Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Ode to a Pontiac

It was the summer of 2001 and I was searching for a vehicle to replace my decade-old white Chevrolet Cavalier with the optional date-repelling protective finish. It had carried me through high school and an embarrassingly unproductive year of college, but now it was time for the Cavalier (a name rooted in the derogatory Latin word caballarius meaning “horseman”) to go to that big wholesaler in the sky. I was convinced that I needed something that had cache, something that oozed sophistication while fitting comfortably within my budget constraints, and something that a member of the opposite sex would ride in of their own free will. After several weeks of fruitless searching, I took delivery of a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe and all of the good times it would bring to the threshold of my life…

A brief list of features that gradually revealed themselves after purchase:

1. The driver seat was permanently reclined to the “gangland assassination” setting.

2. The glove box latch seemed to have been manufactured using hardened licorice and would only close every third time.

3. The overly-accessorized and under-glued rear view mirror would randomly break free from its perch and remain suspended from the electrical wiring that fed the reading lights. This created a fatality-inducing pendulum effect since it would randomly reflect sunlight into my eyes as I drove.

4. The transmission sensor was broken so the key would not release from the ignition when you parked; and because you could not turn the key into the off position, the daytime running lamps and dash lights would remain illuminated until the battery died.

5. In order to neutralize feature number four, the parking brake could be engaged to turn off the daytime running lamps and salvage any voltage left in the battery while allowing the key to remain in the ignition.

6. This would invariably lead to me placing the car in reverse and gunning the engine in frustration before I remembered that I had engaged the emergency brake to counteract feature number four and it was still on.

7. The tires were a specialized size that could only be purchased through a particular Dutch monastery.

8. The “paint” on the spoiler had the weather resistance of a Crayola spray and wash marker and I began to suspect it had been lifted from a child’s Power Wheels electric toy.

9. The sunroof took so long to close that by the time its cycle had completed the weather had shifted and you wanted it back the way it was before you pressed the button. As a bonus, it not only leaked, but seemed to actually channel rain-water into the driver’s seat.

10. The driver’s side mirror housing had completely broken off and had to be re-attached to the vehicle using liberal amounts of duck tape.

11. The power steering would randomly fail at high speeds causing a dramatic chain reaction that often ended with me soiling myself repeatedly.

12. Despite having been serviced on several occasions, the air-conditioning would generally cease to function between late June and early September.

In September of 2007, my matrimonially-dedicated life partner and I purchased our first house and I had taken a few days off to get everything unpacked. The following Monday would be my inaugural morning commute as a newly minted home-owner and I was anxious to see how the traffic would flow and how it would affect my time getting to the office. With a spring in my step, I made my way to the suburban chariot and began my journey. About halfway to downtown I found myself waiting to turn left at a fairly large intersection, and just as I began my embarrassingly-gradual acceleration; I heard a mild thud quickly followed by the sound of breaking glass.

Immediately suspecting my tape-restrained side view mirror, I glanced to my left and felt relief wash over me as I realized that it was still there. At this point, I haughtily began to glance around in an attempt to rubberneck at the poor schmuck who was to blame for such a sad display. It was at this moment I made two key observations:

1. The woman behind me was swerving erratically while contemplating the most efficient hand to give me the finger with.

2. My passenger side mirror and housing was no longer visible from my current vantage point.

As I was turning, the entire mirror apparatus fell from my car and was subsequently crushed by the three vehicles that had the misfortune of following me through the light. I was stunned. The passenger side mirror had been the one reflective surface that I could rely on, and there had been no indication it was even loose. After I recounted this unprecedented chain of events at the office, my coworkers offered a plausible (if slightly insulting) hypothesis:

Feeling itself slipping and having witnessed the slow and painful degradation its driver-side counterpart, the passenger side mirror had thrown itself from the vehicle in order to end its tenure with any remaining dignity. In short, my car had become so embarrassing that even its own extremities could not bear to be associated with it any longer.

Despite its formidable list of shortcomings (both mechanical and aesthetic), the Grand Am did posses a powerfully endearing quality: it was paid for. This and this alone gave me the patience and perseverance necessary to continue relying on my 2-doored companion day after day. However, all of this changed one spring day when I received a letter from the Pontiac Division of General Motors labeled “Important Message to Owners.” At long last it was finally here; an official apology from the world’s largest automaker for creating a product so devoid of craftsmanship it made a Dr. Phil Theme Park seem like a sound investment.

Unfortunately, the envelope contained a reliably impersonal letter informing me that they have identified a problem with floor-mounted air bag sensors in my car. It was at this point that the letter’s author reassured me that this defect is only associated with vehicle interiors exposed to substantial amounts of water (say, through a precipitation-hemorrhaging
moon roof) and that there was no need for concern if your car does not fall into this category.

If, however, your interior (and thus your floor-mounted sensors) had been exposed to liquid; the defect would likely manifest itself in one of two ways which we will refer to as scenarios A & B.

Scenario A – The sensor would fail to detect a qualifying head-on collision and your front air-bags would not deploy, leaving the steering wheel (and recently dislodged rear-view) to arrest the forward motion of your soon-to-be-misshapen cranium.

Scenario B – The sensor would malfunction and deploy the front air-bags during normal operation of the vehicle (such as pulling out of a Wendy’s) resulting in the newly-blinded driver instigating the type of horrific accident the air-bags were designed to save him from.

The letter drew to a succinct close by informing me that for my own safety I should have the issue repaired by a qualified dealership, and although replacing the airbag-sensors is an expensive procedure; my safety is their number one concern. While touching, their concern for my safety was not accompanied by a voucher or coupon for the repair.

I was at a crossroads; I could handle the permanent ignition key, the self-ejecting mirrors, and the stroke-inducing lack of air-conditioning, but I drew the line at a randomly-deploying airbag. It was time for one of the most feared transactions in retail: the trade-in

Entering a car dealership carrying the scent of vehicular desperation is daunting enough, but when combined with the financially pressing need to portray my car in the best light; I had little hope for a favorable outcome. After a few hours, we had decided on a car and the delicate waltz of negation could at last begin.

The sales associate landed the first blow by strategically placing a worn and rather conspicuous copy of The Bible on the desk between us, as if only the promise of a commission could lure her away from her study of Leviticus. It was unceremoniously swept aside to make room for the credit-check forms and we were offered complimentary bottled water while we waited to see if we qualified as preferred buyers.

Early formalities aside, the real battle began and we stepped outside to have a look at my trade-in.
We watched expectantly as her eyes swept across the front of the ailing coupe, and grimaced slightly as they paused on the duck tape. Apparently undeterred, she walked to the driver’s side and requested the keys. I informed her that I had taken the liberty of ensuring they were in the ignition for just such an occasion, and with a flick of her wrist the Grand Am stumbled to life. Her quick inventory noted that I was missing the entire mirror housing, the air conditioning did not function, she was unable to roll the windows up, a lug nut had broken off, and there was a faint odor of gasoline in the air.

Her investigation coming to an end, she cut the engine and unsuccessfully attempted to remove the key. I halfheartedly tried to sell the key’s reluctance to release as a theft-deterrent, but I don’t think she bought it. For several minutes she seemed to be pondering whether or not it would be rude to ask me to move it behind the building so as not to discourage other buyers, but eventually she sighed as asked if they could keep the $200 CD player I had installed five years ago. Sensing that this was going to be a deal breaker, I reluctantly agreed and she seemed encouraged enough to continue negotiating.

Back inside she delivered a gentle, yet unmistakably direct, oration concerning the blatant undesirability of my Pontiac which she quickly followed with an offer of $1,000. Clinging to the fading dignity I had left, I pretending to be insulted as asked for at least $2,000. This was met with a look of disbelief as she pointed in the general direction of my car and said “You want us to give you $2,000 for that?” I replied that if it made her feel better, she was welcome to give me $1,000 for the car and $1,000 just because it was a Friday.

Rising from her chair, she declared that a transaction this outrageous would have to be reviewed by the dealership’s most shadowy figure of all: The Sales Manager. Leaving us with only our bottled water and her copy of the Holy Scriptures for company, she charged into the glass-encased (yet unexpectedly-soundproof) office of the sales manager. For several minutes they pantomimed a conversation on how best to recover from the devastating financial hit they would incur by offering me $2,000 for my car. Our sales representative then returned with a feigned look of shock and informed us that although she herself could not fathom his reasoning (perhaps he was juiced up on crystal meth and liquid plumber) the sales manager had agreed to our terms if we planned to purchase the car today.

Finding this acceptable, my wife and I became the owners of a respectable four-door sedan. The last order of business was to say good-by to the Grand Am while a couple of employees decided the best place to move it to that would not be visible from the road. And so, I could take solace in the knowledge that someday my 1997 Pontiac would get what it deserved: non-existence.

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