A couple months ago I said goodbye to an old friend. She was a reliable, dependable member of the family for eight years — our 2004 blue sedan Saab, model 9-5. She was a Swede; a country that gave also gave us Pippi Longstocking, Ikea and ABBA. Over the years we owned three Saabs.
Before it became the hand-me-down car for the boys, it was mine. I drove it to work for years and then handed it off to the boys for the high school years. Saabs have a distinctive look and feel — the interior is spacious and they ride low to the ground. And when it came to entertainment she had a trifecta worthy of the Smithsonian: a CD player, radio and cassette player.
It also had personality. Saabs sport a unique hood medallion: a red lion wearing a crown that declares to the world, “This car is cool.” When my sons drove it, they personalized it, adorning it with a sticker that says, “Radiohead” — a band unfamiliar to me but one that probably gets heavy rotation on those satellite radio stations like Jam On, Alt Nation and Lithium.
With the Saab brand you gained the privilege of having it serviced at George’s Imports. In the Saab heyday, George’s was located at 80th Street and State Line Road— now the home to QuikTrip — it was super convenient to our daily commute and small enough you that felt like you were part of an exclusive community. As any area owner of a Saab knew, George’s was owned by the Schaffner family, but that wasn’t the name you knew — it was just Brad, the son of George. Brad was a cross between Mario Andretti and Grizzly Adams, and your car was his car. So he took care of it.
The New York Times once noted that Saab’s innovation “has exerted outsize influence on the industry. That is the company’s establishment of the small-displacement turbocharged engine as the way to resolve the conflicting desires for fuel economy and available torque.”
But like many car manufacturers, Saab hit a rough patch and in 2009 it filed for bankruptcy. But unlike most brands, it never emerged. It then went the way of the Saturn, except no one told our car. She kept starting, no matter the outside temperature, and zipping off, often with the snow that on the hood flying off in chunks.
But the years added up, with 102,031 miles, an erratic fuel gauge indicator, and a host of “fix me” dashboard lights that stared back at you, including the dreaded “check engine” light, which could mean $10 or $10,000. As one car commentator observed, “They named it Saab because that’s what you do when you see the repair bill.”
As the kids moved away, the car went from stud to dud. And when the headlight began to blink at startup, it was a foreshadowing of other problems, all of which had one thing in common: Money. The car went from something to move you to something you had to move around.
Yet from time to time I would drive it to work, provided I would be off the road by dusk. My presence in the left lane along Ward Parkway screamed “college loser” that made the larger rigs clear out. I loved it.
So last fall, with the boys now living in faraway cities, the time came to say goodbye. We decided to donate it to Rockhurst High School for their car auction. On the day before we said goodbye, I spent a couple of hours cleaning it out. You know how some family cars are filled with sentimental things you find when you clean it out behind the seats? Like pacifiers and Big Chief tablets filled with stick figures? That wasn’t this car.
This model had many compartments that served like catch basins for things at one time deemed valuable. And then worthless. One pocket was just below the lip of the front seats. Jammed.
I was curious about what I would find. It was like a Gen X archeology dig — think “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” meets Fernando. The retrieved items: golf balls, golf tees, scorecards, accessories for anything Apple has ever made and then promptly made obsolete. The trunk had school notebooks untouched by human hands. There was enough Nike inventory to fill Dicks Sporting Goods. A jockstrap. Yes, a cup, which I removed with a biohazard outfit. College textbooks with payback dollars never paid, cassette tapes, homemade CDs with titles etched with a Sharpie.
Other items: a billion receipts to Taco Bell. Two billion ATM receipts with balances less than five bucks. Even a vinyl record — Coldplay. A billion coins — all pennies. One curious find: something called “No Snooze” with a warning label, “Keep out of reach of children.” Apparently a precursor to Five Hour Energy. Unopened of course.
Things not found. Notes to mom. Stamps. Dollar bills. Pens with caps. Rosaries. Church bulletins. St. Christopher dashboard figures.
I know that car will find a new home, perhaps a garage, and likely belong to a high school kid who will put it in the epicenter of his life. I hope he likes Radiohead.
Matthew Keenan writes the first and third Wednesday of the month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.