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My Volvo, my friend, lurching on the way out

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

Iowned a black Ford Escort until it spun out of control across two lanes of I-275 and into the median near Busch Boulevard and somehow hurt nobody. Before that, I owned a Renault Alliance, which mercifully is a brand forgotten.

Before the Alliance, when I was fresh out of college, I drove what everyone fresh out of college drove, a secondhand Beetle. I lived where the snow fell regularly in record amounts. The Beetle had no heat.

When I decided to take myself seriously, I turned my back on the dangerous and embarrassing cars of my past. For several years now, a four-door Volvo has sat in my driveway. It is a 1990 car, the no-frills base model, and paid for.

It came to me a secondhand rose. Somebody had keyed a side door.

I added my share of damage. I have this habit of cutting curbs too close and repeatedly scraping the rims.

The detail man tells me the upholstery is beyond cleaning. The heel of my shoe has worn a hole in the floor carpet beneath the gas pedal.

And my Volvo has acquired that stuffy old car smell.

But it is also the car my baby mostly rode in. You know -- at least before Ford bought them, Volvos were the car you weren't afraid to strap kids into.

But everything dented and wonderful ends.

We went through the 100,000-mile checkup in November, and the bill was more than pocket change. Christmas rolled around. After one party, two of the burlier guests with a background in heavy equipment had to rock the car and pop the transmission so I could get the car into forward gear and lurch home.

The starter went. At least my husband, who knows about as much of cars as I do, thought it was the starter. It turned out to be a different part. There was also the $500 in work recommended to repair an oil leak coming deep from somewhere within the engine that we put off.

Even the radio began to crackle.

I have written many stories over the years about the ambitious, the grief-stricken.

I have never written about the slow death of a car.

I resist what comes next: trips to car lots where men in white shirts and who all smoke take us for test drives on the interstate and point impressively to the speakers. If we buy, we'll sign enough papers for a house closing and then go home dumbfounded at what we have done.

It's hard. It's hard to give up a car with a reputation for being so ugly that thieves don't want it.

I could get a car like my husband's sport utility vehicle with an interior nicer than my living room. The living room has old upholstery. His car has fresh leather seats. His car has a compact disc player and a cup holder right at hand. In the living room, you have to walk across the room for these things. He doesn't even like me to drive his SUV.

So I could surrender the Volvo just on the basis of trying to keep up with him.

But part of me wants to hang on to the Volvo, even if it's a money drain.

I am divided. I'm chasing what all old, well-loved cars have. You know the smoothness of the steering wheel. You know where you spilled the coffee. You don't care about the old car smell. You believe you have a certain cachet -- old-fashioned shabby chic -- when you roll the window down.

And dear God, your car doesn't look like all the other cars in the parking lots, even different cars from different makers. So you want to hang on, until the very end. Boy, can you hang on.

A cousin of mine had to be pressured to relinquish her Volvo wagon after a 15-year relationship. "But it gets me where I want to go," she said. "And it sings to me." That is, the radio worked.

I understand her and not for the blood connection. I am silly about my car and have been dumb enough to take that cachet stuff seriously when I needed it. I'm not going to find this in a Mitsubishi.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.

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