Meet Nina, my Toyota Corolla. After years of practicing on cars forged for the likes of giants (i.e., a Ford F150), it is relieving to settle down with a car that is proportional to my frame. She was made when I was ten years old and has a duct taped mirror, but she will probably go on living forever. This is exactly the quality I like best in a car: immortality.
But I didn't always have a car, or even a license for that matter. Heavens, no! Nina was a hard-won conquest, the result of six years of carrying and renewing a learner’s permit, three repetitions of the five-hour licensing course, weeks of professional lessons, one successful road test, and several months of lurking on Craigslist.
The first ill-fated road test was eight months ago. In a fraught moment of circumstantial dyslexia within the first five seconds of driving, I transposed left and right and got into the left lane, which was not the right lane. Then I panicked and swerved from the wrong lane to the right lane but did not use my directional. Needless to say, the game was over and I was left in the dust with a lengthy list of errors. I did not even get to the parallel parking performance I had practiced for weeks. It was a catastrophic blow.
Crushed under the proverbial anvil of shame, I immediately contacted a professional. I needed a professional. For the next several weeks I was under the guidance of a kind, old black man with a salt-and-pepper afro and a flaky leather jacket. Propped upon a silken pillow embellished with the image of a peacock, I steered an antiquated transportation vessel to the tune of my ever-serene instructor’s encouragement as his toe hovered above the second break.
With the excellent teaching of my sensei, my driving act was cleaned up and I steered with the grace of a high seas pirate. I passed the test and finally got upgraded from permit to license.
As I endured the continued stresses of public transportation, it was clear to me that I needed to find a car. To avoid fees and ghastly insurance premiums, I was set on purchasing a used vehicle from an independent party. Unfortunately, selling cars brings out the worst in humanity. The Craigslist cars were over-priced and ancient. People were hawking cars from the early 90s for thousands over their value with the most atrocious grammar, usually accompanied by such phrases as “the check engine light is on.”
Every day I sent Dave a “Car of the Day” email with one or two cars that seemed passable. The response emails would say, “170,000 miles is too much” or “5-speed means it’s manual, Brittany.” And every time I opened an ad, I would think, “Wow, it has five speeds! Just like my bicycle! Surely I only need one speed.”
One thousand Craigslist ads later, Dave and I went to see a Subaru. A grandfatherly older man was selling it because he had already replaced it with a shiny new model. Dave and his knowledgeable friend poured over the details of the whatsits under the hood as I attempted to adjust the seat to fit a child-sized woman. They only found one flaw – oil leaking from something under the hood. Thus, an important car part would have to be replaced within the next month, but they didn't think it the cost of the repair would offset the tremendous value of the car itself.
Only after offering to buy the car did we find out from Dave’s mechanic friend that it was a $1500 repair, several times more than the price they expected and more than half the cost of the car. I was ready to throw in the towel and go to a dealership. I had heard tales of dishonest used car salesmen, but could they be any more disreputable than the sort of swindlers who sell cars on Craigslist?
In spite of all this, I made another call and I spoke with another seller. I was put off initially because I was trying to ask him questions and he appeared to be having a conversation with someone else. Speaking with him was frustrating. Besides the fact that he was not listening to me, I detected a strong Spanish accent that was difficult for me to decipher.
Dave and I went to see the car. On the way there, I had another exasperating conversation with the seller, who offered to show me the car at a different address but didn't understand me when I declined.
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” I assured Dave. “I’m having trouble with his Spanish accent.”
We arrived on the crowded one-way street where our rendezvous was to take place. Dave’s dad was there to help us judge the car and haggle, if necessary. When I called the man to let him know we were outside, I couldn't understand him at all. I passed the phone to Dave in frustration. After a couple of minutes of difficult conversation, Dave finally asked, “Do you speak Arabic?” He asked the question in Arabic. Then he passed the phone to his dad, who speaks fluent Arabic.
“Spanish accent, Brittany? Really?” Dave asked.
“He’s Arab?” I asked, dumbstruck.
“Probably Egyptian,” Dave said.
Not only was he Arab, he was a sort of family friend. He drove up in the Corolla, garish with Christian artifacts and strung with rosaries. There was a large bag of bagels in the back seat.
“Do the bagels come with the car?” I wondered aloud. We all know where my priorities lie.
There was a fringy throw pillow with a butt-shaped indenture in the driver’s seat.
“My wife, she is very small,” the man said.
“So am I!” I cried.
Dave took the car for a test drive up and down the one-way streets and back to where we began. The Egyptian man sat in the back seat and together they bewildered me with mostly-Arabic conversation about their families. I noticed the duct-taped mirror to my right but decided as long as it wasn’t a $1500 fix I would happily take it. Dave’s dad proceeded to try to talk the Egyptian man down in Arabic. The man took out his phone.
“I have a call from an 815 number. What area code is that? And 917 – that’s somewhere in Queens, right? So many people are calling to buy this car,” the man said with downcast eyes.
We talked him down a few hundred dollars and perhaps still paid a bit more than it was worth. I didn’t mind. Throw in the bag of bagels and you've got yourself a deal, I thought to myself.
Now Nina is sitting in the driveway, un-drivable due to her lack of plates and my lack of car insurance. But this is another story for another day.