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300,000

22 years coming

22 years coming

One hundred thousand I don’t remember. It’s prehistoric now, long enough ago I still had a bad haircut and was hot with that adolescent insecurity that seems to never boil off. I know I stopped and took a picture and held the milestone’s breath. Having grown up with Malaise Era shitbox cars where one hundred thousand would be a minor miracle, I knew the ease with which Hondas, Toyotas and Subarus turned the six-count clock spoke well of kaizen. I can remember that–the sense the clockwork was turning.

Two hundred thousand was darker, overcast. I remember this clearly, about twelve years ago now: midway up the 405, just past Renton, on my way to the swing shift at MSNBC.com. The sun was out in classic northwest mostly partly cloudy, the air light but occluded through the strip between cloud and mountains, traffic busy at one in the afternoon. I had the camera with me for the occasion. I pulled over at the top of the Renton hill and got photographic evidence of the blessed event, but it seemed heavy and overworked, over even as it was happening. Many things were good, many things were not so good. I could not square my ideas of having a job I could not care about with the need to be responsible and be sure bosses saw and acknowledged my responsibility. I had the mornings to write, but this only caused tension. The car didn’t feel as smooth, not as powerful and easy, as it had. Something pulled it down and made hills a struggle. I was glad to see the digits roll to zeroes, though. It was something we did together.

Three hundred thousand is a different animal: though most reminds me of the first hundred thousand, it is a new thing beyond that. The achievement is quiet and past even while it is happening because nothing loud need happen; the achievement has always been out there, always been coming, and now is receding into a different kind of permanence. The car has been maintained and cleaned and it has followed the bell curve of its generation, its longevity due as much to long periods where it only drove on weekends. I think that’s key: take the bus.

A while back it was having a problem: stalling, sputtering, cutting out at random times. I had the embarrassment of paying to get a diagnosis of spark plug wires, something I could’ve done as a sensible guess. The guy explained how simple the computers were in these old cars. These old cars. This was 2005 or so. I felt insulted. This wouldn’t be said of a fifteen year old human. But it would be of a dog. Or a car. The visceral gravity of feeling fifteen years connected to ago made me quiet.

When the car was new, Peter Netherland and I were driving around. It was not too late but not early, dark out, summer, the air cool from the vents. We were driving around the back suburban streets of the little Texas town, not going anywhere and not looking for anything, only in the car to give Peter a place to smoke. Peter made a tweaker’s wild electric eye jabs about the car’s age. Shit, man, this is an old car! It’s not new any more, man! Scuff a panel! Spill on the seats! I can help you with that. I was offended but knew not to be. This must have been 1991. The car could not have been newer. Neither could we.

The car has been across the country multiple times, both directly across the northern I-90 traverse and several bi-coastal V-journeys, though mostly on the V’s right half with Texas on one end and Boston or Philadelphia on the other. The farthest north it has been has been Port Renfrew, British Columbia, where I turned around at a washed-out bridge; the farthest south Brownsville, Texas, or very near. Sometime in 1993 John and I went off the road somewhere south of Tonapah, Nevada, on an unpaved desert road, bending the frame a little. It’s never been fixed, and ever since I have warned front-end techs the alignment will never quite be right on, but good enough. It has stranded me only once: when brand new, it refused to start after a broiling day out in the Tandy parking lot. I called the dealership and they did what no American-maker dealership would do: quietly and quickly changed out the failed igniter and returned the car to the lot. There was no bill or thanks, but I was too shocked to realize this. The car started up like nothing happened.

Around the same time Peter was telling me my new car was old, he was with someone else in a different car. I heard the story from this other person, someone handed an unfortunate disease and dead over twenty years ago now. They were out in the West Texas endless extent where no one can tell if they are going or coming, all points identical and endlessly distant. The person now dead told me that Peter had been talking non-stop, for hours, as Peter did: Jethro Tull, Maupassant, that fucking guy in geography, Gibson guitars, LSD as the means to elemental understanding. They crested a hill and, for an instant, Peter was silent. Then he rocketed in place, shouting and pointing as the seat belt held him in. Look at that! Look! See! This moment, this time, this view, remember it! Always remember it! The view was burned out brush, fences, a country jumble of distant telephone poles and rusting farm debris, but the sky was alive with late-day color and glowing clouds. Peter resumed with Maupassant unfazed and they drove all night back home.

Funny thing is, said this person twenty years gone, is the fucker did it. I remember. Every last chromatic fucking atom, like I’m there right now.

Did he do you a favor?

He considers, holding a cigarette that exacerbates his cystic fibrosis. But it’s cystic fibrosis, so it hardly matters. It is dark and there is distant music. I don’t know, he said with penetrating sincerity. Time eased to listen. It was masterful. I don’t think he even realized how perfect it would be.

This car was new when he was too, but the car is still going.

300,000 means a couple hundred bucks every year for something. It’s a reasonable trade for dependability. Nothing lasts forever. It has probably outlasted Peter, too.

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