Anyone who has traveled in Washington during rush hour can attest to the fact that there are a lot of different cars on the road. However, I can’t help feeling that by only looking at the cars we’re missing half the story. How did someone end up with this car? Why do they keep it when it’s definitely past its heyday? Even just in my own family, the stories tell us a lot….

Scenario No. 1

The geeky teen walks down the street with his hair slicked back and his shirt tucked in. He’s hefting in front of him a very large jar of change. Skinny as he is with his bird-like legs, his pace never falters even carrying the incredible weight of the enormous jar he’s carrying in both arms. He walks straight ahead, his serious mission apparent on his face almost as if he is a soldier going into war. Yet, somehow even with the weight of the jar in his arms, he still manages to exhibit an excitement as he steadfastly moves toward his goal. People turn to watch the handsome teen and his change jar move gradually down the street wondering about his final destination. Finally, it seems he has arrived. He turns off his straight path and is now standing in the lot of the town’s only car dealership. Like a cowboy ready to face his rival in the street of an old western town at high noon, my young Dad squares up, hefts the change jar closer, and walks straight into the showroom. He moves toward the desk of the lot’s only salesman and finally (the cowboy pulling his gun out of the holster getting ready to fight) releases his burden, sitting his change jar on the desk next to the man now looking at him. At last he speaks with equal notes of pride and menace in his voice ….. “I’m here to buy my first car.”

Of course, Mom told me later, there was no showroom, there was no salesman, there was no little town, but this was my view of the “change jar legend” constantly retold to me by my 5 aunts who actually lived the prelude to my dad’s first car. According to my aunts, my dad’s first car purchase was heralded by a lot of work on his part and, for everyone else in his family, the ritual of him counting the change in his jar when it was payday at the ferry he worked on. Each of his younger sisters glories in the telling of how they could hear him in his room adding his pay into his change jar and counting and recounting that change night after night. Indeed, from the way they tell it, you can almost see them there in their beds trying to sleep but instead of sheep, they count the plink, plink, plink of the coins hitting the side of the jar. His mother always smiled when she heard the retelling of the change jar story and nodded her head obviously also remembering with pride in her son the plinking of the nightly coin count.

Of course Dad kept his new car in perfect condition washing, waxing, and keeping it free of any debris. He’s had many cars since that first one that he saved so long for, but he’s appreciated every one of them, still recalls their details as if through the eyes of a lover, and ran them till they just couldn’t run anymore.

This legend tells you a lot about my Dad without even meeting him because he hasn’t changed too much since that first car. Dad’s a SAVER – retirement accounts, life insurance, not living on credit – these were Dad’s benchmarks and he was always proud to be putting away for the future. He also still hangs onto things, never getting rid of them until there’s just no other choice.

Scenario No. 2

When my brother, Matt, finished college and moved out of state to take his first job, Mom and Dad proudly gave him a shiny red car and sent him on his way. They both felt a boy “needed” a car when he went out in the world and I imagine my Dad had the feeling of saving Matt from his own change jar stories.

Anyway, Matt took off in the red car and when he came home for a visit after a month or so, he came in a brand new car! He had traded the shiny red car from my parents and taken on the payments of a new fancy sports car. My conservative parents couldn’t believe it. But this was only the beginning. Matt repeated this process every few months…trading in a car and getting a new one. It got so bad that my Gram speculated that every time Matt got dressed he bought a new car. Matt also wanted extras; he spent lots of money kitting out his cars with window tints, personalized plates, bike racks, etc. My parents basically sat there with their chins on the floor and their mouths wide open at the incredible expense of it all. Matt is 42 now, married with children, and has owned over 31 cars, his new BMW bought just this past weekend.

We call Matt’s type THE FLASH AND DASH! And, indeed, that’s how he lives…it’s all about the flash factor with Matt. He doesn’t care about debt; he just wants to impress. He wants the latest and greatest in everything and he wants it out there for everyone to see – not in spite of the cost, but BECAUSE of the cost. He doesn’t want to keep up with the Joneses – he wants to BE the Joneses. These are his priorities.

Scenario No. 3

When I was first married, my first set of wheels was a laundry cart to carry our laundry down the street to the Laundromat and back. After a few years of public transport (on a good day) and walking the rest of the time, we were given an old car and then a few more old cars after that. Used cars made for lots of repairs and outrageous situations up to and including the mechanic who we visited to perform yet another repair on one of these many gems. As he looked at the knotted garden hose holding the muffler in place and the bent clothes hanger being used to keep the radiator attached, he declared, “Not even God himself could save this car!”

I didn’t get my first new car till after my second child was born and I’d been married over a decade. Signing up for a car payment was terrifying, but oh how I loved that car. I remember going to the dealer’s lot on Sunday when we could look without being bothered. I remember coming up on this small hunter-green station wagon and just knowing at that moment it was THE CAR. I said to my husband, “Doesn’t this look like a car for a mother of boys?” He agreed and that was that. I remember the next night when we bought it. Dad had come along with my husband and me to “do the talking” and “show us how it’s done.” When the papers were signed and it was time to leave, I remember my husband handing me the keys and saying drive us home. I remember my hands shaking as I pulled out on the road in our new family car – our very first car with no history but ours. No clanks, bumps, or dings; no things falling off. In the coming days, I took it all over the place showing off. That car served us well even after we paid it off and got our second new car. My husband took over the wagon and drove it till the door handles were falling off and it became obvious it was time for an upgrade. By then, it was like part of our family.

We are THE GRATEFUL. We have worked hard for everything all the way up. We’re grateful for the material trophies we’ve managed, we’re more grateful than most when we’re treated to something by someone else, and we don’t let go of things until they’re well and truly exhausted.

Scenario No. 4

When our son was considering a cross-country move, we asked him how he’d get around in an area with no public transportation. His response was he’d just “pick up” a car. My husband and I rolled our eyes thinking, ‘Oh, he has so much to learn’ remembering the years we would’ve loved to just “pick up” a car. Once in California living close to his university, he found that most people biked and so they did too. But at the end of that summer with his wife’s new job 40 minutes away, biking wasn’t an option. So out they went and bought their first little car. No used one for them, no freebie either, no one going with them to “show them how it’s done.” We began then to hear of what things were “in the budget” and what things were not. ‘Ah,’ we thought, ‘he’s finally beginning to see.’ After 2 years, his wife took a new job an hour away. She made the commute, but after a year they decided to move halfway between both their jobs which meant a commute for both. Of course, this meant they had to “pick up” another new car. We began to see even more signs of them actually making financial plans and less and less of the impromptu purchases they had done before. But the attitude they have of just “picking up” a car and making a move that ensured the need for a second car puts them in the category of being THE ENTITLED. Indeed, that’s the way I see them approaching life…they’re totally on their own out there and they merely decide what they’re entitled to and rearrange things to accommodate their entitlements. So far, they’ve actually done just fine.

As we said before, there are many cars on the road each telling a story about its owner, the roads they’ve traveled, and the attitudes of the moment. If you really want to get to know a person, find out the story of their car – look at how they care for it, ask them how they got it, find out how many other cars they’ve had. Chances are, once you know these things, you’ll have a pretty good idea who you’re dealing with and what their priorities are in life.


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