The Very Model of a Modern Lemon

When I drove up hill, a torrent of water would come out of the dashboard.

I just had to replace the catalytic converter on my 2002 Subaru Forester. This cost me more than the blue book value of the car. My brother-in-law would kill me if he knew, because he firmly believes one should never spend more than a car’s blue book value on a repair.

But I think there’s more to consider. First of all, this repair will add years to the life of the car. Now that it can breathe again, it’s really in pretty good shape. I trust that there will be many more years of driving in this car. It’s a reliable old work horse. Second, do I really want to spend money on a replacement, given the outrageous cost of cars these days? I might wind up with a 2003 something, but better the devil you know. And I like not having a car payment.

Yes, it would be nice to have heated seats and a rear view camera. It would be nice to be in a hybrid. It would be freakin’ amazing to be in something new. But it’s not really a high priority in my life. I’d rather spend the money on travel. And I mostly only use this car to get from home to work and back again. (And no, public transportation isn’t really an option given my schedule and my location.)

And even though this car is old enough to vote or drink in some states, it’s still just fine and dandy compared to the 2001 Dodge Caravan I used to drive. It got me from Florida to Washington state, so I’m grateful for it, but that vehicle was a lemon-flavored nightmare.

It had no heat and no functioning windshield wipers. In Seattle. I had to wrap myself in a horse blanket to drive in the winter, and any time the rain got bad, I would have to pull over.

After a good rain, if I drove up a hill, a torrent of water would come cascading out of the dashboard, and wash across the floor like a tsunami, only to pour out the back doors. This, of course, meant that I had a myriad of electrical problems and I was constantly replacing fuses. The radio didn’t work. There was also no air conditioning. The door windows would open and close at random intervals.

Since the car was constantly moist on the inside, and there was no heat, this meant that the humidity, when I’d drive the car in the morning, would build up on the inside of the windows. I was constantly toweling them off in transit so that I could see to drive. Even worse, on very cold winter mornings, I’d have to come out and scrape the frost from the outside and the inside of the windows.

To combat this inside window frost, I developed a strategy that now seems laughable, but at the time it was essential. I snaked a 100 foot extension cord out my bedroom window and into the car. On the car end, I attached a tiny portable heater that I would sit on the dashboard. On the bedroom end was a timer that would turn on the heater about 45 minutes before I woke up. Then, at least, there was a patch of window to see out of.

I finally had to get rid of that van when the entire thing started shuddering as I drove. I thought it was going to disintegrate. So I turned it in to the car dealer who sold me the Subaru. But I made them put it in writing that they would not sell it to someone else, and would not donate it to a charity, and wouldn’t even sell it for parts. They’d only have it crushed for scrap metal. Because that thing was a death trap, and I didn’t want to pass any part of it on to anyone else.

Now, I kind of laugh in horror at what I put up with in that van. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But now you know why I love my Subaru, and refuse to let a catalytic converter come between us.


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It All Turns on a Dime

Everything can change in an instant.

It had been a wonderful evening spent with my husband and a dear friend. Christmas lights, music, delightful conversation. Warm fuzzies all around.

Afterward we were driving my friend home. At least that was the plan. I was a snuggled down contentedly in the car, knowing my husband knew where he was going much better than I did. (I’m a bit geographically challenged at the best of times.)

We were in the midst of a surreal wind storm that had caused power outages all over town. The neighborhood we were in was pitch black, except for the headlights of cars. Everyone was being very cautious and taking turns. It was our turn. Really. It was.

And then, just like that, we were spinning around in an intersection. It all happened in slow motion. I remember thinking, “Oh. I’m spinning. I’ve never spun before.”

It’s funny where your mind goes in these situations.

The idiot, an arrogant 33 year old man fresh from a Christmas Party where he most likely indulged in too much holiday cheer, had blown right through the intersection. Luckily my husband saw what was about to happen and was able to accelerate enough so that the stupid punk hit the rear quarter panel, rather than hitting us broadside and most likely killing us all.

Then comes the standard stuff in these situations. Is everyone all right? Yes, considering. Neck and back discomfort. Nothing broken. No blood. The calling of the cops, who refuse to come out because there were no injuries, and we had managed to roll our car off the road. (If I had a dollar for every time a Seattle cop had refused to come when I called, I could retire now. I’m not impressed. If you live in this town, you’re on your freakin’ own.)

The arrogant punk said he wasn’t speeding. It took everything in me not to launch myself at his throat. Dude, you spun our car around. In an unlit intersection, where every other car was stopped. “Oh, was the power out?” Jesus. Seriously?

And then, as further proof that this was not his first rodeo, he said, “I’m not going to admit to any fault.” You learn to say that at driver’s school, and you usually only go there if you’re trying to avoid points on your license. Thank goodness a witness came forward.

The exchange of information. The calling of a tow truck. The calling of the insurance agency. The calling in sick to work the next day. The gradual realization that our car is most likely toast. The nausea from the adrenaline dump. Fighting the desire to cry so as not to freak out one’s spouse. Getting home 4 hours later than you originally intended. Feeling changed.

I was afraid to go to bed. I figured I had whiplash, and I was going to wake up in agony, and that pain would be with me for weeks, maybe months. Finally, at 2 am, I had no choice.

Lying there, waiting for sleep to take us, we engaged in the useless game of what ifs. What if we had taken another route, as suggested? What if I hadn’t asked for that detour to take pictures of the Lenin Statue, all decked out for the holidays? What if our passenger hadn’t put on her seatbelt? What if her son, one of my favorite kids in the entire world, had been in the car with us? Worst of all, what if my husband hadn’t had the presence of mind to accelerate, and the car had hit him directly in the shoulder and he had been killed, when we’ve only been married for three months? That is how my luck tends to run…

I’ve written about this before, how everything can change in an instant. It was all so surreal. It still is. If we humans kept the fact that the world is entirely arbitrary in the forefront of our minds, I don’t think any one of us could remain sane for long. The sands of life are just a little too shifty to allow us to remain upright.

So it’s official. My song for the season is, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth… to Remain in My Head as We Spin Out in This Intersection.”

Update: No injuries on our side, and our car was, indeed, totalled. I hope the little punk’s d*** fell off, but at the very least I can comfort myself with the fact that his insurance rates will rise.


If I hadn’t asked that we stop and take this picture of Lenin, bedecked in a Christmas halo, with blood on his hands, we wouldn’t have been in that intersection at that moment in time. Lenin. The gift that keeps on giving.

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“I Can Do It Myself!!!”

According to family lore, that was one of the first full sentences I ever uttered. That does not surprise me in the least. I’ve always been very independent.

I started working when I was 10 years old, growing house plants and selling them at the local flea market. My first major purchase was tickets to Disney World for me, my mother and my sister. At the time we could all go for a total of twenty dollars. That tells you how long ago that was.

When I got my first car (which I paid for myself), the first thing I did was learn how to change the oil, and I took pride in doing it. Nowadays I’d rather pay someone else than get all dirty and stuff, but it still makes me smile that I know how.

I also did a great deal of the remodeling of my first house. I learned how to plaster and paint and grout and construct and shingle. I attribute my confidence in these areas to my summer job with the Youth Conservation Corps.

Many people seem surprised that I bought a house on my own, but the fact is, I’m on my second one. If I had waited for some Prince Charming to come along and foot the bill, I’d have been a renter for life. What a waste of money.

I also moved all the way across the country on my own, even though I didn’t know a soul on the West Coast. I don’t think I really thought that one through. If I had, I’d probably still be in Florida. But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, so three cheers for flying by the seat of my pants!

I’ve done a great deal of traveling on my own. It wasn’t as fun as it could have been, but it sure beat staying at home. The world is an amazing place, indeed, and those travel experiences have shaped who I am.

Doing all those things myself has made me the person that I am today, and I’m rather proud of that. But here’s the thing: The older I get, the more I want to do things with someone. I don’t want to do it myself. I want company. I want someone to share the experience with, someone to laugh with. I want someone to help me find my way if I get lost. I want feedback. I want a hand to hold.

The fact that I have that now is the best gift the universe could have ever given me. It only took me 53 years to figure that out.


Hey! Look what I wrote!

I Miss the Saturn Experience

I’ve had a lot of cars in my lifetime, but I’ve only bought one that was brand new. It was a 1998 Saturn SL2. I loved that car. Not only because it got me from point A to point B, but at the time the Saturn folks were embarked on this radical new philosophy in car sales, and I felt like I was on the cutting edge.

Back then, when you bought a Saturn you were joining a family. The list price was the price. There was no haggling, no pressure, no feeling like you might be getting ripped off. I found that extremely refreshing. And when you signed on the dotted line, every employee in the building stopped what they were doing and they came out and cheered. It made you feel like a rock star. Somewhere I still have a picture of me standing next to my salesman at that moment.

And afterward, you were still considered family. They had parties. Bar-b-cues. Classes. You got cards in the mail. People often went to Tennessee to tour the factory. When you took your car in for periodic maintenance, they knew you by name. They welcomed your dogs in the waiting room, and offered you doughnuts and coffee. When they’d finished working on your car, they would wash it and leave candy or a cut flower on your seat.

I was really proud to be a part of that, and I suspect that if Saturn still existed, I’d be a customer for life, even though the cars themselves weren’t sexy or innovative or award winning. I’m sure that had a lot to do with their downfall. But it’s a moot point. Sadly, Saturn is no more.

I don’t know which came first, their financial decline or their philosophical decline, but I did notice that in their last few years, suddenly there were no more flowers, no more parties, and no one took those factory tours anymore. It made me sad.

You just don’t see that level of customer service anywhere nowadays. Yes, all those little extras take time and cost money, but they are priceless. They are unforgettable.

I’m glad that I got to stand at the very pinnacle of the car buying experience, if only for a brief, shining moment. I’m not ashamed to say that when my Saturn was t-boned beyond repair, I shed more than a few tears. I would probably still be driving that vehicle today if it hadn’t been for that.

When I lost that car, I lost a family too. The fact that no other organization seems to be trying to create that kind of family feeling shows how short-sighted corporate America can be.


The Great Plate Debate

My coworker recently had his front license plate stolen off his car, which made me run out to my car and make sure mine was still there, because I never look. That got me thinking. And when I start thinking, it generally turns into a blog post. Sorry. That means there’s nowhere to hide.

Having lived my entire auto-owning life in Florida until recently, I’m used to having only one license plate—the one on the back. It was quite the culture shock, moving across the country and having to put a plate on the front of the car as well.

Honestly, front plates have never made much sense to me. I mean, if someone is committing a crime, aren’t they generally driving away from you? If the criminal is coming at you, chances are you’re too busy getting out of the way to take note of his plate number. (Unless it’s imprinted backward on your forehead, and at that point you would have other things to worry about.) You’d also think that while having two plates would give young boys twice as much to hang on their bedroom walls, it would also be twice as expensive for the states in question.

So I did a lazy Google search, and learned quite a bit. According to, this country only has 19 one-plate states, so there I was, in the minority all that time without realizing it. Go figure.

And it seems that front plates actually save states money, because they get a lot of revenue from catching folks on camera who are running red lights. They also lose a lot less on automated tolls, because if the sun glare makes the plate hard to read on the back, there’s always the front. The same with people who try to sneak out of parking garages. I guess I never thought of these petty criminals because it would never occur to me to do these things myself.

The main gripe the general public seems to have with front plates is that they make their front bumpers look all ugly. I suppose that aesthetics would be a concern for those who spend as much on their vehicle as I spent on my first house, but for me, that has never really been much of an issue. I will never look at a car as a significant investment. It’s just the thing that gets me from point A to point B.

So, just consider me to be a public service. I sit here and  think and write about unimportant stuff so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.


My Car Buying Experience

For the first time in many years, I bought a new (to me) car. I had no choice, really. The old one was a death trap. There was no heat, no defrost, and no air conditioning. When it rained, the dash would fill with water and the electrical stuff would flicker on and off and the water would pour out onto the floor when I drove up hill. The wheels also wobbled. And then the windshield wipers stopped working (in rainy Seattle, that’s really, REALLY bad news), and the cost of repair would have been more than the blue book value of the car.

As a general rule, I hate the car buying experience. I feel like I have “sucker” tattooed on my forehead, and they see me coming from miles away. I don’t know much about cars, to be honest, so I always have to rely on second opinions. But it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Why can’t you just deal with me honestly in the first place?

Fortunately, a friend of mine recommended that I contact Keith Dinsmore at Auto Connections of Bellevue, Washington. I told him what type of car I was looking for, and he found me a great one within the week. And it cost less than the money I had set aside for it, too, which was excellent.

This was one of those “inherited trust” situations. I trust my friend implicitly, so anyone she trusts, I trust, too. And it worked out really well. Also, if you look at their staff page, you’ll see Rusty, their official greeter. He’s a dog that wanders the premises, making you feel right at home. I’ve always felt that dog people are inherently more honest, so his opinion matters a great deal to me as well.

Don’t get me wrong. I still got that second opinion. I know another guy who is as rare as hen’s teeth: an honest mechanic. Gerard Ascherl, of Gerard’s Auto Repair, in Shoreline, Washington. (206) 931-1457. He inspected this car for me from head to toe, and I didn’t sign off on the deal until it got his seal of approval. (There’s a dog connection here, too. He rescued mine when he ran away. That’s how we met. I think my dog still wishes he was there. I try not to take it personally.)

Don’t let appearances fool you. Gerard’s shop is behind his house, and invisible from the street. Normally this type of business is not allowed in a residential neighborhood, but his got legally grandfathered in because he was there long before the city of Shoreline was. Rest assured he has all the equipment he needs to do a great job on your car.

If you do any business with either of these fine gentlemen, please tell ‘em Barb sent you!

My new (to me) baby.


My Brain on Cruise Control

With an 8 hour drive ahead of me from Seattle, Washington to Missoula, Montana, I wondered what my brain would do with all that “down time”. So I decided to take a digital recorder with me and whenever I started to think about a new subject, I’d take note. I have no idea whether I’m typical or completely out there on the lunatic fringe, but I thought it would be an interesting little experiment. So what follows is a look into my idle brain.

In between long periods where my mind seemed to simply hum along with the sound of my tires, I recorded these thoughts:

  • Did I leave burners on? I’m sure I checked… But did I?
  • Have I forgotten anything?
  • I hope my dog Devo doesn’t pee in the car.
  • I wonder if I’m passing Bill Gates on the highway?
  • It’s so nice to see something different for a change.
  • Why is my GPS not speaking to me?
  • Raining so hard I can’t see out the window. Wish I could afford a car with a working defogger.
  • Devo insisted I stop to let him pee less than a half hour down the road. I suppose it would be worse with small children.
  • After listening to an NPR story, I need to add The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to my “must read” list, which is becoming so long that I fear I’ll never catch up.
  • My windshield wipers refuse to turn off. Great.
  • Do dogs’ ears pop when we come down from the mountains like mine do?
  • Devo is sitting beside me. He’s my best friend. Blue is sound asleep in the back.
  • Heading into Big Sky country. I can breathe again. I never realize I’m not breathing until I start breathing again.
  • Drove for 2 hours before I remembered I have cruise control. It’s not something I can use in the gridlock of Seattle.
  • I wonder what farming life is like? Lonely. Fulfilling. Hard.
  • I took this same route in reverse a year ago when I drove across country from Florida. I was so different then. What a year it has been.
  • Lots of talk about the forest fires on the radio. A sign outside of someone’s house: “Firefighters, it’s only a house. Take care of yourselves.”
  • Ideas for blog entries.
  • After seeing an out of date billboard on the subject: There’s a TESTICLE festival? Seriously?
  • You know you’re in trouble when the only radio stations you can get are gospel and traditional Mexican folk music. Radio is now off.
  • I begin humming “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson. Over and over and over and over…
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[Image credit:]

Bring It On

Without going into the gory details, let’s establish that I no longer have heat or defrost in my car, and after several reputable quotes, it would cost about 900 dollars to fix. Well, the vehicle isn’t worth 500 dollars, so that seems like a rather silly investment. Dandy.

So I’m buying a portable defroster and keeping towels on hand, and I thought I’d get a battery heated coat or blanket or something until I saw how much they cost, so a rechargeable headband and a basic blanket will just have to suffice. When you grow up poor, you learn to make do. A rich person couldn’t cope with this situation. But then a rich person wouldn’t be in this situation.

I’ve seen more than one rich person crumble on the rare occasion that they are faced with adversity. Take away their smart phones, for example, and they’re all but rendered helpless. My cheap, featureless pay by the minute phone would be completely out of the question for them. And several times I’ve been looked upon with utter horror when I’ve confessed that I don’t have cable TV. In fact, I don’t have a TV, period. How does one cope?

And I’m always amused when I see rich people traveling in third world countries. Take away their steak and potatoes and their towel warmers and their reliable internet access and they nearly self-destruct. Heaven forfend they have to use a squat toilet.

Poor people learn to adapt. Rich people expect the world to adapt to them.

Which brings me to my theory that if there ever was a major worldwide disaster that took out the electricity and rendered the monetary system inert, it is the poor folk that would survive and even thrive. Sure, I’ll break up my furniture to build a fire. Most of it was found on the side of the road anyway, so what have I got to lose? And I could hunt and gather if I had to. Somehow I don’t picture Paris Hilton getting her hands dirty like that. I already have callouses. I’m not going to miss a manicure when I’ve never had one.

So yeah, send me some warm thoughts as I shiver down the road. But don’t worry about me. I can take it.


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“Tell Him Chuck Sent You.”

So here I sit in the hot sun, on a greasy chair, in a greasy parking lot, in a really scary side of town, with an ominously sedate and extremely dirty pit bull lying at my feet. The prostitutes are staring at me. And I’ll be here for hours. Just one more curve on my downward spiral, it would seem.

You know, I really try. No one can say any different. I started earning money when I was 10 years old. I am law abiding, I pay my taxes, I’ve never defaulted on a student loan. I give blood. I just gave my 51st microloan to a woman in a 3rd world country.

I just also seem to get ripped off, have my car totaled by a woman who ignores stop signs, choose the wrong thing to study in school, invest my money poorly, and fall in love with someone who then dies. Before his body was even cold, my landlady kicked me out of my apartment. Just when I thought I couldn’t lose any more, I also choose a really, REALLY bad mechanic. So here I sit. With a pit bull.

Things did seem like they were starting to turn around, though. I got this great job offer in Seattle, and when I discovered how outrageously expensive the relocation across the continent was going to be, I did a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. And people have really stepped up. They’ve given me what they could. Strangers. Friends I haven’t seen in decades. Ex-boyfriends. Seriously! Ex-boyfriends. It humbles me. It brings tears to my eyes. But as of this writing, the campaign seems to have come to a grinding halt, far short of my needed goal. And now this. I’m really scared.

Yesterday I decided to get a tune up and an oil change in anticipation of my 3100 mile trip. It was the smart thing to do, I thought. The last thing I need is to get stranded on the side of the road with my dogs in the middle of South Dakota. So I bring it in and they get to work.

Several hundred dollars and several hours later, they tell me all six of my exhaust pipe brackets have broken off, my mufflers are hanging in mid air, and the brackets need to be replaced. 80 more bucks. Has to be done. Go ahead. An hour later they walk in and say, “Can you smell that?” I could. I had for the last 15 minutes. A nauseating burning, rotten egg smell. I didn’t realize it was coming from my car. “Your catalytic converter is glowing cherry red.”

At that point, I nearly lost it. Because I know what this car is worth, and I know how much catalytic converters cost. And I know at this point this car has become nothing but a 2000 pound paperweight. How am I supposed to go across country now?

But then, he goes and makes a few calls. Believe me, I’m making a call or two myself. He finds someone who will do something less than legal to deal with the catalytic converter so it will be at least drivable. Washington State has emissions control though, and it will never pass inspection.

Thank God, my sister came through for me again. She’s going to give me her van in exchange for my P.O.S. I’m grateful. Gas costs just tripled, probably, but I’m grateful. But the thing is, I still need this car to be drivable for her. So here I sit, with a pit bull, while something not exactly legal is happening with my car. It’s amazing just how far one can sink.

But he confirms what I already suspected. This problem was caused by them doing a horrible job with the tune up, and it’s still messed up. At least I won’t have to worry about it bursting into flames. But it shudders. It lurches. It backfires. And I have so much to do between now and Seattle, and dealing with this problem on top of everything else is going to add a lot of pressure to the situation.

But in an odd, off handed kind of way, this illegal mechanic and his pit bull are really helping me. He even says if I bring it back on another day when he can have it all day, he’ll at least figure out what the heck they did wrong with the tune up. And he’ll do that for free. But I’ll need to find someone who will give me a ride home and pick me up, too.

And as I sat here, I looked at the piece of paper that the original, incompetent mechanic gave me with the pit bull mechanic’s contact info on it, and I notice something that I didn’t notice before. This referral was through a friend of a friend, so he wanted me to know his friend’s name so pit bull guy would know how I found him. It said, “Tell him Chuck sent you.”

Chuck just happens to be the name of my boyfriend who passed away in March. And he used to say to me when we had a problem, “We can fix this. It may not be pretty and it may not be perfect, but we’ll fix this.” I look down at the pit bull, whose massive head is now resting on my shoe, and I smile weakly.


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Valuable Junk?

Oooh, I really upset my landlady’s son the other day. I asked him what he was going to do with the junk car in the back yard. He told me that, in fact, it was a collectible car and a valuable investment. He just needs to do some work on it and it can be sold for at least $10,000.00.

Well that’s great. It has monetary value, but here’s the thing: It’s been sitting there gathering dust and taking up space for a year and a half. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s junk. I don’t care if something is worth a million dollars. If it’s not being used, can’t be eaten or worn or read, doesn’t have sentimental or artistic value, and/or doesn’t enhance your life in some significant way, it’s worthless.

People who stuff their life full of inanimate objects because they might be worth something someday make me crazy. And it seems that the likelihood of someone actually making the effort to go out and sell a possession is inversely proportionate to the number of possessions that person has. So all they’re doing is taking up space, spending money that could be better utilized elsewhere, and paying to heat, cool, house and store mounds and mounds of useless flotsam and jetsam.

We are raised to look at the monetary value of things, rather than the utility value and the sentimental value. I think that’s a pity. If we viewed things through a different lens, our attics, closets and garages would look a lot different.


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