From the June 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
Turning the key has become an act of faith. As the engine grumbles to life on this fine southwest Colorado morning, the yellow check-engine light comes on, as it has every day for the past four years, and the same questions swirl in my mind. Is this the day that tiny head-gasket leak turns into a gusher? Is this the day the catalytic converter chokes closed for good? Is this the day that one speck of sand too many works its way into that cracked CV-joint boot, causing it to seize up at some bend in the road and send me spinning into a ravine, not to be discovered until spring?
I baselessly reassure myself that everything is going to be fine and pull onto a narrow Montezuma County back road, headed to the nearest “big” city, Cortez, for supplies. It’s a 40-mile round trip. The concern now is less about my car’s specific ailments than the overriding reality that if I break down on one of the more desolate stretches of this road, I likely won’t be able to find a usable cell signal, much less anywhere to get help for my car.
I intimately know everything wrong with this car. I feel the squishy brakes and the engine straining to get up a hill, and I hear the ominous grinding sounds coming from under the right-front wheel well. But I can’t afford to do anything to ward off those looming disasters.
And I’m not the only one. There are a lot of folks in this predicament. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve in 2018, 27 percent of participants claimed they would be unable to cover a surprise $400 expense without borrowing money or selling something, and 12 percent said they couldn’t come up with that amount at all. And according to a study by Bankrate, an online financial services company, 28 percent of U.S. adults have no emergency savings. Those numbers become especially alarming when you consider that the price of a car repair—which by nature tends to be a surprise—is typically between $500 and $600, according to AAA.
Finally, consider that at 11.8 years old, the average age of the 278 million vehicles on American highways has never been higher: According to research firm IHS Markit, that figure is up nearly 4 percent from just five years ago. One reason for this may be that modern cars are simply built better and last longer than before. Just as likely is the possibility that many Americans—in a time of stagnant wages combined with soaring consumer debt and a high cost of living—can’t afford to replace their old beaters. Or if they can get another vehicle, they’re only able to replace it with another beater. It’s never been more expensive to buy and operate a new vehicle in the U.S. than it is today. Per AAA, the average annual cost of owning a new small SUV—based on 15,000 miles driven and taking into account financing, repairs, maintenance, fuel, insurance, depreciation, and licensing and registration fees—is nearly $8400, a prohibitive amount for many.
There are now a lot of high-mileage cars being driven by people for whom even a minor repair bill could be ruinous. It’s a great and horrible irony that in a society where so many working-class people are forced to rely on their vehicles to get to work, the last thing most of us can seem to afford is a working vehicle.
My wife bought our white 2004 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport wagon new as a birthday gift for herself. By all measures, it has been a brilliant vehicle. It’s been steady and reliable on every surface one could encounter—rain, snow, ice, mud, sand, bare rock, and everything in between—and in temperatures ranging from 20 below zero to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. And except for a tornado-wrecked hood and a couple dead batteries over the course of its life, the Subie has always started and safely delivered us wherever we needed to be. We even gave it a name, Oliver, because, yes, we watched that one episode of Top Gear just like everyone else.
In this case, though, the name fits. Oliver’s grille and headlights form a dopey, endearing grin, and he has always loved to play in the snow and mud, just like a big happy dog. Back when our financial state was better, I daydreamed of turning Oliver into some weird off-road rally car that could somehow also be a daily driver. But now he’s pushing 260,000 miles. And thanks to too many lean years of unemployment or underemployment—last summer, my wife and I were both laid off from our respective and not very lucrative jobs on the same day—we can’t afford to keep up on his current maintenance, much less fix all the stuff we’ve put off.
Which hurts, because my wife and I courted each other, went on our honeymoon, attended weddings and funerals, moved multiple times, brought our newborn son home, and had adventures from Florida to California in Oliver. He’s as beloved a part of our family as any pet. Entropy catches up to everything at some point, but I genuinely believe that with some care, Oliver has another 100,000 miles in him. Of course, sentimentality is often the first sacrifice when you’re broke. We’ll probably need another 100,000 miles out of Oliver whether we can properly care for him or not.
Despite the popular notion that poor people are poor because they’re “bad” with money, most poor people I know actually have a grossly underappreciated knack for budgeting the little money they do have down to the penny. We can stretch a dollar in ways that many middle-class consumers could likely never imagine. But that also means we have to make choices that middle-class consumers will likely never have to face. Even a $30 oil change can be a bridge too far when you know that same $30, with a little creativity, can buy enough groceries to last our family of three for a week. Or it could make the difference when it comes to being able to pay our rent on time. Or it could mean new school clothes, another present under the Christmas tree for our young son, or simply another tank of gas to keep us limping along. Thirty dollars is a hell of a lot of money when that’s all you’ve got.
It’s a subject that Linda Tirado knows all too well. In her 2014 book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Tirado describes the often perilous existence she and many other Americans face on a daily basis: the soul-numbing, low-wage jobs that can disappear in a heartbeat; the endless string of plain, gritty apartments with bugs, balky appliances, and shady landlords; the brutal truth of how quickly even those basic things can vanish when you lose your only means of transportation.
In one chapter, Tirado details how her pickup truck was impounded after she admittedly—but unknowingly—parked it illegally. “I was 19 and from Cedar City, Utah,” she says now with a laugh. “I didn’t know how cities worked! Where I came from, nobody got towed unless they got in a wreck or were pulled over for a DUI or something.”
She writes that when she called the towing company, she was told she owed a couple hundred dollars for the impound fee. What she wasn’t told was that in the interim until her next payday, when she might be able to pay that fee, she would also be charged a couple hundred dollars a day in storage fees. When she went to retrieve her truck, she was presented with a bill for over $1000—nearly three times her paycheck. The tow company told her that it would hold the truck for a few months to give her some time to come up with the mounting storage fees, but then it could sell it at auction. Should that happen, it would give her any of the proceeds from the sale after deducting its fees, if there was anything left.
In the end, she lost her truck and, along with it, her and her husband’s only realistic means to get to work on time. The couple soon lost their jobs. Not long after that, they lost their apartment.
One of the hardest ironies of all for the working poor is the often unspoken truth that in America, you usually have to already have money to even get an opportunity to make money. And simply moving someplace with better jobs and higher pay isn’t really an option when you’re broke.
Improved public transportation would probably help take some of the pressure off the working poor. It’s difficult to imagine the nightmarish perpetual traffic jam New York City would become without its flawed but vital subway system. But outside of major cities, public transportation is, at best, spotty. And for great swaths of small towns and rural areas, it’s completely nonexistent.
The problem is often one of distance and population. For example, getting our son to and from school adds up to 80 miles, and we do that four days a week. It takes around seven hours to drive from Cortez to Denver—a seven-hour drive from New York City could get you to Cleveland, Ohio.
Effective public transportation is difficult—if not impossible—to create when you’re planning usable daily routes in a sprawling place like Montezuma County, which is roughly one quarter the size of New Jersey. It’s also almost impossible to pay for when the entire population of the area numbers less than that of most Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Tirado says that she’s often been required to take a long and hazardous hike to get to work or to go grocery shopping. She says that people in the West might have a difficult time imagining the population density in the East, but people in the East seem to have no concept of the distances involved out west.
“It blew my mind when I first went to New York,” Tirado says. “I was like, ‘You mean you can just take the train and they run everywhere? What are you people bitching about?’ When I moved to Chicago, people would tell me that the buses there suck. I was like, ‘Why? Because they’re a few minutes late sometimes? Do you know what a miracle it is that you can just step outside of your house, walk a block, and then just stand there and a bus will pick you up?’ “
To keep Oliver running on schedule, I’ve taught myself some basic maintenance and repairs using only YouTube instructional videos and a collection of random tools I’ve accumulated over the years. I know how to decipher an engine-code reader. I can install new brake pads, change the oil, replace spark plugs, change headlight bulbs, and do many other minor tweaks.
Admittedly, those “fixes” sometimes have more than a twinge of desperation to them. I once found a bottle of some sort of oily goop that promised to “flush out catalytic converters” for $25 at a local auto parts store. Oliver had begun sputtering and stalling frequently, especially after fill-ups or when the engine was cold, and I knew after consulting a mechanic that Oliver’s catalytic converter wasn’t long for this world. I asked the clerk if the stuff worked, and he gave a suspiciously enthusiastic “Shoot yeah!”
So, with time running out and looking with despair at a potentially disastrous bill for a new catalytic converter, I invested the $25 and gave the cleaner a try. Oliver hasn’t sputtered or stalled in a while, which is a good sign. But I have no clue if the additive actually did anything to lengthen the life of the catalytic converter or if it instead damaged some other expensive part I’ve yet to discover even exists. I guess that’s just another leap of faith, too.
Last fall, we got a second vehicle to take some of the pressure off Oliver: a new Mazda CX-3—a very generous gift from my father who was worried about our ability to safely haul our son around out here. Adding another vehicle to our insurance was a hard pill to swallow, but the CX-3 has roughly 250,000 fewer miles on it than Oliver. The Mazda doesn’t have a name, though.
It’s hard to get that youthful sentimentality back once you’ve come face to face with real-world realities. When you can’t count on your car, you’re often forced to count on other people. Out here in the West’s vast open spaces, that’s actually somewhat comforting. You aren’t really as alone as it seems when the engine rattles. If you’re clearly in distress on the side of the road (provided that road isn’t too far out of the way), eventually some decent soul will stop to help with water, jumper cables, a can of gas, or a ride back to town. Sometimes you’ll even get a helpful “Ah, now, here’s your problem . . .”
Because when you live in a place where the distances are great and the money is short, you understand that there but for the grace of God—or whatever cosmic force holds dominion over head gaskets—go you.
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