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On cars and change

The last week of (very desultory) car-shopping I’ve experienced both a Starbucks Moment, an epiphany, and a moment of adult anxiety, which is a lot to handle in less than a week.

The Starbucks Moment came when I rode in and even drove a friend’s brand-new MINI. I was expecting a deep envy-producing experience, one that might make me try to buy one. Instead I drove an average car with a very small trunk, unremarkable mileage, and an instrument panel shimmering with wink-nudge retro irony —  lots of round nobby things, lots of faux analog.

I felt the way I feel in Starbucks, which is that I’m trying to buy a cup of coffee while Starbucks is trying to manipulate me into a heavy-handed “lifestyle experience” (one that has become shopworn with time, as even Starbucks acknowledges).

In the course of talking about cars, also unearthed the Malthusian anti-Prius argument, which goes thus. A Prius! Why, you won’t Save Money if you buy a Prius! Have you used the calculators? Have you figured it out?

The part about this argument that makes me really itchy is that if we were buying cars strictly on economic rationales, we’d all buy used Corollas: a great balance of initial cost and long-term fuel efficiency. (I have nothing against Corollas, by the way; we’ve owned several in our family, and they have all comported themselves quite well.) Or, for that matter, we’d wait until the SUV/truck market completely collapsed. I bet I could get a Hummer for a song, and then even if gas were $8 a gallon, I’d probably be ahead.

Can you see me driving to Norcross in my green Hummer? (No, me either; I’d be mortified.)

However, I didn’t think driving a Prius was about “saving money.” I thought it was about reducing consumption of fossil fuels and participating in the commitment to alternative energy (while driving a car I find both physically comfortable and delectably geeky in a very friendly way — I’ve rented them three times, and each time has been bliss).

I’m willing to pay more for fruit and vegetables from local farmers; I don’t buy into our national obsession with the absolute bottom line.  Participating in solutions to our gobbledy-gobble addiction to oil takes some commitment to change, which includes paying more for local lettuce (yes, mass-produced lettuce is part of the oil game; if you haven’t yet, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and for alternative transportation. (I’d really prefer light rail to Atlanta, but this is the South, where public transportation is a grudgingly-provided last-ditch service for the poorest of the poor.)

Surely I’m not alone in thinking that the very phrase “fossil fuel” tells us why we need to retrain our focus on clean, renewable energy. Um, fossils? They take a heck of a long time to turn into oil, you know? That, and the little problem of climate change…

If I could buy an electric car, I would. In my dream last night we were two years out from a solution; memory dims, but I think it was an electric car. The only problem was that this created car-resale issues for people who at the time of the Big Innovation were driving vehicles with fuel-based reciprocating engines. There’s always something.

However, I still can’t really get a Prius for much under $30,000 out the door (including the extra $2k the gummint lifts off so it can continue to spend our money on the wrong things) — even used. This is where my adult anxiety comes in, because I know many average income-earners do spend that much on cars and go deep into hock, while I’ve been carefully (or carfully?) working out cost models where as the lone salary-maker, I put some money down on a gently-used car with excellent mileage and match my “down” with a small personal loan. For me, even a two-year-old car will be a massive (and mildly anxiety-producing) expense.

People will discuss their sex lives before they talk about their financial situations, so I don’t ask my friends what their budgets are like or what it means in their lives to commit to major debt for a vehicle. Sandy and I have always tried to live a little “below our means,” which I think has made us resilient and flexible. (At least, I hope it has.) I remember a moment at one Former Place Of Work where someone mentioned that because of the way the pay period hit I might find it hard to pay my bills that month, and I thought, we may drive used cars and have dining room chairs that don’t even come close to matching, but it’s been a decade since I actively worried we wouldn’t be able to meet that month’s bills.

But then I get those adult-anxiety moments, like we’re doing it wrong or something.

I have two whirlwind weeks (Norcross/Boise/Madison) and then I think a gently-used Honda will land in my lap: a Civic in a nice color with dark upholstery, a moonroof, and an automatic transmission. I feel it in my bones. Either that, or I need to stretch more.

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