Early yesterday morning, we drove to an industrial cul de sac in a charmless part of town and picked up the mini-van that my in-laws insisted on giving us. It had just arrived here after a week-long journey from the east coast on a big rig filled with other transplanted vehicles.
Over the past month or so, we tried to buy our own mini-van, but Dr. Mom's parents wouldn't hear of it. Three years ago, they bought essentially the same vehicle that we have been thinking about getting. They had been using it sporadically for their furniture refinishing business, but they swore that they didn't really need it. We agreed to take it off their hands. What else could we do?
So yesterday, after 27 years of driving, I found myself once again behind the wheel of my parents' (in-law this time) van, just like when I was sixteen and turned loose for the first time on the highways and byways of the D.C. suburbs.
My first car, which was never really mine but my parents' (I was the primary driver by default because no one else in the family wanted to be seen in it), was a 1979 Chevy conversion van. My parents had bought the van in Washington state when we came back from our 2-year stint in the U.S.S.R.
Vans were at the peak of their popularity (okay, maybe just slightly beyond their peak) at the time, and it made sense for us to get one, since we planned to make a lot of road trips between Virginia--where we were to live--and Montana and points west, where most of our relatives were.
All of these features seemed extremely cool for about one year, and then precipitously less so every month that followed.
By the time I started driving, in 1983, I had embraced a stripped-down, boots-jeans-and-leather-jacket punk rock aesthetic; and it was a real stretch to get the Disco Van to mesh with the image I was cultivating. The van was not old enough to be cool because it was campy, and it was definitely not cool in the way that its creators had intended it to be. It was just an embarrassing and obvious mom & dad car, and an artifact of the culture against which punk rock had emerged as a reaction. Had I not been such a lazy kid, I would have worked my fingers to the bone so I could have bought an old jalopy that wouldn't have been so conspicuous parked outside the 9:30 Club after Minor Threat shows.
But despite its liability in regard to my street cred, the Disco Van was practical in its way. Because I'm not confident in my understanding of the applicability of the statute of limitations, I won't go into details about the ways in which the Disco Van was practical to a teenage boy and his knucklehead friends. Suffice it to say many rites of passage were observed there. In fact, some of those rites were observed by police officers and school officials who for whatever reason saw fit to issue nothing more than a few stern warnings and the odd traffic citation. ("Driving On The Median" was the oddest, I think.)
Cars were not as durable in those days, and I managed to run that rig practically into the ground by the time I (barely) graduated from high school, with a mere 85k on its odometer. I got into at least three accidents in it, which established my pattern of having two or three wrecks a year until I finally decided to go away to college and be a pedestrian until I was mature enough to drive.
After I got my own car (a '77 Plymouth Fury former cop car), we signed the title of the Disco Van over to the father of the singer in my band, a professional automotive salvager who, to the eternal chagrin of his wife, often took his work home with him. This arrangement worked out well, because we were then able to use the Disco Van as transportation for the band for as long as we could keep it running.
Alas, the Disco Van finally fell into the hands of one of my high school nemeses, who traded it with our singer's dad for some equally thrashed vehicle, and I lost track of it after that. In the next couple years, I totalled my cop car and then my first pickup truck before I finally decided that I should go off to college anywhere they would accept me, if for no other reason than to keep me from having to commute. That's how I ended up going to University of Montana for a couple years. But that's a different story.
And now I find myself once again tooling around town in a van. I thought I might feel sheepish about it because of the bourgeois stigma, but I find that I don't really give a rat's ass about what other people think of my new rig. Like the Disco Van in its day, the Beta Wagon is extremely practical for my needs. It might not be as manly as my pickup with the lumber rack (and "No on Prop. 8" sticker), but it's far safer and more convenient than any car I've ever had. Sure, it's versatile. But it's essentially designed to transport children; and since childcare is my job these days, it wouldn't make any sense to drive anything else. All the other options we considered--sport wagons, crossovers, hybrid SUV's--would have been compromises in service of preserving the illusion of our youth and hipness, which is way more uncool than driving a mini-van.