Peace in the Parts Yard 

The demise of a trusted, and busted-up, pal.

Well, I just said goodbye to the old Merkur in the auto-parts yard. The poor thing made it somewhere past 70,000 miles -- tough to tell exactly how many, since the odometer broke at 65,579.

I assume the first things to sell at the parts yard will be the tires, two of which were purchased a month ago for $80 each. They replaced tires that were so bald the steel belt was sticking out. But that incident, like several others in the Merkur's long, slow, and expensive death, pointed out one of the nice things about the car: It had a fine sense of timing.

On two occasions it had to be jump-started; one time was at a filling station, the other was right in front of my apartment building, when an attractive young woman who also lived in the building showed up to offer assistance. We got the car started, I invited her over to dinner, and I impressed her with my Greek chicken recipe.

One time, the right-rear tire blew up, and when I got out, I found myself staring at a 10-foot sign that read, "National Tire Wholesalers." Another time, I was driving along and hit the clutch pedal, but the pedal snapped and just hung there like a tree limb cracked by ice and waiting to fall. At that point, the car was heading down a hill toward an empty parking spot, and since it was stuck in neutral, I just let it roll right out of traffic and into safety.

A few years ago, while I was driving across the country with most of my possessions on board, a wheel bearing imploded -- right at the last exit for 27 miles on I-25 in eastern Wyoming. The next day, I pulled into Laramie underneath the advance guard of a two-day snowstorm, and when I hit the brakes, very little happened. A couple of first-downs past the stop sign, I looked up to the rapidly disappearing, snow-filled horizon and saw two buildings: a car dealership and a Comfort Inn. A week after that, I was approaching a rest area on a rainy and wind-swept interstate in Oregon, thinking I might stop for a soft drink, when the rear axle went out. I just coasted on in and called a tow-truck.

Like I say, the car had good timing.

As I got everything out of it at the junkyard, I actually found myself feeling sentimental. I have kicked it and cussed it and wished to the heavens I could be away from it, but when it got down to claiming everything I could remove (including the now-sideways gear-shift handle), I felt sad. I gave it a little pat on the back end, thanked it, and wished it a happy and content life in the junkyard. Part of me says it deserves better -- the part that is pure sentimental fool -- but my rational self had me soaring with glee as I boarded the bus and began my Life Without a Car.

Never again will it break down on a rainy highway! Never again will I get a 20-dollar parking ticket because I didn't have a nickel to put in the meter! Never again will I have to abandon it in an inch of snow because the rear end was fishtailing -- a trick it occasionally performed on wet leaves as well.

I'm enthusiastic about life without a car. It is, for me, a matter of principle. The car is one of America's primary addictions, one that makes us crave oil, create pollution, and plan our cities on the idea that no sprawl is too great. It also has stunted most forms of public transportation, especially the trains, and caused untold portions of a great, green land to be covered with concrete. You only have to see a haze of pollution in a place like Yosemite Valley to understand what the automobile has done to our quality of living.

And in my car's case, it was an old pal in need of a dignified end. The heater hadn't worked for a couple of years. The speedometer had gone out with the odometer, meaning I had to figure my speed either by relativism (to avoid tickets, just don't be the fastest car around) or by RPMs and gear. In case you ever wondered: 3,000 RPMs in fifth gear is 67 mph, a figure reached by counting mile markers and watching the clock while driving across Missouri. The tape deck was decent, except when it ate tapes. The gear-shift knob wouldn't stay on straight. The outside of the car was pockmarked with countless dents and abrasions from being scraped in a parking lot, dragged against a few curbs, used as a backstop in neighborhood baseball games, climbed on by kids, and swiped across the front by a car that had run a stop sign. The hatchback occasionally wouldn't lock, which didn't worry me that much because I had nothing of value in the trunk.

So here's to the good times. Thanks, Merkur. May you find peace in the parts yard.

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