Changing tires on the great mandala
by Clif Garboden
I miss Jerome terribly. Inseparable for years, we covered many miles together. Toward the end, old age and infirmity made him a less reliable travel companion, but I was blind to his faults. Jerome was my 1989 Buick Park Avenue — four doors, moon roof, loaded, jet black with red leather interior. I bought him used, in 1997, already eight years old but with only 43,186 miles on the odometer, for $6000. I named him Jerome after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a/k/a “the Bus” — an homage. Over the course of his next 125,875 miles, we came to depend on each other. We were friends.
This sentimental habit of anthropomorphizing automobiles is a family tradition. In my time, I have driven a 1966 Chevy Biscayne named Thane of Cawdor, a 1974 Checker dubbed the Enterprise, a 1977 Impala called Big Youth, and a Jeep Cherokee named Snow White. But none of those (except possibly the Mighty Thane) had as much personality as Jerome did.
Jerome was a gentleman brute — a top-of-the-line luxury model with opera lights on his sedan posts; but he could cruise at 80 miles an hour and had a horn to rival a diesel locomotive’s. He never hit a bump I could feel. And this gentle giant was a killer. He was rear-ended twice, both times suffering only cosmetic bumper damage while totaling his assailants.
On the road, Jerome commanded respect. Despite the miles, he kept his good looks. In his later years, other drivers saw us coming — gleaming black hulk with now-extinct chrome bumpers and protruding door handles — and assumed that I was a) a classic-car buff who cared too much; b) some joy-riding antique duffer likely to make an irrational driving maneuver; or c) a time traveler. Whatever the reason, nobody cut Jerome off in traffic. Anything smaller than a truck got out of his way. Nobody tailgated Jerome either. A blast from his horn cleared entire highways.
Jerome was what they called Real Steel. His engine was bulletproof; I had his transmission rebuilt; and I tolerated the loss of amenities as one by one, the air conditioning, the power antenna, the automatic headlights, even the ventilating fan ceased to function. But in the end, I betrayed him. Jerome and I made our last ride, on four of his six cylinders, to a Toyota dealer, who gave me $1000 trade-in just for being amazing and despite the fact that Jerome, at 16, wasn’t even listed in the Blue Book. I watched with genuine sadness as the salesman ushered the old boy out of sight behind the dealership to await auction.
I drove home in a prim used black 2002 Camry. It’s beautifully engineered, well designed, fuel efficient, comfortable enough, simple to operate, and looks just like every other car on the road. And that’s why I really miss Jerome. In Jerome, I was special, an Interstate man of mystery. People noticed; toll takers offered compliments; pedestrians applauded when I parallel parked. Jerome’s replacement is just part of the scenery — unnoticed, unremarkably normal, never complimented. I’d traded something eccentric and funky for something common and sensible, and it felt like defeat.
In Jerome, I could be king of the road. Even among peers, I always knew where I stood in the automotive pecking order. Jerome had the most elaborate tail-light array and the longest roof-line of any full-size late-’80s Buick. Status among peers; and all those lowly Electra drivers knew it. If such subtle distinctions exist among Toyota models, I’m not aware of them, and let’s face it, the king of the road does not drive a mid-size import.
Respect? Forget it. My new car has a horn like a bicycle’s; other drivers don’t even look, never mind cringe. People cut me off at intersections and pull out in front of me from driveways. I’m invisible; I’m tailgated. Passed. Numbskulls on cell phones slow in front of me, uncaring. In Jerome, I was feared; now I’m presumed harmless. It’s been a drastic adjustment. I’d gotten used to having some personal space when I drove, and now I’m just part of the pack.
I try to put aside false values. I comfort myself that I’m driving a smaller, smarter, cleaner car. I’m trying to adjust, and perhaps, in eight years and 126,000 miles, I’ll embrace the virtues of automotive anonymity. Meanwhile, we’ve named the Toyota Jerry — an homage.
Clif Garboden is the former Senior Managing Editor of the Boston Phoenix and an excellent driver.
© Clifton Alan Garboden
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