My approach to car care was summed up by Rhoda Morgenstern on the old Mary Tyler Moore show. The guy at the auto repair shop told her, "Your car needs a lot of work. And that banana under the front seat isn't doing too well, either,"
Rhoda replied with a shrug. "I think of my car as a purse on wheels."
But Rhoda and Mary have been in reruns more than three decades. I've upgraded from my Dodge Colt to a car that has power windows and door locks, automatic transmission and even air conditioning. Is it time to come clean with my car?
I wondered about this so I asked some friends how they keep their cars clean. Two of my respondents had clear strategies for keeping their cars uncluttered. Jane says, "I don't bring anything into the car. I have a little plastic box on the front seat for my phone jack, Kleenex, garage door opener. The most mess I ever leave is the occasional coffee cup or water bottle."
Rosemary echos, "My car is so painfully neat that my friends get guilty and uncomfortable if they deposit papers in the door bins or leave paper cups behind despite my admonitions not to bother about it. I just immediately toss in the garbage everything I don't need, and I sometimes lose stuff I do need. May I add that it helps not to be a commuter?"
That last comment was an eye-opener. I go to classes and client meetings and I frequently run two or three errands on the way. I have to bring things into the car - and accidentally tossing out interview notes would be a disaster. Clearly, I have more in common with Cathy, a commuter. "That first forgotten pop can or pile of mail that gets left seems to start an avalanche of junk," she says. "If I pick up the mail or the newspaper and then I have shopping to take in, I'll leave it. And if I don't care about it, it stays forever!"
Cathy lives in a household with a convertible, a van and a pickup truck. My friend Sonjie and I each have a single car that serves all purposes. Sonjie says, "On any given day there may be dog or grandkid toys, poop bags, empty coffee cups, water bottle, food box, cough drop wrappers, DVDs and books to be returned to the library, empty leaf bags in the fall and talking books waiting to be played."
Could it be, I wondered, that a messy car, like a messy desk, is a sign of an interesting life?
Mary's response was less about how to keep a car clean than why. "Currently I share my car with my oldest son, and we're both able to tolerate a lot of mess. Then once in a while we'll clean it out." She adds, "All the literature talks about stopping to smell the roses and relationships being the most important thing in your life. Yet if your car is messy, people don't say, `Wow, that person must spend a lot of time with her kids.' They just think you're a slob."
Bingo. I'd rather emulate Jane and Rosemary's prodigious reading and entertaining conversation, not their car care. The occasional scramble to clear a seat for a passenger is embarrassing. Still, my maintenance is up to date, and my last four trade-ins have been running fine near the 150,000 mile mark. Surely those are signs that my relationship with my car is fundamentally healthy.