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Cash for Clunkers: Zick Takes the Bait

Monday, August 24, 2009

Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Last caress for the old car. We're on our way to the car abbatoir.

I'll be on National Public Radio's All Things Considered this afternoon, between 5:30 and 6 pm Eastern time, talking about trading in my faithful, 14-year-old, 14 mpg Ford Exploder for a sleek green beauty of a Subaru Forester. Here's the text of the piece:

As of 8 pm tonight, the Cash for Clunkers program will grind to a halt. An estimated 600,000 low-mileage cars will have been traded in; the three billion dollars allocated for owner trade-ins guzzled down like gas in an oversized SUV’s tank.

I was going to buy a used car. Just one not quite as used as mine, a 1995 Ford Explorer with 178,000 miles on it, dicey shocks and transmission, and an insatiable appetite for fuel. Before the Cash for Clunkers program hove onto my radar screen, I had said it again and again: “I’m going to drive this thing until it falls apart under me.” I was sure we’d pass the 200,000 mile mark together. After all, we’d been through a lot.

That Ford carried me to the hospital twice when I was in labor. We strapped our new babies into its back seat, fumbling with the buckles and straps. Both kids grew up in it, and the slow and steady rain of Cheerios gave over to Nerds and bubble gum, and an orange DumDum embedded in the back carpet, stick pointing up. School papers and Matchbox racers and hairbobs accumulated under the seats; stickers appeared on the windows where I wouldn’t have put them myself.

There were bumper stickers from Maine to North Dakota. There was Give Turtles a Brake! There were dog stickers and flower power daisies and Life is Good stickers and during the 2008 election there were some pointed ones that got me more than a few hairy eyeballs from other drivers, maybe even a ticket or two.

Mice lived in it off and on, including one mama mouse who had the bad judgement to make a big fluffy nest and have her babies in the false fabric ceiling, which was a tenable plan until I drove the car and parked it in the sun. It took a month for me to find the nest. You can imagine. The half-gallon of milk that tipped over and leaked one summer day didn’t help. Neither did the chicken that rolled out of a grocery bag and festered quietly in the cargo area for a week until a small flock of vultures circling low told me there was something of interest in my garage. I didn’t drive it very often, just when I needed to.

It broke down on me only once, and that was just a dead fuel pump, in a parking lot only three blocks from my husband’s office. That car took care of me. And so, between the memories and the stickers and the mingled smells and the familiar, dependable roar of its engine, it became part of our family. I would drive it until it fell apart.

Until Cash for Clunkers. Until it hit me that nobody was going to walk up and offer me $4,500 for the MouseMobile, ever. And I began to see the wisdom of starting over with a new car, no, the heady, intoxicating appeal of it. I struck the Cash for Clunkers lure like a hungry bass.

But the thought of having a dealer fill its good heart with goo and rev the engine to death; of crushing its still strong if rusty body, broke my heart. It seemed so unnecessary. Couldn’t they give it to someone who needed a car? Couldn’t we not kill it, and say we did? I felt like a heel, a faithless, thankless creep, and twice I had to pull over and bawl for awhile at the thought of condemning a perfectly good car to such a violent death.

When I finally closed the deal on my new car, I asked the dealer to leave the Ford on the lot for awhile, not to lead it into the back pasture until after I was out of sight. He chuckled. "People get attached. They do!" I sat quietly in it for one last time, breathing its many aromas. I looked at its stickered rump in my fancy new auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass, stepped on the gas and headed home.

Last look at the Explorer, waiting to be junked. Oh, I can't bear it.

The sleek new beauty, a 2010 Subaru Forester. I know, it's the same color as the old one. I''m comfortable with green.

If you would like to hear the commentary, click here.

And if you do go to listen, please hit Recommend, and leave a comment? I'd appreciate it, NPR would appreciate it, and good Web action helps me get aired the next time!


One of my good birding friends drives a Forester and loves it!
Understand the car guilt, especially the "we brought those babies home for the first time" memory.
I remember my youngest sister being terribly upset when we junked the old phone and got the first rotary dial one, back in the day. She was about 3 and she cried when it left. We are strange creatures.

I can understand why you don't have many comments yet here on the blog. After reading some of the ones on NPR we might all be speechless. Who are these people and what are they doing listening to NPR?

I hope most of your blog readers will take the time to comment to NPR and click on recommend.

My husband works at a Subaru dealership. He says the Forester is a very good car and you will be happy with it. Enjoy that new car until Phoebe gets old enough to steal it from you. I bet she has her eyes on it already.

I just happened to catch your NPR story on my way home from taking my wife's 2003 Forester (what a coincidence) to get the tires checked. I haven't really been that attached to a car since I reluctantly said goodbye to my 1970 Toyota Landcruiser wagon ages ago. But I think you will love your Forester! We own two of them (a '98, which my son drives, and the aforementioned '03). Both of them have WELL over 100,000 miles and are still as reliable and fun to drive as ever. Just keep the oil changed and they'll go forever. I did enjoy your story, by the way, mouse nest, rotten chicken and all!
Gene Whitten

Congratulations and my sympathies Julie. I know how hard it is to let one go, but how fun it is to get a newun!

I loved the piece, and understand the sentiment. (And let NPR know.) Welcome to your new digs!

I have an '08 Forester and love it! I hope you'll enjoy yours, too. It was hard for me to let go of my hand-me-down '92 Volvo, even though she seemed to need expensive work about every six months or so. It hurt to think of someone else driving her, much less crushing (eek!) her--so I empathize.

Thanks, Julie, for my laugh(s) for the day. Love the bumper stickers (Like a Rock...!) and the idea of vultures circling your garage. We have a 1996 RAV 4 which is over 150,000, having made many trips now back and forth to central Mexico to our house there. Our particular smell in the car, made stronger in the summer, is cat pee from our cat Paintbrush who went with us on some of those journeys. She's gone but her memory lingers, shall we say. Hope you enjoy your Forester!

I remember spotting ye old Exploder in Athens one afternoon several years ago. You were parked in front of the Radio/TV building, where you were no doubt either getting ready to do or had just completed the recording of an essay for NPR. Little Phoebe and Liam were with you. I had just started reading your blog at the time, and was too shy to say hello. Kicking myself for that now. Oh well. Sorry you had to bid your reliable ride adieu, but hopefully the Sube will give you many years of reliable service, and loads of memories of its own. Happy travels!

Aww, and now we'd have to hug it out. Are you going to the Midwest Birding Symposium? If not WHY NOT??

Cowango, I think I rented that car once.
The former owners of our house had a cat that peed in the basement. Its name was Stinky. That was in 1992. Stinky's memory still lingers on humid summer days. Pah!

Will be at MBS for sure. Just realized it's less than a month away - suh-weet! Can't wait to see y'all!


Hey Chet,
I heard your Mether's radio spot the other day. I told my Boston (Newton) to "listen up, Chet Baker's Mether is on the radio!". I listened to her talk of her travels and troubles with the old Ford. She spoke of how she was taken to the hospital in it to deliver the OTHER children, but something was missing from the story.... It was any mention of you, Chet Baker! I'm sure you left many a nose print on the windows of that old clunker, and many a fine black and white hair woven into the fabric... Heck, I'll bet even the arm rest smelled of popcorn paws:) Did she forget that she drove hours and hours in that vehicle to bring you, Chet Baker home to the family? Or the countless trips you accompanied her to the bus stop, or to check bluebird boxes? Maybe next time she does a radio piece she'll remember to remark on the true STAR of the family, you Chet Baker!
Sincerely, Aimee.
A "true Chetfan:)

Last week as the mechanic at our beloved garage gave me an estimate of $832.00 to fix my 2001 Buick, I contemplated this very program. Was it worth it? Did I want a new car payment? I opted no, but I am jealous. I love the green Sub. and you will, too. I know 2 people with them, and they are very happy. Don't worry. You will make many memories in this one!! Happy Travels!

Jules: If the sight of you at dusk last night washing the Subaru and singing it a lullaby was not enough to convince me that you're over the Explorer, I don't know what will.

VERY GOOD STORY. We left TENN two days after this money program announced. Maybe even more with the JEEP / Chrysler offer. Not enough time to commit. Another church lady e-mailed & said they DID IT.!
.. Pasted many auto dealers with the dumpster out on front lawn. Went to MAINE for 3 weeks with the Grand kids. Our daughter - in -law drives a Subaru, lots of SNOW there.
..Good to hear you on the national radio.

Posted by SPLIT Classic Boater August 28, 2009 at 6:24 PM

Nice car Julie! That's an excellent color too -- very good for using it as a "blind" while watching birds and/or wildlife.

Hubbie & I just did the same with his beloved Clunker: a '96 Buick Roadmaster wagon, which he LOVED. But since it was worth a total of $274 and had over 200,000 miles on it, we joined the throngs buying a new car that we surely wouldn't have done if not for the Clunker program. We bought a hybrid, not a foreign one, but a FORD! Beautiful Fusion, getting 40+ MPG. We're very happy with Fillup the Frugal Fusion, but there still was that emotion pulling on Jon, letting his "Roadie" go to Clunker heaven!

Posted by Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 12:37 PM
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