My first car

My first car

When we first got married in 1960, we bought a secondhand car for me. It was a very used Pontiac, and it cost $140. It gave me a good ride for many years.

I loved that car. A lot. It also taught me not to look for prestige in a car. Reliability and safety were enough. It was a lesson I obviously forgot!

Blame the management team at the real estate office where I began working in the early 70s. They tried hard to convince me. I still don’t know why they bothered. I was doing the job, getting the listings, and selling the houses. What did it matter if I didn’t dress the part (like they did) and if I didn’t drive the right car (like they did!)? I suppose that they thought I reflected on them. And these two women were always perfectly coiffed, super stylishly dressed, driving cars that were nothing short of elegant and immaculate, the latest in luxury.

Me? Not so much at all! I had four little kids when I started the job. I was doing huge amounts of carpooling in order to get those kids to their destinations. I also had to feed and clothe them and often enlist the help of my husband, especially on those long Sundays that he had hoped would be family time but hardly ever were. Ever hear of an open house?

My bosses threw out hints about the dress for success look all the time. I shrugged them off. As long as I continued to be productive, there was no way I was going to get a personal shopper. I was never a clotheshorse. If you know me you know this is still true. No fashionista lives here!

My car, however, was something else. Even I could see it was a disgrace. It was a Plymouth station wagon, new when we bought it, but it had done some hard living in the 10 years or so that we had it. We always had dogs and kids, and their friends, piling in. There usually were assorted snack wrappers on the floor and dog hair all over. Not a show car, for sure.

But the final blow came in the Little Big Horn mountains of South Dakota, in the famed Black Hills of Custer’s Last Stand. We were on a bicentennial family trip, learning history wherever it had happened, coast to coast.

Before you read further, I want you to know this event has haunted me since that July of 1976. I am still feeling guilty although I am totally innocent.

It was dawn on a very quiet road. I was driving. The scene was beautiful, first light, peaceful, no rustling, not even a whiff of a breeze, and air that I wanted to bring back to New Jersey, air with its own freshness and delicious clean mountainous scent. We were singing in the car, windows open a bit, disturbing the calm deliberately so any wildlife around would know we were coming. It didn’t help.

I wasn’t speeding, but a terrible thing happened. It happened in an instant; I hardly believed it had really taken place, but that horrible, deadly thud was real, way too real. I heard the crunch of metal, the Plymouth yielding in many places to a powerful force. Lying in the middle of that peaceful road was a fully grown doe, dead, with her mate standing and looking down at her. I could see his disbelief. They had been out for a morning romp and then this terrific crash, and then she was gone. I’m sure there were tears coming from his tortured eyes. There certainly were tears pouring from mine.

I pulled over, of course, and checked our children. They were not injured, and neither was my husband. My own injuries were to my soul.

Something terrible had happened. I was distraught.

The car was another story. Indeed it was! Battered and dented. Big dents. We were fortunate that it still drove, perfectly normally, as if nothing had happened. And we were grateful that it had protected us.

Eventually we arrived back in New Jersey. It had been a good trip, but the deer had clearly strained it. Even in my memory these many years later, I still can see her lying motionless on the road, the still and peaceful and beautiful road.

We knew it was time to trade in the car. Fixing it would cost more than it was worth. And so we went out and bought a gleaming new navy blue Cadillac. We never had any interest in or aspirations to own a luxury car, but it seemed logical to follow the advice of my colleagues, who explained, as if to a child, customers will be impressed and more likely to buy a house from you if you have the look of success and drive up in a fancy car. And this car was absolutely totally fancy! A huge, gleaming navy blue Sedan de Ville, matching velvet upholstery and all. It sure did look like a successful person owned it. That was me!

Too bad it was a lemon. I’m sure if I squeezed hard enough juice would come pouring out. Nothing worked well. Nothing worked right. And finally, nothing worked.

And then there were Jim and Barbara M. They turned out to be the best customers I ever had. They bought and sold with me so often that I closed about eight transactions, biggies, with them alone, in a two-year period. One day Barbara called and told me to come and put their house on the market. They were moving back to California. They missed the delightful mild winters, and having wine and cheese on the patio with friends. New Jersey was too cold for them.

So I hopped into the Sedan de Ville and pulled up to their huge lovely house. Barbara ran out to meet me, in shock. Her usual smile was stricken from her face. What did you do? she gasped. She told me she loved my beat-up station wagon. It made me seem authentic, not showy. Oops!

You may remember another event that I previously reported on, the day I was riding with my kids on Route 78 when torrential rain poured onto my car’s windshield and the wipers were dead on arrival. Nothing worked. I’ve said it before! I really didn’t think the helpless family, suddenly more than visually impaired, actually blinded, us, would walk out alive. Somehow we did. It was scary and unforgettable.

There were incidents all the time. The very worst was during clear weather, when I was driving home from dropping our daughter Lori off at her college in Manhattan. (Columbia, since you asked.) All was going normally (which for that car really wasn’t so normal) until I was on a bridge on the Turnpike and the stop engine light went on. I had been speaking to that car for a bit now, begging it to perform well, so I did it again. I said to the car, “I’ll stop the car if you’ll just give me a few more feet so I’m off the bridge, which has no shoulders.” That miserable car answered. The engine died on the bridge. Smoke started pouring out of her. I could neither steer her nor stop her. All systems were unresponsive.

I was cruising at 60 mph and I could do nothing to get out of the way of one of those huge trucks that we all who traverse the NJ Turnpike, know too well. They’re monsters.

The truckdriver started banging on his horn. I could almost hear him cussing at me to get out of his way, something that could not be done. I didn’t know what else to do so I recited the Shema. Right or wrong that’s what I did. It must have been right because I stopped and got out of the truck’s way. I opened the car door and began walking away from the car to anywhere. I honestly do not remember how I got home, but it wasn’t in the gleaming new Cadillac Sedan de Ville.

All these years later we have, in fact, learned our lesson. We immediately traded in the luxury Caddy for a Chevrolet Caprice, which performed magnificently for more than 200,000 miles. Chevy sent me a t-shirt in honor of that achievement, which was actually theirs, not ours. And all these many cars later, we ignore the prestige cars and go for those we trust. Now it’s a Honda.

And as for my real estate career, I obtained a New Jersey real estate broker’s license, the ultimate designation, by taking a miserable course and passing the most excruciating exam of my life (and that includes college calculus), never yielding to pressure to dress or drive for success. Being honest and hardworking have their own rewards.

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!