By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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It was a snowy winter night in 1972. I was seventeen years old and had just left Moscow, Idaho, where I was attending my first year of college. The wind drove huge flakes into the windshield of my 1952 VW Beetle, a high-school-graduation present from my parents. Dad had traded a deer rifle for it, and he and my younger brother had spray-painted it school-bus yellow.
The snow was so heavy I had a hard time telling the road from the field along the highway. But I just had to drive the thirty miles home to Lewiston to see my high-school girlfriend, as I’d been doing every weekend. She was my first love.
I had experience driving in snow. Dad had taken me to big parking lots in the winter and made me practice skidding. And I trusted my little yellow Bug to get me through.
About fifteen miles from Lewiston, though, the wipers stopped working. Unable to see through the snow-covered windshield, I stopped in the middle of the road, hoping that if a car came from behind, it wouldn’t hit me.
Now I was scared. I didn’t know how to fix the wiper motor. At least I had a blanket and food in the car. (My dad again.) Then I remembered that I’d left my ice skates behind the backseat. I removed their long laces, tied one lace to each wiper blade, ran them both through the side windows, knotted them together, and moved the blades back and forth with one hand while I steered with the other.
It worked! I could see just well enough to get to my girlfriend’s house.
I had known I was a lesbian since seventh grade, but at this point I had told almost no one. It hadn’t been easy growing up in my family. My father was a judgmental, frequently violent man. Though he loved his four kids, he never really cared to understand us. The only person with whom I felt safe was my girlfriend. I would gladly have driven through a hundred snowstorms to see her.
My dad died last summer at the age of eighty-four. He was never able to accept my being gay, but the driving skills he taught me and the gift of that old Volkswagen were the keys to my freedom.
In the sixties my older brother, Wayne, drove a Pontiac LeMans, long and low and candy-apple red, with mag wheels and a white interior. When I was thirteen, he was a senior in high school and the coolest guy I knew. He wore chinos and penny loafers without socks. He smoked cigarettes and got sent home from school for fighting. On weekends he went to dances at civic centers, where there were more fights, and also girls. (I knew he “made out” with some of them, though I was hazy on what that meant.)
Usually Wayne was mean to me, calling me “shit for brains” and “fart blossom” and punching me unexpectedly, but sometimes, when he went cruising with his friends, he would let me ride in the back of his LeMans. We’d drive all over town, picking up other teenagers, and everybody would pool their change to buy a few gallons of gas. My favorite destination was the Krystal Drive-In on the edge of downtown, in a grimy neighborhood of warehouses and trailer parks. We’d buy a whole bag of ten-cent burgers and divvy them up. Sometimes we spotted cars full of boys from rival high schools. We’d stare at them hard, and Wayne would rev the engine threateningly. There was much talk of fighting, but I never witnessed any.
Years later I went to college and moved away, but Wayne and his friends stayed in our hometown, still cruising and fighting, and now also drinking and doing drugs. When I came home one summer, he was driving a Ford Econoline van full of tools and engine parts and lumber. He couldn’t keep a job. He’d turned his bad attitude on his bosses and coworkers, and nobody would hire him anymore.
Over the years Wayne seemed to come unglued. Whenever we talked, he went on long rants. One day he knocked our younger brother to the ground for no apparent reason. The last time I had a conversation with Wayne, he lost his temper and came at me, fists clenched. I put the bicycle I was holding between us, then got on it and rode away.
Since our parents died, there’s no reason for Wayne and me to communicate. I miss him, though I don’t know if he was ever really as cool as I thought he was when he drove that candy-apple-red LeMans.
I was seventeen and had just been dumped. My friend Jane and I decided to cruise by the basketball court where my ex and his pals liked to hang out. As I drove past, I craned my neck to get a better look, and the next thing I knew, there was a tree in front of me.
The car hit the tree, my head hit the steering wheel, and Jane was thrown against the windshield, which cut her head. I felt horribly guilty and started crying, but Jane immediately began scheming about what we would tell our parents. She was worried hers would never let her ride with me again. My mother would likely take away my Corvair convertible. Either way, we’d lose our newfound freedom.
My ex and his friends came running. Humiliated, I made up what I hoped was a plausible story: the steering had gone haywire, I said, and I’d lost control of the car. One boy ran home to call the police, who listened to my story and then called Jane’s parents and told them to meet us at the emergency room. (Jane would need stitches and be left with a scar — a lifelong reminder of my carelessness.) I stayed with Jane’s family until my mother came home from work. Then I repeated my story once more to her. Amazingly everyone believed me. They were mostly relieved that we hadn’t been more seriously injured.
A few days after the accident there was a news report about mechanical problems in Corvairs causing crashes. I knew I’d been at fault, but I never had to worry about being found out. I didn’t even lose my driving privileges.
Jake’s second child lay slowly dying in the pediatric intensive-care unit from the same rare disease that had killed his first. His sullen anger scared the nurses, so they called on me, the consultant psychiatrist, to evaluate him. I visited Jake on several occasions. Each time he greeted me with a grunt, but we did talk.
One night the nurses called to say that Jake was threatening suicide, and I drove quickly to the hospital. When Jake saw me, he walked away, heading down the stairs to the hospital lobby, still talking about killing himself. I called for police assistance, and five officers carried him to the psychiatric emergency room. When I got there, the staff had restrained him so he couldn’t move his arms, legs, or head. After a few minutes Jake asked me for a cup of water. I brought it and held the straw to his lips, putting my hand behind his neck to steady him. I felt the tense muscles in his neck relax, and he thanked me.
Jake was hospitalized for depression. When I visited him, he told me that he built and raced stock cars at the local half-mile track. I asked if I could come to see him race after he got out.
That first night at the track I watched wide-eyed as forty cars roared around the turn at full throttle, just inches apart, no headlights or taillights, the noise of their engines vibrating my entire body. After the race I asked Jake how the drivers could take turns so fast, so close.
“We trust each other,” he said.
My boyfriend and I lived in an upstairs apartment at the top of a hill that sloped down to a pond. The frogs sang to us every evening as we cuddled on our mattress on the floor.
He drove a 1971 purple Barracuda that he treated like an adored pet, constantly grooming her, checking on her, and talking to her. The car had to warm up even in the mildest of cold weather. One morning my boyfriend went out to crank the engine while I watched from the balcony. Then he left the Barracuda running and came back to the apartment for one last kiss.
He had such a confident stride, one hand up to wave to me — and beyond his waving hand I saw the car start to roll forward. I could not speak, only point frantically. It all seemed to happen in slow motion: him running toward the car; the open driver’s-side door smashing against a tree; the sound of the glass breaking; him chasing the car; it splashing into the pond; and the silence that came after.
I ran down the stairs shaking. My boyfriend came up the hill with his head low, and we stood together and looked down at his beloved Barracuda. Then he let out a breath and said, “It’s just a car. It will be all right.”
I decided at that moment I would marry him.
Our 1952 Chevy had survived eleven wet Wisconsin summers and sub-zero winters, but not without scars. Rust had eaten away at the bottom and lower sides, gradually leaving less and less car. The roof, too, was riddled with holes. Riding in that car in wet weather was an experience you would never forget.
Once we had a guest ride with us, a woman of immense proportions. As she squeezed into the back seat, her high heels went through the floorboard. She sat there bewildered.
“Take ’em off,” my father demanded from the front seat.
The woman gasped.
“Your shoes,” I said.
She removed them hurriedly.
As rain poured down, my mother chatted about Aunt Marion’s begonias and Uncle Nick’s arthritis. Plunk, plunk, plunk, went the water into a bucket on the front seat.
“Get ’em up!” yelled my father.
Without interrupting our conversation, we automatically raised our feet — all of us except our guest, whose shocked expression told me that her feet were now soaked.
“Puddle,” I explained, pointing to the Swiss-cheese floorboards.
She nodded, her lips thin and tight, and she shivered as the wind whistled through the holes.
“This is nothing,” I assured her. “You should have seen our old car.”
Pleasant Hill, California
Ten years ago my mom died in the only new car she’d ever owned: a black 1998 Honda Civic. She’d bought the most basic model she could, but at least it had air conditioning, which was a step above the banged-up blue Toyota truck she’d driven for years after my dad had finally moved out.
Five days a week the Honda got her to her full-time job at the hospital. Every other weekend it got her to her part-time job at a state mental-health facility. She worked twelve days in a row and then had two days off — at the age of sixty-three — and she never complained.
She also drove the Honda to McGuire Air Force Base to shop at the commissary. Since she and Dad had never actually divorced, she’d kept her military ID card, which helped her save money and supplemented her health insurance. She bartered for this privilege by going to my dad’s trailer once a week to change his sheets, do his laundry, and bring him cigarettes and food. Mom thought this was a good deal, but I disagreed. I was there one time when she came to pay her dues, and I heard the way he talked to her and saw the way she looked when his words hit her.
Two nights a week Mom’s Honda would be parked outside a bar called Prospectors, where she went to country line-dance. She made some friends there, but she usually left alone. On spring and summer weekends when she didn’t have to work, she would be at the shore all day. These were the “pleasure miles” she put on the Honda, pursuing the activities my dad had all but forbidden her for forty years.
Mom died on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. She was driving the Honda and must have felt the heart attack coming on, because she pulled into a parking lot and tried to call 911 on the cellphone she was still learning to use. (I’ll always regret my impatience with her that weekend as I explained to her how to work it.) She also tried to call me, but I didn’t answer because I was out with my sisters and didn’t recognize her new number. She left no message. Countless times I’ve imagined what those last moments must have been like for her. Relief from the guilt has been slow in coming.
After Mom’s death I became the owner of the Honda. I drove that car for nine years, one month, and thirteen days. I drove it because it reminded me how my mom had created a new life for herself, one that had included good times along with hard work. I drove it because it helped me remember all the fun we’d had together, like when I’d taught her to inline skate when she was fifty-five, and when we’d taken surfing lessons together when she was sixty. But mostly I drove the Honda because it was all I had left of her, and it was unthinkable to let it go.
Finally, on February 14, as a Valentine’s Day gift to myself, I traded the Honda in. I wanted to live my life in a way that would delight Mom, and I was pretty sure that depleting my savings on monthly repair bills wasn’t it.
I got a new Civic and have made sure to put plenty of pleasure miles on it.
In 1969 I left my position as a high-school English teacher in the Chicago schools. I’d recently embraced feminism and wanted a job that wasn’t typically held by a woman. I spent months looking but was offered only the usual: office assistant, secretary, hostess. So I decided to move to Berkeley, California.
There I heard that an independent co-op cab company called “Taxi Unlimited” was hiring female drivers in support of the women’s movement. (This was controversial enough at the time that it made the news.) I went for an interview and was hired on the spot, even though I was unfamiliar with the streets of Berkeley.
The next day Mike — a friendly young cabby who traveled with his black pit bull, Flash — gave me a lesson in how to drive a cab. He explained that each of the cabs looked different because most were beat-up clunkers donated to the company. The drivers all got together and gave each car a psychedelic paint job.
Mike warned me never to do anything that might cause “the pigs” to pull me over. Then he demonstrated how to use the CB radio. “If any shit happens,” he said, “just call the office for help.” He told me never to swear when using the CB, because truckers listened in and reported us to the cops. “They think we’re just stoned-out, dirty hippies,” Mike said. Then he lit a joint, took a few tokes, and passed it to me.
My first time out, I drove while Mike directed me around town, pointing out the Free Clinic, People’s Park, and Moe’s Bookstore. The gears made strange noises every time I shifted, and I didn’t have much confidence in the brakes on hills.
Finally a call came in from the office with instructions to pick someone up. Mike looked at me expectantly. I took the CB receiver, explained where I was, and asked how to get to the passenger. “Ten-four,” I said, trying to sound professional. There was no answer. So Mike just gave me directions, and in a few minutes we picked up a woman who wanted to go to the university. Mike introduced me to her and explained the co-op’s interest in hiring female drivers. At her destination the woman patted Flash, paid the two-dollar fare, and gave Mike a baggie of pot for a tip. He passed it to me with a smile.
It was the beginning of a new career for me: Eighty cents an hour. Plus tips.
Forest Knolls, California
I knew my marriage was in trouble the night my husband came home with a Porsche 944. While friends and neighbors admired this sleek, beautiful driving machine, I fumed. We’d just had a baby. The last thing we needed was a sports car.
Compared to my trusted Volvo station wagon — exactly the kind of hefty, sturdy vehicle a young family needed — the Porsche was an expensive toy. An infant car seat would never fit in the back, and groceries would get squashed in what passed for its trunk.
Nevertheless I tried to warm up to the Porsche and even learned how to drive a stick. The first lessons, in a church parking lot, were a disaster. My impatient lawyer spouse quickly found me guilty of riding the clutch, ruining the gears, and ignoring the tachometer. But I did eventually learn.
On those occasions when my husband needed to pick up a client and wanted to project a more staid image, the Porsche became mine by default. Pregnant with our second child by then, I could barely squeeze behind the wheel or lower myself into the tan leather driver’s seat. The lurching and jerking — I was still riding the clutch — didn’t help with my first-trimester nausea. And I worried about my three-year-old, who looked tiny and vulnerable belted into the capsule-like backseat.
I did appreciate that car once, when my husband and I drove between Montreal and Quebec City one gorgeous fall morning at a hundred miles an hour. But mostly I resented the Porsche and the obvious joy he derived from cruising along in it while I was busy mothering. The Porsche symbolized everything that was wrong with our relationship: My husband wanted speed, power, and excitement. I wanted stability, predictability, and safety.
We separated in 1992, and because my ex-husband’s new place didn’t have a garage, I briefly retained custody of the Porsche, which he’d borrow now and then. My friends shook their heads at this arrangement, but I felt a perverse pleasure in being the keeper of his treasure. Occasionally I let my best friend, who was sputtering around town in her ex’s old pickup, take me out for a spin in the Porsche. I enjoyed the admiring looks of younger men as we sped past.
But eventually my ex whisked the Porsche away to his new home. Sometimes I’d spy it in his driveway, its gold hubcaps gleaming in the sun. Once in a while he’d come to pick up our kids in it. I still feared for their safety on roads clogged with oversized SUVs, but I also envied how free they must have felt, zooming off with their dad as I’d so rarely managed to do.
Loudonville, New York
When Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, my husband and I convinced him and Mom to move from Seattle to Bend, Oregon, to be closer to us. The following February my best friend died from lymphoma. Then Mom went into the hospital and later died in hospice care. A month after her memorial service, we found out that Dad had advanced colon cancer. He decided against surgery.
On my way to work one morning I saw a 1979 MGB convertible with a FOR SALE sign. It looked just like the one I’d owned in my twenties, when I was working full time while completing my undergraduate degree. That car had been my escape. In it I’d cruised the S-curves down to Lake Washington, enjoying the freedom and temporary lack of responsibility. But ultimately I’d sold it to help pay for graduate school.
Now I called the seller of the car, drove it around the block, and purchased it. My husband was stunned. He said it was irrational, irresponsible, impractical. I agreed. The MGB vibrated so much on the road that the mirrors required constant readjustment. When the turn signal went on, the headlights went off. Some parts were held in place with duct tape or a wedge of cork, and it was an achievement simply to arrive at my destination. But my life that summer was consumed by work, caring for Dad, and grieving for Mom and my best friend. In the ten minutes it took me to drive to and from work each day, all I could think about was the car.
When I was sixteen, I started working part time at a clothing store in a suburb of San Diego, California. My stepdad told me that when I’d saved some money from my job, he would match it, and we’d buy my first used car.
There didn’t end up being much “we” involved. I never even got to shop for cars with my stepdad. One day he just pulled up at the store in a beige, early-eighties Dodge Colt hatchback. “Is this OK?” he asked. It would have to be; he’d already bought it. But I had a car, so I was happy.
In my first year of driving I got three speeding tickets and was in two minor accidents. One afternoon around rush hour I was driving with some girlfriends, laughing and gabbing, when I realized that I was about to miss my turn. I flipped on my signal, yanked the wheel, braked hard — and felt the car behind me collide with my back bumper. When we pulled off the road to exchange information, the woman who’d hit me started to cry. “I can’t afford to get into an accident,” she wailed.
I kept saying, “It’s my fault.”
At home I told my older brother what had happened, and he explained that if someone rear-ends you, it’s legally that person’s fault. I could get money out of this woman, especially if she didn’t want her insurance company involved. He instructed me to get three estimates for a complete repair and deliver the middle one to the other driver. The damage — a dented bumper, broken taillight, and some paint scratches — didn’t look all that out of place on my old car, and I had no intention of fixing more than I absolutely had to.
When I called, the woman’s husband offered to make the repairs himself and find me a replacement bumper. My brother told me to say we wanted the cash to get the car properly repaired, as was our right.
After several uncomfortable phone conversations, the husband agreed to meet my mom and me at a restaurant with the money. When he showed up, he was tanned and looked as if he worked outdoors. He sighed as he counted out $480, mentioning that he’d had to borrow some of it. I felt horrible taking money his family didn’t have for repairs I didn’t really need, all because I could. It may have been my legal right, but it wasn’t right. I’ve regretted it for the last twenty years.
I am staying in a small village in Myanmar while I assess the skills of the traditional birth attendants here. I sleep in a cinder-block room, and young novice monks with shaved heads and dark-red robes bring me a bucket of clean water every morning. There is a latrine down a wooded path. A lantern guides me to my quarters at night.
Nearby, in an open field, is the village “ambulance”: a sort of extended-bed truck cobbled together by ingenious villagers and maintained by the local health committee. The ancient engine is wedged in front, supported by rough-hewn planks of wood and rope and wire. One of the tires tilts inward. A wooden bench serves as a driver’s seat, and above it is an oblong metal box with a green garden hose stretched from it to the engine. (I presume it’s a fuel tank.) The steering wheel is wrapped in strips of old inner tube, and a gearshift has been fashioned from a piece of rebar topped by a child’s rubber ball. The only four-wheeled vehicle in the village, it stands on a remote hillside like a tired beast of burden after a long day’s toil in the rice paddies.
In action the ambulance sputters, pops, and rumbles down the slippery mountainside to a town that has a health center and a midwife. In Myanmar, where the maternal-mortality rate is almost ten times the rate in the U.S., this “car” has proven on more than one occasion to be the difference between life and death.
My first car was a red VW Bug. My boyfriend and I made out in it constantly, despite the awkward location of the gearshift, when we weren’t arguing passionately in a blue cloud of tobacco smoke about the Vietnam War and his going to college — my plan to keep him from getting drafted.
When my boyfriend failed to take my advice, I drove the Bug to LA to sulk. I learned to smoke pot in that car and gave it a homemade cup holder attached to the open glove-compartment door. (I suppose in a wreck the metal door would have bisected any passenger, but that didn’t occur to me.)
I drove it from California to Virginia for my senior year of college, cooling the fuel pump with iced tea when it vapor-locked in the heat. It had no fuel gauge, and I once ran out of gas in the fast lane of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. I loved it anyway.
I brought the Bug with me into my first, unsuccessful, marriage, despite the fact that my husband loathed it. When it finally died, I think I knew that the marriage wasn’t going to hold up either.
I have missed that car ever since. I saw another one last year, lovingly restored, gleaming and seductive. I almost asked the owner if he would sell it, but I knew if I bought the Bug, I would find out that it drove like a truck, had no air bags, and was a tin can.
On the other hand, twenty years ago I reconnected with the boyfriend I made out with in my VW, and we’ve been married ever since, so I’ll settle for that.
My sisters and I grew up in the California desert during the sixties and seventies. Our dad was a handsome ladies’ man, and Mom raised us mostly by herself. Dad owned a red 1968 Dodge Adventurer truck outfitted with shiny — and loud — exhaust pipes along both sides. In the flat desert terrain we could hear his truck coming from a long distance.
Our father was unapologetic about his infidelities and would stay away from home for days at a time. He even bought a house in the next town over so he’d have a place to take his many girlfriends.
My sisters and I were too young to understand our parents’ arrangement. All we knew was that when we heard the truck’s distinctive roar, it meant Dad was coming home. He would hit the final turn down our dirt road, slow to a crawl, and start revving that monstrous Dodge engine. No matter what we were doing, we’d stop and tear off to greet him, three barefoot desert rats. Dad would let each of us take a turn sitting in his lap and holding the steering wheel so we could “drive” the final quarter mile home.
A few years ago my father died of pancreatic cancer. He went quickly — just fourteen days from diagnosis to death. He left the Dodge to my husband, who had always admired it.
My husband pampers that truck. Though it is now forty-five years old, the engine still roars, and the pipes are still shiny. And though I am now fifty and a little hard of hearing, I can still hear my husband in the distance, coming home in that old truck. Sometimes I’ll stop what I am doing and smile.
Rancho Santa Margarita, California
My first love was a 1965 Ford Mustang. At the age of sixteen I inherited this car from my older brother. Air shocks lifted the back end above fat racing tires. Its rims shone, and its windows were tinted. The muscular frame was finished in sky blue. I felt cool parking it in the student lot at school or running errands for my mother.
The police stopped me quite a bit, despite the fact that I was a safe, defensive driver who minded the speed limits. I figured they just wanted to get a closer look at my car — and at the good-looking young woman behind the wheel. But one day an officer told me the real reason he’d stopped me: he’d assumed the car was stolen. In amazement I asked why he would make such an assumption. It turns out he didn’t expect to see a young black woman — even a hardworking, college-bound one — behind the wheel of a car like that. I didn’t fit the profile of a hot-rod driver. I asked the officer what type of car he expected a black woman to drive. He didn’t answer.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
I drive a 2008 Subaru Outback. It smells like a cross between wet dog and recycling and is littered with stray socks, apple cores, homework papers, and, of course, children.
When I am angry, I close my eyes, and I am driving a red 1969 Chevy Camaro SS “big block” 577 through Monument Valley, Utah, on Highway 163, going from zero to a hundred in five seconds. It smells like leather and chrome, if chrome had a smell. Feeling Tool’s Ænima vibrate through the speakers, I slow down. Up ahead I see a hitchhiker. He is hot and rugged looking. I pull over. We don’t speak. We have primal sex in the backseat. He rolls a smoke with one hand, and we share it.
He gets out. I head home.
When I am feeling sad, I close my eyes, and I am driving a red 1974 Ford F-250 with a 460 V8, bouncing on the springs of the bench seat down a gravel road with one hand on the giant steering wheel. It smells like bar oil and sawdust. Martha Scanlan sings on the AM radio. Up ahead I see a hitchhiker, an older man with a leathery face. I pull over and pick him up. I turn down the radio, and we journey in comfortable, familiar silence till we hit the crossroads.
“This is it,” he says. He leans over and lays his calloused hand over mine. He looks at me with his smiling blue eyes and says, “You’re going to be just fine, kid.”
He climbs out of the truck. I head home.
When I am feeling happy, I open my eyes, and I am driving a 2008 Subaru Outback. I pick the kids up from school, tell them to buckle up, and roll down the windows. I drive fast and turn Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” up loud. We all sing with our whole hearts.
We head home.
My father had a 1924 Model T roadster that he drove all over the country, taking the back roads and old U.S. highways. I went along with him a few times when I was a kid. We’d stop at every historical marker, follow hoop-skirted guides through antebellum homes, and visit Civil War battlefields. I often grew bored during our stops, but I sure loved riding in that car. Its four-cylinder engine sang with a putcha-putcha sound. I liked the smell of motor oil and gasoline, and how on really hot days — when the upholstery buttons would singe the backs of my legs — the hay-tick cushions sometimes gave off a scent like warm bread.
My father paid careful attention to every sound from the engine: Was that rapping a loose connecting rod? Was that grinding in the U-joint? He carried tools and spare parts and could make simple repairs. I came to view the breakdowns as adventures.
There’s only one time I remember being afraid. Headed for a night on the town in New Orleans, we blew a tire in the Lower Ninth Ward and came to a stop in front of a boarded-up store. A knot of young black men stood on the corner. Night was falling. It was the summer of 1980, and Miami’s “race riots” were in the headlines. But the men of that neighborhood quickly came to our aid, cutting a two-by-four to the right size to spread the split rim and fix the tire. At one point my father swore and threw a wrench down, and a young man said, “Be cool, man. We’ll get it.”
When we got the old girl rolling again, people came out on their porches to wave and clap. I still have a photo of the men who helped fix the flat. It’s a picture of America that I cherish.
Mary Jane LaVigne
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
When I fell in love with Lee, he was living in a canvas tent in the woods. It was winter in northern Minnesota, and the cold was shocking to my young, city-bred body. Lee and I slept together in his tent on beds of spruce boughs and drank tea by candlelight. Many nights our boots froze solid, and nearly every morning our drinking water had to be thawed on the woodstove. Without electricity the sixteen hours of darkness were dreamlike, and the silence of the forest was mesmerizing. Eventually I decided to give up my life in town and stay in the bush with Lee.
He and I spent the next year building a small cabin with hand tools, planting a garden, and going about the tasks of making a homestead. We lived like Luddites, chopping wood, carrying water, and preserving food ourselves. We revered all things made by hand and loathed everything mass-produced.
There was one concession we made to industrial civilization: on a gravel easement a half mile from our cabin we parked our rusty collection of working, semiworking, and broken-down vehicles. We called the area simply “The Cars,” and it was an ugly stain on our idealized picture of home, a reminder that we had run only so far from society.
As hard as we worked hauling logs and harvesting wild edibles, once a week our love of peanut butter or hot showers would get the better of us, and we would find some excuse to drive to town to satisfy our cravings for those things, and also for human interaction, recorded music, and cup after cup of cheap coffee from the local diner. The more time Lee and I spent in the woods, the more often I gave in to these temptations.
Eventually I traveled south to train as a midwife, and when I returned to Minnesota, I found that I couldn’t go back to Lee or to our home in the woods. I moved to a small town nearby, where I rented a house with electricity and a refrigerator.
Erin Theresa Huggins
My dad loved cars, both the Dodge sedans he owned and the Jaguars and MGs he dreamed about but could never afford. He always drove with one hand on the wheel and the other dangling a cigarette out the window, his Ray-Ban aviators shielding his eyes from the sun.
The son of poor immigrants, Dad saw driving as an indication of having made it. We took many trips to California’s Central Valley to pick tomatoes for our annual canning, with Nonna in the backseat complaining that Dad was driving too fast. (He was.) We also took Saturday drives to North Beach to buy items Mom couldn’t find in our Bay Area suburb: baccalà and imported parmigiano at Molinari’s, and real Italian bread from Danilo’s. I marveled at how Dad seemed to know every San Francisco alley and side street.
In a parking lot behind the PayLess drugstore, Dad taught me to drive a manual transmission. After half an hour of stalls and clutch grinding, I was ready to give up, but Dad instructed me to get on Route 92 West and head for Half Moon Bay.
“Are you kidding? That road is so curvy.”
“You’ll be fine,” Dad said. He told me Nonno had taught him to drive on that road: by the time we got back home, I’d be a pro.
Heart pounding, I pulled onto Delaware Street and headed for the on-ramp, Dad making jokes to calm my nerves. He taught me to decelerate and downshift, ease off the brake, and take curves smoothly. He was right: by the time we returned home, shifting came naturally.
Not long ago Dad’s driving began to show signs of deteriorating: he veered into other lanes, missed turns, merged too fast. At first we chalked it up to his being distracted, but we soon realized that something more serious was wrong.
Dad was diagnosed with dementia. Of all the indignities and difficulties that come with that condition, losing his ability to drive hit him the hardest. Despite a number of close calls and more than a few fender benders, he remained unconvinced that his driving skills were compromised. “I can just drive around town,” he reasoned. “I’ll be fine.” My mom, my brother, and I tried to help him understand. During one of many kitchen-table conversations he turned to me, his face gaunt and worn, and asked, “Do you feel safe riding in the car with me?”
Through tears I answered honestly: no.
He looked betrayed.
Dad carried his car keys in his pocket until just before he died. I inherited his last car, with all the dings, dents, and scratches from his final days on the road. I haven’t repaired a single one.
I had come by train from Manhattan to Long Island to attend an anniversary party for some close friends. I had a pleasant conversation with a man named Paul. He was about my age and had an impressive red beard that was starting to turn white.
As the partygoers were preparing to leave, the host asked Paul and his girlfriend, Juliet, to drive three of us back to Manhattan. Paul and Juliet didn’t look like hippies, but their car was painted in wild, psychedelic colors: blazing yellows and oranges and pinks, with a couple of blue mermaids wrapped in ribbons, and the usual smiley faces and peace signs. (I found out later that Juliet was an artist and had decorated the car herself.)
We drove into the city under a darkening sky. The first passenger got out on the Lower East Side. From there we drove to East 23rd Street to drop off another. Finally it was just Paul and his girlfriend in the front seat and me in the back. I assumed we would head to my West Side neighborhood, but instead Paul drove to Midtown, where he stopped and opened the door for Juliet.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Saving time,” he said.
He walked her to the door of her building, and they seemed to have an argument. Then she went inside, and he came back to the car, turned to me in the backseat, and asked, “Would you like to go for a drink?”
He’s now my husband.
Hampton Bays, New York
I was fourteen and pushing back against the strictures of my middle-class upbringing and private-school education. Larry was six years older, attractive, and worldly — at least, by my standards. But he did not sit well with my parents, who liked to think their firstborn daughter would charm the son of a prominent family at the local cotillion and possibly become a debutante. It was the 1950s, and such things were important in their Florida social circle.
At fifteen I happily gave Larry my virginity in the rented cabin of a roadside motel. He called me “Little Bird.” I called him “Little Bee.” To continue seeing him, I endured my mother’s suspicions and my father’s frustration. At one point my barrel-chested father picked me up by my shirtfront and tossed me across our living room.
Finally Larry and I did the unthinkable: we ran away. I wanted a quickie marriage in south Georgia, because I was still too young to marry by Florida law. But the state police caught up with us at Larry’s family’s home in north Florida, and I was returned to my parents’ “protection.”
Finally a force larger than my mother and father came between Larry and me: he received his draft notice and was shipped off to Germany. While he was gone, I graduated from high school with honors, but I refused to attend the senior prom. I wrote Larry lengthy letters and dismally contemplated entering the university in the fall.
Seeing an opportunity, my father made one last attempt to drive us apart: The only thing I wanted as much as Larry was a car. Dad offered to buy me a coupe all my own, fully insured, title free and clear — but only if I dumped Larry.
I was a silly teenage girl dazzled by the promise of a car. It was here now, while Larry was thousands of miles away with a long tour of duty ahead of him. I wrote him a Dear John letter.
I did see Larry one more time. He pleaded with me to reconsider, but I kept my word. Larry eventually married, and so did I — several times.
I’m now in my seventies. If I could go back and be a teenager again, I would not trade away the love of my life for a shiny hunk of metal that would soon be gone.
Our family car was a 1963 International Travelall — a big, blue, ungainly-looking wagon my dad dubbed the “Cornbinder,” because it was made by International Harvester. Every summer he converted it into a full-fledged safari vehicle, with a compass mounted on the dashboard, two burlap water bags strung across the radiator, and a jerrycan of gas strapped to the rear bumper. Pulling a trailer stocked with three weeks’ worth of food for our family of nine, we’d hit the road.
My dad loved nothing better than to drive late into the night while his usually noisy brood slept in back. At dusk he’d stop so we could change into our pajamas while he unbolted and removed the two rear bench seats. All seven of us kids stood barefoot by the side of the road, clutching our pillows, waiting for the transformation of our Travelall into a sleeper car. My dad laid pads on the floor for four of us and strung canvas hammocks from the ceiling for the lucky three who got to be rocked to sleep as we rolled on through the night.
Nothing in my childhood surpassed those rare occasions when I got to ride in one of the hammocks, swinging to the rhythm of the road, looking out at the brilliant desert stars. My mother slept in the passenger seat with her head resting daintily on her travel pillow. My father barreled down the empty interstate, a red-hot jawbreaker tucked into his cheek, flicking his high beams whenever he passed a lumbering semi, as if he knew some secret truckers’ code.
In the morning my siblings and I would wake up refreshed and amazed to be in some new place, where we might hike in a canyon, swim in a creek, explore a maze of caverns, or visit a museum big enough to hold an entire airplane. The Travelall took us from one end of the continent to the other, through fields of corn and sugar beets, over long bridges, past mountains, and along dark rivers, my dad following not so much the compass on the dash as his instinct for adventure.
On a warm spring morning in 1975 my father called me, eager to share news of a blackberry-picking spot he’d just discovered by the old pumping station in Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans. He said to bring some old clothes and be ready to pick at least a few quarts. My father was a berry aficionado and had instilled his fondness for picking and eating in all his kids.
My husband, Sonny, was excited about the trip, but not because of the berries. He’d been seduced by a newspaper ad that promised the possibility of buying a new car — our first — that weekend. With the best of intentions, I grabbed a faded pair of jeans and explained to my husband that we had time to make only a quick stop at the Pontiac dealership.
We were newlyweds, barely out of our teens. Neither of us had built up an immunity to a good sales pitch, and I was particularly naive, having grown up in a household without a car. My dad proudly proclaimed that he had never needed a driver’s license. He was no sucker. A car was something that ended up owning you.
Sonny and I pulled into the lot and parked our rusting Corvair — which was missing its passenger-side window — where it wouldn’t be seen. As soon as that new-car scent tickled our noses, we were done for. Out came the checkbook. The salesman asked a few probing questions about our joint income, obtained our shaky dotted-line signatures, and left us to float away on visions of the 1975 Bimini-blue two-door we would be picking up the next day.
Before we drove off the lot, I called my dad and yelled the details into the phone, waiting for him to congratulate me. His oldest daughter had passed a major adult milestone (and acquired thirty-six months of payments). Wasn’t he proud?
“You promised to go berry picking!” Dad said.
“But it’s a brand-spanking-new car, Daddy. Bimini blue! Two doors!” Hadn’t he heard anything I’d said?
When he finally replied, the disappointment in his voice was more painful than any briars I might have encountered on the berry bush. He reminded me that a good blackberry-picking spot was a gift, never to be taken for granted. A new car? A new car you could get any day.