throw it out

I’m not sure if this was the first time I remembered witnessing it, or if it is just the one that has stuck in my memory. I was in the Dominican Republic for the summer, working for an organization that hosted US high school and college students to work in the local communities for two-week increments.  Having had experience with similar work in Guatemala, I was there for the summer to help them get started in the work.

I worked on the staff with a Puerto Rican woman, men and women from the Dominican Republic, and a man from Guatemala. One night we decided it would be fun to watch a video (we had a TV and vcr) but the only videotape we had (this was back in the dark ages of video tapes, before the instant gratification of immediately downloadable movie possibilities) jammed when we put it into the VCR.

I assumed we were through. So much for the ‘watching a movie’ idea. I also assumed that it was time to throw out the video tape in question—it was broken, why keep it?

I was wrong.

Edie, the man from Guatemala, took the tape out of the VCR and opened it up.

I didn’t realize you could do that.

He then proceeded to splice the jammed part, and to re-roll the entire spool of tape. It wasn’t a quick process, but a few hours later, we were happily watching the only tape we had, ‘A Bug’s Life.’


Fast-forward almost ten years, to yesterday.  The location is Mexico, Baja California, to be exact. The context was a conversation with my friend Edgar who is Mexican and lives in the community here.

We were talking about cars, specifically mine, a 12 year old SUV with 155,000 miles on it that is beginning to have ‘issues.’ Friends from Southern California have been suggesting that it is more than time for the trusty Isuzu Rodeo (which I had never intended to be such a long-term investment) to be replaced with something new—something that will be reliable, won’t break down, with not so many miles on it.

It’s true—I have begun to have various issues with the Rodeo, and am wondering if it might be time to retire it. Those thoughts, combined with the government’s recent ‘cash for clunkers’ program that promises to offer me $4500 for a car that would be lucky to fetch half that price, have caused me to ponder if it is time for something new.

Edgar knew that I’ve had some problems with the Rodeo, and even had recommended a mechanic who came to my house and fixed some sort of loud noise in the engine (my understanding of car engines ends is limited to the knowledge that they are found under the hood) for a lot cheaper than the same work could be done in the US (and did I mention that the mechanic made a house call?!)

“Men don’t mind their cars to have problems, but women like to just turn the key and be able to go,” teased Edgar. I thought about it. I definitely don’t want to be stranded on the side of the road, and since I haven’t a clue how to fix something that might go wrong, I reluctantly admitted that, at least in my case, he was right.

“How many miles do you have on it?” he asked me, as we discussed whether or not it was time for me to think of replacing it. “155,000,” I answered (listing each number separately, as my Spanish is good but not when it comes to big numbers).

“That’s a lot!” he laughed. “But in Mexico, that’s like new!”

With that one comment I was taken instantly back to Edie and the videotape, and brought to the heart of what had been nagging at me.

My 12-year old car is paid for. I don’t have a car payment. As someone who does freelance work and who lives without a steady paycheck, I’d rather not incur a new monthly expense if I don’t have to.  Aside from the less than stellar gas mileage, I really like my car. It works for me. If it weren’t for the pushing 200,000 miles, and the few ‘issues’ I’ve begun to have, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about getting rid of it.

But, as an American, and more so as a Southern Californian from “the OC,” I live in the midst of a culture that seems to say “if it is old, throw it out.”

This is not entirely unreasonable. I need a car I can depend on, right? I need one that will be reliable. I do a lot of driving—I don’t want to be stranded along the side of the road, do I? I want to be able to drive up to Northern California to visit friends, or to continue driving back and forth to Mexico, without having to wonder, “Am I going to make it this time?” Plus, if I were to buy a new car I could get one with better gas mileage (which wasn’t even on my radar 12 years ago when purchasing the Rodeo), which would save me money and save the planet at the same time, right?

The truth is, the power window on the passenger side doesn’t work from the driver’s seat, so I have to lean over if I want to open it. My at the time very high-tech 10 cd-changer in the trunk, with a tape deck in the dash, has a tape stuck in it so that I cannot use it for an mp3 player. A few years back my wheels were chipping so I decided to spray paint them and though it worked at the time, it is beginning to chip. Plus, there is this ongoing noise that seems to be something transmission-related and all signs are pointing toward repair work that will not be cheap, even if it is done in Mexico by my house-calling mechanic.

So it’s not like I’m throwing out something that is perfect. There are, I think, sufficient reasons to justify replacing it.

But the problem is, do I want to be one of those Americans who throws something out, when I know that much of the world, including my friends Edie and Edgar, live in a world where they don’t have that option? Edgar would love to replace his 1994 Pathfinder with a cracked windshield. But he doesn’t have a government willing to give him $4500 for it or a life that would allow him to pay it off over a 6-year loan—but more importantly, he doesn’t live in a world that would make that decision seem reasonable.

Even as I write this, I’m fairly certain that if my Rodeo can, in fact, qualify for the $4500 cash for clunkers, and if I can find something I like that is within a price I can afford, it will be “Hasta luego Rodeo” and  “Bienvenidos new car.”

But my fear in so doing, in embracing an option that my world makes not only possible but even commendable, is that I will continue to distance myself from the world in which most of our planet, and many of my friends actually live.

One response to “throw it out

  1. Interesting piece, Erin.

    You know Gladis, who works for me, right? I sort of laughed at Edgar’s comment about women wanting to just turn the key and go. Well, in order for Gladis to start her car, she has to lift the hood and actually hotwire her car to start because the ignition is broken. Also, the radiator has a leak so she also has to fill it with water almost every time she drives it. She knows how to change the battery too (I saw her do it once.) The car is dented, the upholstery is aged and brittle, and the windshield has a big crack down the middle. One time she drove me over to the doctor in La Misión when I banged the heck out of my big toe and had to have it treated. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she made the sign of the cross and away we went. I noticed that she does this every time she drives her car. This is the car that she uses to go back and forth to work, take her kids to school, go shopping, and go back and forth between Tijuana and Ensenada for errands and other grown-up stuff. Gladis is one of the hardest working employees I have. She has two young children (ages 6 and 8) and one college-age daughter who lives in Durango. She’s in her early forties, like me, and earns about $30 to $40 dollars a day with tips and commissions. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Once in a while she brings some food to work with her to share with everyone – fresh tortillas, tamales, or some ceviche. Since I don’t have a car of my own, she frequently offers me a ride home and always insists on taking me right to my door, even though it’s a little out of her way. During a particularly slow period at work, she and the other girls will drive over to Magaña’s for lunch and be back before the next appointment. I wonder if Edgar knows about Gladis and her car.

    One time I was walking through the colonia Santa Anita with a friend of mine from the States who made a comment about how he found so much “poverty” depressing. He was referring to people living in cinder-block houses with a roof, concrete floor, electricity, running water, television, a kitchen and two or three other rooms. Sometimes you saw an old beat-up car out front, sometimes you didn’t. “Poverty?” I thought.“This isn’t poverty – this is middle class for most of the world’s population.”

    My friend Joe Sanchez lives in Riverside California. He makes his living by shopping at yard sales, estate sales, and clearance sales in the States, then he loads up his truck with all the stuff he buys, drives down to Mexico and sells it to people in various neighborhoods, right out of the back of his truck. He puts a lot of miles on his truck going back and forth between Riverside and Baja. When his truck breaks down, not only does he have to pay to get it fixed, but he looses money because he can’t sell his goods here in Mexico. I asked him, why don’t you just get a new truck? His answer, “I’m a Mexican – we fix things.”

    Do you ever watch Mexican television? It’s interesting to watch the commercials because you scarcely see advertisements for things like prescription drugs, credit cards, and very few car commercials. Most of the advertising is for basic household products, electronics, food, events, and other TV shows.

    Most Mexicans I know are not afraid to walk where there is no sidewalk, or sit where there is no chair or bench. They unashamedly hang their clothes on the line to dry, cross the highway where there is no overpass, and wear second hand clothes and shoes. They typically don’t have manicured lawns and most of the landscaping is composed of whatever grows naturally in the area. They don’t dress their dogs in sweaters or put them in rhinestone studded collars, they don’t eat very often in expensive restaurants and they’re not very good tippers. (Just ask Gladis.) And they drive around in cars that run with a rubber band, a coat hanger, and a small prayer.

    I love it here with all my heart.

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