January 19, 2020

My Car, Myself

Photo by Pexels

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I stood in the parking lot of the Nissan dealership in downtown Los Angeles, watching two guys in baseball caps flip quesadillas under a tent festooned with balloons. Salsa music boomed from a loudspeaker — along with the occasional pre-recorded Nissan commercial in a deep, gravel-voiced Spanish. My 10-year-old son twirled around the tent pole, waiting for a quesadilla, assuming that all car-buying experiences were like this, one big fiesta.

I think they should be. Acquiring a car is a rite of passage — like a wedding or bar mitzvah — a cause for celebration, to be proclaimed with food and music. A car is also a declaration of identity, particularly in L.A., where you might spend more time in your vehicle than with your family. A car is a mobile, personal billboard, stating, “I’m a busy mom carting kids and sporting equipment.” Or, “My movie got made!”

This was my second Saturday fiesta at Nissan in three years; the lease on my 2015 Rogue was up, and I was trading it in for another. I was struck, once again, by how different this car-buying experience was than the first time I’d needed a car of my own as a full-fledged adult, in 2012, back in Hoboken, N.J. Back then, my husband and I were splitting up. I’d taken a temporary job I only sort-of wanted, doing communications at a nonprofit in the South Bronx. I needed wheels to drive to the office.

“Acquiring a car is rite of passage — like a wedding or bar mitzvah. “

We’d lived in Manhattan for a dozen years before marrying, a city in which not driving a car is a point of pride, and owning one can be a logistical nightmare. In 2012, I hadn’t looked at cars in years. I had no preference, no fantasy vehicle, no idea what “fit” me. A racy compact? With a child? Didn’t moms drive SUVs? But I would be dating; wouldn’t a mom car discourage potential suitors? My lack of clarity felt like a referendum on my fragile identity.

The shopping itself seemed punitive. The dealerships were in the most depressing section of New Jersey, surrounded by factories, circled by expressways. Finally, I more or less closed my eyes and picked — a periwinkle Hyundai Elantra, which never felt right. It was neither truly sporty nor great for a child. And I didn’t like how it seemed to proclaim, “On a budget!” everywhere I went.

At my new job, I befriended a young, single woman from Brooklyn who’d also needed a new car. She wanted to marry and have children, and had chosen an SUV, aspirationally. We stood in the parking lot, near the graffiti-covered walls on Garrison Avenue, looking at our vehicles. My Hyundai was the car for her; her vehicle better for Mommy me. Neither of us accepted the reality of our lives.

When the lease on the Hyundai finally expired, I’d moved to L.A. — the right city for me. I was no longer in an ill-fitting marriage. I loved my work. I also had plenty of time to look at cars, and opinions about them. Living in L.A., even my son could spot a Prius and an Audi, a Maserati, Ferrari and Tesla. Almost every dealership (except Nissan) was a couple of blocks from my home in Santa Monica; I could test-drive Toyotas, and then stroll to a cappuccino shop.

I test-drove a Prius, a couple of sedans, some SUVs. By the time I tried the Nissan Rogue Select — a lower-priced version of an SUV — I knew what I wanted, and it was that car. I’d started blues dancing in the Valley, and had trouble seeing on the 405 at night. The Rogue’s high profile and powerful headlights fit my single life and my role as a mom. I made the decision immediately.

This year, I didn’t even visit other dealerships, that’s how clear I am about my preferences (at least when it comes to cars). My son went along to say goodbye to our old car. We sat in our new Rogue, parked next to the quesadilla stand, air conditioning blasting, while a Nissan employee demonstrated its technology.

Then we drove home. Parked. And hopped on our bikes to run an errand. I love my car, but we live in Santa Monica; the environment comes first.

Still, the Rogue parked in my carport makes a statement, too — not to the world, but to myself. It says: “Look at me! I am finally comfortable in my own life.”

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles.