Durham News: Opinion

Melissa Rooney: 4-wheeled litmus test

‘It’s interesting that something as minor as a vehicle’s paint job may be used to probe priorities and politics.’
‘It’s interesting that something as minor as a vehicle’s paint job may be used to probe priorities and politics.’ Courtesy of Melissa Rooney

Not long ago, my husband and I were faced with putting much of its face value into our 2003 minivan, which has logged over 130,000 miles and a lot of memories over the last 11 years, or trading it in for a new car.

Our mechanic assured us that, despite the required maintenance, a dented front bumper, and two missing seat backs, the van should give us many more good years. Though we’ve longed for an electric car, we decided to keep the vehicle that we owned.

I am the principal driver of the van and generally share its space with several kids, plants and gardening materials. The van is also my workspace and stores school correspondence, meeting agendas/notes, hand-written driving directions, and CDs, audiobooks, balls, markers, etc., for entertaining my kids.

My husband grew up in comparatively spotless, new-smelling cars and avoids driving our van except on long road trips, when transporting large items, and when going to the dump.

I’m content to continue this arrangement.

In addition, I don’t have to worry about the kids (or me) staining or damaging a prized new car. Meanwhile, any additional cosmetic damage to our old van would hardly be noticeable.

My 12-year old daughter and I have often discussed painting her future car like a ladybug or caterpillar or whatever she fancies when the time comes.

As our van has accumulated plenty of nicks over the years, I figured any new paint would improve its appearance and protect it from rust. So my daughter and I unearthed the left-over house paint hidden in our garage and began painting designs on the van.

Over the summer, our neighbors’ kids and nearly every child visiting our house have left their marks on our van. I even took paint with us on a couple vacations, so our friends and their kids could add their creativity to the mix.

At first I was bothered when younger kids painted over the prettier designs other kids and I had painstakingly created. I didn’t want to constitute portable graffiti.

But eventually I relinquished control and let the van take on its own life. Each new drawing or pre-school scribble is a tangible reminder of the communal positive energy that is literally painted on our conduit, and the warm fuzzies extend beyond its passengers.

Whenever I drive the van, I receive at least one smile, wave, or double-fingered peace sign from people on the roads or in the parking lots.

Sometimes I forget the van is painted and think I’m just having an especially friendly day. Inevitably, I am questioned or complimented regarding the paint job, and I remember with happy satisfaction that I am unconsciously provoking the good vibes.

Children are especially drawn to the van, and I often overhear young passersby asking if they can paint their own family’s car. While acknowledging the frustration this may cause many parents, I can only smile when imagining all the old cars on the road with one-of-a-kind paint jobs created from the love in each driver’s life.

We took the van from Durham to Maine a couple weeks ago, driving four to five hours a day and spending each night with family along the way to and from Acadia National Park (our primary destination). It was worthwhile merely to experience people’s responses to our van as we passed from one state to another.

For the most part, the smiles continued. But every now and again, drivers would stare disdainfully while demonstrating that the polite rules of the road need not apply to hippies like us.

Pedestrians in Northern Virginia and D.C. stopped to tell us they liked the van. In New Jersey, drivers in one suburb might smile and wave, while those in the next might grimace with condescension. Massachusetts residents were generally unimpressed; my brother-in-law thought the van looked stupid, and his teenage son preferred we didn’t park it in front of their house. But in the end, the van was well received in Maine, and we never had trouble finding it parked among the hundreds of cars along Acadia’s shoreline and trail heads.

It’s interesting that something as minor as a vehicle’s paint job may be used to probe priorities and politics. Responses to our van can distinguish between those who appreciate personal freedom and universal good will and those who are more concerned with their own perceptions of public opinion and monetary values. Regardless, our van’s unique paint job brings smiles and good will from the majority who encounter it, and this feeds my hope.

You can reach Melissa Rooney at mmr121570@yahoo.com.