By Garrett Strpko
For those of you who may not know, a little over two weeks ago as I was coming back to Grand Rapids after celebrating the Fourth of July with family and friends in Lansing, my beloved 1997 Lincoln Continental was destroyed in an automobile accident. By the time I reached GR I had just finished listening to Tancred’s Nightstand (about which I am hoping to have a long-overdue blog post finished by next week) and was following it with her earlier album Out of the Garden- a common dual-album soundtrack to my rides home from Lansing this summer, which takes a little over an hour and this musical set-up tends to fill. (If I should find both albums complete before I’ve reached home, I have a few Jimi Hendrix favorites on back-up afterwards).
As the seventh track, “Swimming,” began, I was sitting at the intersection of Beltline and Cascade wondering whether I should go home, don my work uniform, and then travel to the home of one of my former bosses whose plants I was watering while he and his family were away, or just go water the plants first and then get ready for work. As the light turned green, I was resolving to do the latter, picturing myself scrambling to get to Donkey on time from Alger Heights, whereas watering the plants first would save me some time from driving back and forth from the eastern-most end of town to Eastown proper. I believe I was shamelessly singing along with Tancred (“We’ve got my mother’s car if we feel like driving faster”) as I began making my way through the intersection.
Suddenly and without warning, I was facing north on Beltline, with both my airbags deployed. I can still recall that awful smell as my beloved Lincoln puttered out its final breaths from those airbags, so musty and toxic. I knew right then and there that she was done for. No more unairconditioned trips back and forth between Lansing and GR with the windows down and the music loud. No more stapling the roof upholstery that refused to stay put. No more angling the turn signal switch just right so that the hi-beams would stay on. No more scraping that mysterious crust and goop off the steering wheel with a razor.
The sweaty seventeen-year-old child that so blatantly and aimlessly ran that red light on the Beltline probably still has no clue what it was he destroyed. That boy might have seen a car; I saw the memory of my late grandfather, who could never miss out on a perceived deal, and led us to his church friend Tony, a former criminal looking to sell an older Lincoln Continental, which we were in the market to buy for myself as a first car. I remember driving that car back up to Ithaca some months later in February to spend the day with him, when we fired his bolt-action .22 rifle at targets set up on a burn-barrel he had in his backyard facing a cornfield, as we had many times before, though this time for the last. I remember leaving, driving past the graveyard across the street where I knew he would eventually be laid to rest, and there he was a little over a year later.
That boy might have seen a car; I saw the first time I drove by myself from Jacob and Alex’s house the summer I got my license, gaining a sudden boost of confidence when I realized I was really doing it. I saw the many drives I had to and from there that summer when we watched so many movies and had so many bonfires.
That boy might have seen a car; I saw a part of my story and so many others’ stories, a part that was supposed to continue to drive that story for years to come, taking it to all kinds of new places. I saw that part of my story smashed to bits like the material byproduct of capitalistic gain that it truly was.
And in this way there’s a sense in which that boy wasn’t wrong about what he saw. We shouldn’t be placing undue value on those kinds of material objects as compared to, let’s say, the living bodies of other human beings. But no matter what economic system drives their coming into our life, there are those objects that very much define who we are in our history, our day-to-day, and our hopes and dreams, whether it be an automobile, a vinyl record, a guitar, a hairbrush- objects like the rusty .22 casings that sit in my room back in Lansing which I scraped off the ground and put in my pocket on that mercifully warm late-February afternoon. I had plans for that car. I was going to drive that thing out to Los Angeles one day, dammit. But now that story has changed, as they always do, and as they often should.
And so I have a new car now. It’s the same kind, a few years newer, and it’s all black. It’s similar enough where jumping into it and driving off was a cakewalk. I didn’t even have to look at the shifter to know I was putting her in drive. As an added bonus, most everything works- I can now drive down the highway in the summer without the wind blowing in my face. But it still feels temporary. I find myself in that awkward stage of grief where the damage doesn’t seem complete, where the loss seems like it will only last a little while, as if one of these days soon my real car will show back up in my driveway and I’ll crank the windows down and put on Out of the Garden like the badass I always felt I was when I drove that thing. Yet life will go on without it, and I’m sure I’ll own many-a-car, and perhaps someday I’ll have gone through so many that they won’t have that same quality of attachment, and something else will take up that space.
Right now this transition feels so ill-placed yet so poignant among many others, as I make new friends, work a new job, and live in a new house in a new community. So here’s to chaos, to being at the wrong place at the right time, and those objects we hopelessly cling to in building our identities. May it all speak to our humanity, our imago dei, and the absurdity of plans, especially those thought up at a red light.