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My SoCal Life: Woman on the verge of a breakdown

To create an extraordinary life, you need a fabulous car, right?

Recently, a stylish Facebook friend posted a photograph of a vintage mint-condition Fiat Spider: “What do you think, everyone? Should I buy this for Jack and me to fabulize in?” The comments exploded into a pinging symphony. Friends gushed: “You only live once!” “Transportation Goals!”

Me? I glanced at the 30-year-old convertible and snorted, “Been there, done that.” In the 1990s, I was known among my practical siblings—Lexus, Acura, Toyota, and Honda drivers all—as the idiot who, at age 26, blew an inheritance on one such goal: an ivory 1972 Mercedes 280 SE coupe. I bought it off a newspaper listing from a Japanese dandy, who was strangely not conflicted about selling his German masterpiece.

As he plopped the keys into my hands, he trilled, “Enjoy!”

At first, the car was a dream. I loved the varnished wooden steering wheel, the expansive sunroof for cruising PCH, and the delicious black leather seats that smelled like $100 bills. For its chirping alarm, I named the car Cricket.

In my 20s, I was lonely, alone, unformed, and yearning for my destiny to unfurl. Sure, I was a magazine editor and had the luminosity of youth. But I was a woman making her way in a city of leggy starlets as plentiful as the swaying palms. How could I compete?

In my new-old Benz (and oversize sunglasses), however, I was someone extraordinary just waiting to be discovered. I was a woman who believed she deserved a Mercedes coupe destiny. She just couldn’t afford it.

Our cars are autobiography: Nowhere is that saying more apt than in L.A., where the average pre-pandemic driver spent almost 120 hours in his car every year. And with Cricket as my ride, my autobiography instantly shifted. I began getting all the attention I desired—once, a Range Rover–driving hottie held up a sign with his number and "CALL ME!" on it.

But all too soon, Cricket became a 4,000-pound albatross. I couldn’t drive it across town without worrying about it overheating (or worse). I’d be cruising down Olympic or Wilshire when thick black smoke would start billowing violently from under the hood. More than once, I pulled over at some random friend’s house and asked to leave my car there and, oh, could I get a ride home?

Some part of 20s me enjoyed the drama—and the human contact. Having an ailing car meant I had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Call it Munchausen Syndrome of the Vehicular Kind.

It took leaving L.A. and its car culture to cure me. I moved to Hong Kong, where I took the minibus. And when I returned to L.A. 8 years later, I brought back a husband and, soon after, welcomed a baby.

Our first car together was a gleaming BMW Z3, but when my husband, Ajay, crashed the convertible, I realized it was time to grow up—psychologically and automotively. With some tears, I bought a white Volvo station wagon and named it Olaf. There went the 4-wheeled beauty in my life—or so I thought.

The first day I drove my daughter to school, a mother I admired said, “That’s a great ride—solid, safe, drama free. Do you love it?” I looked at Olaf, our clunky Swedish tank with its dull rubber bumpers, bling-free grille, and the car seat in the back, and said, “You know what? I do love it. It’s fabulous.”

Alison Singh Gee is the author of Where the Peacocks Sing: A Place, a Prince, and the Search for Home.

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