As you probably know by now, my book, OTTO: The Boy Who Loved Cars, is about a boy who loves one thing (spoiler alert: cars!) a little too much. Though my husband is a huge car fan, and the inspiration for Otto, I can’t say I’m as delighted by all things automotive. This may be due to some formative experiences in my past. Allow me to share just one with you…
My first car was my parents’ Chevy Chevette, which was only a couple of years old when I drove it during my senior year of high school. It was pretty solid and serviceable and unassuming. But the car I really wanted was a red VW Golf. It was cute and bright and zippy and fun, and, in my estimation, the essence of my teenaged self in car form.
That year, when it came time for me to apply to colleges, my parents (in particular, my mother) limited my scope to schools in Connecticut, where we lived. This was, I believe, my mother’s way of directing me to her choice for me: Fairfield University, which happened to be 20 minutes from our house. This was the LAST school I wanted to attend, mostly because it was just too close to home. But my mother kept pressing it. She took me on a tour of the campus. And then, because it had been overcast the first time, she had me go on another tour, when the weather was nicer. Neither changed Fairfield’s proximity to our house, where my mother would keep an eye on me the way Sarah Palin now believes she monitors Russia. But then, my mother sweetened the deal.
“If you go to Fairfield,” she said, “we’ll buy you a car. Any car you want.”
Of course, being a materialistic, short-sighted, naïve teenager, I fell for this blatant bribe. I applied to Fairfield, eventually got in, and signed the acceptance papers, expecting the keys to the Golf shortly thereafter. When my outstretched palm remained empty, I reminded my mother of “our” deal.
“Oh, the car?” she said, with a dismissive laugh. “That’s only if you live at home and commute to school.”
Evidently, I had forgotten to read the fine print. Living at home at that point in my life was just…well, let’s just say it would have cost me more than a shiny new Golf was worth. So my college experience began without a car, in on-campus housing, and with a lingering bitterness, the feeling I’d been the victim of a ruthless bait-and-switch con.
Four years later, just before Fairfield’s commencement, my phone rang. Both of my parents were on the line, and they sounded excited.
“We have a graduation present for you,” my mother announced breathlessly. “We got you…a CAR!!”
I couldn’t believe it. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for and renewed faith in my parents, who had promised me the car of my dreams years before. Here they were, finally coming through on that promise. And here I was, after sticking it out at the school they chose for me, on the verge of accepting their very generous (though, in my then-opinion, wholly deserved) gift.
A flurry of “thankyouthankyouthankyou” from me followed, and then I asked,
“So, it’s the red Golf?”
“No, it’s a Toyota!” my mother said. Something in her voice now seemed off. A little too enthusiastic, maybe. But I was still excited. Even if it wasn’t a Volkswagen, Toyotas were great cars.
“What kind of Toyota?” I asked.
And then, there was a pause. A suspiciously long pause.
“It’s a Corona,” my mother said.
“A Corolla?” I asked. Clearly, I had misheard her. The only Toyotas I knew of at the time were Corollas and Camrys.
“No…it’s a Corona,” my mother confirmed. Her voice sounded cagey, hesitant. My father no longer seemed to be on the line at all. I began to have flashbacks to the VW Golf Long Con of 1988. Now, my college-educated mind was ever-so-slightly less gullible.
“I’ve never heard of a Corona. What year is it?” I asked, maintaining my composure.
This was followed by the longest pause yet. And then my mother responded.
“You — bought me — a 1979 — Toyota — CORONA???” I sputtered. My gratitude quickly faded, and was replaced by a new kind of disbelief. They’d bought me a used, thirteen-year-old car? This was what my graduation had earned? And if they weren’t giving me the car they knew I wanted, couldn’t they have at least involved me in the process of picking out what they WERE going to get me? I was a college graduate now, after all. An ADULT. I deserved to have some say in the matter, didn’t I?
At this point, I made the mistake of sharing some of these sentiments with my mother. I don’t remember her exact response, but I recall the words “spoiled,” “ungrateful,” and “brat” were uttered, with great fervor, before she hung up on me. I was left with the dialtone echoing from the receiver in my hand, and a growing mix of confusion, anger, and guilt rising within me. (This would be the emotional cocktail that infused my twenties.)
The bottom line was that my parents bought me a car. No matter the details, it was an incredibly thoughtful and generous gesture. And it was 1992, and we were in the middle of a recession. Like everything else, I just needed to suck it up and be an ADULT and make the best of it. I called my parents and offered profuse apologies and reaffirmed thanks. I graduated from FU, packed up my stuff, and moved back into my parents’ house. That’s when I actually saw the Corona for the first time.
It was technically silver, but so faded, its finish had reverted to an almost primer-level matte. The interior fabric had once been red, but the sun had bleached it out to a mauvey-pink. And it was what Toyota called a “liftback,” which meant it was shaped like a generic sedan’s slope-shouldered cousin. But looks aren’t everything, right? This is what I told myself, while still trying to maintain my mature composure and sense of gratitude. This is what I told myself, even as I sat at my first traffic light in the car, and it idled as if it were having a grand mal seizure. This is what I told myself, as I attempted to merge the sputtering car into highway traffic, one of the first near-death experiences I would face in my life.
The Corona was, in short, a big, matte-silver lemon.
As my new post-collegiate job (Barnes & Noble in Westport, CT, holla!) required a highway commute, even my parents eventually conceded: I would need a car that I could actually, you know, drive. So I traded cars with my mother, who had a 1988 Mercury Tracer hatchback, a scrappy little thing I ended up driving until I got married (and made the mistake of lending it to my father during the weekend of my wedding, another tale of automotive woe for another time).
And what became of the legendary Corona? My mother managed to drive it for a while, and then my sister inherited it, and tried to make the best of the situation, as I did. She even gave it an ironic nickname: The Bullet. Eventually, the car required so much repair that my family decided to get rid of it, until one of my cousins volunteered to take it off our hands. He left the Corona at our town train station overnight, where car thieves attempted to steal it. But clearly, the Corona refused to be taken alive. It was found by the police a few hours later, fully expired and abandoned and blocking the commuter parking lot exit.
The Corona died as it lived…in a haze of confusion, disappointment, and exhaustive backfirings.
Dangling keys image by Ambro.