I was thoroughly enjoying life with my first car, despite the fact that it was a 1984 flesh-tone Chevy Citation. Its primary use was as a conveyance back and forth from Boston to Providence, where I was going to school. I drove that thing hard down Route 95, usually leaving myself only a minute or two extra to get to class on time. Having made the trip already so many times, I found that I would notice new skid marks on the highway that hadn’t been there the day before, and I knew the exact quickest possible route from my house to Providence — each critical lane change and light cycle.
But the car was beginning to show the signs of strain. To have gone from quietly vulcanizing in my grandmother’s driveway on Cape Cod, to being suddenly and exuberantly driven by me was not really doing the car a lot of good. Things were starting to break down.
The first bothersome thing was the Check Engine light. A pattern began to occur where right around North Attleboro, about twenty miles from the 128 split and about 45 minutes into my drive, the Check Engine light would come on, and the car would suddenly lose power. Fortunately at the time, Route 95 was not very busy, so it was possible to comfortably cruise the car over to the breakdown lane. I found that if I turned off the car, waited a couple of minutes and turned it back on, that it would somehow reset itself and I could continue on. It was unnerving though, bombing down the road, knowing that at any moment something would trip the system and kill the car’s power. Eventually I took it to a mechanic.
The main difficulty the mechanic had with diagnosing the problem was recreating the circumstances in which the Check Engine light would come on — namely, about 45 minutes of aggressive driving. So after numerous attempts at fixing it, (I would pick the car up with the assurance that the problem had been fixed, only to have it occur on my next trip south) we finally ended up replacing the computer in the car. (Who knew that a 1984 Chevy Citation even had a computer?) But that seemed to solve it.
The transmission had been leaking since the get–go. I simply stocked up on transmission fluid and filled it regularly. It was not a terrible nuisance and I actually developed a fondness for the smell of transmission fluid, probably because I was associating it with my first car.
But a new problem sprung up that had its own levels of complexity. After driving back from Providence one summer evening, I was heading over the bridge into Cambridge, sitting in traffic, when I heard a hissing noise and realized that some bad smelling fluid was seeping out of the dashboard down onto my feet. My mind flashed back to driving across country with my family when I was about six years old, when we more than once had to stop on the side of the road with an overheating car, and I did not want to have to be experiencing this in downtown Cambridge.
Remembering something that I had heard about turning on the heater to suck the heat off the engine, I turned the heat on full blast, which was nearly death defying in the summer in Boston. I managed to limp the car home, and then somehow back over to the mechanic the next day, narrowly avoiding spending time on the side of the road with the hood up. The car got me home without stranding me.
I guess it turned out to be the radiator. Easy fix. No big deal this time, I thought.
One night the following week, I stayed late at school until about 8:00 pm. The sun was going down as I got back to my car. The neighborhood that I parked in, just overlooking the Roger Williams Park, was pretty dark. I got in the car, fired up the engine, and pulled the headlight knob. The headlights came came on, made a popping sound, dimmed and went off, and I realized in dismay that all of that radiator fluid had probably shorted out a wire. I popped them off, and back on again. No lights. Again, No lights. A screaming fit ensued, while I flicked the lights on and off about 50 more times. No headlights. How the hell was I going to drive home in the dark with no headlights? Is that even legal? Route 95 is one of those highways that is not very brightly lit, so I knew I would be driving in the dark.
I sulked in the car, weighing my options. I could call AAA, but that would involve having the car towed to a mechanic in Providence (since I had not yet discovered the wonders of AAA Plus with 100 miles of free towing) but would leave me stranded for the evening. I could leave the car and walk to the Amtrack station, which was doable, but that would put me home at about midnight if I was lucky. Driving the car home with no headlights just seemed like such a bad idea. But then…
I tried the hazard lights. Of all damned things, they worked! Now I don’t know anything about electricity, and I know even less about car electrical systems, but I now know this: hazard lights seem to be on a different circuit than the headlights and taillights, and I tip my hat to those Chevy Citation designers! So okay — it would be ridiculous and slightly dangerous, but I had found a way that I could get the car home, and probably not be pulled over along the way.
I headed home.
I got on the highway. It was pretty dark but the hazard lights definitely helped. I found that I felt safest if I got directly behind a big rig (something large and well-lit) and stayed behind them in the right hand lane. I made my way up 95, got onto 128, which was significantly better lit, and barely noticed that I didn’t have any headlights as I cruised up the last leg — the Mass Pike — home. I made it! Again, that car got me home without stranding me.
Everything else seemed to work fine on the car, so, as long as I got on the road before dark, I was able to drive back and forth to school the next however-many more times without fixing the car. I would even push it to where I was driving around Boston at dusk with no lights on, but you can kind of get away with that around twilight during the summer. I remember driving down street on Beacon Hill, passing a guy who was waving me down to tell me that I didn’t have my headlights on. “I know!” I yelled back.
But then one weekend evening I wanted to go out, and I wanted to drive, and of course, I still hadn’t done anything about fixing the headlights. What to do? I got in the car, popped on the hazard lights and drove off.
It was probably another couple of weeks before I finally made it back to the mechanic, who sent me a Christmas Card later that year.
Originally posted June 2005