When I was a kid, cars never interested me; I preferred to play with trains. As a young man, I procrastinated about getting a driver’s license and never learned anything about how an automobile works. I’ve lived content in my ignorance ever since. I suppose in some way I’m carrying on a family legacy: my father, an ever-practical engineer, made it a point to drive something nondescript, like a Nash Rambler, a car that was good on gas and could be counted on to get from point A to point B reliably, nothing more.
So my love affair with my blue 1986 Volvo came as a complete surprise. I say love affair because I didn’t just like my Volvo: I grew to feel at one with it. Whenever I sank into the ratty leather driver’s seat, especially as I warmed it electrically on a cold winter’s morning, a soft peace came over me. I even developed a Sunday ritual of starting the day, rain or shine, by tooling around town contently sipping a cup of coffee, overwhelmed with a sense of ease and well-being. Every morning, I couldn’t wait to see the old Volvo in the driveway, and during the day at work, I even checked on it in the parking lot. Like a character out of some mindless Hollywood comedy, I often found myself talking to it, as if it were my most intimate companion.
It had 87,000 miles on it when it came to me, after my previous, much-neglected car, a respectable but uninspiring Ford Taurus, had dropped its transmission and was declared irreparable by the mechanic who’d worked on all my cars over the years. It was he who saw into my soul and decided that this blue 1986 Volvo and I would be a perfect match.
Its original paint showed plenty of wear, more than a few scratches, and signs of rust. Someone had sideswiped the passenger side, leaving a dent along both doors. The windshield had no frame, the rear fender had lost its trim, the headliner looked diseased, and the passenger window opened only from the driver’s side. For character, Blue vied with Inspector Columbo’s banged-up Peugeot. As the mechanic told me, “It may not be pretty, but it runs.”
To be sure, it wasn’t love at first sight: the bond between Blue and me took two years to develop. It didn’t ripen until halfway through the college-interview tour I made with my daughter, Rachel—a tour that took us 2,000 miles in six days, with me as solo pilot. Before we left, my wife questioned whether both Blue and I could make it. Beaten up and broken down, neither of us, I guess, inspired confidence. As for Rachel, at 17 and invincible, with life just down the road, her thoughts lay elsewhere. Besides, since the day I’d brought Blue home, she’d found it an embarrassment. An otherwise good-natured and generous kid, she repeatedly pointed out Blue’s mottled headliner, ravaged body, and unfortunate odor—”Daddy, it smells.” Because of a shallow puddle of water that had collected on the passenger’s floorboard, she rode the whole way sitting on her feet.
Coming down the back nine of life overweight, tired a lot of the time, and sleeping poorly, I know I should exercise more, work fewer hours, and find a less stressful job. I push too hard, says my wife, and maybe that’s what impressed me more and more about Blue as the trip went on and I spent so many hours in its company. No matter how hard I pushed, Blue was right there with me, pushing as hard as I wanted, noises and all, running metal on metal, doing whatever it took.
Out on the open road, as I spent hours and hours every day traversing dauntingly vast distances, I got a kick out of pretending that I was thought-transmitting to Blue. “Okay, we’re in Syracuse, and we’re going through Ontario to Ann Arbor,” I’d say. “And we’re doing it today, in one stretch. Got it?” Without question or complaint, I always got back “Roger that.” And each day, whatever our destination, I got used to getting there in one stretch, without a hitch, a glitch, or a blip on the screen.
Blue and I really bonded one stormy night somewhere in the mysterious outer reaches of Michigan, in the middle of a blinding downpour, which made it impossible to see even an inch beyond the wall of water that engulfed us. Exhausted after a long day of driving, I didn’t know what to do. If I stopped, a car could have hit me from behind; if I continued, I felt sure I’d drive off the road or hit another car from behind. It was as if my worst fears had come to pass, and I’d suddenly grown very old very fast, utterly uncertain of my abilities, my whereabouts, my capacity to deal with the challenges of life. At that moment, somehow, Blue took charge. I just knew that the car was going to continue on and on through the rain, no matter what, emanating perfect confidence, keeping us safe and protected. Athletes and artists have a word for that kind of grit and determination and persistence: they call it “heart.”
Racehorses have heart. Dogs exhibit heart all the time. Why can’t a car have it? By the end of the trip, energized by my bond with Blue, I felt reborn—lighter, faster, stronger, ready to meet whatever challenge I had to face—with Blue’s help, of course.
On a winter morning a few months after that trip, I found myself running late for an appointment, speeding on the Hutchison River Parkway, when, suddenly, I hit a patch of black ice. Blue and I went careening toward oncoming traffic, across three lanes, hitting the concrete divider between us and northbound cars, bouncing off and hitting the divider again, ending up in the far left lane, facing in the wrong direction.
Time stopped. When the world came back into focus, it occurred to me to check to see how badly I was hurt. To my amazement, I was just fine, not even a scratch. All my parts moved, but what about Blue?
When the police arrived, the officer in charge took down information for the accident report. He looked at me and then at Blue; and fixing on me again, in disbelief, he said, “If it had been any other car, we’d be carrying you out of here on a stretcher.”
I thanked him and turned on the ignition. Blue started right up. As the officer stopped traffic, Blue turned around and took me to my appointment as though nothing had happened.
But something had. Heart can take you only so far. Blue had sustained damage beyond anyone’s ability to repair. The impact against the concrete divider had bent the frame in the rear; and with so much mileage and so much wear, its time had come. Still, as with a dear, terminally ill pet, which has become more a companion and a soulmate than a mere animal, I couldn’t make myself put it down right away. After all, I owed Blue something. It had saved my life, in more than one way. Still, my wife, though sympathetic, wanted Blue out of our driveway. One morning, I just got up, and without thinking brought Blue to the mechanic who’d found it for me in the first place. I left it with him, and walked away quietly, without looking back.
Since then, I’ve leased a new car or two, a Honda Accord, a Subaru—good reliable, economical cars, the kind my father liked. But they haven’t come close to replacing Blue. I find myself looking at the automotive world with new eyes these days, seeing spirit in places I’d never have imagined looking before. I even find myself dreaming about coming across a blue 1986 Volvo in horrible condition but with a solid core. And if I do, I know I’ll buy it in heartbeat.
William Cipriano, Ed.D., L.C.S.W., is coordinator of The Child/Adolescent Outpatient Mental Health Service at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Westchester, teaches prospective school counselors in Lehman College’s Graduate Education Department, and has a private practice.