SNOW WHITE AND THE ART OF TOYOTA MAINTENANCE
It's not that I'm more of a car person than most Jersey girls. Necessity, however, makes strange bedfellows. In my life as a struggling actor and director, I could do without a car. As the artistic director (and general dogsbody) of a theatre company, however, wheels were a must. Actors can make their own way, but costumes, props and lights need transportation.
Despite my lofty title, to anyone making car loans, I was a minimum wage bartender, at a dump where the fanciest mixed drink was a rye and Seven-Up. Draft beer was a quarter, shots of house brands—there were only house brands—were a dollar. My tip cup rarely held more than ten or fifteen dollars a shift, when there was enough to bother counting. I would take my shift pay out of the till, never knowing if George, the bar owner, would tell me to "take a few days off" because the numbers game he ran was a little light.
In these blissful past days, rent was cheap enough that only one roommate was necessary, my work wardrobe was based primarily on jeans, and rehearsal space was easily borrowed. Still, I was getting deeper into my 20's. If I were going to be a wunderkind head of a touring theatre group, I had to manage all three aspects: group—that is, actors and crew, a theatre and touring. Mobility, it turned out, was the easy part.
A new or late model used car was out of the question, as was anything that required sophisticated maintenance—like tune-ups or automatic transmission fluid. As a woman when passage of the Equal Rights Amendment seemed inevitable, I made sure I could manage most of my cars' mechanical needs, with occasional assistance of "Billy the Mechanic," a likable ex-con who hung out at the bar with his wife—daughter of a local police lieutenant. (You can't make this stuff up).
After college, I had bought a used, pristine, convertible beetle. That car, top down, punched above its weight. It had carried an enormous china cabinet for my sister, 8 by 4 scenery flats and everything I owned when necessary. The bug lasted until an 18-wheeler crunched into its rear end. The engine—in the back—absorbed most of the impact. I walked away with a slightly dented nose.
The insurance settlement financed a gaudy orange and white VW bus. Seriously underpowered, it was nevertheless cavernous. It was also cursed mechanically. Billy, seemingly sober, had pronounced it sound, missing the bad head gasket that sprung a leak shortly after I drove it home. Repairing it was beyond my skills and budget. After pouring in temporary engine sealants, I could drive for about a hundred miles in relative safety, before oil would spurt onto the hot engine parts, causing a trail of black smoke to puff from the engine compartment.
One night outside the hospital where I was visiting a sick friend, the van was stolen. My reaction was a mixture of chagrin, outrage and, ultimately, grim hope that the thief would be blown away in a Vesuvius of burning gasket sealant.
Still, if I were going to run a theatre company, I needed wheels.
Enter Snow White, a 1971 Toyota station wagon. It cost me $150 in July 1976. So cheap a car, I hoped it would last a year, maybe two, into the next Bicentennial. It wasn't in terrible shape. All of the doors worked. Nothing was automatic, cooled or padded. Most of the paint was close to the same color. The engine was slightly larger than a KitchenAid mixer, set in a compartment with lots of elbow room - the only place in the car where "spacious" was an appropriate adjective.
With the help of a repair manual, "Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat (sic) Idiot," that car took me far but not without trauma. She was rear-ended at a stop sign (Bicentennial +six months), dropped her battery through a corroded brace (+18 months), sprung leaks in the brake cables (+24 and + 30 months—the second time in the Holland Tunnel at two am) and suffered many flat tires, mostly due to me buying ten-dollar retreads.
Her worst habit was stalling in the rain. Or the mist. Or high humidity. Fortunately, removing and wiping the distributor cap cured that in minutes - unless it was raining too hard. Her propensity to stop without warning meant driving in the middle or left lane was generally a bad idea.
Not that her engine could keep up with traffic in the left lane. No matter.
Having Snow White meant that my theatre company had a leg up, a chance at jobs that were unattainable otherwise. This was New York, where few people had driver's licenses, let alone cars. Her battered hulk was unlikely to be stolen near our crummy rehearsal space, and when her pop -out back windows were smashed I could fix those, too. I turned out to be a much better street mechanic than theatrical producer.
Like her namesake, Snow White worked hard for her keep. Along with a fair number of dwarves, she could be packed with the props and costumes for a full production of "The Matchmaker." A strap-on roof rack could handle the light poles for "Jacques Brel." The entire cast of "Mary, Mary" could be chauffeured to a dinner theatre.
The money I saved with the little wagon—no car loan, no van rental, good gas mileage, fearless on-street parking—could be pumped into my theatre company. Every time I gapped a spark plug or changed the oil, I could add a costume, light, posters. Too bad Snow White couldn't placate prima donnas, sober up drunk actors or, ultimately, entice paying audiences to our shows.
Snow White outlasted the theatre company—and my theatrical ambitions. After producing a large-cast Restoration comedy that sold out and still drained my bank account, I quit, cold turkey, slamming the door on my life to date. Loyally, Snow White saw me through law school and into a job that paid real money. Somehow, I became a grown up.
Soon after graduation, I bought my first new car—a gleaming Celica with the sharp angles of a Triumph. Snow White retired to Starrett City, with a friend who drove her once a week for grocery runs. Under such gentle treatment, the old girl expired in a few months, unable to take the lack of abuse.
I drove the Celica for a few years, never needing to breach its incomprehensible mechanics. It ran perfectly until I sold it.
I never did give it a name.
D Ferrara has been an active writer and ghost writer for more years than she cares to admit. Articles, essays and short stories are her continuing obsession—several publications, including The Main Street Anthology—Crossing Lines, East Meets West American Writers Review: 2014 Holiday Edition, The Broadkill Review, MacGuffin Press, Crack the Spine, Green Prints, Amarillo Bay, The Penmen Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Law Studies Forum, and RIMS Magazine have fed this mania by including them. Her short stories, Then and Now and Pocket Dial were long listed in the Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction. Arvin Lindemeyer Takes Canarsie was a Top Finalist in the ASU Screenwriting Contest. Her play, Favor, won the New Jersey ACT award for Outstanding Production of an Original Play, while Sister Edith’s Mission, and Business Class were produced at the Malibu Repertory Company’s One Act Play Festival. Three of her full-length film scripts have been optioned. She recently received her M.A. in Creative Writing, where it joined her J.D., L.l.M. and B.A, amid the clutter of her office.