Week 22: How to Drive Yourself Crazy Buying a Car Long Distance

August 25, 2020

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I have not been this stressed in a while.

A week and a day ago, I still believed that our middle child, Eli, would be moving into his dorm at Michigan State University this Friday.

Then we found out the school would be completely online, and the dorms would be closed to all but the neediest students. So maybe Eli would stay home. But then he and three friends got together and decided to rent a house. Only they couldn’t find a house. They thought as musicians they’d be too noisy for an apartment building — until they learned the practice rooms on campus would be open. So they looked for an apartment together. But all the four bedroom apartments turned out to be in buildings run by a company that has one-star ratings on Yelp (good job, Eli, checking that out before we signed a lease!). All seemed lost — until they realized they could split up, and rent a pair of two-bedroom apartments in the same building.

Saturday morning, he and his friend Juan (sax player, Florida) signed a lease on a two-bedroom, and Emma (bass, Sacramento) and Andrew (piano, South Dakota) committed to its twin in a neighboring building, after Emma’s dad checked out one of the units, because luckily, he happens to be in the area right now, tending to his mother who lives in Michigan.

The rent must be high for this part of the country, because from the pics, Eli will have a nicer kitchen than we do out here (this is not a super-high bar; our kitchen dates from 1952, but still, granite counter tops for a kid who just learned how to make tuna salad on Monday?). Anyway, it’s done. He has a place to live.

But that turned out to be only the start of our worries. He needs a bed. A frying pan. Dishes. Forks. Something to sit on. A way to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpet. A toilet brush, so that I can have the fantasy he will clean the bathroom from time to time. Oh, and a car. He’s 1.7 miles from campus, where he will need to go to practice, apparently, and the already-sketchy bus service has been further reduced due to the pandemic. Juan, the roommate, has a car, but they don’t know how their schedules will mesh.

I’m sure there are more challenging tasks in life, but that said, it is NOT easy trying to buy a used car in Michigan when you live in California. I know what you’re thinking — why not let Eli deal with it when he arrives? This is a perfectly sensible question. And here’s the honest answer: he’s already pretty stressed about this entire new life he finds himself in. All day long, he’s twitching, or tapping his fingers, or juggling his leg when he sits. He’s not there, in more ways than one.

Okay, that’s fine, I’ve bought numerous cars in my day, new and used. I’m up for the task. But here’s the big surprise: there are hardly any cars to be found. You find a used car with reasonable mileage, at a low price? You’d better be on that lot within the hour, cash in hand, or it is gone. I’ve literally never seen anything like this. One salesman told me this all goes back a few months, to the stimulus checks the government mailed out this spring. Lots of people, apparently, decided to use them to buy or lease cars. But because the automakers had shut down production due to the virus, there were no new cars coming onto the lots. So when buyers ran out of new cars, they started buying used. Meanwhile, people who wanted new cars, or who wanted to exchange older leased models for a brand new lease, were unable to do so, further limiting the used car inventory.

Here’s what this looks like in practice: I find a 2010 Honda CR-V with 65,000 miles on it and an excellent service record. It seems rather over-priced, but I’m confident I can bid them way down. I find a nearby mechanic who says he can look over the car for me, then I call the dealership to arrange the drop off at the mechanic’s shop. This is at 11 a.m. my time, yesterday. The guy says he’ll ring up the mechanic, then call me back. By 1:45 p.m., I still haven’t heard from him, so I call the salesman back. Someone’s looking at the car. By evening it’s sold. I ask about the 2009 on the lot, the one with 106,000 miles. Sold too, yesterday, but they haven’t had time to take it down online. I bet. Busy, busy over there.

I find an old Subaru at a different dealer, and call the next morning. Someone is just signing on the dotted line for that one, as we speak. Then the salesman for the 2010 Honda calls me back. Yesterday’s deal fell through. Am I still interested? Yes! Okay, he says, he’ll call me right back. When an hour passes, then two, I know what’s happened. It sold again, even as we were discussing it on the phone.

Meanwhile, have I worked? Have I caught up on my emails? Have I phoned GE to find out why our refrigerator says the water filter is 10 days expired, but its automatic replacement has not shown up in the mail? No, no and no (though as I write this, I realize the missing filter may be less about GE and more about the Post Office under President Trump).

I went on a dog walk with my friend Uttara today and talked her ear off about this car thing for a good 15 minutes before it occurred to me that I am trying to buy a car at one of the worst possible moments of the year, if not of the decade, and that Eli could simply make do until October. That’s when one of the salesmen told me the new cars will start arriving in dealerships again, freeing up the entire system. So unless some amazing deal falls into our lap, I informed Eli at lunchtime, we have officially put car buying on ice until later in the fall.

That gave me a moment to fire off a few emails for an article, and then turn to the next important matter at hand: the apartment itself. This was a walk in the park compared to the cars. Eli plopped down in a chair next to me, and we bought a mattress that will rest on a black wooden platform that the saleswoman at the local mattress store convinced him will be the essence of cool (I’m convinced there’s something in it for them, but I couldn’t figure out what). They’re delivering it the afternoon of the day he arrives in East Lansing. Then we went on the Bed Bath and Beyond site and bought pans and sheets and plates and a few other things that seemed essential. His friend Josh can take him there after he picks him up at the airport, and they can get it all curbside. The store was out of flatware, but Eli said don’t worry, he’ll make do with plastic for awhile. And a colander, as critical as it seemed to me for a pasta lover like himself, was something he says he can figure out down the line, along with a toaster and a trash can.

I was hoping — I crossed and double-crossed my fingers — that I was now done with my part of the move to an apartment in the Upper Midwest.

Then Eli came home from an errand and said he understood about waiting on the car buying thing, he totally got it. But he was stressed, worrying about how he would get around East Lansing when he was too scared to use Uber or Lyft, due to the virus. He didn’t want to be a burden on his friends. He didn’t think it was safe to try to ride a bike with the trombone strapped to his back. He was so, so stressed.

I saw where this was headed. I fired up my internet browser and typed in http://www.edmunds.com. Three hours later and we’re looking at cutting a check tomorrow to Dunning Toyota of Ann Arbor for a 2017 Toyota Corolla with 28K miles on it.

It’s a newer car than we planned on, but it turns out that if he gets Michigan insurance, they don’t ding you for newer model cars there like they do in California. Plus, the cost of the auto insurance in Michigan is less than half of what it would be here in L.A. It’s also a pricier car than we planned to get, but with all the money we’re saving on insurance, we can afford it.

So that’s it, right? I’m just about done with all this apartment stuff? All this spending, throwing the money away so fast it’s like the stuff is on fire and I’m trying not to burn my hands.

Well, after I get him renter’s insurance.

Then comes the hard part. We have to say good-bye.

Day 13: Georgie

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Because the coronavirus and all that surrounds it is hard and distressing, here is a story about my dog.

We’re that kind of edgy around here that even little changes make us jump. So when I was putting away laundry in my closet on Sunday, and I heard our labradoodle trying to get up in the hallway, her paws unable to find purchase on the hardwood floor, I ran out of my room.

“Georgie?” I called. “Georgie?”

I saw her tail whisk around the corner. I raced into the family room to find she’d planted herself in her brown doggy bed and was sitting there, wide-eyed, shaking slightly.

I looked up and down the hallway. Was there some small creature who spooked her? (she can run short on canine instincts) But I saw nothing.

I asked my daughter, whose room was right there, if she’d dropped something that might have startled the dog. Nope.

I went back and stared at Georgie. She was lying down now, her expression an indecipherable mix of alert and Zen. Her head bobbed back and forth, an odd kind of palsy. But otherwise, she seemed fine. I returned to my laundry.

An hour and a half, one long phone call and a bad migraine later, I walked past the dog on my way to the bathroom to get some medication. She was in the same place she’d been 90 minutes before. Not just in the same bed, but in the same, exact position.

Huh.

After I took my migraine pill, I lay down on the living room couch and I waited for the meds to work. Georgie’s just sedentary, I thought.

But she’s not that sedentary.

I called to my daughter, and asked her to take the dog on a walk. Usually, those words alone are enough to pop our pooch to her feet. But I didn’t hear any movement.

My daughter got the leash, called the dog’s name. Georgie wouldn’t move. I got up, stumbled into the family room, called to the dog. She just stared at me, her head doing that same Jello-wobble. My daughter and I looked at each other. Then, since it was Sunday and the regular vet was closed, I called the animal ER. Bring her in, they said.

The boys lifted her into the car and my daughter and I took off, Georgie slip-sliding back and forth across the floor of the minivan. Her legs seemed like they couldn’t quite bear up underneath her. But she didn’t moan, or cry out in pain. She didn’t actually make any sound at all.

When we got to the veterinary ER, we called the front desk and a broad man in a black face mask came out and carried her in the building. The last glimpse we had was of her tail, wagging lazily, as the sliding doors closed behind her.

Five minutes passed, then ten. “Do you think it’s kind of bad?” I asked my daughter at last. “Or just bad? Or really bad? I think it’s only kinda bad.”

“Mom!” she said, turning to face the car door. “Stop it! You’re stressing me out.”

Finally, my phone rang. It was the vet. She asked me to repeat the story of how we got here. After I did, she asked a question. “Is there any chance,” she said, “that there’s marijuana in your house?”

“Um…” I started to grin, picturing the two young men we’d welcomed back this month from college. “Maybe?”

The dog, she said, was showing “classic signs of marijuana toxicity.” But not to worry, Georgie would be fine. Leave her in a dark room. Let her sleep it off.

“She’s just high,” the vet said.

I started to giggle. My daughter asked what was going on. I put the vet on speaker, asked her to repeat the diagnosis. A smile spread across my daughter’s face. We said goodbye to the vet, then the two of us laughed until we just about cried.

When they brought the dog back to the car, my daughter, still giggling, covered her in kisses.

“Stoner dog,” I crooned to Georgie. “You’re just a stoner doggie, aren’t you?”

As for what she ate, apparently it was a cookie with more than just flour and sugar to recommend it. One person left the cookie out on the counter in someone else’s room. The person whose room it was failed to throw it out when the night was over.

And in the morning, when no one was looking, the dog’s excellent sense of smell led her to discover what others had overlooked.

It’s Tuesday, and Georgie seems to have forgotten any of it ever happened. And look, these are stressful times. The dog feels it, too. She’s got that little limp coming and going, the one that always shows up when she’s tense. But for 24 hours or so, the limp disappeared. It wasn’t intentional, and we don’t plan to repeat it, but for a little while, Georgie got to chill, as if none of this coronavirus stuff was even happening.

The edibles, I’ve been told, have been put away. Hopefully, far, far away.