Car trouble


A 2002 white Chevy Malibu much like my own, but presumably more drivable.

Never does a woman feel more alone than when she has car trouble.

My Chevy Malibu (2002-2008) has been on a steady decline almost from the day I bought it through a dealership in Cherry Hill, NJ.

The first problem struck me as a minor headache: The CD player didn’t work. At the time I told myself that this particular component wasn’t integral to the workings of the car. All I had to do was take the car to a dealer where I live and have the defective instrument replaced. I had a nagging suspicion, though, that a broken CD player in a new car indicated sloppy quality control. If one self-contained unit wasn’t functional, what did that bode for the rest of the car?

Shortly after the end of our first year together, my Malibu needed a new battery. Over the years it has needed four new tires, a new key and a transmission overhaul. All this on top of fixing — and I use the word “fixing” as auto mechanics do: in the least committed sense of the word — fixing a chronic engine overheating problem that to this day is to my car what my father’s diabetes is to his body: A problem to be managed but never definitively solved.

The air conditioning stopped working at the beginning of the summer. Of course, I might have used up the Freon because I have to drive with the air conditioning on all the time: The sole working fan runs only when I have the air on. And the air has to be on continuously to keep the engine cooled.

Ignore trouble at your own peril

I had a warning a couple of weeks ago when I was stopped to at a traffic light on an exit ramp off the George Washington Bridge onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. As I was making my left-hand turn, the engine seized up. I stepped on the accelerator and nothing happened. I managed to pull over to the side of the road. I had $80 worth of uncooked chicken thighs and cutlets on the seat next to me. I put the flashers on. What to do next? Think fast!

Depend on no one but yourself.

Emerson. Thoreau. Thank you, graduate school!

I pressed down on the accelerator. The car moved. I still thought about calling my son to come find me, but that seemed unnecessary as long as I could limp home. Which is what I did.

Don’t trouble trouble and trouble won’t trouble you?

I asked friends for recommendations and they gave me some. But here’s where I went wrong. I didn’t actually do anything. This kind of inaction is what helped bring about the levee disaster in New Orleans three years ago. It’s what let the U.S.S. Cole turn into 9/11 and Rwanda into a bloodbath.

Over extrapolating, am I? I’m just saying that it’s the extraordinary activist personality that can distinguish between a one-off and a precursor. As for myself, I know I will keep muddling through any given situation until I simply can’t move. I was hoping the car would take me from Point A to Point B. Indefinitely. If we’re talking survival skills, this is just dumb.

The turning point for me came today at 9:15 a.m. Ready to head home after a weekend with my parents, I put the key in the ignition. The engine turned over without enthusiasm. I drove the car to a filling station for gas and, with its belly full, it started up well enough. But my sixth sense told me not to stop anywhere else between Cherry Hill and Riverdale. I didn’t trust the car to start up three times in a row.

I was right. I stopped for groceries in Riverdale, got back in the car, turned the key and nada. Now the car is sitting in front of Riverdale Farm Fruit and Vegetable. It is not drivable.

My friends, if ever I announce my candidacy for any executive office, do not vote for me. My talent for seeing into the future is grossly undermined by a desire to wait for a bad outcome before taking action. I have learned that it’s fine to hope for the best, but it would be even better to overcome my belief that trouble will take care of itself. Satisfactorily. In due time. Eventually. It rarely does.

See a graf of this post in Wordle.



  1. Edie said

    I guess we’ve all had a lemon at some time–I know I didn’t handle it well either. But how can you get rid of a new car? –of course you keep on making excuses. By the way, men are like cars in that if you see a problem area, don’t try to fix it, just let him pass on…

    very enjoyable to read your blog, as usual–please keep them coming

  2. Janet said

    I think you have an “activist personality” for most important situations and that you just made a boo-boo with the car. In fact, I think you need only extrapolate this: when an engine stalls as it did last week, GET HELP very soon after. Cars never get better on their own. And it sounds like you have a Chevy.

  3. modestine said

    Taking the warning signs seriously — that’s the first thing to look out for. Following up with action is the next. So simple to say, so difficult to do, at least for me! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Brother Sol said

    Barbara………….here’s your solution to your car problem. Simply donate the piece of junk to one of your favorite charities. They’ll even make the arrangements to tow the metal corpse away at their own expense. It’ll also be a tax write off for you. Then go out and buy a Honda. This is exactly what I did with my own Chevy Malibu after having wasted thousands……………..not hundreds of dollars on ‘well trained good intentioned’ mechanics. I love my Honda. No major expenses, just timely oil changes. So, sister Barbara………do yourself a favor. Break from the family tradition of supporting your local chevy repair man and buy the dream car that’s giving G.M a run for their money!

  5. modestine said

    Dear Brother Sol! (Happy to see you here.)
    You don’t know how many times I wanted to drive my Chevy Malibu to the Hudson and jump out in time to see it plunge into the deeps. I would have been willing to pay any pollution penalties.

    You know what I regret? I regret not having asked you what you thought about the Malibu when I bought mine in 2002. I drove Papa’s for a week, it seemed fine, I settled on it.

    What my car needed this time was a new battery, a shot of Freon and an oil change. I got it fixed enough to drive it for a couple of months until I can get a good deal on a 2008 Honda. (What do you think about the hybrids?)

    Moral of the story: You and I need to have more regular conversations!


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