My Grandfather’s Jalopy
When we describe an object as “having character,” it is rarely meant as a compliment, and more often than not just an attempt to compensate for what we would rather not admit are simply that thing’s flaws. My thick hair, which refuses to yield to the strongest of gels, “has character.” My white shoes, which have turned grey with wear, “have character.” My glasses, which are slightly too big for my face and always appear crooked, “have character.” To say as much implies that these quirks are essential to what they describe, rather than just being the result of a lazy refusal to get a haircut, buy new shoes, or visit the optometrist.
Not that there do not exist certain things – however uncommon – with otherwise annoying idiosyncrasies that indeed make them unique. One is my grandfather’s car, which any unbiased observer would call a jalopy. It is a cherry-red Saab convertible, made in either 1985 or ’86 (no one knows the exact year). The roof does not unfold, so it can perhaps no longer even be called a “convertible,” but rather a roofless car, instead. Add to this that its side mirrors no longer adjust and its fabric interior is bursting at the seams, and it is a wonder that the thing even passes inspection.
The Hamptons, however, would not be the same without the big red eyesore. It has existed, along with my grandparents’ small cottage on Big Fresh Pond, for as long as I can remember: inseparable from its owners and environment, it has appeared without fail every summer to mark the occasion of our visit. The trip is not complete without a drive down Gin Lane, enjoying the breeze when it manages to permeate through the car’s exhaust fumes.
When it comes to cars, there are two types of people: those that lovingly care for their prized possession like they would a son or daughter, and those that treat the thing as little more than a means to an end, a way to get from point A to B. My grandfather is obviously one of the latter, yet his Saab makes me see why the former exist. For each scratch on the car’s body, and each stitch of fabric undone, there exists another memory made from inside. It may sound corny, but I have come to believe that the contexts in which our experiences take place can be as meaningful as the experiences themselves.
As I am writing this, I remember driving to dinner last night. My grandfather is the only one who can drive the car without it stalling out, and he was maneuvering it with an unexpected grace. Perhaps the only thing in the vehicle that works as it is supposed to is the CD player, which my grandfather reflexively switches on to play Simon & Garfunkel, skipping to his favorite songs, or a nameless Greek folk album that he probably picked up in a flea market.
Though we cannot understand the words (let alone pronounce them), we sing along as we cruise down Jobs Lane to the restaurant. The song playing is a family favorite, built on layers of lute, guitar, and syncopated drums, with a nonsensical chorus that sounds like “dir-lah-dah!” It supposedly tells the story of a schooner and its crew, but as long as it sounds good – as long as it does its job like the red Saab – I am satisfied.
Before we park in front of the restaurant, we pass by all manner of cars: an antique Corvette, a sleek Maserati, and a chauffeur-driven Bentley. They are all so nice – maybe even “perfect” – but none rival the character of my Grandfather’s jalopy.