Echolocation

I’ve had 4 cars since I got my driver’s license at 17 years old. My first was a 1964 Ford Falcon, a black beauty with a red interior handed down from my grandmother to my older brother Joe and finally to me. I loved this car. And so did all my friends. In high school, we crammed as many of us as we could into the front and back seats to cruise around town. The car didn’t have seatbelts, but we didn’t know better, so we didn’t care about safety. Late in my senior year, an engine fire nearly sealed the car’s fate. But with a little love, replacement parts, and new engine belts, the Falcon stayed on the road for a few more months.

My first car—A 1964 Ford Falcon

When I chose to commute to college, I knew I’d need more reliable wheels. I hadn’t expected to get so emotional the day I took off the Falcon’s license plates, but seeing it stripped down and emptied broke my heart. I took one last photo of my first car before saying goodbye for my grandmother, brother, and myself. It had served us all well. A tow truck came on a late summer twilight to haul the Falcon off to a junkyard.

I still have the nameplate

In 1986, my parents bought me a used 1984 Ford Escort hatchback and an AAA membership for the daily commute to school. From day one, this car barely lived up to its name. It broke down more times than I can remember, although stalling out in the Lincoln Tunnel is something you never forget. Thank God for that AAA membership. I needed it. Something was always wrong with its internal organs. It always seemed to need a new timing belt. I swear the car was purposefully rejecting the transplanted kidneys, lungs, and hearts. The car, and I use that term loosely, barely made it through 4 years of college, and I wasn’t the least bit sad to see the Escort go after graduation. Good riddance.

Probably broken down somewhere

Now I needed an affordable and reliable car to get to and from work. I opted for a cobalt blue Mazda 323 hatchback. It felt like a step up from the Escort but still practical. I couldn’t afford anything more than practical anyway. The 323 was my car, meaning it was in my name, and I was the one paying it off. That is until I sublet an apartment in New York City to be closer to work. I had parked the 323 on the street, not realizing I needed to switch the registration from New Jersey to New York. In my mind, I still lived in New Jersey, and I had no idea keeping it registered in New Jersey was a big no-no.

Unbeknownst to me (and probably many others), insurance fraud investigators from New Jersey scoured New York City streets looking for cars with Jersey plates. They sent me a letter accusing me of insurance fraud and threatened legal action, possibly leading to a jail sentence. In the end, I settled out of court for a hefty fine that would take me 5 years to pay off. Unlike the Escort, my Mazda gave me a solid 10 years, almost 100 thousand miles, and many coming-of-age memories. This is the car I owned when I met my husband Danny. Other than a police car, it was most likely the first car our son Kevin rode in as an infant. In 2001, the Mazda 323 succumbed to old age.

My Mazda 323, hubcaps stolen, parked on 15th Street in Manhattan

The small trade-in value for the 323 helped Danny and me put a down payment on a new car. Living in New York City, we didn’t need nor really want a new car—with the hassle of finding parking and worrying about it getting damaged—but my parents insisted. They knew we’d probably visit them less if we didn’t have a car. And they wanted to see their grandson.

We opted for another small, inexpensive car—a silver/gray 2001 Toyota Echo—easier for parking and less worry about dents and scrapes. The Echo was our first joint purchase. And while we hoped for the best in terms of reliability, we had no idea we had bought the Timex watch of cars. Our Echo took a licking and kept on ticking. Within the first month of driving the Echo, on the way to pick up teammates for a softball game, I parallel parked and smashed a taillight on an iron fence protecting a tree on the sidewalk. From there, the abuse kept coming. Over the years, the car endured several break-ins, many sideswipes, and repeated vandalism.

We did not name our car Dick
One of several break-ins
Broken glass inside
A temporary patch job

But these violations are not what I remember most about our Echo. I remember most the rearview mirror and how it reflected our son napping in the back. From infancy to adolescence, Kevin fell asleep almost every time he was in the Echo. It didn’t matter if the trip was short or long, he’d be out within minutes. He may have missed some scenery on our many trips to visit his grandparents in New Jersey, my sister in Maryland, friends upstate, or vacations in Provincetown. But Danny and I didn’t miss a thing—certainly not the tranquil and precious scene of our boy in the rearview.

Kevin asleep in the back

Even though a ride in the Echo was often rough and loud, particularly on highways—Danny and I likened the experience to a ride in a rickety metal Radio Flyer wagon—it was also comforting to know we’d always make it to our destination.

The biggest headache about having a car in New York City is parking. Depending on alternate side regulations, we’d need to move the car up to 3 times a week. The search for a spot took anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours. Luckily, because of its compactness, we’d often find what we called Echo-sized spots, open spaces only our car could fit in. After we parked, we’d geotag the location with an app that sent us an email titled “Echolocation.”

Some spots we could stay in for days

As the Echo approached 18 years and 100,000 miles, it began to feel wobbly and unsafe to take on the highway or long trips. So, we left the car with my parents in New Jersey for a semi-retirement. It was the perfect-sized car for my mom to use around town for a few years. In 2019, my dad said we should consider selling it, saying his mechanic could probably fetch $1,000 for it. Even though Danny and I paid for insurance on a car we rarely used, I couldn’t bear to give it up. “It’s just a car,” my dad reminded me, “don’t get attached.” Of course, he was right. But our Echo was more than just a car. It had shepherded the family I had never expected to have everywhere we needed or wanted to be without incident. How could I just abandon it in its golden years?

Mom driving the Echo during both their semi-retirements

Danny didn’t feel the same kind of attachment or sentimentality. Yes, he was fond of the car but knew it was an inanimate object without feelings. The car wasn’t going to care or feel bad about being sold. But I cared—a lot. When I finally acquiesced and agreed to sell it, the sense of impending loss brought me to tears. As I grieved, I also questioned my sanity: “What’s wrong with you, crying over a metal box on wheels?”

Dad offered to handle the sale and title transfer so I wouldn’t have to see my beloved Echo drive away for the last time. Instead, I visualized the scene a million times, which might have been worse. The next time we visited my parents the Echo was gone, no longer happily parked safe and sound on their driveway. I longed for one final spin behind the wheel, but all I could do was mourn and reminisce.

Leaning on the Echo after baseball
One of our many trips
Awake, cool kid in the back
Washing the Echo
At a drive-in theatre
It also lugged around all of our bikes

Mom gave me a box of things she had salvaged—maps, pens, a tire pressure gauge, a wind-up parking angel, and a St. Christopher medallion. Each brought back a vivid memory, but one item took my breath away, something I didn’t know we had kept in the car. It was a small clip-on mirror we had used in tandem with the rearview mirror to get another angle of our infant son in the backseat. 

I glanced back one last time.

One of Kevin's last naps in the Echo

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