A Girl, a Car, the Hamptons: What could go wrong?
While generally considered a smart person (double Ivies, high SAT scores, Advanced Placement everything), I am totally useless when it comes to anything mechanical. I live happily up in the clouds, trusting that others will keep hot-water heaters running, septic tanks functioning, computers turning on and doing whatever it is they do.
Having a dad who knew all too well how to do such things, I am painfully aware of how much I don’t. My dad is a thrifty man of Scottish descent who never believed in paying anyone for something you could fix yourself. He prided himself on never buying a new car—and spent countless hours repairing the clunkers parked in our driveway. Inevitably, these old jalopies (and I’m talking all the way back to a vintage Ford Model A) broke down—predictably en route to summer vacations, to school, to family reunions.
“My” first car was actually my sister’s, who got it from my dad, who bought it from a patient (he’s a psychiatrist, so that could have been a red flag), 1969 VW. It had a heater that never turned o ff—pure joy in summer. It had a sunroof—lots of fun until it rained, when it sent a waterfall onto my lap. It broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike on my way back to grad school; AAA delivered us to Princeton on an enormous flatbed truck.
So I moved to Manhattan—the one place where one can live without a car. I became an inveterate walker and grateful patron of subways, buses, and taxis.
Spending time in the Hamptons forced me back into car culture. I spent two ridiculous summers out here without a car, shrinking my life down to what was reachable on foot or bike (not much!) and relying on friends and clients for rides hither and yon.
That didn’t work out so well. In season three, dear old Dad lent me an old Toyota Turcel. It pretty much worked, until it didn’t. An oil leak almost blew out the engine within weeks. Then the starter gave out. Then the clutch. At least once every summer, my busiest time for work, something expensive went.
The Hamptons being a hub of conspicuous consumption, friends teased me about the Turcel. One even commented that parking it in his driveway for the winter pulled down his property value. When my parents came to visit, I took them to the beach to meet my friends. Within five minutes three separate clusters of friends made comments like, “Glad to meet you, Dr. Nesbitt. Don’t you think it’s time Lois had a new car?”
The Turcel ran into the ground before Dad gave me a . . . 1994 Toyota Corolla. I’ve had that car ever since, so it’s now 22 years old—drinking age!
That car has broken down every summer too. Starter, clutch, alternator (I’m making most of this up since I honestly have no idea what goes on under that hood and only learn names of parts when they die). Friends tell me Toyotas are good for 200,000 miles. What they don’t tell you what it’s going to cost to edge them toward that goal.
Then, I’ve had my share of stuff that just doesn’t seem to happen to other people. My niece came to visit at that age in her teens when all she really wanted was to be left alone with her Kindle. Dauntless, I dragged her and my mom to the beach. We didn’t last long. The sun was too hot; the water was too cold (it being early June, this was true, but it a desperate attempt to prove her wrong, I took my first bone-chilling dip of the season). We trudged back up to the parking lot, laden with beach chairs, a sun umbrella, towels, books, whatnot, only to find that the trunk would not open.
I called my guys up at Bonac Air and Speed (which I still call by its former name, Sam’s Auto), damsel in distress. It being high season, they suggested I bring the car in in two weeks. Problem was, I store my yoga equipment in my trunk, and I need t for my teaching. They suggested I drop it off for two days till they could get around to it. Problem was, I had my family visiting, and it was our only car. Finally they invited me to drop it off, leave it for a couple of hours, and they’d see what they could do. (It turns out to unlock a trunk, you have to remove the back seat and crawl back to reach the latch.)
Off we went. I called a taxi to take us back to the beach while they worked on the trunk. 45 minutes later I got a call from Sam’s: the job was done. Back in the taxi, back to the shop. Turns out the flap of my spare beach umbrella had gotten wedged in the latch when I shut the trunk. We were back in motion, and Sam’s angels wouldn’t even let me pay them for the job.
I’ve also enjoyed my quota of car accidents and fender-benders. The only serious one (a head-on when someone made an unannounced left turn) caused enough damage that my insurance company declared the car totaled and tried to buy me out. Thank God another angel at Fireplace Auto body shop convinced them to do the repairs for a few pennies less than the car’s value
Then a housemate backed into my car in our driveway. Again the insurance declared the car “totaled.” Diplomacy round two: score two for my team.
Last summer I sideswiped a tire that was protruding into the traffic lane from a parked car. No damage to the black limo, but my side door got banged up enough that it wouldn’t open. Once again, Geico tried to buy me out. This time I decided I could live without a passenger door, pocketed the check, and used it to pay off part of my ballooning Am Ex bill.
Recently I noticed that someone had dented my front fender and dislodged a strip of rubber that runs along the rim around the wheel. Concerned that this rogue tail might whiplash someone else’s car, I did the sensible thing: patched it back on with masking tape. That lasted until the humidity kicked in and the tape started curling off, at which point one of my resourceful clients replaced it with duct tape. It’s still there. Although since today is annual inspection day for my car, we can only hope that Sam’s will come up with a more aesthetic solution.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I spend more quality time with my mechanics than I do with most of my friends. My first rescuers, when I lived in Sag Harbor, were the guys at Corrigan’s in Water Mill. I could never figure out why, given the fancy cars out front, they always fit me in in a pinch. When I moved farther east, Sam’s became my go-to, and they’ve given me the same red-carpet treatment—without ever treating me like the car dunce that I am. Maybe, hopefully, they at least find me entertaining.
In any case, they’ll pick my car up, drop it off, jump a dead battery in my driveway. Last winter I couldn’t maneuver my car down my ice-sheet driveway for a month. Sam’s drove me to the IGA so I wouldn’t die of hunger before I died of isolation. Along the way, we’ve had some lively conversations. I’m always trying to recruit hard nuts to try yoga. One guy from Sam’s, a boxer, had sampled yoga to increase his flexibility. Yoga didn’t stick, but he took up ballet! The image of this Bonacker pirouetting around a dance floor still makes me smile.
As for my car, you’ll know it when you see it—and you probably already have. Look for one with 23 beach parking stickers on the left rear window. My East Hampton Town sticker auto-renews, but every summer I plunk down considerable cash for a village sticker. My social beach in Sagaponack requires a non-resident Southampton Town permit. It adds up!
I forgot to mention that Toyotas have the worst seats ever. My back went out from having my left foot always on the clutch, so my and I designed foam-rubber pads for under my seat and behind my back. It’s worked just fine and added more panache.
Not raised to care about appearances, I can laugh this off. And honestly, if I had the money to buy a great car, I’d probably us visit Provence or pay off the rest of that Am Ex bill. But please forgive me if I pull into your driveway in a car no one else out here would be seen in.