Bye Green Car

It was just a car.

The car was bought at a Subaru dealership in White Bear Lake outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota in June of 1999. We chose green, same as the Saturn we had driven up from St. Louis, Missouri, the summer before, and said no to heated seats.

Charlie was diagnosed with autism in July of 1999. He had just turned two years old on May 15th.

It was 90 degrees plus the day we got the report from the Child Development Center of the Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. We lived in a second-floor duplex off Grand Avenue in St. Paul with one air-conditioning unit in Jim’s and my bedroom. The carpet was hot when I woke; my books were hot; the plastic cups that Charlie stacked and knocked down, and stacked and knocked down, and stacked and knocked down over and over and over, were hot. We took long rides in our then-new-car with the air conditioner blasting away. We went to Anoka, we went to Stillwater, we went to Lake Pepin. We drove out to the Jersey Shore listening to two tapes (“Barney’s Greatest Hits” and “Celtic Tides”—Charlie would have no others) and with a cooler stocked with gluten-free waffles and a bag full of boxes of Holgrain crackers. And with Jim driving and me in the backseat beside Charlie, we talked and talked, about what we should do.

The green car was packed to the brim for several of our moves, from St. Paul back to St. Louis in 2000-2001; from St. Louis back to New Jersey in the early summer of 2001; for our moves in 2003, 2006, and 2007 around New Jersey. I guess spending a lot of time in the car is part of the American child-rearing experience; it is certainly a big part of the experience of raising an autistic child who loves motion and had a lot of appointments and therapy sessions all over the place. The odometer rose and rose and the numbers turned over as we drove around New Jersey and up towards New England occasionally and to the shore and around New York City and Philadelphia. Sometimes we just drove because that seemed the only thing to do. Crumbs and soda got spilled; food dropped and thrown; bodily substances of all imaginable types left permanent marks, and scents, on the back seat (especially after one trip through Baltimore during which Barney and Charlie’s clothes almost had to be discarded in a rest-stop restroom…….Jim concluded that water and dispenser soap would do until the green car got us home). A few pairs of prism lenses, shoes, and I can’t remember what else went out the back window.

We got another car—another station wagon—in 2005 and I moved up to the front passenger seat. The green car was relegated to having its back seat folded down and recycling, grass clippings, and bicycles loaded into it; the car slowly acquired a certain mossy smell. Empty soda bottles, plastic straws, pennies, CD cases, dried up leaves were left here and there. But it was always there, reliable if unable to accelerate to get me onto the Pulaski Skyway‘s entrance ramp, when we needed it.

Last winter I started to get calls from Jim: “Well, I was driving and something green started to come out of the car…….smoke was out of the vents.” “Well, it drives but it does not appear that the heat works” (it didn’t, as Charlie and I discovered when we drove the green car one night to the pool). “The car started dying but I got it to a parking lot.” After the last breakdown, Jim got the car to the gas station where he’d had the car tuned up over the years and made plans to sell it to the station’s owner.

We went to hand over the title this morning. I cleaned out the glove compartment and found a 33 cents stamp, the crumbs of some rice crackers, a pack of extra-large wet naps from my aunt, the garage door opener to my in-laws’ house. Maybe it’s ironic, but I think it’s more poetic justice, or just as it should be: The gas station where we left the green car is right across the street from Charlie’s school, where he is, after many moves and many schools and some sad and tough, tough moments, a happy schoolboy: It was Charlie who threw his shoes out the window when, in early 2005, I was driving him to his old school—-I figured this was the only way he felt he could tell us, I don’t want to go there. And now Charlie is where he wants to be.

The green car helped get him this far.

Pulaski Skyway entrance ramp (Broadway) photo courtesy of Rob_Sterling via Flickr

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    • Autismville

      From a mom who is currently in the car an average of four hours a day, I so appreciate this beautifully written entry.

    • Regan

      Bye-bye green car.
      Funny how something so functional turns out to be a little time capsule of life events. I bet we’ll have a few reflections when our red car (the only one Eleanor has known) finally gives up the ghost.

    • Marla

      A beautiful post. I can so relate. We too spend a lot of time in the car. When M was really struggling in the toddler years we spent a lot of time driving. Some days it was one of the only things that seemed to please her. Of course we had many times where she refused to sit in the seat and curled up in a ball behind the passenger seat. Our car is a mess on the inside. She has written on every surface in the back seat. I don’t know when she does it because I never manage to catch her in the act. I have told her a million times not to draw on the car. She awlays says, ‘I can’t help it. I have to do it.” Argh. Sometimes though, in secret I like seeing what she has written. She writes the word, ‘this’ all over and some strange drawings. Yup, our resale won’t be too hot with this car.
      I really loved reading this post. I can picture all of it. I am also familiar with moving and how difficult that is.

    • Misha

      I can relate to this post in so many ways. Driving all over the Twin Cities like you used to. Some of the places you’ve mentioned I’ve been to so many times, with and without the kids in tow. Sometimes to see a new doctor or specialist for J, sometimes just to drive around and enjoy the scenery. And sometimes to help J calm down. It’s amazing sometimes the memories a vehicle can give us.

      I live right on the border of White Bear Lake and Vadnais Heights. I know where that dealership is that you got the car. I can’t tell you the number of times I drove down that stretch of road bringing J to therapy or just driving around to help calm him down.

    • VAB

      Beautiful post. Thanks.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      The main requirement for the next car is, really good gas mileage!

    • ange

      beautiful. the car was our biggest blessing for Bubba. For over 5 years it was the only time he seemed regulated, peaceful, and happy. The car could prevent many a meltdown, as long as we weren’t going somewhere he didn’t want to go. Music playing as we drove the country roads is still a favorite thing to do. Not the most economical or enviromental thing to do I suppose, but many a proud, funny, or heartwarming moment have happened in the car.

    • Justthisguy

      OMG I miss my 1983 Mazda B2000, no A/C, manual five-speed, no radio, manual steering, no computers whatsoever (I think there was an analog op-amp in the wiper delay circuit), no power windows, no safety bombs (AKA “air bags”), no “event recorder”, a carburetor I rebuilt a time or two instead of injectors programmed by the EPA, etc, usw, and so forth!

      I bet the thing would still run after an EMP from a nuke!

    • kyra

      i love the story of the green car that got you all so very far.

    • Justthisguy

      Oh, yeah, Kristina, the Mazda truck got about 38 miles/gal. on the highway when it was still reasonably new. Better than my 2-stroke motorcycle! The current (1998) F-150 I have gets almost 20 on the highway, much less in town, despite having the ManTran and the smallest motor, and my careful driving. Actually, as much as I drive around here lately, I could do well with an electric scooter which I recharged at the wall socket.

      It would still use up petrochemicals, as the greenies have made the local power plant switch to natural gas, from coal. We do need more nuke plants, and, yes, breeder reactors.

      There’s lotsa thorium.

    • Regan

      “The main requirement for the next car is, really good gas mileage!”

      Prius? I don’t know if that has excellent gas mileage, but it IS quiet. The Old Man is always saying THAT will be the next car, to which I retort, “only if it comes in a wagon, Baby.” (and only if we win the lottery :-/ )

    • Justthisguy

      I believe that the Prius uses Nickel-Hydride batteries, which require for their production the generation of Godawful amounts of irremediable pollution about the Sudbury site, and radiating out from there, both physically and economically.

      There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

      Just try to waste less, folks. Mmmkay?

    • Regan

      Well, I’ll be darned. We live in a town known colloquially around here as “hippie heaven” and every 3rd car is a Prius (the other third are VW vans). That’s ironic. I’ll have to look into the future auto purchase more carefully.

    • Caroline L.

      Charlie is “…a happy school boy”

      What more could anyone wish for their child?

      I look forward to the book! I know you will write more concrete details of what works (and does not) than some other recent books :)

      First cars are so integral to childhood memories -so glad the green car helped take Charlie to happy times.

    • M’sDad

      Chiming in on the “been there, still doing that” driving issue … our M only reliably falls asleep at night in xyr car seat, requests the car when xe wakes up at 3 or 4 AM (sometimes 2:30…) and needs to be driven around for a couple of hours (though lately xe then falls asleep again, which is a blessing; used to be xe was awake for the day…) — NPR podcasts are my current lifesaver for those middle-of-the-night I’ve-only-slept-3-hours excursions!

      At any rate – I drive a 2004 Scion xA; judicious driving gets me anywhere between 33 and 36 mpg. I gather the new Scions have slightly more power and thus the mileage is a little less great, but I can completely recommend it (as folks may know, it’s really a Toyota with a different shell) as an inexpensive (about half the price of a Prius, I think?) and reliable city (and driving-autistic-child-around-town) car…

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      The mechanic to whom we sold the green car told us, forget about the Prius—-said it’s overrated (I am unable to explain why, but he also gave us the sense we might as well just buy a Toyota Corolla for almost the same mileage). Out in the Bay Area in December, it did seem like Priuses (sp?) were ubiquitous. Charlie’s preference would be for something roomy (minivan) but not for me! (With apologies to all my minivan-driving friends)

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      @M’s dad—-what do you think about the size of the Scion’s backseat for a growing 10 1/2 year old boy with size 6 1/2 feet?

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      @Marla, Charlie not being one for writing, no “graffiti” on our back seat—yet!

      @Misha, Jim well remembers the Subaru salesman who turned the radio onto Frank Zappa and talked about American history with Jim—-I can still see the lake and the mention of Vadnais Heights…..memories……we lived in St. Paul right next to Macalester College; I taught at the University of St. Thomas and got to know Summit, Portland, and Grand Avenue very well—lots of walks with Charlie (still in a stroller then).

    • M’sDad

      Kristina – the back seat is surprisingly roomy, I think (no less than a Corolla, if memory serves from when I was shopping for the replacement for my own 180K mile 1983 Corolla SW when I got the Scion in May 04) — you might also look into the xB which has more of a “SUV/wagon-y” body, on the same car frame, and looks plenty funky (it’s being marketed to the hip-hop crowd, for goodness’ sake, which is pretty amusing to this fuddy-duddy hip-wannabe professor).

      In any case, it’s inexpensive, reliable (Consumer Reports really likes the xB; not the xA, which is puzzling to me because it’s basically the same car), and unusual while still being a Toyota. Definitely worth a look-see, I’d say. But of course I’m biased.

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    • Jordan Sadler, SLP

      This is a lovely piece of writing! It also made me sad for the day when we will eventually give up our own green Subaru station wagon, which actually continues to be our one and only car and is in great shape (it’s a 2000) but wasn’t driven across country even once! And yes, those Priuses certainly are ubiquitous in the Bay Area – it’s unbelievable. My parents live there and own one, of course. We like to refer to the SNL skit that calls it the Pious. Super fun to drive, though, let me tell you!

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