I have my keys. I have my van. Welcome, Ruth.
Naming is dangerous. We take a thing we know relatively little about and then saddle it with definitional baggage and watch as the thing molds its personality to the name’s expectation. The Christmas morning that my sister woke to a dog licking her face was the morning our family decided, like some fait accompli, that we would forever be haranguing Rascal to stop barking or to stop licking our feet. I wonder if Rascal had been a Shiloh or Serenity we would have had fewer 5am wake ups.
But look at this van:
This is a Ruth. There are rhinestones on her woodwork. Her cushions are carmine. There are rhinestones on her woodwork. I imagine the van parked in the lee of a sand dune, the rear door open and facing an aqua bay, Ruth under the shade of a tree whose leaves are mitt sized and whose branches extend like an ancient squid in rigor mortis. And inside the van’s rear cab, cross-legged on the corner of the bench, pressed up against the oak cupboard, is an old lady. Her hair is pulled into a bun, and in her senescent hands she completes a needlepoint scene of the van under a tree, and her flourishing finish is a blue thread looped from out the van’s exhaust to form the cursive words, “Ruthie.” Then the old lady holds up her handiwork and says, “See, isn’t it nice dear?”
Already the Biblical appellation is apt. I discovered Ruth on a Monday, and on the second and third day God said let there be mechanical problems. The entire trip might end with the fire and brimstone bit from revelations.
The Kiwis, online bloggers, and expats who have their car buying experience behind them need to tone down their austere confidence about how simple it is to buy a used van. The brevity of purchasing requirements belies the actual experience in much the same way as those sympathetic, admitted attorneys did when they said, “Don’t fret about the Bar, you’ll be fine, it’s only a five section test.”
My reason for existence in the weeks leading up to my move was buying a reasonably priced van that did not have an internal mechanism that could detect when payment was made and then behave accordingly. That focus, coupled with a second grader’s knowledge of auto-mechanics and a mother who consistently but not light heartedly insisted, “Knowing your luck you’ll buy a car that will die on day one,” caused not insignificant amounts of anxiety. (Add to this the constant undercurrent of my predisposition to expect that the worst possible scenario will occur. Mind you, not think of and plan for the worst possible scenario, but to actually expect it. This is a learned—if not paternally genetic—behavior, for which I have two illustrative examples: (1) When I lived in St. Louis I remarked to my dad that I might get a smoker to put on the wood patio. He responded, “It will spark and catch fire and burn the entire complex down;” and (2) on a recent trip to a restaurant eighteen miles away, my dad pulled his twenty-eight gallon Expedition into a gas station. My mom said, “Your tank is three quarters full, why are we stopping?” He responded, “If we get stuck in traffic we might not have enough to get off and fill up.”)
To lessen the potential ill effects of my automative ignorance, I asked my older and more mechanically capable god brother to give me—what he fatalistically called—a crash course in car inspection. So, there I was—lawyer, grown man, beard haver—in Joshua’s garage two days before my departure date learning the myriad components under a car hood. “That is the belt,” he said, pointing, “See how it has no frayed edges? That’s what you’re looking for.” Okay. I learned that oil pooled around piston valves is bad news, but that a consistent coat of dried oil across the entire engine is acceptable. I learned when to walk away (water or hints of metal in the oil, battery corrosion, moisture on the engine, etc.). But as my bullet point checklist grew, and my drone responses similar to, “Yes, catalytic converter important, will note,” continued with relatively little deviation, Joshua started wringing his nape and sucking air between the sides of his teeth and saying, “I wish I could be there when you look at this thing,” or, “How about you just send me pictures of whatever vehicle you’re looking at?”
Backpackers listed the majority of the vans. Almost as a rule the vans came fully equipped, were in Auckland or Christchurch, had odometers over 290,000km (“No,” said Joshua), and were advertised on FB in the hackneyed lingua-franca of backpacker English. I discovered New Zealand’s version of Craigslist, an authoritarian-about-needing-a-New-Zealand-mailing-address website called Trade Me. There I found a van: Under 190,000km, Nissan, bed in the back, and Joshua via WhatsApp approved. Okay.
I arrived in Beach Haven, an Auckland suburb, an hour earlier than when I said I would. The van’s caretaker (Heather) did not respond to my request to come over, so I wandered Beach Haven’s not yet totally gentrified neighborhood. I passed a home that had dozens of flip-flops nailed to a picket fence. I read in a park where a table full of Maoris listened to music and two plump tweens picked from chips sweating oil onto parchment paper. Now thirty minutes early I wanted to see the van.
I had had to prepare myself after reviewing the advert picture, but seeing the van in person made me re-ask an all too common New York City question: What the fuck is wrong with people?
The van owner, a surfer whose name is Volker but who people call T-Bloke and who absconded to Uruguay, adorned nearly every inch of the van with stickers. The ad didn’t attempt to hide them either: A skull and cross bones on the grill, a surfer mid spin on the car door, a copulation of large Billabong stickers and their miniature progeny. There is no better metaphor than saying seeing the van was akin to seeing a Tinder match in full sunlight. There was a “Yo Mama” joke sticker, four stickers using fuck in an abnormal syntax (e.g., “Fuck you very much”), and a sticker of a cartoon male with eyes strained and bloated like from sudden masturbatory cessation. After I saw the online posting for the car I determined it would be difficult but not impossible to remove every one. Seeing the van in person made me doubt that. Nor would I leave them. Stickers are the herpes simplex of cars. They are usually acquired through bad choices or unlucky inheritance. They are cosmetically off putting, especially when conspicuous and in multitudes. They are clinically innocuous, unless you consider social judgment or ramifications, yet take a mixture of time and ointments to remove.
I knocked on Heather’s door. Heather, playing the interim car-taker and saleswoman role for T-Bloke while he is away, was a dark featured woman with a smoker’s voice and a couple of raspberry shaped and colored skin irregularities. Her rushed mannerisms were those of someone who hears the phone ring while in the shower. “Here to see the car, eh?” Was her introduction.
With the engine exposed I ran through my checklist and asked her questions. I quickly learned she knew less about cars than I did, a fact she confessed to early and often by answering each questions with, “You probably know better than I do.”
The engine looked fine. No oozing battery. No bubbling oil junk. Belts were compact, there were no holes in any valves. The “camper” part of the camper van equation was a hot mess of jammed in plywood framing and pungent foam slabs. I asked Heather if she could kindly start the ignition while I crouched by the exhaust to determine the color of any expunged smoke. I heard her sit in the driver seat, heard the sounds of metal on metal and then a futile click and then her yell, “It doesn’t seem to be working, yah?”
The next listing was for a 1995 Toyota Liteace with an automatic transmission and 179,000kms. “Looks pretty good,” said Joshua. The listing called it a “Gypsy Van.” Okay.
I got to meet Dan, a thirty-plus photographer with a wife, kid on the way, and a Te Atatu peninsula home, which meant a $10, 2 hour bus trip each way for me. Dan had that measure of reluctance to part with the car that any buyer hopes to see in a seller. The van was on the curb. Dan opened the engine, cab, and camper and let me peak around at will. He stuffed a handful of mechanical history documents into my hand. Dan was also a good sport during my test drive, meaning he nervously laughed instead of screamed when I brought the car’s left side too close to cars parked curbside. The van ran smooth. The turn signals worked. The break pedal had pressure. The bed was custom, upholstered foam with a neutral odor and was comfortable enough. I asked Dan about the kind of shape the catalytic converter was in, and he said he isn’t sure what that is. I gave a bastardized version of what Joshua told me, “Just important, exhaust system and things, purposes, surrounded by expensive elements, stolen sometimes.” That was likely verbatim. Dan let me pick out a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. At this point I told myself, “Do not get excited.”
The mechanic was a Chinese guy who worked in an overly large sewer pipe. It looked like a hanger for a Cessna. He said, “Two hour.” Dan let me pass the time in his photography studio, which was a block away. At no time did Dan talk on the phone for anything other than photography business. When two hours were up we went back to the mechanic’s. “Very nice van,” the Chinese man said. He typed up a list of benign problems, some of which Dan unilaterally agreed to have fixed right then and there.
I scanned the report and sent it to Joshua (“Looks good!”) who gave me pricing advice. Shortly thereafter I reached an agreement with Dan, shortly after that I met him at an ANZ Bank teller window and directed the teller to pass the banded stacks of orange one hundred bills to Dan. Dan handed me the key, and the teller, because she wanted me to have something to remember her by, gave me a spare keychain. Twenty minutes and two scraped curbs later I drove into Auckland with a car all my own and a set of keys to ground me. Four hours later the front left turn signal crapped out. One hour after that the car stalled at a red light. Forty eight hours after that the car went into the shop.
Welcome, Ruth. How quickly you’ve adapted to become the new woman in my life.
Post script: Ruth is running again and has been stellar driving around New Zealand’s Northland. Update to come.