There’s always an allure with free stuff. You’re more inclined to take something given to you than spend money on it. This is especially the case with stuff you don’t really need. I’m of the belief that once your basic needs are met, like food and shelter, you can branch out a bit, and don’t necessarily have to invest every nickel and dime into new stuff. You spend your time on shared experience, as opposed to just spending your money on random crap. I’ve come to rely upon benevolence as a means to keep me alive. Likewise, I am rather liberal with my stuff and try to give as much as I get.
And I know a lot people say that nothing comes for free. That there are always costs, and, most of the time, they outweigh the returns. These people are probably right, but I think it’s all a matter of perspective. A little optimism goes a long way.
This is a little story about me trying my damnest to keep the costs of a free car on par with the returns.
A little over a year ago, my grandparents asked if I would like to have their 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity. I had, during my college career, grown accustomed to a carless (read: careless) lifestyle, relying on bicycle, legs, and friends to help me reach Point B. I had even become idealistic over that span, and would frequently decry -- from the backseat -- the use of vehicular travel. However, when presented with a free car, I tossed all that idealism out the window. I’m assuming it landed at the feet of a Native American, who shed a stoic tear. But, then again, that’s an assumption, as I was moving at 70 mph at the time. I tend to only look back at pedestrians after having soaked them with puddle water.
During winter break of my senior year of college, I made the trip to my grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh to claim this free ride. It wasn’t the prettiest site—the rust infection was in its infancy, but still rather apparent; two horizontal gashes ran along both sides of the car, as if the previous owner had wedged it between two concrete pylons or, more realistically, two Hummers in the mall parking lot; and the bumpers sat rather askew, probably as a result of another unfortunate run-in with a pilaster or an H2. But still, it was a car. It was free. And, according to the vanity plate, it was a lady -- the Shelia-5. I couldn’t help but wonder at the whereabouts of Shelias 1 through 4.
My Pap expressed a heaping amount of sadness at having to part with his gem. He had bought it used for a song in the early ‘90s, and had kept up on it religiously. He apparently loved the thing, and, as we made our way to the title bureau, tried his best to guilt trip me into reconsidering. I almost did, save for the fact that I needed a ride back to Ohio, and taking this car was my only option.
At the title bureau, Pap asked me if I had the money to afford the insurance, as I sure as hell didn’t have the money to buy a car of my own. The title clerk looked up curiously, judging from my unkempt college appearance that I was destined for a life of poverty. I told them not to worry -- I would use student loans. The clerk looked at me sympathetically.
“I live off of the benevolence of others,” I said.
“Oh, honey, that’s wonderful.”
It was wonderful. I had fallen back into driving, though it took some time to grow accustomed to the mechanic issues. Take, for instance, the BATTERY light that flashed periodically when I applied the brakes. This began to surface about 6 weeks into my car ownership, and I -- quite mistakenly -- assumed that it was far too early for a problem. One night while taking me to the Circle K for scratch-off lottery tickets, Shelia became gripped by a violent seizure and died across three lanes of traffic. I panicked as a series of headlights bore down at me. I got out and pushed her back into the lot, corralling her into a parking spot. She would nest there for another week or so. Staying parked for extended periods of time became her favorite hobby from that point forward.
As opposed to dealing with the problem then and there, such as having it towed to a garage, I opted to have Shelia displaced to the carport of my apartment. Warm weather had moved into town, and I began walking places again. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of my car telling me what to do.
“If you want to play hard to get,” I said to her, “you can just stay there all summer.”
And she did, accruing an attractive layer dust to compliment the rust. Shelia’s ailment was rather tricky to diagnose. Originally, we thought she only needed a new alternator and a new battery. Simple, right? Wrong. At one point, I watched as the positive battery terminal glowed like a hot coal as a friend and I attempted to jump her back to life. Have it your way Shelia.
I left well enough alone.
But eventually, the lease on our apartment expired, and with it went my car’s free reign over the carport. I moved to Cleveland and left Shelia behind. I did not take action until my former landlord, Rillis Moneypenny, called to complain about the squatter taking up residence in the new tenant’s parking spot.
“Ryan, Rillis Moneypenny, I drove past the old apartment today. I see your car is still there. Looks like it hasn’t moved in some time. What’s it doing? If it’s not out of there by the end of the week, I’m going to have it removed.”
Moneypenny’s threat could have been a means to get rid of my car for good -- but I hesitated. For some reason, I was enamored with the idea of car ownership. Shelia had not moved for five months, and had regressed into a rusted-out jitney. But she had rusted out a special place in my heart. I had her towed to a Kent-based mechanic.
Even the repair process became a debacle, and Shelia sat in the garage for weeks. She was acting rather coy, and would not divulge her various ailments. Following several radically invasive surgeries, she was released and greeted me, upon her return, with an abrasively loud engine rumble. Apparently, her period of stasis had withered away the muffler and exhaust pipes and caused Shelia to sound, upon acceleration, like The Incredible Hulk.
As the mechanic backed her out of the garage, I had to comment, “Geez, I don’t remember her sounding this loud.”
The mechanic wiped his neck with an oily rag. “Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff wrong with this car. But let’s take it one step at a time. That’ll be 500 dollars.”
The free gift was becoming less and less economical. But, as I had just graduated from college, I assumed that I needed a car to get from interview to interview. Realistically, to be an adult, I needed a job. To find a job, I needed a car, right? Wrong. I needed a marketable major to find a job. As the only career opportunity that presented itself was a serving job around the corner from my new apartment, I left Shelia to once again relax curbside.
I felt a little guilty, passing her on the sidewalk each day on my way to work.
“I’m sorry, Shelia, I never meant for it to work out this way.”
Then, one day, she was gone.
There were no shards of glass littering the curb around her former home, no crowbar left in haste by the frantic thieves. Police Officer Shwartz of the CHPD arrived on the scene. She told me that the car had not been towed the night before. This left only one other option -- theft.
I was saddened at the loss, but my time with Shelia had been one of abuse and neglect. I couldn’t help but think that her new owners were appreciating her more than I had. I envisioned a utopian world, in which a homeless person had stolen my car, not only as a means to make it to job interviews on time (provided the car didn’t break down, which it had a habit of doing), but also to keep a roof over his or her head. The front bench seat was quite comfortable to sprawl out on. He or she could become more cultured and articulate by listening to my NPR presets on the stereo and slowly reenter society.
P.O. Shwartz said that stolen cars are usually taken on joy rides and turn up abandoned once they run out of gas.
I said that Shelia didn’t have much gas in her, but was confident the new owners would stop to fill her up on the way to getting the oil changed and wheels aligned.
Schwartz asked if there were any distinguishing marks on my car or something that would set it apart from other cars on the road.
“Um, it needs a new muffler, so it’s pretty loud. Like abrasively loud. If you just want to tell your peeps to keep an ear out for it, that’d be great too.”
“I’ll put that in the report, Mr. DiBiase.”
“Oh, you might want to call your insurance company, too. Let them know about this theft.”
“Insurance, riiiiiiiiight. . .”
At three in the morning a few days later, I received a call from P.O. Shwartz. She informed me that they had found my car at a place called the Boneyard in Mayfield Heights. Assuming she meant the car had been found in an actual boneyard, I breathed a sigh of relief: Shelia really did take care of herself. Then came the realization that The Boneyard is actually an entertainment venue, much in the same vein as Dave & Busters. These guys really were on a joy ride. Huh.
Shwartz recited a laundry list of damage to the car. Somewhere near the bottom, she hit the new stuff.
"They punched the passenger door lock and stripped your steering column."
"Huh," I yawned, "sounds like a lot of work."
"Not really. Late model American cars are very easy to steal."
"Well go figure."
The intrepid police officer gave me directions to the Mayfield Heights PD and the impound lot where Shelia had been secured. I needed to procure the vehicle's title in order to receive a release form for the impound.
Upon arriving in Mayfield Heights, I told the officer behind the desk that said title lay in the glove box of said stolen car.
She, in turn, informed me that, "Keeping the title in the car is basically like writing a blank check for it."
I replied, "Maybe, subconsciously, that was the point."
She phoned the impound lot to see if the title could be located in the vehicle. It was, and following a gracious fax of the document in question, Shelia could be released back into society.
I asked the officer what would have happened had I neither reported the car stolen nor came back to claim it. She said that the vehicle would be filed as abandoned and after a few months, I would have been sent an invoice for towing/storage fees as well as criminal charges for having abandoned my vehicle. It seems the system is built to prevent easy disposal of your car. All this time, I had no idea.
The next afternoon, I reached the impound lot and after some failed negotiations, I provided $100 (for towing and storage fees) to have my car released. It felt like I was bailing Shelia out of jail. She hadn't been driven in six weeks, and during that span, she had behaved magnificently. Maybe I had trusted her a bit too much, for as soon as I turned my back, she was off gallivanting with a bunch of dirty crooks and owing money all over town. Who is left to pick up the pieces? Me.
Someone from the impound lot showed me how to start the car, as the column had been stripped and the key no longer worked.
"Just finger the little latch on the left hand side," the guy said, "and she starts right up."
"Well, I guess that’s one less step. To think, the last thing I had replaced was the starter.” I paused. “Do you know of any junk yards between here and Cleveland Heights?"
I surveyed the flotsam left behind by the assailants: crushed cans of Colt-45, Icehouse bottlecaps, cigarette butts, empty boxes of Black & Milds. Nowhere amongst the vagrancy did I see a job application. My theory was voided. They had even changed my NPR presets to urban commercial stations. Hooligans!
Once again, Shelia came to rest at the side of street in Cleveland Heights. I put a CLUB on the steering wheel. Ironically, it had been under the front seat the entire time. And so Shelia sat again. For weeks, I was torn over what action to take. I could have attempted to fix the damage, but investing money in something you got for free kind of defeats the purpose. I scanned Craigslist for a homeless shelter in desperate need of a jalopy. No such luck.
In the end, I ended up taking her to a junkyard in Parma. As compensation, I was awarded $150. This sum came about after a round of intense bargaining.
“How much will you give me for it?” I asked.
“Uh, $125,” came the gravel-truck response.
“How about $150?”
“Um. . .okay.”
I felt bad receiving money for Shelia, as she was a free gift to me, and I, likewise would have liked to bestow her upon someone else. But given her current state, she would serve society much better from the confines of a Parma junkyard. Divvied up for parts, she could spread her benevolence all over Northeast Ohio. Maybe, even, the world. When a homeless man needs a new alternator for his stolen car, I want him to know that he can break into that Parma junkyard and steal one from my car. It’s okay, Len. You can do it.
Although I was a bit saddened to see the gate shut behind Shelia as she was driven into the yard, a great weight had lifted from my shoulders. Over the last year, she had proved to be more of an albatross than a peregrine falcon. It became too much work to maintain the gift. One problem after another. Now, that problem was gone. I glanced up at the sky, as the overcast parted for just a moment, allowing a ray of sunshine to descend upon the bustling Parma junkyard. I sucked in a lungful of healthy Cleveland air.
I turned to find a bus stop.
I was free.