Rolling On

Direct Male: Keeping up the upkeep

Direct Male

I rose at 4 a.m., hitched a ride to an airport 45 miles away, and boarded a plane before daybreak. An hour later, I stood alongside hordes of other sleepy travelers in Concourse B and waited for my connecting flight to Baltimore. I stirred sweetener into my overpriced airport coffee and thought, there has to be a simpler way to buy a car.

But nothing is simple. Ever. Not in my world. Even the coffee got complicated – too bitter with a couple of packets of powder, too sweet with three. This, I knew, was just part of the price I’d have to pay to change cars for the first time in fifteen years, so I scorched my tongue and lumbered toward my second plane of the morning. Counting the airport escalator and moving sidewalk, I’d already taken four modes of transportation, none of them mine.

If everything worked according to plan, I would fly two states away, hand over a check for more money than my parents paid for their first house, and buy a car I’d never seen beyond my computer. Then I’d hop in and drive several hours home, simple as that.


I’m not a car guy. I can’t afford the newest, coolest, hottest thing on the road. I’m not driven by fantasies of restoring a 1963 Corvette or snagging a powder-blue Thunderbird from the glory days of American motoring. For me, a car is a conveyance and nothing more, just a way to get from Point A to Point B with as little effort and expense as possible.

I’ve been driving a long time, and I’ve owned cars from lots of brands: Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Ford. One was a pickup. One was a diesel Peugeot that growled like a tractor. One was a rusty BMW that a Marine sold me because he wanted to buy a jet ski. All but two were used.

The cars came and went. After leaving my driveway for the last time, most of them made their next stop at the salvage yard. Finally, I decided I needed something that would last, so in 2007 I tracked down a Toyota 4Runner that became my workhorse. It was already eight years old and came without the high-tech features of the current century: no GPS, no Bluetooth, no back-up camera, no heated seats, just a cassette player and a radio with actual knobs. Two cup holders. If I strayed into another lane, I got notified not by an intuitive computer but by the horn of the other driver. That Toyota embodied what I hoped someday to become: tough, low-maintenance, and reliable.


Sixteen years and 283,000 miles later, I stood at the counter of a repair shop and faced the “service writer,” whose job was to sell me repairs. He looked as cheerful as an undertaker.

“You’ve got a rear-end problem,” he said.

“The last person who told me that was a gastroenterologist,” I said.

A sense of humor wasn’t making him any money. He just added up the numbers. Fixing my SUV would cost me more than twice what the vehicle was worth. The parts would arrive on some distant date, and at an unknown point after that, I’d be back on the road for another hundred thousand miles. Or thousand. Or hundred. With a car the age of mine, no one could say for sure.


Things wear out. They’re new, then nearly new, and soon they’re old and uncertain. Before we know it, we’re standing at the counter to hear about our rear-end problems, and no matter how much we hope, no matter how much we pay, we get no guarantees, warranties, or indemnities.

Do we give up and hobble off to the recliner? Or do we give in and slip on the armor of aging: compression socks, back braces, knee stabilizers, orthotic shoes, blood-pressure monitors, cataract sunglasses?

No. When faced with the unknown number of our days, we go to Baltimore.


“I’m a car guy,” he said.

This was Ben, the young salesman who was closing the deal on my next car, which would run on a combination of batteries, gas, and computer chips, a dazzling product of automotive science that didn’t exist when I last bought a vehicle. I had to fly to Baltimore to get this thing because none were available anywhere in North Carolina. I wasted weeks looking.

Ben picked me up at the airport – the mark of a good (and motivated) salesperson. As we drove to his dealership, he cataloged the cars he owned: two BMWs on a rental program, another that was getting customized that very day, and the Hyundai we were riding in at the moment. Along the way, he noticed a traffic jam ahead, punched the brakes, and did a back-up maneuver on the shoulder of the interstate without catching the attention of the Maryland state patrol. Indeed, Ben was a car guy.

At the dealership, he handed me off to the internet sales manager, then the paperwork guy, and finally the money man. Then it was back to Ben, who shook my hand and sent me on my way, just three hours after my plane landed in Baltimore.

Two miles down the freeway, traffic slithered to a dead stop, as if to say, “Welcome to the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area, where no one goes anywhere, fast.”

By 11 p.m. I was back home, 19 hours after my day began. I arrived exhausted and poor, with a sore rear-end, but determined to recharge and roll on, for as long as the ride would take me.

 Tim Bass is coordinator of UNCW’s bachelor of fine arts program in creative writing. Mark Weber is a Wilmington-based artist and illustrates WILMA’s monthly Direct Male essay.

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