Category Archives: Nonfiction


I read once in Reader’s Digest that when women drivers hear a funny noise in their cars while driving, they repair it by turning up the radio.  I resemble that remark!  However, since I only heard that squealing noise once in a while when turning corners, how important could it be?

I had to go to Newburgh, New York to a weekend workshop from Syracuse.  Now, my last major driving event – defined as me doing all the driving – was the fateful trip from Tucson to Phoenix.  However, I was only 22 then; now I was almost 41.  My life had changed a lot; surely my driving luck would follow suit!  The car I drove was your basic nunmobile – we had two others just like it.  Had I thought of it, I would’ve probably named them Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne, but this wasn’t a time of creativity and imagination.   This trip wasn’t particularly optional, but it seemed easy enough.  The directions said to take the New York Thruway to exit 17; how hard could that be?  Clearly, Newburgh had to be somewhere around Albany.  I could handle this.

Obviously there were some things I hadn’t mastered in the intervening 19 years.  Had I kept reading the map until I actually found either Exit 17 or Newburgh, I would’ve noticed that it was in one of the most southern counties of the state.  A brighter person might have figured out that since I was entering the Thruway on Exit 37, this wasn’t going to be a short trip!

There are actually people who don’t stop at practically every rest stop on the way; they don’t like to travel with me!  They also arrive places much sooner than I do.  The Thruway’s web site says the trip should take around an hour and a half; it took me five.  However, since I was still on my endless quest to prove that I’m a functioning adult, I thought I did pretty well, until maybe the exit before mine.  That little squealing noise I’d heard once in a while before now became louder.  Naturally, I turned up the radio.  Then the noise became non-stop.

Now, I’m actually pretty good in a crisis.  Yes, it’s challenging to follow written directions to a place you’ve never been before while listening to a noise that hasn’t been heard in America since they ended the torture of witches.  But I managed to get where I was going.  Then I stopped being calm.  In fact, I think the word hysterical might do nicely.  I called home to get directions on what to do, since I had enough money for food and tolls as well as a gas card, but nothing else.  I was told to see if I could get the car repaired at the gas station belonging to the gas card.  Ah, how simple – if you’re in Syracuse, and this gas company is every six blocks.  However, this was someplace else, and I had no phone book.  The person I spoke to also said she’d call me back, and the place I was at had plenty of signs telling you how to get your messages when someone telephones for you, but they didn’t mention that they might not actually ever take the message.  In the meantime, I tried to find the nearest Mobil.

If you’re ever really bored, try calling information to get a gas station in a town you’ve never been in!  I’d seen one – was it this town?  If not, what town was it?  To add to the experience, I learned two very important things – none of the local gas station owners learned to speak English until they were adults (at least the five I spoke to), and the directory assistance doesn’t have a global positioning device to help you figure out what’s nearest to you.  Pity.  As far as I could guess from the phone conversations I tried to have, the gas stations there don’t repair cars.  Finally, my hosts took pity on me and were extremely helpful in my getting the car repaired.  Turns out that noise was the brake shoes rubbing together.  Of course.  I made that trip five more times and each time I was asked “Aren’t you the one with that car?”


Dogbreath’s Revenge

Gertrude was my mother’s car, and the first car I drove that had a name … and a personality.  There were around 200 cars in town that looked just like her, but Gertrude was always easy to spot among all those copies.  She had a certain “something” about her, a certain aura that made her stand out.  She was a mule in the Triple Crown of life.

When Gertrude was sold, my mother bought Charlie Brown.  Charlie Brown was older, more fickle, and well … more beat up.  By the second day I actually missed Gertrude.  At least she wasn’t embarrassing to be seen in.  I really didn’t have to worry about it much, though; Charlie Brown rarely moved.

Then Dogbreath entered my life.  Dogbreath had push-button gears, no upholstery, and seventeen years’ worth of dents.  It was kind of fun, though, being able to devaluate an entire neighborhood just by driving through it.  It made up for being laughed at.

One day, though, I decided that other people’s taste in cars was doing too much damage to my ego.  So, I set out to buy myself a car:  something with class, something small, and something as unlike Dogbreath as possible.  I guess he took it personally.  I don’t know how he arranged it, but Dogbreath got even.

At the tender age of 22, I went to pick out what would be the first car I ever owned myself.  I brought my Tucson uncle and a friend with me, so I wouldn’t be ripped off.  After ruling out an old mail jeep and a lemon, I picked out an imported compact car.  Being rather compact myself, the car was perfect for me.  And it was so cute!

My guardian angels decided it was a good car except for the brakes, so the dealer eventually agreed to have them replaced.  We could pick up the car that evening.  Two days later, the car was ready.  Before taking it to work, I took it to a garage and had the wheels balanced.  At this point, I’d seen five people look under the hood and find nothing amiss.

My new car got me to work and back fine, and everyone at work came out to see Dogbreath’s replacement.  Naturally, they were all quite impressed.

The next morning, my sister and I planned to drive up to Phoenix from Tucson to visit some relatives.  Since I had never driven further than ten miles, I made sure we had plenty of oil, water, and brake fluid with us.  (I’ll admit it:  I’m a coward.)  My sister, being great moral support, said “Watch.  You got all this stuff with you, and we’re gonna make it to Phoenix OK.  Boy, are you gonna be embarrassed!”  She was partially right.

We left Tucson at nine that morning, and planned to arrive in Phoenix around eleven or twelve.  Finding the highway was no problem, and the traffic and speed didn’t faze me a bit.  We were on our way.  I was impressing my little sister that I was such a pro behind the wheel, even though her seat wouldn’t stay upright.  I was impressed with my skills and my very own, private, personal first car … for an hour.

Then I heard a funny noise and saw steam pouring out from under the hood.  We pulled over to the side of the road, and I determined that the steam was from the car over-heating.  The noise was Dogbreath laughing.  I refilled the radiator, poured in brake fluid and two quarts of oil, and once again we were on our way … for half an hour.

At 10:45, I could feel the car starting to lose power.  It was nothing I could define, just the sensation that my car was dying swiftly.  I turned onto the nearest exit, and let gravity take us down the hill and into the nearest gas station.  I refilled the radiator, added more brake fluid and two more quarts of oil, and tried to restart the car.  Nothing happened.

While I was trying to figure out what to do next, every biker in Southern Arizona suddenly converged on this same gas station.  OK, maybe it was only 20.  My brave sister said “Why don’t you just go ask them for help?”  (My brave sister declined the opportunity to ask them herself.)  When they finally left, I convinced the gas station attendant to jump-start the car.  I called my aunt to tell her that we might be a little late, and once again we were on our way, until Casa Grande.

Now, I was too proud and stubborn to just turn around and go home.  I was bound and determined to show the world that I was perfectly capable of driving from Tucson to Phoenix.  I just forgot to tell my car that.  By now, Dogbreath was laughing hysterically in my mother’s driveway.

Outside Casa Grande, the car started to die again.  An expert by now, I once again coasted to the nearest garage, where I again refilled the radiator, brake fluid, and oil.  The guys we finally found to jump-start the car offered me, between peals of laughter, $50 for the car.  I refused.  Two hours later, I would’ve taken it.

Since it was 1:00 by now, I called my aunt again and told her we’d be there whenever we got there.  She asked me if I wanted my uncle to come get us, but I assured her that everything was fine; I could handle it.  Once again, we were on the road.

By now, I had assumed everything that could possibly happen already had.  How silly of me.  We’d only driven a short while when the keys fell out of the ignition.  I was nearly hysterical.  “Donna,” I shouted, “hand me the keys!”

My sister looked at me with a calmness that even a saint couldn’t match, and said “Why?  The car’s still running.”

Since my taste in cars was surpassed only by my ability to follow traffic signs, I took the wrong exit just outside Phoenix.  By now, it was 3:30, and the car died for the last time.  I managed to get it onto an empty lot, and we hiked to the nearest store to call my aunt again.  She told us to wait with the car while my uncle came to get us.  While we waited impatiently, I told the car what I thought of its parentage and beat on it with the wooden dowel we’d used to hold the hood up.  It didn’t even dent the car or scratch the paint!

When my Phoenix uncle came, we once again looked under the hood.  Two of the parts were held together with a coat hanger, and there was a grease rag jammed into one of the orifices.  Nobody had noticed this until now.

We had the car towed to a junkyard that promised to keep the car for us overnight, apparently to give them more time to strip it.  Then we finally made it to my uncle’s, where we tried to enjoy what was left of the day.  We arrived at his house in Phoenix around 6:00, a mere nine hours after we left Tucson.

I had no trouble naming that car, posthumously:  the Titanic.  The next day, I went back to driving Dogbreath, who snickered every time we passed a Japanese car.  Dogbreath lasted another year until he became a giant terrarium in my yard, but that’s another story.