Someone once told me that one of the best places to have an honest conversation is in a car. Maybe it’s because you’re cocooned inside a small space with only an open road in front of you? Maybe it’s because you don’t have to make eye contact during a difficult discussion? Or maybe it feels safe knowing that no matter what you say, no one else can hear you? Whatever the reason, it makes sense that your car is a good place to navigate through life’s heart-to-hearts.
I was 16 years old when I got my first car. It was a Mazda 626 hatchback in Crystal White with blue cloth interior. I remember thinking that the coolest feature in the car were the oscillating air vents. Sometimes I would just sit in my car for long periods of time to admire the moving fans and the new car smell! In fact, I was so determined to keep my car smelling as new as possible that I mounted a “No Smoking” sign on the dashboard. I didn’t have any friends who smoked, but I didn’t want to take any chances. True, it was a dorky added feature. But I wanted complete jurisdiction over my car. I washed my multi-ton toy every week. And I vacuumed the inside religiously whenever I saw a piece of lint, stray hair, or spot of dirt that didn’t belong. But over time, I became more relaxed about what went in and what came out of my vehicle.
The 626 taught my childhood friends how to drive on the empty roads of a nearby cemetery (Yes... here it comes... the obvious line... I knew we couldn’t kill anyone). I experienced my first accident in the hatchback after I hydroplaned (and came out unscathed). And I stupidly tried to paint my nails while driving (and spilled Sally Hansen “Shell We Dance” all over my car). I had my first car for seven years. And during that time, the 626 served as a vehicle for both good memories and bad mistakes. But I suppose that’s true for most of us. Our cars have seen us during some of our best and worst moments. They’re like a vault of secrets on wheels. The trick is, finding the right passenger who knows what to do with the vault that you keep tucked away.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a difficult story I experienced involving a young man’s suicide in my blog titled, “Running Against The Wind.” What I didn’t include in that story was an event that followed several days after that incident. This all happened the summer after I graduated from college. I was still living off campus and working my first post-college job at the State House in Columbus, Ohio. As I wrote in my blog, I was the person to receive the goodbye letter written by this young man. As you can imagine, it left me distraught. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get his voice or face out of my head. And I recalled the words he wrote to me, over and over, to the point of memorization. My face started breaking out from stress. And my eyes wore the deep bags that resulted from multiple restless nights. I saw my own reflection at times and I think it’s fair to say that I looked like hell. I don’t think any of my friends knew what to say to me. What do you say to someone who receives a life-ending letter? It’s a difficult issue for anyone to handle, let alone a group of college-aged kids. But as the days passed and I continued to look gaunt, one of my peers decided to step up. It was my friend Ross. Ross was the comedian in our group of friends. He was a few years younger than me and not the usual go-to for the “let’s-solve-all-the-problems-of-the-world” conversations. But I remember that on Day 5 of my mourning, Ross said to me, “Vecchio, let’s go for a drive and have some fun.” I quietly accepted his invitation.
I picked up Ross in my Mazda 626. He came out to the car with a CD in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He sat down in my passenger’s seat, saw my “No Smoking” sign, and said, “Mind if I use your car lighter?” I willingly replied, “Go ahead.” And then Ross ripped the sign off of my dashboard, rolled down the window, and smoked his cigarette as I drove us down High Street. He popped in the CD that he was carrying and scrolled to Track 10. A familiar tune started playing. It was Bruce Springsteen singing “Glory Days.” And Ross blasted that song as loud as it would play in my car. The windows and sunroof were wide open. The night air was blowing on our faces and through our hair. And in the dark of the night, with streetlights lighting up our faces, we sang "car ride karaoke" to The Boss. It was the first time I laughed and smiled in days. We didn’t talk much about what happened. I think Ross said something to remind me that I wasn’t at fault. But mostly, he just wanted to see me smile again. And that’s exactly what happened in the small space of my 626. I let go of what was weighing me down and I remembered to laugh again!
This is a simple and short story today. But maybe it serves as a reminder that sometimes you just need an open road, an old CD, a person who “gets” you, and a drive to tell secrets in cars to help you release your troubles.