ages ago, so I felt every pothole, no matter how small. During an 18-month period beginning in December 2005, I spent over $2000 on maintenance, knowing that the car wasn’t worth more than $1000 in perfect condition. As I looked at repair bills and at the eventuality of more to come, I couldn’t justify keeping it much longer.

Two months ago, I started shopping for new cars, and ended up with the Fit. Again, I love the new car. Still, last Monday, I felt a pang as I drove away from the dealership in my shiny new vehicle. I glanced, one last time, at Thurber—the Phish, Beulah, and Guided By Voices bumper stickers; the cracked windshield; the missing driver’s-side mirror; the large dent on the roof; his closeness to the ground; the wind-decolored windshield wipers. He looked a little forlorn—or maybe that’s just how I felt. He’s battle-scarred and probably headed to that great junk heap in the sky.

Part of me hopes that Thurber will be scrapped for parts. Another small twinge, though, hopes someone will buy him. It would be a kick, a slightly sad one, to see him bopping around the Jackson streets one day, with someone else coaxing him along.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Thurber, 1993-2007

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Just this last summer, I traded my 1994 Honda Accord (she changed names often but always ran) for my parents’ used Toyota Rav4. I still miss the standard transmission, the quick acceleration, the great gas mileage… You’re right, it does take time to get to know a car.

  2. Michael says:

    Great post, Walter. There’s something unique about the way cars work their way into our lives. I always keep my cars as long as possible until it’s not feasible or sensible to put any more money into them. By that time, they’ve already become a part of my life experiences — though I also long to live in a place in which a car isn’t a necessity (I think this is the result of living in California; it took me about half the time as you to put 145,000 miles on my first car).

  3. Michael says:

    Oh, I almost forgot: congrats on the new Fit.

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