Ever since I got my driver’s license in high school, car trouble has claimed a prominent role in my life. Part of the routine, you know, like paying bills or extinguishing kitchen fires: after a while you just get good at it. There’s enough time between incidents to lull me into false optimism, but it’s not quite a surprise anymore when it happens.
Last summer, I sent my beloved, young-at-heart Charlie — so adventurous, and never a dull moment! — north to my parents, where she (so I hear) lives on in placid retirement. In exchange, I got Georgie.
Georgie, the trusty and rusty companion of my current life, is a baby blue minivan with (you guessed it) a bit of character. She trundles down highways and country roads alike with an air of resignation: she doesn’t want to, not particularly — but, well, if she must. She groans reluctantly at when we pause at stoplights (pesky traffic rules!) and sighs with browbeaten despair at the tyranny of cruise control. If one adheres to the belief that, if wheels and an engine are properly attached, anything will “drive” — lawn furniture, for example — Georgie is your patron saint.
But I am unkind; Georgie has been a long and faithful friend to my family. She has patiently suffered through Minnesota winters, cross-country road trips and a plethora of minor collisions. She more or less taught my siblings and I how to drive. She, like Charlie, is a survivor.
There were warning signs this go-around. Sometime during the winter the dashboard lights, the pilot fish of impending car trouble, flickered out. On one of my visits home, my parents hauled her off to a repair shop and got the main panel lights re-lit, though she still can’t show the time.
Next — the second warning sign — about a month ago the lock switches stopped working. Perhaps it’s true that every switch has a limited number of flicks in it, and we reached that limit. Perhaps Georgie simply decided automatic locks were one luxury I could do without.
These issues are more or less cosmetic — inconvenient, both of them, but I can get around them. I can wear a watch. I can hand-lock the doors. It’s not too much trouble.
Last weekend, as I drove into St. Paul to see family and friends, I noticed something a little off as I merged into city traffic.
Hmmm, I thought. The car used to accelerate when I pressed the gas pedal.
I pulled Georgie into the next exit, found a place to park and tried to assess the damage. (Meaning: I popped the hood and looked for smoke.) Something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source.
My parents were also passing through St. Paul at the time and met me to help. Together we gathered around the engine in silence, looking for something, anything, to help us zero in on the problem. Dad took the keys and drove a bit; we brainstormed past car problems as he checked the oil, tapped the various cooling parts of the engine. We finally realized (mostly by trial and error) the hub of the left front tire was hot to the touch.
The working theory is that the brakes start to engage on their own. (Good ol’ Georgie, trying to work overtime!) I’m not a mechanic, so if anyone has experienced this problem before, feel free to offer tips!
The problem went away when Dad put the car in reverse, for whatever reason, so Georgie and I have gingerly continued our friendship since then, with strict parental instruction to “get someone to look at it” if she fritzes again.
“Maybe I’m the common denominator here,” I speculated morosely mid-assessment. “The cars always break when I’m driving.”
“Right,” Mom said. “Or, maybe you only drive old cars.”
So perhaps that’s the solution — a new(-er)(-ish) vehicle. It’s not exactly a possibility on a student-loans budget — anything I could afford wouldn’t be an improvement — but maybe in the future I’ll have the chance, and Georgie can spend her numbered days with Charlie in retirement.
Mostly, I’m worried that by the time I finally get a fully-functioning vehicle, all of the good names will be gone.