July - Nov. 2002
I parked my Corvette at the end of a gravel driveway, slowly got out, stiff from the long drive, and gazed at the house where I had grown up. It was over a century old and the original structure was no longer visible from outside – new rooms had been added over the years and my dad had covered the exterior with aluminum siding. A farmer once owned this house and two barns used to sit on the property: one was destroyed by a tornado and the other had to be demolished after decades of neglect. I was eager to show off my Corvette to my parents, but there were no other cars in the driveway.
“Anybody home?” I called as I opened the back door and walked in. Nobody answered. I knew there was a chance my parents would be gone, but calling ahead would have ruined the surprise. I took off my shoes, plopped onto the couch and called my dad on his cell phone.
“Hello?” he answered grumpily.
“Hang on, I can't hear you.” His hearing was deteriorating after a lifetime of noisy factory work.
I should have called Mom.
“Turn down that TV!” said a muffled voice. My dad must have been covering the phone with his hand. There was a fainter voice in the background as my mom responded. Then my dad shouted, still muffled, “It's your son! I can't hear nothin'.” I tried to remain patient until he uncovered the phone again and asked, “All right, what were you saying?”
“Where are you guys? I'm home for the weekend.”
“We're out of town until Monday. Why, what happened?” He sounded annoyed, as if he was expecting me to ask for money.
“Nothing happened. I wanted to show you my new car.”
“It'll have to wait until next time we see you.” There were a few seconds of silence. “Well, what kind of car did you get?”
“What? You're kidding. You can't drive a Corvette in the winter!” He was a practical man – of course that was his first thought.
“I know, Dad. I'm keeping my old car,” I said.
“What's going on?” my mom asked in the background.
My dad covered the phone again. “Your crazy son just bought a Corvette.” The voice returned to me. “I have to get going for now. Sorry we can't see it yet.”
“Okay, bye Dad.”
I had hurried home from Texas to attend a party. After napping on my parents' couch, I drove to the party in my Corvette, excited to show it off. Several people I had known since high school were there. Most of them were engaged or married. Some already had kids. When I showed them my Corvette, they made perfunctory statements like “That's a cool car,” but quickly switched the subject back to their world – “You have to see my new house!” “My son did the cutest thing today!” Desperate for attention, I tried to work my cross-country road trip into every conversation, but nobody seemed interested in listening.
Anxious to step back into the carefree world I had lived in since buying my 'Vette, I left the party and drove aimlessly for an hour. When I started having trouble keeping my eyes open, I drove back to my parents' empty house and fell asleep on the couch.
The next morning I pulled out of the driveway and headed down a long, straight road devoid of traffic, soaking in the vast cornfields and little farmhouses that dotted the countryside. I grew up on this road and I knew it well. It had its share of hazards – some potholes, a blind intersection, the occasional tractor crossing – but there was little regular traffic and almost no police presence. When I reached a stop sign, I did a U-turn and slammed on the gas. The tires screeched in response to the Corvette's immediate torque surge. When the tachometer was nearly redlining, I pushed in the clutch, shifted into second gear and returned the gas pedal to the floor. I was at the speed limit within a few seconds, but there was still a long stretch of straight road ahead of me, so I threw it into third and continued my acceleration. At ninety, I switched to fourth and focused more intently than ever on my surroundings. By the time I hit one-twenty, the cornstalks growing next to the road were a continuous green blur. Every little bump I hit nearly sent my fiberglass beauty soaring through the air like a missile. The Corvette could handle going faster, but I could not.
I hit the brakes until I was at the speed limit and the world moved past me in slow motion. I looked down and noticed that my hands were shaking, not from excitement, but fear. If driving at dangerous speeds wouldn't bring back the rush I had gotten from driving my Corvette for the first time, then what would?
I had to work the next day, so after my nerves had settled, I got on the freeway for the drive to Minnesota.
At home I needed to register my Corvette. I hadn't considered the sales tax, which hit me for over $1000. My insurance bill tripled. For the first time in my life, I was in debt. A vexatious feeling sat in the pit of my stomach as I realized the truth: I had worked hard and saved for years, and all I had gotten was a car with a hundred coats of wax.
As summer continued, I drove my Corvette less and less. On hot days, I didn't want the sun to damage its leather interior. On cloudy days, I worried about rain streaking its finish. Rather than the long road trips I had envisioned taking when I had submitted my bid on eBay, I restricted my driving to occasional short rides around the neighborhood. I only parked when I could find a spot that was far from the swinging doors of other cars.
When the leaves turned orange and yellow and fell to the ground, I worried they would get caught in the air intake. Instead of continuing to drive my Corvette, I just waxed it. It didn't need another coat, but this was the nicest thing I had ever owned and I wanted to protect my investment. At least I kept telling myself it was an investment. By contrast, I drove my Sunbird all the time and never worried about the sun, rain, leaves, hail, other drivers or anything else for that matter. It became a liberating feeling to climb into that bucket of rust and just go.
By November, I had had enough. I disconnected my Corvette's battery and slid on its cover ahead of the first snowfall. Throughout the winter, car payments continued to drain hundreds of dollars from every paycheck, yet I wouldn't get to drive my Corvette again until spring. It wasn't just a bad investment. It had become a burden.
I thought: What went wrong? This car was supposed to fix my problems, not create new ones. If owning a Corvette won't make me happy, then what will? Should I buy something even more expensive? Go deeper into debt?