Requiem for a Geo

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Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that Elaine Stritch is no longer with us.

No, no, not the actress who played Jack Donaghy’s mom on “30 Rock.” She’s fine (as far as I know). I mean Elaine Stritch the 1994 Geo Prizm that a family friend gave me in 2007 after the demise of my previous car. My friend Gene named the car Elaine Stritch because, like the venerable actress, it was rickety, cantankerous, and temperamental, yet somehow still kickin’ after all these years. She was indestructible. A real feisty old broad, with 275,000 miles on her! And she won a Tony!

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The 1994 Geo Prizm.

Elaine Stritch served me well for more than six years. Though she experienced much cosmetic decay — including three of her four door handles breaking off over time, a preexisting crack in the windshield that I never fixed, and a leaky power-steering hole — her essential automotive functions remained unimpaired. Despite her advancing age, she continued to get terrific gas mileage, her heat and air-conditioning still worked, and most of the rusty spots on her body weren’t rusted all the way through.

But I knew this would not last forever. She was 19 years old, which in human years is like 90. I knew that sooner or later my car would be diagnosed with an ailment whose remedy, from a financial standpoint, would be, shall we say, unjustifiable. Like if your grandmother fell and broke her hip, and she needed a new one to be able to walk … but she’s 90 years old and it’s going to cost $50,000. You’d say, “Yeah, listen, Grandma, I think you’re just gonna have to sit from now on. I mean, let’s be honest: best-case scenario, how much older are you really going to get?”

This is also why the rest of the world didn’t exactly bend over backwards to help when Greece had its financial disaster a few years ago and teetered on the brink of collapse. You’re 2,500 years old, Greece. You’ve had a good run. Let’s not artificially prolong things.

A few months ago, it came time to renew Elaine Stritch’s registration, which meant getting an emissions inspection. These requirements vary from state to state. Sometimes it’s only the large metro areas that require it, on the grounds that it’s OK to pollute the air out in the boonies because there aren’t as many people breathing it. Or your car may not have to meet emissions standards if it’s very, very old. We let old cars pollute the air the same way we let old people be racist: we don’t condone it, but we understand that you came from a different time, and you’ll be dead soon.

Elaine Stritch was old, but not old enough to be exempted from the emissions test. The problem, as you may have predicted, is that she did not pass. She had passed in previous years, and she only barely failed this time, but that didn’t matter. They are very strict about it. You HAVE to pass the test, NO MATTER WHAT (unless the car is very old or lives in the boonies)! Except for the many, many exceptions, there are NO EXCEPTIONS!!

So now I had to make some repairs and try again. Which repairs, specifically? That’s the fun part. There’s no way of knowing! There are lots of things that could cause your car to fail the inspection, but no simple method of identifying what the culprit is in your particular case. (I mean, unless it’s something obvious, like instead of a combustion engine your car run on a coal-burning stove.) Ideally, cars would have a part called the inspection knob, and if the car doesn’t pass the inspection, it’s because the inspection knob is worn out. Simply replace that inspection knob and you’re good to go!

But we do not live in an ideal world (THANKS, OBAMA). I had to use the trial-and-error method of getting Elaine Stritch up to code, starting with the inexpensive things and working my way up to the expensive ones, and stopping before I did those. I changed the spark plugs, put an additive in the gasoline, gave the tailpipe a vigorous massage — all to no avail. I got the car tested when the engine was cold, when it was hot, and in between. One test would show the hydrocarbons being acceptable while the carbon monoxide was too high; the next test would be the other way around. In Oregon, you don’t have to pay for the test until you pass it, and I took advantage of that. I had Elaine Stritch inspected seven times over the course of a month, each test preceded by my performing some act of maintenance that I’d been told might help her pass. None of them worked.

Now I was stuck. The only remaining potential fixes were too expensive to bother with, especially since there was no guarantee that any of them would work, either. Remember, the car was running just fine. But without passing the inspection, I couldn’t renew the registration — and once the registration expired, which it did on May 31, I risked getting a ticket every time I drove. I started to feel like an outlaw, paranoid whenever I was in the car, constantly worrying and looking over my shoulder. Now I know exactly how George Zimmerman feels!

It was frustrating. To return to the grandmother analogy, it’s like when your grandmother feels OK but the doctor says her blood pressure is high, and until you get that blood pressure down, he won’t renew your grandmother’s registration so she can continue operating as your grandmother. (In this analogy, grandmothers must be registered.) And so your grandmother risks getting a citation every time she does something grandmotherly: baking cookies, watching Fox News, putting “The” in movie titles that don’t start with “The,” etc. What an awful way to live.

I had already accepted that sooner or later, Elaine Stritch would no longer be operable. Now I had to accept the more immediate fact that sooner or later — and probably sooner — she’d get a ticket for expired tags. It took about a month. The ticket was on my windshield one morning: you’re not even allowed to park on the street with expired tags, and my apartment doesn’t have a garage. A few weeks later, the city dispatched someone to see if the tags were still expired. They were, and so the city dispatched a tow truck to impound Elaine Stritch.

I never saw her again.

It only took a few minutes to do the math. Even if I paid the impound fee to get her out of lockup, she’d still be unregistered, and I’d still have to spend more than she was worth to get her emissions down to acceptable levels. I determined the best option was to just let the city keep her. You’re only on the hook for impound fees if you actually want the car back. This was two months ago. I assume that by now she’s been auctioned off or crushed into a cube. I like to think they sent her out to a nice, quiet place in the country, to live out her days with the other cars that are perfectly functional but slightly too pollution-y to live in the city.

And so in the end it was like when your grandmother is very old, and you know she isn’t long for this world, and you’ve come to terms with that fact, and you’re just waiting for the day to arrive — and then before she can die of natural causes, she is kidnapped by tow truck drivers, and you disregard the ransom notes and just let them kill her. I’m glad I was home when the abductors came, so I could say goodbye one last time and get my belongings out of her and tell the kidnappers about how the driver’s door doesn’t open from the inside.


R.I.P. Elaine Stritch
1994-2013

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Elaine Stritch: last known photo (early 2013, courtesy of Google Street View)