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Serenity and the Busted Venture

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Pontiac Vibe Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Serenity and the Busted Venture

Bill Crittenden
March 30, 2015

While it seems that the rest of the car enthusiast world is ogling Ferraris on Instagram or contemplating the post-Clarkson era of Top Gear or dusting off their classic rides from winter storage, I've been spending the evening thinking about the other end of the automotive spectrum. The people who just need some wheels to get to work and back, and those who struggle with this very basic need.

It's not a need everywhere, but it definitely is in my part of the world. It's was still below freezing yesterday morning when I saw a guy in painters pants carrying a gas can and heading in the direction of the gas station. The gas station was about a mile away, about twenty minutes each way in the cold but just a couple minutes in the warmth of a heated Pontiac.

Cars shorten the distances in rural Illinois by magnitudes that make them necessary for even the most basic tasks. A quick fifteen minute trip to the store for trash collection stickers would have been a two-and-a-half hour adventure. That's assuming one's healthy enough to make that kind of walk and it's even safe to do in our weather which often tries to kill you with lightning when it doesn't resemble the surface of Hoth.

So I picked him up, took him to the gas station, and brought him back. He asked if I could stay until he got his car started because his battery was getting a bit weak. It turns out I needed to stay and give him a jump start.

What made this such a thought-provoking trip was that he had a Chevrolet Venture much like my own from years past. Similar, but quite a bit different. We had the same wheels, the same grill, but his was white. My Venture was fairly well preserved by my wife's short commute and time spent out of work. In fact, the Venture was supposed to be mine but as gas creeped towards $5 a gallon we switched cars and I took the already older but more fuel efficient Pontiac Vibe on my adventurously long commutes.

Aside from the paint difference his Venture had rust along the body below the doors, a busted headlight taped together, and a windshield with a crack across it. He had the Venture, but its condition reminded me of my Pontiac when I couldn't afford to fix it.

My car still has a wrinkled hood from a broken hood latch that wasn't discovered until I was going 50 miles an hour, but the cracked windshield that I left alone for a year finally just got replaced last month. I was fortunate that my car got me through years without spare money without any major breakdowns, since I couldn't even afford to tow it home to work on it. When you're already hanging by a thread, a broken car isn't just an expense, it's an expense that also happens to keep you from getting to work to pay for it. That hood latch included, I was on my way to work when it happened.

Sometimes you can't even get home from work, as a coworker just spent a cold night in his aged Camry because he lost a wheel bearing near our office and he couldn't rely on a taxicab around these parts to get home and back on time. Yeah, we have taxis, but it can take a damned long time to get picked up, and they're too expensive to use as a means to commute to work.

A car really is a necessity here but it can also be such a burden. You need one to get a job but then you need to work to afford a car. That sounds like something Tyler Durden tried warn us about.

It was easier for me to afford my car because I was able to do any work on it myself with the exception of my recent windshield change. My broken hood latch would have cost $150, but then also would have cost for labor to install it. I was able to put in a pair of $10 race car style hood pins because I had thought of it and had the necessary tools.

I was able to do my own oil changes and replace brake rotors and a caliper for the cost of parts only. I've saved hundreds over the years, especially some years when every dollar counted.

So it was a bit sad to watch this fellow try and hook up the jumper cables to his van. The Venture's battery is buried below a fuse box, so there's a positive terminal separate from the battery and you have to find a spot of bare metal for the negative. He kept trying metal parts, but he kept trying the painted metal parts. I stepped in, wiggled the wires on the terminals to dig through some grime, found a spot of bare metal, and he fired up the van.

He was handy with house paint, but if he can't figure out a jump start, is he going to be able to replace that weak battery, which is in a spot that's pretty complicated to get to compared to most other cars? I could see someone obviously just struggling to get by and I know his van was about to cost him some real money. It almost cost him his day's pay, too.

I know from posting a human interest story from the VOA a while back that there are charities that provide donated cars to families in need so that they can get to work. However, especially after the economic meltdown in 2008, a lot of people had cars and no money left to maintain them. I know because my family was one of them.

What could really be helpful is a nonprofit that could use donations to purchase bulk oil and filters at wholesale prices and use donated labor to keep the cars of our struggling neighbors running. As for other needed parts, most shops won't even offer junkyard parts as an option, but a volunteer group not interested in cost of labor time or lost markups could.

Food pantries are great at figuring out who really needs their services, and could work in conjunction with one to determine a person's need without having to replicate the process and train people in it.

Another thing that people could really use help with is tires. I know that when a lot of people replace their tires they're worn but still have a couple or ten thousand miles of life left in them. Hey, a donated used tire is better than putting 25,000 miles on a donut spare, as mine went from corner to corner on my car for sometimes months at a time before I could scrape together the money for a replacement for whichever tire happened to have let go on me. Oh, and taking an old used tire it sure would be preferable to the thought of driving 48 miles a day on a spare knowing that if any tire goes flat, weak little donut spare included, that I was going to be stuck somewhere without the money for a tow. And if I happened to be on my way to work instead of on my way home, I'd have added a lost day's pay to the cost.

Knowing what I've been through, and missing the chance to get dirty and fix things as often as I used to, I would gladly work in such a shop. I can think of a few other volunteer candidates off the top of my head, and it would be a great place to send mechanics who are sentenced to community service.

A few years ago I named my car Serenity after the spaceship from the television show Firefly. In the first or second episode, a new passenger lists all of the tragedies that has befallen the crew in his short time aboard, and the captain just says "we're still flying." Simon shoots back "that's not much," to which the captain calmly responds, "it's enough."

When life was at its worst, that car got me to work and back without fail. It was enough for me.

But I know I've been incredibly lucky to be at 186,000 miles and counting, to put so many miles on a spare without it blowing, to drive with a damaged caliper for maybe 50,000 miles, stretching out my oil changes, clipping off a damaged heat shield, and now driving with a broken exhaust and the resulting lit Check Engine light for almost two years (that's next on the to-do list).

Through all of that, the little car that could did, and thanks to it I was able to bring home the paychecks that got us through rough times and now that things are better it's getting fixed. And now it helped get that Venture rolling again.

Not everyone's so lucky. And when a lesser automobile fails someone just barely paying the bills, and suddenly they can't get to work at the same time they need to come up with extra money for the car, it can be the push down a debt spiral that some people never recover from: payday loans with egregious interest rates, title loans that get the car taken away, missed work, short paychecks, late rent, lost jobs. All for maybe a nail in the road or a failed alternator?

I wish there was more we could do. I still don't have a lot of money to throw around and a to-do list as long as my arm of all of the things I've put off fixing around the house for lack of money, but I've got time, education, and a bit of somewhat outdated experience.

In the absence of a better way to help, the least we can do is take a few minutes out of our day when we see someone walking away from a broken down car at the side of the road. Be good to the people who need help, because someday you just might be the one walking down the highway in the cold and wishing more people stopped to help these days.

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