Friday, April 11, 2008

Empty nest

Like many, I'm the parent of a college student, and my home is now an empty nest.
I had dinner the other night with two other parents of college students, and we realized that we shared a phenomenon that may be peculiar to American parents, or at least, Los Angeles parents.

We are driving our childrens' cars.

Los Angeles families buy their children cars at 16. Typically, affordable safety is a priority when buying cars for our young people, so '90s vintage luxury cars, or Volvos are hot commodities. In the case of my family it's a 1999 Volkswagen Passat station wagon with a dinged front fender. My Son dinged the other front fender two weeks after getting his license. Another ding ocurred while contesting another Pali High student for the left turn lane on PCH - both families wanted to keep our insurance premiums low, so both kids' cars stay dinged.

Now our children are gone, we've become a 3-car family with only 2 drivers. And - paradoxically - because we shopped so carefully for good safe cars for the kids, it turns out those cars are in better shape and with less mileage than the cars we got our very own selves five years ago. With college tuition as high as it is, we're not budgeting for new cars soon. As the Parent Car odometer turns over 120,000 miles, or the tires go bald, or the check engine light stays on - and our children now live in rural Vermont dormatories or Greenwich Village apartments - the best car in the family fleet tends to be the kid's car.

We are driving our childrens' cars.

So I'm driving a dinged up '99 Volkswagen Passat. There's something funny with the electrical system, which means that the battery will drain if it isn't driven regularly - a fact I use to justify driving it every day. In the cargohold are an assortment of croquet mallets acquired by My Son while in high school, and a plastic gun that blows bubbles. Also a set of jumper cables with melted terminals from the time his friend swore he knew the right way to jump a dead battery. There's a bumper sticker on the back that promotes the movie "Snakes on a Plane". Shortly after I started driving it, I shattered the driver's side rear taillight, when I backed into a bollard while momentarily distracted.

At dinner, my friend shared with me the fact that she now drives her son's Volvo, without, however, the surfboard he used to carry on the roof rack. My other friend said even though she's still driving her own car, she can't find the time or the money to fix her broken taillight, with the pressures of paying her daughter's tuition to Vassar.
We no longer have time for the sleek limousines, the sporty roadsters, the powerful German engineering marvels that hug the curves of our Southern California Roads. Gone are the powerful SUVs that carried soccer teams and ballet classmates. Even our spouses are driving 2000 or 2001 model cars.

One is embarrassed when carrying out normal adult activities, like stopping at a restaurant with a valet. I've been known to circle the block for 20 minutes looking for street parking, just to avoid looking a valet in the eye when handing him the keys. My friend with the Volvo said the last time she parked with a valet, she pre-empted his sidelong glance with a self-righteous "We're in a drought right now, don't you know that?" to justify the dusty chartreuse oak-pollen that coated her car.

Recently, my spouse and I had to drive a local dignitary as our guest to an arts event. It was a serious dilemma - should we use his car, the two-seater convertible one of us bought during a midlife crisis at age 40? Or the Passat with its dents and filth?

Answer - we rented a Mercedes Class C for the day, and took our guest to the party. All went well, and I think she bought our deception.

Unfortunately, when we came home, our disorganized life soon had its revenge. The next morning, in the shuffle to get to work, we backed the Mercedes down our hilly dirt and gravel driveway. The Passat and the convertible, deficient as they may be, are front-wheel drive cars. We forgot that the C-Class Mercedes is a rear-wheel drive car.

It got stuck in the mud. How quickly our fine airs were brought down to earth.

Thank goodness for Triple A.


JCK said...

G, Loved this post. Really connects on many levels. Especially when I drive a pollen coated car (minivan!) much of the time. Although my children are far off from college, I can picture it.

mikeinportc said...

g , here's a story for ya, that might make you not fear the valet's scorn . A friend ( the ex's ex aka the stepson's father etc,etc - but that's a whole 'nother story.) also named Mike , is a painter/remodeler/artist .Mike is partial going Jimmy Buffet-style. That is, working when he has to, and having a good time otherwise. His painter's car is an old paint-chipped beater early 80's station wagon .

Mike has the occasional work on Fire Island, mostly a collection of luxury second homes. When he arrived at the ferry dock, a couple trips ago, he figured that he might make it onto the second trip , at best , possibly the third . There was a large contingent of limos, and house-priced luxury cars ahead of him, on their way to a wedding .

It' not first-come, first-served, however . It's entirely up to the ferry crew , who & how it's loaded. So.... for the sake of contrast/humor , Mike was put in with the first batch of wedding guests . He was pissed , especially after the smirks of the guy loading . On the trip over, he was leaning on the railing , stewing on it , when another guy came over and did likewise , on another topic. Mike looked up . It was Steven Spielberg. Conversation followed......He might even get some work out of it. ;)

btw, g this is Mike(fill-in-the-blank) from S,N!