My old workplace reaches me still in odd ways. I was forwarded a letter from YSB sent by a local auto salvage yard, reporting that in their possession was a 1996 Buick LeSabre, with VIN number, and if it was not claimed in 15 days it would be junked and sold for scrap. It was my old white LeSabre. I remember it well.
Back then, around 2010, YSB was still accepting and giving away cars, though not many. Clunkers for Cash and the recession pretty much wiped out our fledgling program. Years earlier a foster parent/car salesman and I put the idea in motion after he called me about his sister and her Buick Skylark. The conversation went like this.
“Listen Dave I’ve got an idea. My sister is trading her car in on a new one and it’s in damn good shape because she let me help her maintain it. Anyway, we can’t give her much in trade in, and what she gets means less to her than if she could take that money as a tax deduction. Unlike me she’s got money, has her house paid off, has no deductions, and pays a lot of taxes. Besides that I know someone who needs that car, and you do too.”
“Mother of those kids my wife and I had in care this spring. They’re home and she’s working, walking across the river over a mile to a fast food job. I see her with her kids and a couple of red wagons hauling their laundry to the Laundromat. She’d be a great candidate to get a car.”
“How’s this work anyway?”
“Well it works a lot better than Cars for Kids which accepts cars, sells them at auction for a little of nothing, gives the money to some kids’ charities, and take a fee for handling them. The money means way less and has much less impact than poor families owning cars, especially where this is little or no public transportation. My sister’s car doesn’t have that many miles. For someone driving to work and the Laundromat it would last damn near forever. And think of what it would mean to that Mom and her kids. They’d be a family like every other in town with a car. That has value way beyond what the car is worth.”
That Mom had four kids. I could see them in a car already, all smiles.
“What do we do?”
“You take the car and write my sister a letter thanking her for a donation of $4,500, tell her worker to make sure she buys liability insurance and has a license , I take care of the title transfer and plates and all, and we give it to her. Simple as that.”
I loved simple things back then. Still do. I yearned for grassroots programs without paperwork, reports, cash flow problems, supervisors, disgruntled staff, and audits. Nothing beats straightforward understandable basic help. As soon as he described the process and I accepted the idea the program was born. No flyers, little marketing, no frills. The foster Dad and I, along with a very pleased YSB worker, did all those tasks within a week. The Mom was amazed there were not more strings attached. And the kids were ecstatic. As she drove away from the office they were screaming from the back seat. It’s a small town. I saw her on the street in that car for years. It always made me smile.
That was the first of many give away cars. I wrote a blog about it. The community began to realize we were an option for used car donations, and when they understood that we passed them on to provide transportation for local families, I think it meant something to them. We picked up our second car from a retired teacher who had taken it away from her Dad who could no longer drive. It was a high mileage but sweet running Oldsmobile Delta 88. My secretary and I went to her house to get it and I took the donated car back to the office to see how it drove. That one was a beauty. The next problem was deciding who got the cars. I’d put out an e mail to staff asking they recommend worthy recipients and get flooded with requests.
The original concept included having my car salesman/foster parent screen the cars to make sure they were sound but I often got carried away and said yes before he could see the car. I accepted a 1982 Volkswagen Passat sight unseen from a local guy I halfway knew. When we went to get it had a lot of rust. When I drove it back to the office I noticed the front end was wobbly and the steering felt loose. The engine didn’t sound good either. I called the foster Dad/car guy.
“Hey I got a Volkswagen yesterday I need you to take a look at it. It may need some work.”
“Volkswagens don’t need much work before they’re useless. The parts are expensive.”
My car guy was not a foreign car aficionado. He's GM all the way.
“I’ll come down over my lunch hour.”
He came in the door at 12:10 and got the keys. My car guy is a man of few words and is known to form opinions quickly and voice them bluntly. Straight talk coupled with a good heart made him a great foster parent. His wife complimented his skills, and they provided a really good experience for a lot of kids. I was so sorry to see them divorce. But that’s their business.
He was back at 12:15. When I looked up from my desk I could see he had something of importance to communicate. Before I could speak he did.
“That car’s junk.”
“We can’t pay to fix it and make it worth someone’s while?”
“I wouldn’t give that car to my worst enemy.”
I said nothing.
“You were going to let me see these cars first. That was the deal.”
“It sounded so good over the phone.”
“Yeah well that’s why you got me.”
“Now what? I can’t very well give it back.”
“Give me the title. I know a guy can make it go away. Just be more careful in the future.”
I was. I loved giving away those cars. I’d been driving cars like that my whole life. Most Americans tend to think when a car racks up 100,000 miles it’s a liability. Maybe that used to be true. But these days cars will last more than double that if you change the oil. I’ve made it a point to buy good cars, Buicks with a particular engine, the 3.8 liter V-6, that have around 100,000 miles. The price drops steeply right then. I have bought cars like that for twenty years. I haven’t made a single car payment in all that time and go everywhere I want. Newer cars are nice I hear, but I don’t want one. The car I drive now, a 2006 Buick Lucerne with heated leather seats, is one of those cars. I bought it at 97,000 miles after I retired. It now has 105,000 and runs like a top. I’ve driven it to Florida twice.
The 1996 LeSabre was an older earlier version of that same high value cheap car. However at only 160,000 miles I thought about making a change. I had bought it four years earlier and though it had many miles left in its life I was ready for a new one. That Buick had come in contact with several fixed objects at close distance, all at low speed mind you, due to some optical problems I was experiencing. After taking it to my body shop guy for the third time, this time after a much too sharp left turn leaving a parking place and a subsequent collision with a street sign pole, my body shop guy, also a man of few words, looked at the peeled back sheet metal starting at the headlight and extending into the front wheel well and said
“That’s messed up.”
“I know. Can you make it look halfway decent for not a lot of money?” I don’t buy collision coverage on these cars.
“No. I can either put it back together and make it look good for a lot of money, or for not much money and a lot of bondo I can put it back together but it’s never going to look good. Probably not halfway decent. I’ll do my best. If you don’t mind my asking, how’d you manage this one?”
“Does that really matter? Just fix me up as cheap as you can will you?”
The 96 LeSabre had cloth seats, lacked a number of modern features, and although it had served me well and was mechanically sound I thought it prudent to part company with the car. It wasn’t just the cosmetics, there were too many bad memories. That and I was going to have some eye work done, improving my odds of avoiding future collisions. So I gave it away.
My staff selected a single mother for this car who had quit drinking, gotten her kids back, and had put together a real shot at making good on a second chance at parenting. Maybe third. In any case her worker was pulling for her, and convinced me my car would give her a real boost.
It was 2010. My foster parent/car guy had found a nearly stunning 2000 beige LeSabre for me with lots of good accessories, including that feature where the radio keeps going after you shut the car off in the garage. For me it’s the little things. As the 96 LeSabre pulled away with another elated Mom and her kids, I felt this time the personal satisfaction of being the donor. Everything at YSB changed soon after that and frankly I forgot about that car. Until I got that letter.
Fast forward six years. I’ve been retired for almost four of them. I considered ignoring the letter but someone I know, this time a family member, needs a car. ‘What are the chances that old Buick still runs well?’ I thought to myself. I decided to go see.
Aging and the passage of time are funny. When you experience something up close every day; people, animals, buildings, or in this case cars, it is hard to notice them changing. But when big chunks of time create gaps of familiarity the difference can be striking. Dramatic even. Seeing my old white Buick was a shock.
I had put that LeSabre through difficulty, but nothing compared to what happened to it subsequent to me. It obviously encountered something of significant size and weight most likely at a high rate of speed, and apparently head on. It was shocking. A picture would better communicate the extent of the trauma my old Buick had gone through after it left me.
Though my old car was obviously of no use to me or the relative I was considering giving it to I went inside the salvage yard to see if I could make their job of junking it any easier. I was also nosy to find out what happened to it. The woman at the desk gave me a rundown of what she knew.
“How did you find me? Was my name still on the title?”
“It was next to last. The owner never responded. We’re just doing what we have to legally to junk it.”
“You need me to sign anything?”
“Nope. We just try to locate the owner as best we can. Find someone on the title. This one’s a no brainer, not worth the towing and storage to do anything with it. Do nothing, and after the required time elapses we junk it out to get it off the lot.”
Because I hadn’t seen him in a long time, what with my car running fine, I went to the car dealership to consult with my old friend the foster Dad. There he was, behind a desk doing what he does, selling a couple a car. He told me later he’d met them at a restaurant or somewhere, got to talking, and before he knew it they were asking him about used cars. God only knows how many cars he’s sold. Somehow he makes you feel good about spending all that money. They looked pleased at the transaction, he kept smiling, and as I waited in the showroom I did the Trib crossword. I had no interest in the new cars parked around me. I finished the puzzle and started thinking about my history of cars. Except when I was traveling and living outside the country I’d rarely lived without one, mostly because I hardly ever lived in America where public transportation was available. Cars mean freedom to farm kids.
At 16 I began driving my Dad’s GMC pickup with a three speed on the column. I bought a two tone 63 Ford Galaxy with my own money, a 61 Galaxy, the Austin America, drove my Dad’s truck again, then a 1970 Torino with a 351 Cleveland engine which Jim Tapen sold me for $75 when he hired me as an advocate at DCFS. I later gave it to a kid on my caseload who was marrying his pregnant girlfriend.
After the Torino I moved on to a cosmetically challenged 66 Bel Air purchased from Joe Garcia for $37.50. He bought it for $75 with the stipulation that each time it passed hands the price be cut in half. Rather than sell it for $18.75 I simply gave it to Habib, a friend I met in Morocco who somehow made it to the Illlinois Valley. None of those cars lasted a long time, but they were fun to drive. It’s liberating driving a car with little value. What can go wrong?Sometimes you have more money in your billfold that the car is worth. They’re expendable.
Soon after briefly owning an ill advised Volkswagen I finally upgraded to a 1973 Toyota Corolla, going over the $1,000 price plateau for the first time. It was so reliable. The body rusted terribly while its engine lasted nearly forever. I had steel plates welded onto the floorboards because I was afraid my kids would fall through them. Following the Toyota came a great deal on an ugly Oldsmobile Cutlass Brougham with a serious roof liner problem, followed by my Mom’s 81 Malibu after she passed, and finally this current string of high mileage great value Buicks.
I try not to get sentimental about cars, because they’re objects and tools, transportation devices in the end. I did however keep Mom’s Malibu too long. It had linkage problems, lacked intermittent wipers and didn’t even have cruise control. But once in a while when I drove it I felt like Mom was with me and it relaxed me. Work was crazy then. I needed relaxing.
My car guy friend finally finished with the satisfied new owners of a great or semi great used car and came to see me.
“Something wrong with the Lucerne?” He has a great memory.
“No, its running fine. I wanted to show you one of my old cars. One of the ones we gave away. Look at this.”
I brought up a picture on my cell phone that looked like the one below. I turned the screen towards him. He immediately made a pained face and looked away.
“Oh shit. I hope nobody got hurt in that thing.”
“Both air bags were blown but I didn’t see any blood on the seats. And it would have soaked in. They were cloth you know.”
“Yeah I remember. You were holding out for leather and I told you it was such a good car it was no time to get picky. How’d you find out about it?”
“The salvage yard sent me a letter. Police had it towed here. They told me it was in a bad accident in your town. Main Street. Four cars involved. Either that car or one it hit ended up on top of another. DUI they thought. I couldn’t find anything in the paper about it. Said it happened in August.”
“I’m telling you I’ve seen this car regularly for years. The woman you gave it to was still driving it not long ago. I bet if it was a DUI she wasn’t driving it. She attends meetings faithfully.”
My friend is an alcoholic who has been sober for most of his life now. He’s in his sixties. He turned it around.
“When did we give that thing away Dave?”
“Title said 2010.”
“Six years ago? Can it be that long? It had 160,000 when you gave it up and lasted another six years?”
“It didn’t end well though.”
“No, but so what? Forget how it died and look at all the miles it gave the people that drove it. Twenty years worth. That car doesn’t owe anybody a damn thing. We should all be as useful and helpful as that Buick.”
We shot the breeze for a while catching up. He’s still sick of the paperwork in the car business, which he says is worse, and now made more complicated by the computer. He wants to get out if he can afford it, retire, and ride his motorcycle. He’s just a little worried about retiring.
“You ever miss what you used to do?”
“Once in a while. But I get over it. You’ll do fine. Talk to a financial guy. I bet you can swing it. Really. Don’t wait.”
I want my friend take the trips he so often talks about. Ride his bike to where it’s warm when the Illinois Valley turns cold. He has simple wants. I hope he retires soon. He doesn’t owe anybody anything either.