Some families set their dramas on the stage of a castle, a city apartment, a suburban bungalow. Mine was wed to the four wheels of a 1990 Toyota truck.
It didn’t define who we were as a family, but it was a pliant witness to our own definition in southern California, the vessel we steered on paper routes in the San Fernando Valley, the commute to Riverside, then Anaheim Hills, then Cypress, the distance between contract work in City of Industry and classes in Irvine, the journey from Downey to anywhere. In some way, we were defined by how we interacted with the Los Angeles sprawl, how far across it we were willing to travel to grasp our ambitions.
It seems appropriate that the story of an immigrant family is not one of nobility but mobility, the nomadism etched into our DNA. In early morning hours of my childhood, my father would shine a flashlight on a driveway and me or Mikey would throw a copy of the LA Times into the target. Some people start all-nightering in college; I had my first when I was eight years old, in the bed of that truck, surrounded by newspapers. There was no air conditioning and no clock, one cupholder, and a radio with perpetually shot speakers, even after Scott and I installed a new pair (along with new headlights) in between oil changes at his house. Arguments over who would drive it and when were a feature of the thicker years of my sibling rivalry.
Angelenos are prone to defining others by the cars they drive, and at the University of Civics and Integras, the truck was an anomaly. Driving it in Orange County at odd hours of night inspired my dread of racial profiling — I have recently ceased the habit of checking my tail lights, but it was most often the falsified probable cause for traffic stops. I befriended different people, dated different women because of what I drove. If we are defined by the company we keep, the truck allowed a less materialistic conduit for my definition (that was inevitably inextricable from helping people move).
And as a family we also defined our setting. In its dents and leaks were scars of my father’s impulsiveness, my brother’s entropy, my workaholic fatigue. Depending on who was driving, the seat moved forward or backward, but the side mirrors always remained in place. Between classes I would recline in the passenger seat and take naps and awaken to find the windows fogged. In that passenger window, I could still make out the faint imprint of the original dot-matrix printed sticker. It cost my father around $11,000 when he bought it brand new in 1990. He named it Bear.
I remember the day I passed my driving test, that moment leaving Arthur’s for the Bell Gardens DMV where all those years of playing catch with a set of keys were rendered practice for that moment when two divergent schedules would make it necessary. I drove it to Las Vegas less than a month later, got a speeding ticket for going 101 mph downhill after the San Bernardino Mountains, and on the drive back home, called my mother on her vacation in New Jersey to explain why there would be a citation in the mail. The debt from that incident would deepen and lead to the start of the Spazowham Design Group. I remember picking up my father from work once after a long rush-hour commute and being angry with him for making me wait at the parking lot of his office, arguing with my mother about money and driving away. It was a vehicle of my rebellion.
I remember driving to Long Beach Airport with two suitcases in the bed in June 2005. This was the last day I would claim Bear as “my truck.” My brother called me today and told me the head gasket blew on his way to work last week. The repair would cost thousands of dollars, and he said it felt like putting the family dog to sleep. After I hung up the phone, my colleagues remarked it sounded like a pet had died, or a relative. But for an inanimate object, steel and plastic and rubber, it was special to the men of my family because in those 18 years of California traffic it seemed we spent more time with this machine than any of our friends, and perhaps with each other. It was a vehicle of our solitude.
From the Church of Christ parking lot next to that tiny Lindell Avenue apartment and the Corinthian on Florence, I moved about 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C. We’re a family awash in iPods with a son in graduate school. My mother no longer needs to work for us to make ends meet. We waste food. Over the post-mortem phone calls, I asked what’s next, if there’s another Bear in their future. Mikey’s buying his first brand-new car next week, planning to spend just a shade under $20,000. If we wanted to buy another Toyota truck, for another 18-year-run, we could.
If you ever want to quantify how far you have to go to make it in this country, for reference’s sake, my family put 258,346.6 miles on Bear. It was a vehicle of our social mobility, reminding us of where we started in 1990 as a young, fractured clan with a tenuous grasp of our new cultural context, of where we had been everyday in making ourselves (to a degree) a functional family at ease in America. Some choose to buy new cars to express their achievements to the world, to mark the level of success they enjoyed; I think we kept driving the same old truck as a reminder that we still have farther to go before we’re satisfied.
That, and to haul shit.
Originally published 10 November 2008.