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Goodbye, Muffin: Ode To A Jalopy

Who ever wrote a love letter to a Toyota Corolla? (katybird/flickr)
Who ever wrote a love letter to a Toyota Corolla? (katybird/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

“I’m all set,” growled the tow guy as I unscrewed the corroded license plates. “Lady, you can go.”

“I’ll wait,” I insisted, patting the hood of the aging maroon vehicle. Moments earlier I had stiffened when the man drove my husband’s Isuzu Trooper up the tow truck’s steep ramp. Now, as he approached the Muffin, I froze.

“What will you do with her?” I shouted over the shrieking of sea gulls from the harbor.

But of course I knew: On this chilly afternoon, my husband, Eric, and I were donating our two cars to charitable organizations, because the rusting vehicles, denizens of too many New England winters, could no longer pass inspection.

Probably the two autos would be scrapped.

I wonder: What is this tenderness towards metal and glass and rubber? This nostalgia that unfolds upon seeing a familiar dent? And that sadness on contemplating a field of abandoned cars?

My husband nudged me, and I handed over the Muffin’s worn silver key. As the tow man (I’ll call him Ralph) secured a chain around the front end, my stomach tightened. Tax break or not, how could I commit to the junkyard a car that had started up reliably for 22 years?

I had resisted nicknaming the car. (“The Muffin” was Eric’s doing, his way of suggesting the '84 Corolla’s diminutive size compared to his SUV, purchased before we began dating.) There was nothing glamorous about this small, boxy, front-wheel drive Toyota. It was not like the Detroit cars of my childhood, with their grand chrome fins and grills. Or the '65 Chrysler I’d owned briefly in her aging Diva days, which stalled at left turns, particularly at major intersections; or its replacement, which leaked oil all the way to the Toyota dealership.

Yet the Corolla had carried me thousands of miles a year for my work as a fisheries reporter, from Point Judith, Rhode Island, to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and through many close calls, including one blinding snowstorm-turned-blizzard on the Maine Turnpike in which I had to keep driving in order to avoid being struck by a plow.

More importantly, the car got me home when my ailing father was rushed to the hospital for the last time. I remember clearly the Maine mail boat captain’s calling out: “We’ll take that small car,” pointing to the Muffin. His decision, seconds before casting off, allowed us passage to the mainland, from Vinalhaven Island, where I had been working. From there, the Muffin ferried me another 110 miles, to the Portland airport. I pushed the little car as hard as I could, my eyes on the lookout for speed traps. We arrived just as the plane to New York was boarding. I dashed across the tarmac, and so reached my father’s bedside in time to talk with him before he died.

Now, standing here in the waning light as Ralph leans over the Muffin and places tow lights on the roof, I feel a rush of hot tears. I wonder: What is this tenderness towards metal and glass and rubber? This nostalgia that unfolds upon seeing a familiar dent? And that sadness on contemplating a field of abandoned cars?

My husband still celebrates his father’s Rover 2000, pines over a MG-TC that he fell in love with in college and a Ferrari he discovered later in life but will never afford. But who ever wrote an ode to a 22-year-old Toyota Corolla?

The author pictured with  Muffin on its fateful last day. (Courtesy)
The author pictured with  Muffin on its fateful last day. (Courtesy)

I’m a city girl, an advocate of public transportation, whose idea of indulgence is to take a taxi. I bought a car (and learned to drive) only because I had to — for work. I drove the Muffin a total of 102,843 miles, not much considering that we were together for more than two decades. We reached midlife simultaneously: I, to give up reporting and take a desk job as an editor, the Muffin to give in to rust.

When I cleaned out the car, I unearthed my father’s old Peterson bird guide, opened to a page on gulls, which he had watched from the beach the autumn he died. He had wanted me to have the guide when I moved to a seacoast town in New England.

Ralph finished hitching the towing lights on the Muffin, climbed into the truck’s cab and waved goodbye. Eric tossed me the keys to the new car we now share. I lingered, watching a solitary gull sail over the harbor and the tow truck pull onto Main Street, its cargo, the Trooper and Muffin, behind. I stood for what seemed like a long time, my eyes fixed on the red tow lights until they disappeared against the evening sky.

Susan Pollack Cognoscenti contributor
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of the "Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes."

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