I didn’t want to sell the MG. It was my first car. I’d driven it through high school, college, my first years in Los Angeles as a struggling musician. I’d dragged it from apartment building to apartment building covered in dust, driving it so infrequently that I sometimes had to replace cracked tires that had only been used a few times. I spent hundreds in repairs — first in an effort to restore, then in an effort to maintain — leaving me with a puddle of credit card debt that stretched from my college years into my early 30s.
Every time my parents begged me to sell the car, I’d walk outside and sit inside of it. Despite all the places I’d lived over the last 17 years, it was the constant. It felt like home. The dash looked like a cockpit. The smell of dust and grease reminded me of all that was good in the world, the hope I had in high school, the belief that everything would work out. The car grounded me in this feeling, in a time long gone that I hoped to recapture. I didn’t want to let my 16-year-old self down: someday I would be that successful person I imagined and restore the car. The nostalgia seemed worth all of the inconvenience. I couldn’t face letting it go. It would break my heart.
So when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I decided to move home to help care for her, I stored the MG in a generous friend’s garage, expecting to be back in three short months. But after she died, I was in no shape to return to L.A. A year later, when I finally did, my new apartment building had only one parking spot and street parking was competitive if not impossible. I dawdled and procrastinated dealing with the car until my generous friend finally tired of storing it.
I drove over that week and called a tow truck. As I stood in front of the MG, I felt all the years we had between us and how after all I had put into it, I was back at square one: The car, caked in dust, wouldn’t start. The tow truck driver and I couldn’t roll it out of the garage. “The parking brake is frozen,” he speculated. I pulled the lever up and down.
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “I think it’s the flat tires.” I felt guilty, embarrassed, angry. The car seemed to show no gratitude for my loyalty and I felt guilty, like an owner with a pet I forgot to feed. But the guilt was also about something else: I had learned to live without it.
Without the cool car that garnered me attention. Without the appearance of new leaks under the chassis. Without the stress of watching the temperature gauge rise to “H” while I was stuck in gridlock traffic. My identity was no longer tied to this vehicle. It was tied to something else: the death of my mother.
Once I got the car home I called my old MG mechanic in hopes he could resurrect it enough for me to sell it. The number was disconnected. He had gone out of business. I had to find a new mechanic. My father grumbled at the idea. “Just sell it! Take $500 and walk away.”
“Are you kidding me? Get nothing for it? I’ve put so much money into it over the years.”
“That thing is a money pit. It’s going to keep nickel and diming you to death. You get that thing fixed, you’ll never recoup what you put into it.”
But I couldn’t let it go. Not in this state. It’d be destined for the junk pile for sure, to be a parts car sitting rusty in some garage. I couldn’t bear the thought.
I found a mechanic in the Valley, who at $110 per hour was the cheapest I could find — the cost of labor now double what it had been when I had moved to L.A. I had it towed to his shop where I learned the brake cylinders had leaked, freezing them onto the wheels, and that the entire fuel system needed to be refurbished including the carburetors which were fouled by old gasoline sitting dormant inside them for years.
My father agreed to pay for the carbs to be rebuilt by a guy he trusted at home and so I shipped them off. The rebuild was $600. I took the new car to the new mechanic hoping the cost of fixing the rest of it wouldn’t be more than $1,000. It was $2,600. The day I picked up the car and realized I not only was being swindled for double the estimate I agreed to, I drove the MG to a gas station and cried. My credit card debt, which I’d managed to pay down while living at home on unemployment, was back to it’s previous levels. The car had fucked me again.
I got the car waxed and detailed for $130 and it cleaned up better than I expected. I quickly set out to sell it before this feeling of disgust dissipated. I placed an ad on the MG Experience and on Craigslist but I quickly learned I had two options: selling it to some naive idiot who had no idea how to maintain the car or cutting my price tag steeply down from the $4,900 I had named to recoup my costs.
I took various owners on test drives. Some I rejected upon first look at them — a couple so overweight that they could barely fit in the driver’s seat. A 22-year-old who had totaled his last car. A guy in Ohio who told me a woman shouldn’t own a car “like that” despite the novel-length description of all the work I’d had done to it, including repairs I did myself. A neighbor’s friend who was always drunk when I saw him. “How much you want for it? Would you wait to sell it while I save up? It’s sooooo cool,” he droned.
They don’t deserve to own my beautiful car.
None of them seemed right and the ones who did, didn’t work out — the middle-aged car aficionado who wanted an MG for his teenage son took it on a test drive and rejected it without explanation. The woman online in Canada who couldn’t justify the shipping expense backed out. The high school teacher who needed a daily driver in Fresno where the car would overheat on him every day.
A Brit from New York came and saw the car. He would have been perfect aside from wanting to put a Miata engine under the hood. But he dropped out because he had his heart set on an earlier model. I was just about to sell the car to a 30-year-old computer programmer but then another buyer swooped in from Long Beach.
He knew MGs. In fact, he owned the exact same model in the same color as mine. In fact, he had restored that exact model and showed me pictures.
It was my car — as I had always dreamed it would be. Fully restored and in mint condition. My heart began to race. This was the guy. This was the buyer. He described to me how he would cover the car with three layers of tarp and canvas to shield it from the sun. He praised how it had the original seatbelts and windshield. He loved the car the way it was. He loved the car because I hadn’t had the money to replace things.
He stopped by again and we agreed on a price — $3,500. My heart raced a little more. Was I actually doing this? Giving away my dream, my connection to high school, to happier days? I thought of my mother and how she had begged me to sell the car, to let go, to stop dragging it around. I thought of my future and how I hadn’t made the money I thought I would and how if I wanted to keep living as an artist, I might never. I thought of the fact that I was 36 and had never had a life savings because of this car. It was time to let go. And the grief process began.
The night before he came to buy the car I had a mini-meltdown. I sobbed at my failure to fulfill my dream, to afford the luxury of keeping something simply because it gave me pleasure. I cried at the injustice of losing my mother and then having to give up something else I loved for financial reasons. But most of all I cried because it was the end of an era.
The new owner was supposed to pick up the car from me at work during my lunch break but I changed it to before work because I wasn’t sure I could emotionally hold it together after saying goodbye to it. He completely understood and told me this was no goodbye. That I would have visitation rights. That someday if he decided to sell the car he would offer to sell it back to me first. I really had picked the perfect buyer.
The morning arrived. I went out to the car and warmed it up for him. I revved the engine for the last time. Then I removed the University of Oregon license plate frame from the front of the car with a screwdriver and took my maroon college graduation tassel from the glove compartment. And then the tears came. I raced inside with that raw, hollow feeling you get from an unwanted goodbye. Like the day my pet rat died or when my out-of-state grandparents flew home after a long visit when I was in elementary school. The feeling of something being torn away…
In the middle of crying about the car for the fifth time in 24 hours I suddenly realized after all of those years of memories — of driving it with high school friends, on rainy streets in Oregon during college, of being broken down all over L.A. — I had not one photo of myself with the car. The sole image I had was of me and my sister standing next to it in 1995, and that photo was blurry.
I raced outside, wiped my tears and forced a smile onto my face and took this picture…
I was sad the only shot I would have would be inside my carport next to the dumpster but it would have to do. I was too busy living my life in the car to document my life with the car, and this was something I was proud of. (My ownership pre-dated digital cameras and selfies.)
Fifteen minutes later, the buyer showed up and came inside. He gave me a miniature model of our exact MG in the red damask color and said he knew this was hard for me but that the car would be in good hands. I thanked him. We kept it brief. I handed him the keys. I waited until I heard him rev the engine and drive away to go to work.
A few days later he sent me an email explaining how much he was enjoying the car — waxing the floor panels and removing the engine to see what work it needed. He loved working on it so much that he threw his back out repairing it and had to take a break. And there our correspondence took a rest. I came home from work and parked my Honda Fit in the parking spot it had been missing for over a year. One part of my life had become easier. This loss, unlike all of the others, felt right.