She didn’t leave me stranded on the side of the road in the rain or abandon me to skid out of control along a busy highway.
She left me gently, quietly, almost apologetically.
I had been driving my Chevrolet Malibu for 10 years when she slowly powered down as I pulled into my brother’s driveway on a Saturday in late September. After traveling more than 243,000 miles throughout the Ohio Valley and North Carolina, her engine gave out and I decided not to spend $4,500 to bring her back to life.
We parted ways at a AAA center in North Raleigh, where I packed up pens and reporters’ notebooks and loose change that had accumulated over the past decade. I snapped a photo of her – I never really gave her a name – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she deserved a more-ceremonious goodbye.
Growing up in poverty, I learned early on that having a car is crucial to creating an easier life. My family lived in a one-stoplight West Virginia town that doesn’t have a grocery store, industry or public transportation. Families there have to drive to a neighboring town about 6 miles away, and many people drive much farther for work.
My mom, a single mother with four children, went stretches of time without a car. No car meant no job. No job meant no money. And no money meant no car.
Many poor families get stuck in that loop, which limits their chances of economic mobility.
The Malibu, a 2004 four-door sedan and a trustworthy companion, represents my own family’s journey into the middle class. My sister and brother-in-law bought the car nearly new for Mom shortly after they finished college and started their careers. Mom needed it for her new job as a mental-health caseworker – “the most ambitious job I had, and probably the most rewarding one,” she says.
I bought the car from my sister a couple years later when I started my career as a journalist. The Malibu drove thousands of miles on the back roads of Johnston County as I reported stories for a small-town newspaper. When I took a journalism job in Salisbury, she made countless trips along Interstate 40. She brought me to Raleigh to work for The News & Observer.
Cars – mostly the lack of them – played such a big role in my life early on, and I cherished the stability and security the Malibu gave me.
One of the earliest family cars I can remember was an old clunker that made this horrendous sound and couldn’t be trusted to go far. I think it ended up being used in a demolition derby at the county fair.
My mom had a Subaru for a while that allowed her to enroll in community college, where she finished the same year my sister graduated as valedictorian of her high school class.
When the Subaru died, Mom eventually used some tax-refund money to buy a station wagon that lasted about four days before it conked out. She wanted a car as my sister headed to college 80 miles away.
I was a junior in high school by then, and I used the money I made from waiting tables to help Mom buy a Chevy Corsica. We both drove it to work, and it gave me a sense of empowerment and freedom I had never experienced before.
My father helped me buy a Dodge Neon my sophomore year of college, allowing me to get a journalism internship for two summers.
Growing up in poverty, I learned early on that having a car is crucial to creating an easier life. ... No car meant no job. No job meant no money. And no money meant no car.
But the Malibu, with its fancy power windows and key fob, felt like my first adult car.
We had a good run together, and I wondered if she could have a new life – maybe help someone else the way she helped my mother and me. I reached out to Wheels4Hope, a nonprofit in Raleigh that accepts donated vehicles and sells them for cheap to people who need them.
To my surprise, they accepted the ol’ Malibu. When I went to the Wheels4Hope office to complete the paperwork, I told Beth Purdy, who handles the donations, how my family would have benefited from the program when I was a kid.
The group has given nearly 200 cars this year, and its goal for next year is 250, Purdy said. Recipients, who are referred by dozens of partnering agencies, must have a job. They pay $500 for a car, plus $118 in fees.
Nearly 800 cars have been donated this year to Wheels4Hope, Purdy said. Cars that aren’t placed with people who need them are sold to the public or taken to a salvage yard, where they can go for about 7 cents a pound.
That was the Malibu’s fate. I hope she’s getting some much-deserved rest out there.
I also hope parts of her – maybe a timing belt or an oxygen sensor – will help power another car that will drive a family into new opportunities.
Want to donate a car?
Here are some of the many organizations that accept donated cars. Some donations are tax-deductible.
▪ Kars4Kids: www.kars4kids.org; 888-597-5938
▪ The Salvation Army: http://bit.ly/2BhePWx; 877-503-GIVE
▪ Paralyzed Veterans of America Wheels Helping Warriors: www.pva.org; 855-744-0782
▪ Wheels4Hope: http://wheels4hope.org; 919-832-1941 or 336-355-9130
▪ Wheels for Wishes benefiting Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern North Carolina: www.wheelsforwishes.org; 855-841-9474