Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On turning 31

When I was 14, I fell in love for the first time, and being second only to one other, this love has been the longest. Years later (7 to be exact), I’d get married just across the street from that first sighting, but when I was 14, I didn’t think too much about marriage. I mean, yeah, I like to tell the story of how Mike and I met and that within a week, I knew I’d one day marry him despite the fact that he showed up in our Drafting 101 class with what would now be an emo t-shirt, a perm, and peg-cuffed jeans. But this isn’t about that love…

It was late August and we were just coming back from that school-age past-time of clothes shopping. Living close to Delaware and not close to any other major retail area save a crumbling K-Mart and the Tuesday and Saturday hours of Cowtown, we had the experience of living a two-state lifestyle. Most of our shopping was done on the other side of the river, with the added benefit of that state offering tax-free shopping. Clothes, shoes, electronics, sports equipment, notebooks, pens, everything… Without adding on the 6% sales tax that Jersey had (though later, my home county’s sales tax was halved, and then just recently, the sales tax was raised by 1%, save for my home county, where it was raised by .5%).

My mom had spent the day fighting with one teenager (me) and two moody pre-teens. Nothing she picked out for me was right, nothing my sister tried on was fair, and somehow my brother just got whatever he wanted because he’s the baby. I’m sure I pitched a fit at some point, but I’m also sure that my sister and brother flailed limbs at some point, as well, but those details have been lost in my memory. So, grumpy kids in tow, we came back into Jersey and took the second exit off of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and drove the along 130 North for what seemed like an hour (even to this day, that drive seems forever), but was actually not more than 4 miles.

As we drove through town, we passed the golf course, the Cumberland Farms, the gas station, Pfeffer’s, B&B’s, Troy Spencer’s, and came to a stop at the intersection of Shell and Georgetown Roads. To our left was the Union Presbyterian Church; for all intents and purposes, it was our church, though the family wasn’t ostentatiously religious. My mom regularly sent us to Sunday School and we spent several summers attending Union Pres’s Vacation Bible School. I played piano for the Sunday School lower choir and spent many a youth group night trying to sneak cigarettes and kisses from one or two particular boys. I knew the church pretty well, having snuck into just about every room, from the basement to the attic, from the nursery to the church office, from the kitchen to the sanctuary. And while I long claimed to not be a reverent person, some of my best, most cherished, purest memories are of the times that I spent alone in the church proper. I loved the sanctuary even if I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of religion. I’d spend Sundays half-listening to the reverend drone on about some Biblical thing or another and I’d rest my head on the back of the pew, counting the boards in the ceiling, marveling at how the ceiling looked like the inside of the belly of the Ark, and did they really mean to do that?

At this intersection, though, to get back to the story…

Ahead of us was Dunn’s Park, the old high school (long since renamed the middle school), and, if we took a left at the school, the Delaware River. On our right, was Lou’s, a long-established gas and service station. I remember pulling up to Lou’s as an even younger kid, delighting in the bells that would be activated as your car drove over the hoses, and then listening to the polite banter the service attendant would make as he filled the tank, cash-only, and then checked your oil, washer fluid, and squeegeed your windshield. I do sure love living in the city, but there’s a part of me that won’t ever, despite my greatest attempts otherwise, shed the country-girl that’s still in my heart. Aside from a few years when she flirted with a Mazda mechanic and entertained the pockets of an arsonist/mechanic, my mom’s pretty much had her cars serviced at Lou’s. When I later started driving, she wanted me to take my cars there, and even later, she wanted Mike to take his cars there, but that’s neither here nor there.

On this particular day, Lou’s had the usual array of clunkers, commuters, and the occasional hot-rod pulled up along side the garage, waiting for service. But this day was a little extra-special for me because Lou also had a green, curvy beauty waiting for his mechanics.

That first glimpse, at summer dusk, wasn’t what won me over. It’s not that I didn’t crane my neck as we drove by or that I didn’t dream about seeing the hunter green paint or camel ragtop. It wasn’t the gleaming tires or the bright whitewalls that lingered, either. What kept me up that night was the idea of possibilities. The idea of a future, the idea of openness, of the wide road, the winding road, the paths traveled and less so. All of this reeled through my brain and I spent the next week or so devising reasons to get from my house to Lou’s. I went on walks to the park, bike rides to the river, and begged my mom to take me with her whenever she went south. I walked around the block several times, all to get another look at this beautiful car. I sat across the street at the edge of the kindergarten’s playground, staring at the rear lights of the car, studying the vents on the back of the car, memorizing each line, each swipe of metal, each crease in the top. I studied the nose of the car, its headlights, the dual grilles, the windshield, the mirror, the profile from the church’s front steps. I walked by, I ran by, I rode by, and drove by and each time I saw some snatch of that car, I felt a deeper and deeper attraction to it.

After just a week, the affair was over. All the hours I spent gazing lovingly at the car were fading in my memory. Not wanting to believe it was over, I kept up my walking and watching and biking and waiting. But another week went by, and I saw no sign of the car. I reduced my stalking hours by half, and within a month, I’d all but forgotten that I had merely weeks earlier invested much of my waking life into something that was not mine or even attainable. I was crushed.

When I turned 16, I learned the name of this mystery car by chance… Watching some movie, I saw the car again, though now it wasn’t green or even a convertible. But the lines were the same—the gentle sloping, the prominent nose, the vented rear, the low profile. When I heard the name, it was all I could do to not play with it in my head, rolling the letters around, testing each syllable, swallowing the whole name and letting the taste fade on my tongue: Karmann Ghia. I wanted one, but I didn’t know the first thing about cars.

Time passed. I turned 17 (driving age in NJ), got my license, got a car, had a number of accidents and tickets. Mike and I started dating, I lost my license, quit my retail job, went back to school, got a new car, and Mike and I got engaged. I graduated from community college, transferred to an undergrad school, Mike and I got married, and I got another car. I graduated from undergrad, Mike and I leased our first car together, selling our old cars, and we moved to another state. Mike and I bought a house, we saw the end of our auto lease, and we went car-less for almost a year and a half.

At the same time, I searched the Internet for Karmann Ghias at every chance. I didn’t need to buy one—I just needed to see one. I needed to read about them, see pictures of them, hear what others have had to say about the car. I read and reread the history, the story of German and Italian heritage, the plight of VW in the 80s, and just what today’s market answer is to the long-lost post-production ‘Ghia. I scoured AutoTrader and bookmarked Kelly Blue Book, though I never would have followed through. I watched auctions on eBay, entertaining dreams of flying out to the southwest and driving cross-country with the top down. I snapped my head as Ghias zipped by on the road, few and far between, but nevertheless, seen. I met someone that has a Ghia and I drooled in ecstasy as I drove her car in circles in an abandoned parking lot. And, I waited.

I waited a long time, the time stretching longer as the years passed. I waited for the perfect restoration, the imperfect restoration. I waited for the no-rust but-needs-new-paint, and I waited for the no-rust needs-minor-work. I waited and then waited some more as our spot on top of the world slipped away last fall and I quickly resigned myself to being the head of a formerly two-income household.

But I kept looking and lusting and wanting and needing. I read more about the car, I reread what I’d read years ago. I studied owner’s manuals and requested a parts catalog. I priced convertible tops and gas tanks and floorboards and weather-stripping. I trolled the internet for salvage yards and for out-of-the-way parts and mechanics. I spent part of one year watching for the junk yard just off the Allegheny Station on the R6 because the yard held a precariously balanced shell of a Ghia coupe, glass gone, headlights rusted out, tires bald and dry-rotted. And then one day, the junk yard was clear of all junk, no sign of my dilapidated Ghia.

We answered ads on Craigslist, driving in circles on the Main Line and in Camden. One car started, but had a holey gas tank (“I’ve got a few gallons of gas here, I can dump it in and turn it over for you, but then I’ll have to clean up all the gasoline…” the owner offered. We declined…). The other was behind bars, a prisoner of some Hispanic compound, wrapped in a tarp and beyond repair. We made that trip with our neighbor, Martin, a part-time Ghia enthusiast. Two duds and no hope later, I was on the verge of being crushed.

And eventually, I accepted that I might not ever get to have one. The timing would never be right, there’d always be something else that needed to come first, the car is just a rust bucket waiting to happen… The logistics of buying a car non-locally on eBay were daunting, but the best Ghias are from the other side of the country. And if it was local, then surely there was something wrong with it. I convinced myself to accept this all, and I started entertaining thoughts of Prius Hybrids and Sebring convertibles and yellow and black Mini Coopers. I thought about Honda Civic Squishies and Toyota Land Crushers. I thought about our X-terra and I thought about Hyundais. And when we were desperately seeking a car for Mike back in May, I put too much thought into that as well, opting for style over efficiency, opting to pay a thousand more just to not be in a Ford Escort (with a bangin’ system).

And so it was that we came to July 2, sleepy-eyed from spending part of the previous day lost in rural Maryland and most of the night sleeping in my parents’ bed (they weren’t in it with us, thank the sweet baby). As we made to head home, Mike volunteered to drive, not so much a rare offer but rather, just a weird one. Mike hates driving almost as much as he despises SUVs and Republicans, so instantly, I knew something was up. I mock-argued with him, and then passed over the keys. At first, I thought we were going to visit some old spot in the area—a park, or the beach-front playground. Then, as we headed north on 295, I figured he was just being goofy. As we passed the exit for the Walt Whitman Bridge, though, I knew this was more than just Mike being, well, Mike.

We ended up on the White Horse Pike and I babbled about a long-dead friend of my family, remembering the monthly drives up to Uncle Don’s place. The old landmarks were still there, the great white horse prancing high above, the old pet store kitty-corner to our old turn. As soon as we passed through Lawnside and then Magnolia, and I started to guess about our mystery destination. As we pulled up outside of a stranger’s house, I saw the car in the backyard—red, with a cream top, an early 70s model Karmann Ghia. Mike had spent the last week or so setting up a test drive for me, going so far as to test drive the car himself without me knowing anything at all. As I realized what was about to happen, Mike smiled and laughed, winning my heart again and again. All I could say, all I could ask, was, “What are we doing? What are we DOING???” He replied, “This is part of your birthday present—you get to drive a Ghia. But don’t tell them that—they think we’re looking to buy it.”

And let me tell you, everybody, how I just melted as more and more details unfolded… I melted with love, with excitement, with anticipation. As Mike called the owner to let her know that we were here (at a time that had been previously agreed upon, unbeknownst to me), I put on my game face. Even though he told me he’d taken the car for a test drive, I wasn’t about to get my hopes up. First of all, this car was listed on Craigslist (I remembered seeing it up there a few months ago), and I already had two complete disappointments. I was sure this would be another one, someway, somehow. Second, the seller was originally asking close to $10,000 for this car. When I saw that it was parked out back of her house, I couldn’t help but wonder how much rust I’d find as we got closer. Also, the convertible top—surely it leaked and the car would be a damp mess on the inside.

But, there was hardly any rust, and the owner was clearly sad to be letting go of the car. She’d had it on Craigslist, yes, but most of the people interested in the car had little to no knowledge of Ghias. When she got in touch with my husband, she was delighted to find someone that would actually treat the car well. I heard for the first time about Mike’s comical trip to Jersey the week earlier to look at the car, and I stood there smiling like a fool in this woman’s back yard.

The car had been garage-kept for some time, though she used to drive it practically every day. She flipped the top back, the original glass glinting in the late morning sun. We looked at the motor, we listened to her go on about how much had been done on the car, and I felt an internal nod as she said, “The next thing I’d do is replace the floorboards. They’re not bad, but you know how they get…” I skimmed my hand over the red curves, lightly stroking the chrome bumpers. I do know how they get, I thought. She started the motor, no hesitation. It rumbled to life and then purred, a fat and noisy cat, but happy.

She swung open the door, holding it for me. “Take her for a spin,” she said.

“By myself?” I asked.

“Yeah, you and your husband… Don’t worry, take your time.”

And then there I was, sitting low, but sitting in the driver’s seat. With some help from Mike, I got it in reverse, and we made our way through this Jersey town, stopping at lights, turning heads as we passed Sunday strollers, and then getting mildly lost before heading back to the owner’s house. It was probably only a ten minute drive, but it felt like forever and it felt like mine.

I told the owner I was interested, we’d be in touch, and we walked back out to our car. I was ten feet high, walking on air. Just out of earshot of the owner’s house, I turned to Mike and said, “I want it.”

We went home, and true to my old self, I went through the house on a freakish cleaning spell. Nothing works faster on clearing my mind than dusting and sweeping and sorting the piles of stuff that littered our house. My answer to any sort of anxiety—good, bad, or ugly—is to retreat into my 12-year-old self, where my answer to anything out of the ordinary was to clean my bedroom. Mike and I grinned ear-to-ear the whole way home, and we agreed that one of us would call the bank and set in motion the process for requesting an increase on our home equity line of credit. But, before I called anyone, I’d have to cleancleancleanclean.

Around 4pm, with two rooms scoured (or, at least, dusted and swept), I sat down and put in the call to PNC. Twenty minutes later, my application was submitted and all I had to do was wait. Towards the end of the week (my birthday to be exact), I called to check the status of the loan application and discovered we were approved, pending real estate evaluations. Oh DEAR, I could have been pushed over with a feather. I’d been so worried about getting approved, mostly because Mike had spent 6 months on unemployment following his layoff in November ’05.

The weekend passed, and I called the bank again. We were still pending, so I waited and then called again. And since July 6, I’ve called PNC no fewer than twice a day, checking on the status of my increase request to our home equity line of credit. I wavered between being angry and being anxious—angry because, well, the account’s already opened! What’s the big deal? Anxious, because, well… the whole thing is just such a big deal for me.

I made a preliminary offer on July 11th, below the second asking price of $7500. Without the money in hand, I was nervous to do this, but I didn’t want to lose the car to some schmuck. I explained to the owner that the offer is contingent upon the bank approving our request, and she seemed to have no problems with that condition, “She’s in the garage and just waiting for you guys, so just keep in touch,” the owner said.

As had become routine, I called PNC on Wednesday, only to learn that we were still pending final real estate services and that I should call back on Thursday. I did as told and learned on Thursday that due to recent flooding in my county, our loan had to go through some sort of flood evaluation. “But we live at the top of a hill,” I protested, to no avail. The bank had to (understandably) cover their asses and I was left to wait yet another weekend with no definite answer for the seller.

I did learn the house value and given that it was much more than twice what we'd paid on the house just 5 years ago, I thought it best that we clean up the garage and get ready for the car to come home. And that’s what we did on Saturday and Sunday, first emptying the garage of its contents, then sweeping, organizing, trashing, and then refilling the garage with four bikes, an extension ladder, a motorcycle and lawn tools. We’d hit an impasse with the bike storage hooks (someone bought screws that were too long and someone else broke his drill bits) and finished up the storage portion of the garage clean-up on Sunday. Now, the only thing taking up space in the garage is the motorcycle—the bikes are mounted on the wall, the extension ladder is hanging on one wall, the tools are all in their proper place in the corner storage unit, and spare bricks and slate line the shallow side of the wall. We measured the garage, we measured the motorcycle, and we even parked the Subaru in the garage, to the delight of ourselves and our neighbors (I’m sure it went something like this: “What are they doing now?” “Oh, they’re cleaning their garage so they can park that jalopy in there...” “Then why are they pulling the car out again?” “Who knows with those crazy Sparkseseses!”).

On Monday, I had every intention of calling PNC, but I ended up being so busy at work, I hardly had time to deal with any personal shit. I had a pounding headache when I got home and zero desire to spend any amount of time on the phone, so I went one day without talking to someone at PNC. But, first thing this morning (after unlocking and getting ready to open the branch, and also discovering that our air conditioner was completely out of order), I called PNC. Our increase was approved. We qualified for an additional obscene amount of money. When would we like to close on this account?

Yesterday would not be soon enough, but I settled for Wednesday, July 19. Papers freshly signed, we began our three day wait (there's some sort of law that requires a three day waiting period before funds are released. It's in case the consumer wishes to cancel the loan. No amount of oaths signed in blood convinced our banker to waver...), and celebrated this next monumental event the way we always do--with a little Mexican food. Back at work the next day, I set about arranging a time with the seller, securing a public notary, and getting insurance. By Monday morning, I couldn't have been more prepared.

The transfer of ownership went swimmingly and by 7:30, I was the proud, incredibly happy owner of a Karmann Ghia.


Starting the engine, playing with the CD player.



Taken by Mike, just after sunset.


For everyone that sent half a good vibe, my thanks to you.

And, to Michael—thank you more than words for helping me realize this dream. I take back what I said about not liking surprises—you have never disappointed me!

1 comment:

Rachel said...

What a beautiful car. And you look so good in it! It's like you were just made for each other.