Saturday, January 14, 2006

Saab Story

Can a car actually be posessed?

I don't know about that, but I have an odd little tale to tell. It will be all over on Tuesday.

It started in the summer of 2004, when I became fed up with using so much money on rental cars. I was going in and out of America, always pouring money into the coffers of Dollar, Alamo, and Enterprise. I figured, I can just buy a car for the price of renting one for a few weeks.

I started searching Craig's List and found a pretty nice deal: A 1989 Saab. Asking price was more than $3,000, and it had nearly 100,000 miles on it, but it was in good shape, had a new top and a spiffy paint job. What was odd was that the woman who was selling it had a very unpleasant personality. She didn't seem to want to really get rid of the car. She only begrudgingly let me test drive it and overreacted if I made comments about the mechanical condition. I had to ask for a lower price (it had some flaws which put it into a lower blue book price range), she reacted as if I'd asked to buy her soul for five bucks, and time and again she was just very unpleasant to deal with. Worst of all, the car failed the smog test so badly that it was in the range of "gross polluter" and needed nearly one grand worth of repairs to get it DMV s*** list. I know why I didn't just walk away... because it is very difficult to make appointments, go see these used cars, make "carfax" searches, and so forth. And really it was a nice car. There's something very nice about the solid slam of a Swedish car door... the top down experience is second to none... it was a nice car.

Well, once the car was mine, I got my husband to fix the loose front seat. For you see the seller was a portly gal and had squashed that seat into a kind of loose position... I was weighing in at 120 lbs and would rock back and forth in the seat. I got the front shoulder joint fixed (sorry about the lay terms), got a new seat belt where her dog had chewed the thing to mere threads, and put on gorgeous new Japanese tyres. I sunk more into it than I'd paid for in the first place.

I did joke that this was my "Schick Disposable Car", rejoicing in the price of a used car, patting myself on the back for buying a used car rather than renting some Detroit detritus. Was I degrading the car? Was I hurting its feelings?

My friend Karen saw me in the car and said "it suits her", with an appreciative laugh, to her husband. But the car just never felt mine. I would continually find the seller's old objects inside the car... a bar of factory-wrapped glycerine soap, an old sock, a pair of scratched sunglasses. It was odd. I babied the car, wouldn't drive it long distances, wouldn't work it, wouldn't 'possess' it. I kept on thinking of that awful, snide woman who sold it to me. You know, I'd asked her if she had a name for it, as some people do. I mean, I used to have "Blue Car" and my brother owns "Zippity Doo-Dah" and Ann owned "Greenie." The woman said, with a kind of whiny voice, "just... 'MY SAAB'" Nuff said.

It didn't take me long to start calling it "the Turbo Tomato", but it just didn't sit well with me. I don't know why. I'd sit there in the driver's seat and realize that I was holding the wheel at arm's length.

I ordered a cool vanity plate from the state... the one with the palm tree and setting sun, with a bold "California" scripted across the top, my text reading, OR BALI. Get it? I had those plates on the car for one week, and then Jay drove me and my dad to a recital in one of Berkeley's nicest neighborhoods. It was September. It was a lovely crisp night. The music was wonderful, the people a delight. We walked back to the car. It was not there. It had been stolen.

Police told me that it was almost certainly a professional job, that even the turbocharger in one of those old Saabs is worth more than the price I paid for the car. It would already be at a chop shop, he told me. I was crushed. I had not insured it for theft.

In the trunk was my notebook of every craftsman who built my house in San Mateo County, the name & price of every fixture, appliance, flooring, and material. I had no other collection of those facts. I also lost a favorite balinese scarf (for when I ride with the top down) and a baseball cap from the diRosa Preserve. I mourned the loss of that notebook most of all.

It took a huge chunk out of the next two months to buy a replacement car. We went for a 1997 Chrysler Sebring convertible. We test drove eight of the things, maybe three mustangs, too, before we found the right one at the right price. It was a good car. We both love the better insulation (the Saab was noisy, even with the top up) and the better position for the driver (just look at how the guy drives his Saab in the film Sideways... the driver's arms fully extended to reach the wheel) and the firmer instruments. Instead of sporty red, our Chrysler is badass black. It is such a baaaaad looking car. Mean. But it's a workhorse. Hardly needed anything. In a few miles it was time for the spark plugs to be replaced, the usual 100K maintenence. But nothing bad after that. We love the car and it's done well.

Then I was in France this last month and my brother shot me an email: the cops called. They found your Saab in San Francisco.

I got back to the States and called the cops. The car was taken in a drug case. The woman driving it claimed that she bought it at a police auction. The cops examining the car found that although most of the VIN numbers had been scraped off, the thieves neglected to erase the easiest placement: on the inside of the door. My old VIN was there. Needless to say, there is possibly a crooked cop in on the case, and the detective who dealt with me was not saying much more. I went to the impound lot to get what was left of the car. 30,000 miles racked up on the odometer and everything inside trashed. The instruments were all loose and abused, the speakers shot, the seats torn. I mean, the car still looked cherry on the outside, but it was as if it were a rape victim... all the damage inside. Maybe worst of all, the nice factory-installed toolbox was gone, the trunk lock broken, and any vestige of my history with it obliterated. Naturally, both plates were gone. The Turbo Tomato had a tattoo, too: one of those incredibly ghastly truck driver "sexy girl" stickers on the rear passenger window. I couldn't peel it off at the lot. I had to drive home with it.

The instruments were so damaged that if I drove over a bump, the left blinker would go on. It stunk. The woman's ice cream wrappers and garbage were all over the place. The EQ was gone. The roof hydraulics shot. A mechanic told me it would be 5 grand to fix everything MECHANICAL that was wrong with it. "Do you love this car?" I could not say that I did. He recommended that I just ditch it. A wrecking yard might pay as much as a few hundred for it. Or give it to charity.

Well, after contemplating giving the thing to my daughter in LA (it's a safer car than the one she drives now, a Dodge that is the Corvair of the new millenium), I realized that I just want this sorry piece of metal OUT of my driveway, out of my life, out of its misery.

I called a world famous charity and they are coming to take it away on Tuesday. It felt very, very right to make that call.

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