Tuesday, February 7, 2012

a little blue coupe story.

Everyone remembers their first love. Maybe it’s your high school prom date or that charming young lady you met on Craigslist. I’ve had a number of little crushes in my time: Leonardo di Caprio, that one guy at band camp, 1960s-era Art Garfunkel (don’t judge). But my first true love came along when I was 17, and I’ll never forget her. Yes, her: my little blue coupe named Susie.
Note: not actually my car. This is just a stand-in until
I can find a picture of the REAL Susie. 
When I began driving at 14, my parents were ecstatic. Finally, they weren’t the sole means of transportation around the house. I could take my siblings to Tae Kwon Do, I could run to the grocery store, I could get myself to my own dentist appointments… life was good. However, in order for me to begin my career as a chauffeur, I needed to get me some wheels.

My wheels came in the form of a 1987 Buick Park Avenue. 
Not actually my Buick. But it was silver and had whitewall
tires, so really, what's the difference?
It was a pretty sweet car in its day, and it came to us via my grandmother. When I was a kid, I loved riding around in that Buick. With its blue velvet seats and automatic windows, it was the lap of luxury. Even at 14, I was thrilled to have it come my way. Considering my only other method of transportation was my metallic pink bicycle, having that Buick was more than anything I ever could've imagined.

I immediately began making my car "cool," or as cool as a then-fourteen-year-old car inherited from one's grandmother can be. Keychains, fuzzy dice, Spiderman floormats... my Buick was everything I had hoped for and more. My friends and I dubbed it the Batmobuick, and I believe it gave us the best years of its life.

The Batmobuick had its fair share of problems, though. One of them was undoubtedly my fault: at 16, I cruised through a yield sign and got t-boned by a guy in a nicer Buick. I put a big ol' dent in the passenger side door... on my mom's birthday, no less. Fun fact: that was the last ticket I've gotten. Almost eleven years later, I am ticket-free. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

We kept the Buick in my dad's machine shed, which, as we found out the hard way, was anything but mouse-proof. One spring, a mouse crawled in the heating vents of the Buick and proceeded to die. Once we figured out what was happening, Dad took the car to get checked out. The verdict? There was no way to access that little dead mouse. We were stuck with it, and I was going to have tough it out. I wasn’t thrilled, but I thought I could handle it. How bad could it be? The answer was BAD. My passengers and I spent the whole summer smelling dead rotting mouse. When winter rolled around, I thought I'd be rid of the stench. No dice: the heater just warmed up whatever was left of that mouse, and it lingered well into the following spring.

By this time, I was approaching 17 and the end of my junior year of high school. The Batmobuick was hanging on, but not by much. I had spent all summer working at the nearby church camp and had been (uncharacteristically) saving most of my earnings. With just over three thousand dollars in my savings account, Dad and I decided it was time to put my money to work.

We had just barely started looking when Dad and I drove through the discount lot in Watertown. But then I saw her. An adorable 1998 blue Ford Escort ZX2, the very car I had admired as a youngster when its ads first appeared in Newsweek. (Yes, I read Newsweek as a preteen. No big deal.) It was love at first sight.
Just like this!
She had 80,000 miles on her and was priced around four thousand dollars: a steal! (This was in spring 2004, shortly before gas prices skyrocketed, so fuel-efficient cars like this one were not in demand.) I was already going for my checkbook when I peeked in the window and noticed something terrifying: the car was a STICK SHIFT.

I pointed this particular downfall out to my dad, who gave me a “pff.” He reminded me that I had begun my driving career in a rusty old four-speed pickup. Sure, but that was when I was ten. I could barely operate the vehicle back then, and I had long forgotten where to even begin. I also reminded him that I had only three thousand dollars to spend, while the car was marked around four. Dad, eager for me to obtain a reliable vehicle AND acquire a new skill while doing it, struck a deal with me: he’d throw in the extra thousand dollars if I would let my mom drive it to work if she wanted. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

We met with an enthusiastic car salesman, and Dad negotiated his way into a two-parted deal: 1.) give us a discount for the scratch on the car’s body; and 2.) let us have the car for a week. If I couldn’t learn how to drive it in a week, we could bring it back. And with that, I was the proud owner of a little blue coupe.

My driving lessons began immediately. I was a bit melodramatic at times (“DAD! I CAN’T DO THIS!”), but at the end of our weeklong grace period, I decided that we were keeping the car. Once I figured out the let-off-the-clutch-step-on-the-gas sweet spot and stopped killing the engine, I was golden. I still had trouble starting on hills, though: Dad and I had driven to a little ice cream shop by Lake Poinsett, and I parked on a slight incline. When the time came for me to take off, I couldn’t quite do it. I kept drifting backwards, and Dad told me to step on it. I did what I was told, and I left a black mark about two feet long in the parking lot. Everyone at the picnic table just turned and stared: squealing tires tend to attract attention. I finally got out of the parking lot, my ego and my tires a bit worse for the wear.

That summer, I went back to work at the church camp. As it turned out, my new driving ability came in incredibly handy. I was the only one of the support staff who knew how to drive the five-speed camp pickup, so I got to run on errands to Arlington and Lake Norden while everyone else was weed-whacking. Life was good.

But why, you ask, is my car named Susie? This was no random act of christening. When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was a Disney short about a happy little car. It's called “Susie the Little Blue Coupe,” and it is delightful. 
Susie begins in a showroom, where a man falls in love with her, takes her home, and spends many happy years with her. Eventually, Susie begins to run down, like most cars do. The man can’t afford the overhaul, so Susie ends up in the used car lot. She’s purchased by a fat bum who gets parking tickets and drives her drunk. Poor Susie’s downward spiral comes to a climax when she’s stolen! Susie is taken on a high-speed chase as she flees from the police cars. It all ends when, in the midst of Grand Theft Auto: Disney, Susie crashes into a trolley and is totaled. Poor Susie gets towed to the junkyard where she is sure she’ll spend the rest of her days. Spring comes, and a scrawny red-headed kid comes around and buys Susie for $12.50 (marked down from $15). The kid fixes Susie up, and she’s just as good as new (“she felt 50,000 miles younger”). Susie drives off into the sunset, happy as can be. And, according to the narrator (Sterling Holloway, who you might recognize as the voice of Winnie the Pooh), “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer little car.”
Look at how cute she is!
So everything turns out in the end for Susie, and I was always so happy. I wish I knew how many times I watched that ten-minute cartoon; certainly more than anything else I watched as a child (save for The Lion King, perhaps). So when I purchased a little blue coupe of my very own, it was only right that we call her Susie.

I drove Susie the Little Blue Coupe throughout the rest of high school and all of college. She took me to Morris and back countless times: Susie was the perfect college car. She was small, zippy, and trips to the gas station were easy on my slim college student budget. Susie was so good to me, save for the time the alternator went out in the middle of the night in February or the time she got towed during a snowstorm (but that wasn’t her fault). There was only one occasion when Susie wouldn’t start, and that was because it was it was about -40˚ and windy. I wouldn’t have started either.

When I graduated from college, I planned to drive to Denver for a summer internship. By this time, Susie the little blue coupe was eleven years old with more than 120,000 miles to her name. Susie probably could’ve endured the grueling drive to and fro, but no one wanted to take any chances. So what would I drive? Why, my sister’s Mercury Sable, of course! It’s decidedly an old lady car, but old lady cars are always reliable. Plus, it had cruise control: a must-have for the twelve hour trip to Denver.

Now, contrary to what you might think based on my previous two cars, my family does not actively seek out names for our cars: we don’t sit around and make lists of potential car names until one sticks. The cars name themselves. I don’t remember how the Batmobuick came to be so named, but we knew that was THE NAME as soon as someone said it. Susie the little blue coupe was meant to be, thanks to the cartoon. The Mercury was the first car I ever had that didn’t immediately have a name. We simply called it “the Sable.” That is, until the day we were talking about how the Sable was a more grown-up version of Susie. The car was larger and wider, and therefore had “womanly” hips. And what’s a grown-up version of the name Susie? Why, Suzanne, of course! And that, my friends, is how my present car was christened Suzanne.

After I inherited Suzanne, Susie was passed on to my brother. He drove her for a couple of years, and he took pretty good care of her. Mitch had a few good adventures with her: he once got a ticket for squealing his tires. As it was only an unintentional start-up squeak, as five-speeds are wont to do, my intrepid brother decided to head to court and fight his ticket. With a little help from Webster’s Dictionary, Mitch won his case. It’s quite a story: next time you see him, be sure to ask him about it!

You may be wondering, though: whatever happened to the Buick? Well, the Buick finally did die, not too long after I got Susie. We weren’t sure what to do with it: it certainly wasn’t worth anything, so we weren’t going to bother trying to sell it. Finally, Dad came up with his answer: he would donate the Buick to the fire department so they could practice using the Jaws of Life. The Buick came to a noble end.

So after all that, here I am with old reliable Suzanne. She’s gotten me to Denver and back, New Orleans and back, and to Minneapolis and back countless times. She’s a good car, but Suzanne will never take Susie’s place in my heart. I don’t think any car ever could.
Except maybe this one, but please don't tell Susie.

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