Old Paint Was a Lemon

Old Paint was wheezing harder than usual. After all the part swapping, repairs, and just general babying of that car, what finally forced my hand was a check engine light. Sure. It could’ve been a fouled sensor. Or maybe it might’ve been the first sign of the head gasket preparing to crack.

In any case, I read the yellow dashboard light as a clear warning from the gearhead gods. It became the straw which broke my camel’s back.

I’d once hoped getting several more years and tens of thousands of miles further from my inherited 2002 Mercury. That car made my intentions improbable. While the Merc’s odometer just barely registered below 70000 miles, a stranger driving it might’ve mistaken the mileage for double.

A soft double, but double nonetheless.

The Mercury was my father’s last big-money purchase. It appeared one May 2005 morning in our driveway. He died that July. Suspecting how he thought, he doubtlessly bought it to bequeath me. Sentiment aside, he really should’ve consulted the intended driver first.

Although he worked for and retired from General Motors, father always preferred driving Fords. Given a choice he would’ve taken a Continental over a Cadillac; a Mustang over a Corvette.

General Motors, prodded by the UAW, recompensed our family fairly. I look at all the economic difficulties challenging families during this purportedly prosperous time and fail recognizing our country.

Thanks to the America of my 1960s and 70s boyhood money problems which plague current society did not exist inside ours or our neighbors’ homes. Then, none of us could’ve fathomed how apparent affluence masked all sorts of financial insecurity.

My parents, their co-workers, bought homes, traded up on new cars frequently, enjoyed themselves in ways their children now adults might see as extravagant, vacationed regularly, and still had plenty left over to either invest or save. All that on hourly employees’ wages.

Yes. Part-time supplementary employment abounded. However, unlike today a second job then was a leisurely option, not a survival requirement.

Today, even those occupying upper echelon slots struggle. And if that’s their boggle, imagine the slog of someone making between $10-15 an hour. Back in the 60s and 70s if workers earned that much an hour, they sat right below Rockefeller, although their homes were nowhere near the opulence of Rocky’s Kykuit.

Uh-huh. I have visited Kykuit. It is an example of refined extravagance. All the Rockefeller Family’s personal articles have been whisked away. The property has been opened to gawkers, a la those estates in Britain now deriving funds for upkeep from daytrippers. This American palace retains vestiges of appreciable style no amount of ostentatious new money or gold bathroom fixtures can outshine.

After father died, maybe I should’ve sold Old Paint. I already owned a car, a 1996 Toyota. It proved as dependable as Old Paint later showed itself temperamental. Looking back, yes, I should’ve sold the Merc then banked the money for down payment on another set of wheels.

But as I’ve mentioned, the car was father’s last big purchase. Didn’t he visit several dealers, jaw with salesmen, pop various hoods, road test this one and that before settling on the six-cylinders which would eventually torment me? Besides, compared against the Toyo, the Merc was a roomy, powerful behemoth. Mother enjoyed cruising around inside its relative luxury. Mostly we used it to go grocery shopping. Every other week. Six miles round trip. In the eight years until her demise, perhaps 700 miles of driving all told.

Prudence, foresight, maybe intuition also made me retain the Merc. After my last ties to Quarropas vanished and Las Vegas chosen as a nice soft spot to land, wasn’t that car just what I needed for my transcontinental relocation. Its interior and trunk allowed me to pack more possessions which cut down shipping costs. Given the car’s horsepower there’d be less strain once the Plains climbed into the Rockies.

Furthermore, six cylinders could let me point and punch it and gain some visceral satisfaction absent from the efficient Toyota. The Mercury was what the Interstates demanded.

Before sailing from Quarropas and burning the boat in Las Vegas, I had the local Ford dealer service Old Paint. Five years ago, there wasn’t much to fix. Yet the appointment did portend an attitude prevailing in Nevada.

Just shooting the breeze with the supervising mechanic revealed my destination. He mentioned that a recently hired tech came from Las Vegas. I asked his evaluation of the new man.


Not “good,” which is acceptable. Not “bad,” which can be improved. But “slow.” Slow. Right down there with “useless.” In the Northeast that assessment is a kiss of death. Five years ago this August I had my car inspected. If the new hire couldn’t make the cut during summer doldrums, how could he bust it after Labor Day when business erupted?

If I hadn’t looked ahead to the upcoming journey, I might’ve further contemplated whether the mechanic’s inefficiency merely a personal failing or an attribute common throughout Southern Nevada.

Much like the laggard grease monkey, another omen I overlooked pointed to future troubles with the Merc. At the time I disregarded it as nothing, less than a nuisance.

Eight years earlier, when the Merc started serving as mother’s exclusive luxury ride to-and-from shopping, I snapped off the knob covering the toggle which operated the side mirrors. This didn’t affect the mirrors. Brushing off this omen, I might’ve dismissed it altogether hadn’t mother issued a skeptical look whose importance only fully surfaced after the car started deteriorating at an ever faster, more expensive clip.

Raised in our home at least, one learned early not to become possessed by possessions. Not that we were profligate but when durable goods reached useful ends, we chucked them and bought new items hoping these lasted as long and longer and served as well.

The Depression stamped my parents. The epoch made them frugal. Mother darned and patched despite the plethora of cheap replacements. Father would have his shoes resoled and re-heeled until the uppers were ragged.

Mileage bound me to the Merc. By the time the check engine light appeared and I decided ridding myself of it, the transmission had been replaced along with the alternator, timing belt, and three batteries. The air conditioner had quit and a CV boot, one which I’d replaced upon arriving in Nevada, was torn again. The gas tank leaked from a hole – not from a side or bottom puncture but from the top. The top!? Mojave Desert summers had oxidized paint on the trunk and roof.

Yet until the check engine light my mantra remained “The car has less than 70000 miles on it!”

The above was hard-headedness. What also bound me to Old Paint was its being the stages of my parents’ last moments of prolonged lucidity.

Buying the car hadn’t pleased father so much as his knowing I’d receive it. The pleasure he took showing it off probably exceeded the pride he’d exhibited as a much younger man upon buying his first new three-on-the-tree Mercury.

With mother, her there-and-back years finished during Yuletide 2012 after one final supermarket trip to stock Christmas fixings and those ingredients that marked our traditional New Year’s meal – neck bone, collards, and black-eyed peas along with rice and fried chicken. Almost five years now without “good-old neck bone.” How have I survived without such holiday sustenance?

Always just before parking she’d remind me of the paper goods needed. Without fail always the same items listed in the same order! And once I’d collected them by rote I’d find her in the produce aisle. How she discerned the better fruits and vegetables from the passable ones I’ll never know. Maybe it helped mother also wielded a green thumb. Afterwards we’d slowly proceed through the store and lard our cart.

A full refrigerator and a chockablock larder never failed giving her senses of accomplishment. After her death, I realized this an aftermath of all those years when the Depression left meager stores in her family’s pantry.

Our last shopping expedition the last time she walked among strangers ably. Cooking those last meals her final occasions of demonstrating independence, mobility, competence, and confidence. If I’d borne any prescience we would’ve spoken of more urgent matters. But since it a supermarket run, we doubtlessly filled the car’s interior with meandering chatter reflecting real life. The kind knowingly abbreviated through verbal shorthand.

As stated previously, General Motors and the UAW provided this boy better than a good life. They gave him suburban splendor.

During my sophomore and junior college years father secured me summer vacation jobs at the plant. Too bad America is deindustrializing. Fewer people coming along now will have the displeasure of experiencing financially rewarding backbreaking toil. Yes, the regular hours, the mandatory overtime tasked bodies. But GM’s remuneration dulled a lot of pain.

Whenever I hear some cubicle nabob complaining about unions, about how their demands sap vitality, force companies abroad in search of cheaper labor, I hear true ignorance. Labor organizations like the UAW improved working Americans’ lives. They expanded the middle class. Through them the United States enjoyed wider prosperity and advanced socially. Notice the nation has only regressed with the diminution of organized labor.

Since then notice only the rich have gotten richer.

General Motors made me appreciate hard work. This corporate American mainstay fulfilled its end of the bargain. For employees toiling under occasionally arduous conditions yielding products that sated consumer demands, the company paid well. The independent clause of that last statement can be said less and less in today’s working environment.

Opposite lanes on formerly two-way streets are gradually being narrowed and closed altogether.

GM and UAW beneficiary as I’ve been, it therefore pained me turning to Toyota and Nissan for a replacement to the Mercury. Although Nippon now builds domestically, at one time it was the scourge of US automakers. Those products directly threatened livelihoods here in America.

Fortunately by the time I’d bought my Toyo father had come to terms with the alien invasion that often filled his driveway. It also helped that by then he’d retired. Nonetheless for a man who arrived on the assembly line when union grievances against management still enflamed members to roll cars, the interloper I drove must’ve vexed him somewhat.

But that took a while. Before he started accommodating “the enemy,” he was staunch “American Only!” regarding automobiles. Calm and genial as he normally was, comparing Japanese cars favorably against US wheels made him livid. Way beyond any explosions occurring from my having done something outright boneheaded as a teen.

One mild evening over dinner my sister got me off the hook for every dumb thing I did and would do in father’s eyes. Now, sister is no dummy. In fact she’s the smarter and far more eminent between us. Yet in this one instance she suffered the sort of brain cramp which might’ve paralyzed an ordinary human.

At that table, in father’s presence, she stated Japanese cars were superior to American ones.

Father’s transition from amiable to angry was instantaneous. He zipped through murderous to sociopathic to psychotic in 0-60. Thunder clouds formed above his head and vivid lightning lashed our table. Oh, did father rage. As he raged, and he raged in a manner nothing I’d ever done or would ever do fomented, sister looked at me. Through father’s Lear-like tumult, she stated the obvious:

“Guess I shouldn’t have said that, huh?”

Looking back on the cars I’d purchased prior to the Toyo, all domestic models, each causing me trouble by creating worries, and ultimately spending inordinate periods aloft or hood raised in this repair bay or that, costing me money. The Toyo was worry-free. That’s not an exaggeration.

Unlike the American cars I bought that were better suited as fodder for high school automotive classes, the Toyo didn’t produce agita. Towards the end of my life in Quarropas I dogged that car hard. Better than survive, it thrived. I cannot conceive of an American car surviving the same without costly complaint.

In the 13 years of owning the Toyo, my major purchases for it beyond routine maintenance were tires, a couple of batteries, and brake work. The Toyo was a durable car. It was designed to keep running. Like my sister, let me state the obvious:

“Across the last several decades American cars have not been designed for durability. They have been designed for planned obsolescence.”

Mine is not a reflection upon those who assemble American model cars. Hourly workers believe they are assembling quality merchandise. As they should. Who wants to admit he or she is putting together crap?

However, the Big Three poohbahs seek to maintain a constant churn of customers. Rather than give the public products that last, that earn favorable reputations from reliability and through these would establish loyal buyers, they purposely foist vehicles meant to decay onto motorists.

Let me repeat: “Planned obsolescence.” It should be a major consideration when buying any American model vehicle.

Rather than promote reliability, American automakers prefer to beguile potential buyers with cupholders and individual climate controlled seating. Or entertainment systems which transform one’s personal conveyance into the Second Coming of Studio 54. Or replacing metal parts with composites in order to reduce weight to goose gas mileage yet suffer when ordinary wear and tear fatigues that particular component. Fat lot of good all these’ll do when the motor won’t turn over, stalls, seizes, or a leak becomes a deluge, or the electrical systems and sensors go haywire.

Laud Toyota as I have, I bought a Nissan. When I reconnoitered the Mojave in Spring 2013 to determine whether Las Vegas would suit me, I drove a rented Nissan. That car allowed me to easily maneuver around what was then a strange city. In fact Nissans are now what I often rent when driving to Southern Arizona or Los Angeles; road miles and the hours consumed preferable to contending with TSA’s security theater for flights of such short duration.

In the end, I donated the Mercury to charity. That car had become so worthless trying to mulct trade-in value from the dealer would’ve embarrassed us both. Neither could I imagine any Mexican desperate enough for wheels who’d buy the hulk.

The Merc’s disappearance was easily arranged. A phone call, basic information recited. Plates removed, keys and title left in the glove compartment, then one last look for remembrance sake before going to work. Upon returning home that afternoon Old Paint’s old space sat empty.

All the scene lacked was an Erik Satie fugue.

On one hand, yes, it was sad. Another piece of Quarropas erased. On the other, mother and father each would’ve agreed to the necessity. That thing had outlived my purpose.