A Girl, A Car, The Hamptons: What Possibly Could Go Wrong?

Written By: Lois Nesbitt

While generally considered a smart person (double Ivies, high-end SAT scores, Advanced Placement everything), I am totally useless when it comes to anything practical. My mind spends most of its time up in the clouds, trusting that somehow others will carry on the day-to-day business of keeping hot-water heaters running, septic tanks functioning, computers turning on and doing what they’re supposed to do.

Having a dad who knew all too well how to do all of these things, I grew up painfully aware of how much I didn’t. But my determined dad is also a thrifty man of Scottish descent who never believed in paying anyone for something you could fix yourself. Throughout my childhood he prided himself on never buying a new car—and spent countless hours repairing the clunkers parked in our driveway. Inevitably, these old jalopies (including a Ford Model A) broke down—predictably en route to summer vacations, to school, to family reunions—leaving us stranded by random roadsides at random hours.

“My” first car was a hand-me-down from my sister who got it from my dad who bought it from one of his patients (he’s a psychiatrist, so that could have been our first red flag). It was a 1969 VW bug, well before “vintage” models were in vogue. It had a heater that never turned off—pure joy throughout the sweltering mid-Atlantic summers. It had a sunroof—lots of fun until it rained, when a gap where it should have closed sent a waterfall down onto my lap. The crowning touch was a breakdown on the New Jersey Turnpike on my way back to grad school one steamy Labor Day. After several fruitless hours in search of a service station, AAA delivered the two of us to Princeton on an enormous flatbed truck.

So I moved to Manhattan—the one place in our great country where one can live without a car. I became an inveterate walker and grateful patron of subways and taxis.

It wasn’t till I started spending summers, then year-round time, in the Hamptons that I was forced back into car culture. I did spend two ridiculous summers out here without a car, shrinking my life down to what was reachable on foot or bike (not much!) and/or relying on friends and clients for rides hither and yon.

Needless to say, that didn’t work out so well. In season three, dear old Dad lent me an old Toyota Turcell. It pretty much worked, until it didn’t. A chronic oil leak almost blew out the engine within the first few weeks. Then the starter went. Then the clutch. At least once every summer, predictably at my busiest time for work, something crucial and expensive gave out.

And that’s only on the functional level. The Hamptons being a hub of affluence and conspicuous consumption, my friends teased me about the old Turcell. One commented that parking it in front of his house for the winter was pulling down the value of his property. I still remember the first time my parents came to visit me. On the way home from Islip Airport, I took them to my home beach in Sagaponack to introduce them to my friends. I could not have scripted this, but 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?”

Laughing but unphased, my dad allowed the Turcell to run into the ground before buying/lending me a . . . 1994 Toyota Corolla. I’ve had that car ever since, so it’s now 23 years old—drinking age and older than my niece and nephew.

That car breaks down at least once every summer as well. Once again, starter, clutch, alternator (I’m making most of this up since I honestly have no idea what goes on under that hood). Friends tell me Toyotas are good for 200,000 miles. What they don’t tell you is it’s going to cost a month’s rent per year to edge them toward that goal.

This being the Hamptons, I’ve enjoyed my quota of car accidents and fender-benders. The first and only serious one (a head-on when some airhead made an unannounced left turn at that dicey intersection of Cedar Street and Stephen Hand’s Path) caused enough damage that my insurance company declared the car totaled and tried to buy me out. Thank God for another angel at Fireplace Auto, who convinced them to do the repairs for a few pennies less than their estimate of the car’s value (about $2500 at that point).

A couple of years later a housemate backed into my car in our driveway. Again the insurance declared the car “totaled,” and the diplomacy entered round two; score two for my team.

Last summer I sideswiped a tire protruding into the traffic lane from a parked car. Luckily, 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 functional passenger door, pocketed the check, and used it to pay off part of my ever-inflating Am Ex bill.

A few weeks ago I noticed that some unknown soul had dented my front fender, and in the process dislodged a strip of rubber that runs along the rim of the body around the driver’s side front wheel. Concerned that this rogue tail might whiplash someone else’s car, I did the sensible thing: patched it back on with masking tape, adding yet another white-trash touch to my gem of a car. 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.

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 lot full of fancy-dancy cars out front, they always made time for me 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 pick my car up, drop it off, come to my driveway to jump a dead battery. Last winter, the Winter of the Endless Blizzards, I couldn’t maneuver my car down the ice sheet of my driveway for a month. No problem! 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. Since I teach yoga, I’m always trying to convince the hard nuts to crack and try a class. One of the guys from Sam’s, a part-time boxer, said he’d actually tried yoga because his trainer said it would help with his flexibility. Well, yoga didn’t stick, but he ended up taking ballet! The image of this salt-of-the-earth 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, as I drive up, down and sideways around the area for work. Look for the car with 23 beach parking stickers on the left rear window. I live in East Hampton Town, so that sticker happily renews. But the beaches closest to home are in East Hampton Village, so every summer I plunk down hard-earned cash for a village sticker. Then there’s my social beach, over in Sagaponack, which requires a non-resident Southampton Town beach permit—more money into the town till. Figure I’ve had the car now for 15 years, it adds up! Then there are the nicks and dents it’s just not worth repairing. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Toyotas have the worst seats ever. The first summer with the Corolla I threw out my back by having my left foot too consistently on the clutch. So my thrifty dad and I designed industrial foam-rubber pads for under my seat and behind my back. It’s worked just fine (even if my head is now a little too close to the ceiling and my chest a little too close to the steering wheel), but added another level of panache to the whole item.

Not being raised to care about appearances, I can laugh about this. And honestly, if I had the money to buy a great car, I’d probably use it to visit Provence or pay off the rest of that Am Ex bill. It’s just not a priority. But please forgive me if I pull into your driveway in a car no one else out here would want to be seen in. I can’t help it; it’s in my genes!