I arrived in Seattle nearly sixteen years ago in a white Ford Ranger pickup named Sally. Together she and I drove from Detroit to Montreal, where we picked up the woman I was dating and drove to Seattle. Afterward we cruised around the Pacific Northwest, where we had plenty of adventures, most of them good. Over the years she treated me with a goodness I rarely returned.
After settling in to life in the city, where an automobile certainly isn’t essential, I decided it was best to let her go, and some seven years ago I donated Sally to a local charity. In the years since I’ve picked up a couple of cycles, one with a motor and the other without, and these two, in tandem with the local buses, the kind generosity of friends and the soles of my shoes, have been the means by which I move around on a day-to-day basis. All of which makes me excited to introduce you, dear readers, to the newest edition to my family: Stella the Saab.
But first, a little background:
I’m not a mechanically inclined person. When I was a boy I liked to take machines apart—I found something oddly satisfying in reducing the whole of a thing to its divergent components. Give eight-year-old me a broken television and a screwdriver and I’d be gleefully occupied for hours. As much fun as this was for young me, there were several things prominently absent from this process: first, nobody explained to me what the various components were or did. Occasionally an uncle would say stop and say, That little box there is the transformer, and while such knowledge appealed to my inner Adam’s desire to name things, he could’ve called the part in question anything—a tonsil or a sugar-nut, a calcified obsolescence or a petunia-fiddlemaker—it would’ve been the same to me, and it proves the point that naming a thing and understanding its purpose are a million miles apart.
Second, and much to the annoyance of my mother and grandmother, nobody ever taught me how to put anything back together. I would spend hours breaking down an old radio to its individual parts, but after that was achieved I was completely unprepared to take further steps, which meant that the kitchen floor would be littered with little metal parts until someone stepped on them and I was forced to gather up the pieces and throw them away. I was plenty inquisitive about machines and my childhood deconstructions taught me how to handle a screwdriver and pliers, but I learned next to nothing about how a machine actually works. In the thirty-some years that have elapsed since little has changed, and today I’m as useless at mechanical things as ever.
The most noticeable and persistent way this absence has pressed upon my life is around cars, for the very simple fact that cars are both tremendously prevalent and a thing that men traditionally work on. My automotive ignorance is only intensified by the annoying fact that I’m from Detroit—if anything, isn’t a working knowledge of cars supposed to be deeply ingrained in me?? Sadly I didn’t pop out of the womb with an understanding of how a carburetor works, and since no one ever taught it to me I have continued through life quite ignorant of the dynamics of a combustion engine.
I’ve never liked that. It’s a fact that’s always annoyed me, and I suppose that makes a certain obvious sense: there’s a traditionally masculine aspect to fixing stuff that has never been part of who I am. There’s something eerily emasculating about not knowing your way around an engine, and when certain people find out you’re one of those guys who can’t change his own oil or brake rotors they roll their eyes and pity your ineptitude, like: Really, you pay someone to do that? What’s wrong with you?!? Additionally, guys who are mechanical have an instantaneous camaraderie with one another in much the same way that men connect around sports. In both cases, it’s an either/or proposition that remainders no middle room: either you know Miguel Cabrera’s batting average against right-handed pitchers in the month of August or you don’t; and when you don’t know that information, you’re not part of the conversation.
Maybe all of that sounds like silly stuff for me to bemoan—after all, it’s 2015, I live in a highly developed city, work is increasingly specialized, and there’s nothing wrong with me doing my thing and leaving the fixing of my brakes to someone else. I think I’m supposed to have evolved beyond feeling embarrassed for the fact that I can’t fix a car, but certain parts of me simply haven’t made that progress. The truth is that fixing a car is not only a significant act of self-reliance but a tremendously powerful symbol of what’s involved in being a man. Plus, there’s the very simple and undeniable reality that a man who can fix something is a useful man. And I’ve never been that man.
My deeper disappointment with not knowing my way around a car is that I think I would’ve been good at working on them. I can be a very analytical thinker who pays close attention to details and creatively solves problems while emphasizing linear and holistic connectivity—that’s my general understanding of what’s involved in mechanical and engineering work, and it’s also a pretty good explanation of what a writer does. There’s no gain in bemoaning this too long, but it’s far more significant to me than the stuff above about masculinity. I have no aspirations to achieve some John-Wayne-like state of stolid, self-reliant manliness; I’m just a little sad that maybe I missed out on something I could’ve enjoyed over the years.
Which brings us back to the beginning: Stella the Saab. I found her in the basement of my apartment building, covered in a thick layer of dust with the tabs on her license plates dated 2011. I talked to her owner and got the story—she hadn’t been driven in six years and had passed the time just sitting there in disuse. The woman who owned her didn’t want to deal with fixing her up, and after going back and forth a bit we eventually worked out a deal. On Friday her papers came in the mail, and according to the State of Washington I now officially own a 1969 Saab 96 who I call Stella.
She needs a lot of work, Stella does. Cars, like muscles and our abilities to experience empathy, don’t thrive when they’re not used: things rust and gum up and slowly degrade. The point in describing my mechanical ineptitude above was to highlight the fact that I’m absolutely the wrong person for this job. But then I figure—what the hell, I’m going to give it a shot anyway. You can’t relive your childhood, but that don’t mean you can’t fill in the gaps.
Stella’s currently socked away in the dark of the garage below my building. She starts but won’t stay running and I had to remove the cylinder that controls her brakes and send it to New York to be rebuilt, all of which means I can’t roll her outdoors for a photo. But she looks a lot like this, and hopefully soon I’ll get her running enough to take some photos. More importantly, hopefully soon we’ll get to the fun part of having some adventures together.