The car I drove to my first day of teaching may have cooked your breakfast this morning. I bought a beat up baby blue Subaru in 1992 for 400 dollars cash. It was the best investment I’ve ever made. I drove that car from Maine to Canada to Mexico and back, adding 40,000 miles to the 190,000 she had when I got her. Salt water and years of neglect had eroded big enough holes in the car’s floorboard that as I drove back home, the world below passed by in full view, like I was the captain of a glass bottom boat.
Back from our international travel, the Subaru and I ended up in Houston where I taught immigrants in a rough inner-city school. Whenever I gave a student a ride home from school, I would warn them not to let their feet fall through holes. And although my students hardly spoke English, they would nod, smile and feet aloft, say, “Fleeenstone car, Meeester. He, he, he!”
One day, heading home at the end of school, as I unlocked the car door, a little sparrow that must have flown in through the floorboard, darted past me, furiously flapping its wings, and zigzagging into the Texas sky. Unfortunately for me, one of my students saw the liberation, and soon the whole school knew about my aviary on wheels, my very own Batmobile, my “Zoobaru.”
“No pets at school, Meester.” Was my greeting, walking into school the next morning. But that wasn’t the end. The sparrow soon evolved into a chicken. "Do you like to eat chicken at work, Meester?” I think you leave it in your car! He, he, he!" Throughout the day, the bird grew, from a chicken to a buzzard, then finally into an ostrich. For months, they’d ask for me to tell the story in class. “Tell us about your flying car, Meeester!” I was happy to oblige. Any way to get them to learn English.
These were desperately poor immigrant kids, living twelve to an apartment, working full time jobs after school and late into the night, riding public transport, barely able to afford shoes, wearing the same old clothes day after day after day. Their laughter helped them make it through hard times. They would look at my car and say, “This like carro in mi coontree, Meeester.” or, intentionally mispronouncing the name, say, "¿You car is call Pooparu no?" or "We have thing like your car in my coontree. We call it Donkey! He, he, he!" I’ve laughed with Haitians, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans, and Pakistanis who, otherwise, I could barely communicate with. Laughter translates, it’s universal, it erases just a bit of the space between us.
Before long my car had over 200,000 miles on it, and the holes in the floor were growing like the sparrow. Even with all my intricate duct tape work, I still had to carry a change of clothes in the car for whenever it rained. It felt like it was time for a Newbaru, so I called my bank to get my car’s Blue Book value. The banker asked me for the car’s specs. When I told him, he giggled, then asked me to guess my car’s value. I didn't have any idea, so I low-balled the number, hoping he would tell me to guess higher. “Fifty dollars?"
The banker did something I didn’t know was possible. He laughed, "Try half that!"
My beautiful car was officially worth $25. I had shirts that cost more than that. Books, worth more. Just that weekend, I had eaten a dinner more expensive than my car.
But my students’ language acquisition was improving and they were learning the rules of English grammar. By now, whenever they asked for the Fleenstone car story, they would put their hands in the air, making air quotes when they said, "car". One of my bolder students, a Mexican kid, raised his hand and asked, "Meester. You see the abandoned car somebody leave in you parking space?” He feigned embarrassment. “Oh. I sorry, is that you car, Meester? He, he, he!"
“At least you can’t get a speeding ticket!” An otherwise mute Pakistani said to howls of laughter.
That afternoon, I was driving the Zoobaru home, when I stopped, as I occasionally do, at a red light. I heard a jarring screech of tires, an earsplitting smashing of glass, and suddenly my car lurched forward. A van had rear-ended me. I sat dazed as the driver climbed out of his van and walked over to my car. He looked down through the front window, and when he saw asphalt, where the car’s floorboard should have been, he bit his lip and let out a small yelp. Without asking if I was injured, the van driver blurted out, “My insurance is really high!”
“You don’t mean it?" I said, hands clutching the steering wheel.
“Yep, I’ve had two wrecks this year.” It was January.
He did some mental calculations, scanned the street for witnesses, and said, “I tell you what. Let’s not get insurance involved. I’ll give you three hundred dollars for your car.”
As an ethical person I was in a quandary. One the one hand, my car looked almost exactly the same as before the crash; on the other hand, this car was a thing of legend: utterly unique. I hesitated. It had been a long day at work. I cast my eyes down to the floorboard, giving my best look of surprise and horror.
“Okay. Okay.” He said pulling out five one hundred dollar bills and a liability waiver he just happened to carry around with him.
“Sign here.” He blurted. I quickly signed the form.
“Congratulations on your new purchase.” I said, handing him the keys. He shook the keys off. “No. No. No. This never happened.” He said, sneering, before he rushed back to his van and speed off like a sparrow. I sat for a minute, rubbing the bills in my hand and feeling lucky to be alive. As I started up the old Subaru and drove away, a part of my broken taillight passed inches below my feet.
Once I finally wobbled my way back home I called a mechanic. When the mechanic arrived, he gave my old car a once over.
"It's a total loss," he said, "This car's pretty much a junker."
"Well it was pretty much a junker before the wreck," I said, "And that didn't stop me from getting $500 for it!"
He laughed. “Well I’d say you’ve had a pretty good day, then, young’un’.”
“Mister, “I asked, “How much would you give me for the parts and scrap metal?”
“Sir," He said, "My lawnmower’s got more metal on it than that Subaru.”
“I tell you what. How bout’ I haul it off, and we just call it even.”
Before he towed my baby to the graveyard I grabbed my foul weather gear from the Zoobaru, and sat at the wheel one last time, taking a moment to remember all the good times we’d had. As I sat there, reliving memories of Canadian forests, Mexican deserts, and my bird’s eye view of the Houston roadways, I imagined one last victory lap around the neighborhood, where hopefully someone else would hit and buy my car yet again. As I said my goodbyes to the Zoobaru, I thought about all the laughter it had created, all the boundaries it had helped me cross, all the divisions it had erased, and all the people it had connected. Some of my happiest teaching memories have been wrapped in laughter. Sitting there, gazing down between my shoes at the parking lot below, I spoke sweetly to the car about our life together, our travels her future as a toaster oven. I laughed out loud, and before I knew it she was gone.