January 20, 2019

A Childhood in Cars

“We became a cars-on-blocks house when I was eight years old. My mom and I lived at the bottom of a hill, in a trailer, on five acres of mostly-wooded land outside of Snohomish, Washington. We owned ten cars. Six of them more-or-less worked. Three were for parts and one—the shell of an early ’60s Ford Falcon—had come with the land.

Vehicles were, in large part, what people in Snohomish spent their money on. Kevin, my mom’s boyfriend, lived in a barely functional shack down a ravine but had a couple of cars, a work truck, and an assortment of half-working motorcycles. This was typical. My mom and Kevin’s friends generally lived in trailers, modular homes, or compact ranch-style houses and owned a broad array of vehicles in various states of disorder. While one car sitting on blocks, waiting to be fixed or salvaged for parts, was barely noticeable within this landscape, having a few felt different.

When we moved onto the land four years earlier, my mom took a second job as a substitute mail carrier. While most people don’t think about the distinction, the archetypal image of a mail carrier is a city carrier—trudging along on foot through all types of weather in a cute uniform, occasionally driving a little government-issued, right-hand drive vehicle between sets of houses. Rural carriers have no uniform, they drive from box to box, and despite, or because of, the sheer amount of driving, they don’t get issued a vehicle, which means each rural carrier has to use and maintain their own.

At first, my mom used the regular, left-hand drive cars she already owned. She sat in the middle of the old cars’ bench seats, stretching her tiny five-foot-four frame so her left foot operated the gas and brake, while she leaned to deliver mail out of the passenger-side window. But as the job began to occupy more and more of her time, she started buying right-hand drive jeeps to make the job easier. Without the United States Postal Service emblem on the side, they looked like off-duty ice cream trucks. Already infamously unreliable vehicles, they had their transmissions and brakes worked to death by the endless starting and stopping. Once, the transmission actually fell out from under the jeep while my mom was on the route. Because of this short lifespan, my mom bought them whenever she got offered one at a good price, and she let the dead ones turn into parts cars. Our driveway came to resemble an informal pick-a-part business, or the parking lot of an especially underfunded post office.”

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