How to Repair a Car That Isn’t Yours

I haven’t owned a car since I was in college, or since I was young enough to not really have to deal with owning a car. It was a ’93 Honda Civic (cherry red) and my parents paid $3,500 for it the summer I turned 16. Soon after, I got my first speeding ticket and my first job to pay for it. I don’t remember it ever being in the shop or having problems, but that could be because if it ever was, I wasn’t the one dealing with it. Whoops.

Fast forward 10 years and I’m stuck in Woodstock, New York, with a baby in my lap and something called a “Hooter Hider” hanging around my neck. It’s 90 degrees out. I’m texting my friend furiously but she isn’t answering. We have borrowed her car for the weekend, or actually we told her we would ‘babysit’ her car for the week, which is a thing you have to do in the city: babysit cars. That is, agree to move friends’ cars around to different sides of the street on cleaning days so they don’t get tickets.

Babysitting a car is pretty easy as far as babysitting goes. It lies somewhere on the spectrum between cats and plants.

The weirdest thing I’ve ever babysat, I think, is a sourdough starter. Same friend. I genuinely love her and her husband, who drive the red Volkswagen bug she got in high school for her 16th birthday. It’s also cherry red.

We’ve watched her car — their car, I guess it is now — a few times. Last time we took it on a road trip to Maine while they were on their honeymoon in South America. This time we took it upstate while they went camping in Yosemite and on a tour of wine country. It works out, if you can get over the fact that they are always on a better vacation than us.

[Us on the side of the road during a rainstorm, jumping the battery of their car. Them at the French Laundry. Me eating a granola bar at 5 a.m. while I soothe a baby in an Airbnb with no air conditioning. Them in a wine cave. Dipping their feet in some volcanic pool while I sit in the poetry section of a used bookstore Googling “how much does it cost to tow a car 120 miles?”]

Borrowing a car is amazing, though. Freeing! Free! I think about owning a car all the time, but I don’t know any of the bad stuff. I don’t have insurance. I don’t truly know the anxiety of moving a car around to avoid tickets. I love driving in the city when I get to, a few times a year. I pretend I am in some kind of action movie, gunning it and cursing and cutting people off, the way you have to in the city. I imagine the thrill of it would not last.

So this is ideal.

“God, remember cars? Cars are horrible. We should definitely live somewhere where we don’t need a car.” Dustin says some variation on this all the time. And we are always talking about where we should live, in spite of the fact that we live somewhere now.

I don’t really remember cars, I tell him. I don’t think I have ever driven a car to a garage. He had a Volvo in high school. He definitely does. I tell him getting a car repaired reminds me of going to the doctor or the dentist or the hair salon. What will they do and how much will it cost? No one can say. He’ll work on it, the mechanic says. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow. We get brave and ask for an estimate. He gives us an estimate. If this were our car would we have had the balls to ask? More balls?

You want to trust their expertise, you don’t want to be crude. You hope whatever needs fixing gets, fixed but there is a pit in your stomach, waiting for the bill.

It turns out there is no phone service in Yosemite, if you can believe it.

We got the cherry red car towed to a garage a few blocks away from the driveway of our Airbnb. They gave us an extra night for free. “Pay it forward” the woman said.

My friend whose car died called us the next day. They had phone service again. We had sent her car to the garage and were trying to get it repaired. “Isn’t it funny that you can repair someone else’s car?” I said to Dustin. Of course the mechanic doesn’t care whose car it is. “What if you could hire someone to paint someone else’s house?” Dustin posits. We laugh. We change the baby on a series of park benches. We curse this horrible upstate town and their three restaurants and shitty ramen.

The company I used to work for was having their annual retreat 20 miles away, so we got a ride home with a friend, who just had a baby, too, and who happened to have the base for our car seat installed in her new car. Her car that started, that worked, that drove us home over the George Washington Bridge at one in the morning.

My friend is back from Yosemite and says the estimate isn’t too pricey so we should go ahead with the repairs. I take this to mean she will pay for it, but I still don’t know what’s fair. I want to pay to have it towed. We plan to go back to Woodstock by bus to get the car whenever it’s ready. She texts me every few days and asks if we have heard anything from the garage. We haven’t. When we have, it’s third-hand but I tell her what I know. I wonder if she blames us. When we were still in Woodstock, on no sleep with no home and wandering the single street, browsing the tie-dye and Eileen Fischer, “it’s no one’s fault,” was our mantra. “Thank you for not blaming me,” Dustin says to me at one point, low on sleep and blood sugar. “How would I?” I say, though I know blame, especially mine, has little to do with logic. I had blamed him a few times but kept it to myself. “We want to blame someone but there is no one to blame,” I say, magnanimous over brunch. “No one knew.”

A week later the car still isn’t ready and we know who to blame. The mechanic! We haven’t even gotten the bill yet, don’t know who will pay it, but all our leftover ire is for the mechanic.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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