When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2008, I thought I needed a car. My neighbors all told me that I needed a car, my boss told me that I needed a car–even my parents who had never been to Los Angeles told me I needed a car! I was twenty one and had no idea how cars worked or what I had to do to buy one or why I really even needed one. At this point, I was walking everywhere and taking the Metro and was happy with this: no one else was living or seeing Los Angeles like this and I would constantly preach about the joys of walking.
But, I got a car after six months of being unencumbered by our four wheeled friend/enemy. It was a big decision to get one and, as a car owner for four years now, I’ve come to a sad realization: I purchased a stupid car.
Let me explain. In high school, I had a black 1992 Ford Escort. That car was handed down to me from my Aunt to my Grandfather to my Father to me, eventually dying in 2003 after having a heart attack in front of a gas station. I saved up two thousand dollars and purchased a red 1994 Ford Aspire. It was my Chariot of Fire, as I called it. It defined me. It was my happy traveling throne that I used from 2003 to 2006, which is when I–sadly–killed the car after hydroplaning into the rear end of a much nicer car that was unscathed by the collision. The Chariot, though, was put to sleep. I cried.
I then had no need for a car after that. I moved to Washington, D.C. and New York and relied on buses and trains, as most city people pride themselves in doing, living carless and carefree in the big city. When I graduated from college and made the trek out here, I didn’t have car owning on my mind. The idea was only supplanted in my brain by others, an adult peer pressure that urged, “You’ll need a car to drive to the Westside!” and, “You’ll need a car to get to Ikea!” and, “You’ll need a car because you never know when you’ll need a car!”
I weighed my options: I could go the quick route and opt to by a $1K or $2K car off the street or from Craigslist, forking over savings to buy a car outright and avoiding any loans. Or, I could go the dealership road and buy a car that I could cover half of from savings and handle the rest with a loan. After weighing things, I ended up going for the second option. Why? I was too car conscious in relationship to living in Los Angeles. I knew I needed a certain brand and a certain color and a certain style in order to still be taken seriously. Get a 1994 Ford Aspire as a working professional? You’ll be laughed at behind your back. Your car isn’t an environmentally friendly European make? Scoffs. I did my research and got what I *thought* was the perfect car for me, suitable for my age and ranking in Los Angeles: a black 2001 Volkswagen New Beetle.
I had been searching for some around town and settled on getting one from a dealership underneath the intersection of the 110 and the 10. I dragged my uncle with me for moral support and guidance. We test drove the car. We weighed the options. I sat down with a too kind saleswoman who pricked my finger and signed my blood signature on a $6K loan. I felt like I had lost a part of my identity but gained a part of it as an Angeleno. What else I gained I was not sure of but I knew I had an easier way to get to and from work, at least.
The car and I got along great at first. I started to notice that there were actually a lot of Volkswagen New Beetles in Los Angeles and that many of them were driven by women. Fine! Live your life, ladies! I can drive the same car and still be masculine! This was actually strike one. After a few weeks, I started to notice that it wasn’t quite seen as a “serious” car, it constantly remind me of its Candy Apple Green cousin who took a supporting role in Mandy Moore’s music video for the song, “Candy.” This was another strike. I eventually realized when driving with a co-worker and fellow New Beetle owner that I was missing something. “You’re missing a flower!” she said, a bit too eagerly. I then realized that, yes, this is that car people would drive around all dopey eyed with flowers in the vase that came with the car. This was a big strike. After two months of life with the New Beetle and showing it off to friends, it started to have some problems. I took it into a garage and found out that it, you know, needed a small repair: the transmission needed to be replaced. This was basically the nail in the coffin of a car I am still paying off, as I was given the blow of $2.5K in order to rehab this “new” car. I cried for this car, too–but it was out of frustration. I then gave the car it’s name: My Little Piece Of Shit.
This was just the beginning of issues with this car. Aside from constant technical woes, I was finding that it was a source of a very specific double consciousness, a kind of awareness that is unique to Los Angeles: Car Consciousness. I was embarrassed that the car wasn’t cool enough and that it had certain stigmas associated with it and that, when it came around the corner of valet, everyone was wondering who that P.O.S. belonged to. None of these are the case, of course, as I am the only one who actually cares about what make, model, and imperfections my car has. Sure, there are vapid circles in Los Angeles that actually care about this and think of you differently based on your car. Naturally, I don’t associate with them and, even though I constantly have to put myself in nice situations to show off my shitty car, I try not to let car insecurities get me down.
However, I know I am not alone. I’ve had this discussion several times with friends and colleagues, all respectable intelligent people who work hard and needed to get a car to make LA easier for them. They, too, have dealt with this unique LA social item, one friend owning a truck that people often thought was a joke when he hopped into it to another who was constantly teased by friends for driving a “Rice Rocket,” AKA a Honda Civic. It’s an unnecessary culture that is only a culture because, like clothes and food and items in your home, cars represent taste and class and are undeniably puzzle piece in LA culture. You can certainly fake your level of taste and your position in the socioeconomic spectrum; however, you can’t fake your car to be less shitty. If it is shitty, it is apparent. When My Little Piece Of Shit rolls up, dings all over, paint chipping, and clicking from a need for oil, I can’t fake that the car isn’t mine. (Believe me: I’ve tried and looked like a damn fool trying to ignore my car.)
Of course, not everyone has a car in Los Angeles. For the past two years, I’ve biked everywhere as much as possible, using the Metro and bike accessible streets to get places while My Little Piece Of Shit sleeps in a parking spot. My car is a source of embarrassment, sure, but also a ball and chain: it’s unnecessary. I let the Car Consciousness of peer pressure bully me into getting a car when I first moved here because I was new and ignorant and wanted to fit in and have an easier life in an alien city. I understand that a car is something allotted to “privileged” persons, sure. I also understand that a car is actually useful and that, sometimes, being carless is a pain in the ass for not only you but others: no one wants to be “That Friend Who Doesn’t Have A Car.” This idea is shifting, yes, and we at LAIY hope to help push that change to come.
At the end of this year when my loan is paid off for My Little Piece Of Shit, I will give up the car because I don’t need it (save for the days when I have to go to Newport Beach or Simi Valley or wherever). For now, I’ll just deal with My Little Piece Of Shit and stop caring what people say about me having that specific car. After all, it’s just a car, a tool we use to get form one place to another: who cares if it isn’t the epitome of luxury?