Wheels of Fortune (1998)

The notion that my donor car would be auctioned burst my conceit that it would go to someone—some one—less fortunate.

"THIS IS THE TOWING COMPANY. The flatbed will be at your house Friday morning. Your control number is 16177. Be sure your plates are off.”

To the young woman leaving the message, it was a routine call. To me, it meant that the curtain was closing on the longest relationship of my adult life: my 11-year ownership of a 1984 Toyota Corolla. Purchased the week of Thanksgiving 1988, the copper-toned coupe had conveyed me to six jobs in three states.

a stick-figure man alarmed as his old car is towed away

a stick-figure man alarmed as his old car is towed away

With the miles had come memories. In Georgia, memories of down-and-out hitchhikers and their tales; in Maryland, memories of lonely Sunday drives to Baltimore to visit my young son; and now, memories of the serene view of the Potomac from White’s Ferry during my commute to Virginia.

a copper-colored 1984 Toyota Corolla SR-5, like Paul's

a copper-colored 1984 Toyota Corolla SR-5, like Paul's

When newer cars would whiz by, I coveted their modern amenities: fuel-injected engines, center brake lights, CD players. But as a family man again, I couldn’t see replacing a paid-up machine that kept rolling for under a grand a year, despite benign neglect.

Indeed, I couldnt even see replacing the $50 electronic organizer that had been my sidekick for two years. Three months back I had lost it, and with it invaluable ideas and notes. But replace it? Why? A sticker on the back bore my name and address. Any day now, someone would return it.

To my wife and stepdaughters, it was my car that cried out to be returned, or better yet, retired. Its tattered, Reagan-era vinyl seats looked all of their 220,000 miles. In 1989 the cassette player had broken, and broken it stayed. My girls were ashamed to ride in their stepdad’s uncool relic. My wife figured out that if she didn’t put her foot down, I’d be driving the beast well into the next millennium. “You have a decent job. We’re not poor. Get a real car—a family car.”

And so, four weeks later, I bought an immaculate, white 1997 Ford Taurus. Under its sinuous hood, 200 horses. In its remote-opening trunk, a CD changer. Nice. Maybe I’d be a babe magnet again. Such are the dreams of married men as they snug into their stretch slacks.

The author's 1997 Ford Taurus, bought September 1998

The author's 1997 Ford Taurus, bought September 1998

What to do with the Corolla? A Salvation Army ad in The Washington Post had caught my eye. “Don’t just make a donation; make a difference.” Well, then: If my Corolla wasn’t good enough for my family, it would be good enough to haul some poor soul to a job.

I called the Maryland office. The woman there was appreciative. “The proceeds from the sale of your vehicle will be most helpful.”

Sale? “But won’t my car be given to one of your clients who needs to get to work?”

“Not directly,” she explained. “We’ll auction your car off. It’ll probably be bought by someone who needs a basic car. If your car were dead, it might be bought by a dealer or broker, for parts. Either way, the proceeds help men in our rehab program get back on their feet.”

She was right, of course. Still, something felt wrong. My long-time companion, sold on the block like chattel? To a 15-year-old car, I suppose that’s part of The Lion King’s Circle of Life. But the notion burst my conceit that my keys would be handed directly to someone—some one—who desperately needed wheels.

Too bad for me. After spelling out my rare surname, it would be awkward to back out. And I didn’t want to be like one of the illogical multitude, willing to give as long as an identifiable name would receive. Willing to donate a pint of blood or an organ to a relative, or to a child whose pretty face had appeared on the evening news, but not to a donor bank or a research clinic.

Done.

As Friday neared, I asked my 8-year-old stepdaughter to photograph the Corolla as it was being eased onto the tow truck. “Yeah, right.”

Friday evening, I returned to a driveway no longer blighted by a rusting eyesore with a pop-up headlight that refused to pop down. My neighbors would be pleased.

For much of Saturday, I felt a vague longing, as if for an amputated limb.

That evening, the phone rang. A woman spoke. “My name is Robin. I live in DC. I bought your car today at the Capital Auto Auction.”

“Oh,” I said. 

“I just wanted to thank you. I’ve been in training to be a plumber. Monday, I start my first job. I’ll have to leave home at 4:30 in the morning. Your car has made that possible. And for me to get to night school.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“One more thing: I found your little organizer under the front seat. It has your name label. Are you still at that address? 13 Selby Court? I can drop it in the mail to you.”

Paul's Sharp YO-160 electronic organizer after it was returned by the finder.

Paul's Sharp YO-160 electronic organizer after it was returned by the finder.

Three days later, a padded brown envelope arrived. My name and hers were penned in blue.

the kraft mailing envelope in which Paul's organizer was returned to him

the kraft mailing envelope in which Paul's organizer was returned to him

Three years had passed since I had first viewed The Lion King. But as I held the envelope, I understood—for the first time—what it meant to be part of the Circle of Life. 

©1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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