The Shitbox Shuffle

Thursday 24th November, 2022

Cars can smell weakness.

When one gets a flat or the engine flutters, it sends a distress signal to its brethren. One by one they all break down like lemmings lining up to a cliff. (Lemmings don't actually do that, by the way. That was a myth started by a horrendous Disney film called White Wilderness.)

My Toyota Matrix was supposed to be the exception to the trend. I had big plans for it. At every opportunity, I would brag to my friends and family about how it was "going to make it to 300,000 miles, no sweat." I even debated buying a bumper sticker to commemorate the future occasion.

Maybe that was my mistake. I was too certain. Too idealistic. Anything with wheels knows when your savings account has accumulated more than usual, or when life has been a little too cozy.

To be fair, it's not really the Toyota's fault. This one is on me. I did receive a warning and not a subtle one.

It started with the recall flyers. They're a lot like those extended warranty notices that people make memes about, and, like those, if you ignore them long enough, things start to get weird.

First, it's a single-page flyer in your mailbox weekly. Then several flyers a week.

After a while, you receive multi-page notices in official-looking envelopes.

If you continue to ignore them, they show up through certified mail.

You would think it would end there, right? Nope.

They hunt you down like the animal you are.

One day you're sipping your coffee in your car, enjoying the day. The parking lot is empty as you plot the day's errands, watching the grackles collect fast food remnants off a nearby curb.

Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you see the glow of a neon construction vest and the urgent flailing of arms.

Did I park in the worst spot in the city?! You think. Is someone dying?!

In your panic, you forget that car windows can roll down. You fling the door open to see a regular-looking guy - probably named Steve or something similar - staring at you wide-eyed. You check your surroundings. Nothing. He seems to have manifested out of nowhere.

When the panic subsides, his words become clear, and you see he has something in his hands. He's pointing. That's when absurdity sets in. Your tag number is on that paper. That paper is not just a paper, you've seen it before…It's that airbag flyer!

That f^&#@ airbag flyer!

"You need to fix your airbag!" He yells, and not in a scolding way, but how a messenger from the future would warn a potential victim, "It could result in injury! Or even death."

That was the moment I discovered that an airbag recall is treated like a court summons or a scheduled death that the reaper must collect. You can't see where the harbinger came from, or where they're going, but you get served with a hellish experience all the same.

When Steve materialized to warn me with genuine concern, I was happy to tell him that I was already on the books at the dealership, which wasn't a lie, but I seemed to have had perpetual appointments with them for years. (He didn't need to know that part.)

To prevent future Steve manifestations, I forced myself to get that stupid airbag fixed.

The dealership was as confusing and annoying as I expected it to be. People meandered. Signs made no sense. It was one poorly designed room after another with no obvious place to stand. There was an order to things that somehow everyone knew but also didn't.

After my airbag was fixed, they had me review a list of problems they found with my car, while holding the keys for ransom. I was ready for it, given my car looked like it had been through multiple wars and had close to a billion miles on it, but one suggestion did stand out amongst the others. They claimed to have found evidence of a blown head gasket. If you know anything about cars, you know that is a terminal diagnosis.

No way! I thought This thing runs great. I was sure their "evidence" was either made up or misunderstood. In my defense, my past experiences with dealerships led me to believe that their sole purpose of existence was to take my money by any means necessary.

I rejected their suggestions and took my keys back.

As it turns out, they were honest this time. And before I knew it, the shitbox shuffle had officially begun…

First, it was the motorcycle. A semi-truck had run my husband, Ryan, off the road. In an effort to avoid its wheels, he flew onto a pile of thorny bushes and some debris outside of a homeless encampment.

Thankfully, Ryan escaped only lightly scuffed - His bike not so lucky.

I rushed to meet him, and instead of calling a tow, we stuffed the broken bike into the back of the Toyota - yet another feat I planned to brag about. (My car was dubbed "the tow truck" for the following week.)

Needless to say, my confidence did not wane. It did not waver. In case you are the type that likes to keep track, at this point we still had two running cars - my Toyota and his Honda.

Little did I know a head gasket was clinging to dear life, and the motorcycle had emitted a distress signal that the Honda received.

Within a week, the Honda could smell Ryan's weakness and chose not to take him home from work.

But I wasn't worried. My car was impenetrable. Unstoppable. Everything would be fine. So what if we were down two out of three modes of transportation? In over a decade of owning it, the Toyota never let me down. I knew it would stand loyally by my side, undeterred by the scent of death.

But then Ryan was stranded again. This time by the unfathomable - the Matrix. And without another Matrix to stuff my Matrix in the back hatch of, we were S.O.L.

My car came home on a flatbed, the vehicle equivalent of a stretcher, broken and bruised.

I didn't believe it. I couldn't. Ryan told me the engine was knocking, but denial told me that it couldn't be.

I jumped through mental hoop after mental hoop. I thought I could rent an engine puller and fix it myself, ignoring the fact that I had no previous experience working on engines, nor did I have the tools. I considered paying the exorbitant price the mechanic had quoted me. I desperately wanted things back how they were - the Toyota and I against the world, seeing what we could fit in the hatch.

It wasn't until I heard the pitiful knocking myself that I finally accepted my car's demise. In hindsight, putting all of my faith and livelihood in a 16-year-old vehicle with 235,00 miles (380,000 km) was maybe not the best idea.

So here we are, at the peak of the shitbox shuffle. If you've never heard that term, it's common amongst those of us who own nothing but perpetual hoopties. You just keep fixing them and they keep breaking. Sometimes you find a way out of the cycle - the Toyota (God rest its soul) kept me out of it for years - but you're really only a few hundred miles or one bad car market away from being tossed back in. Have you seen the current prices of vehicles? They are insane.

I would say I'll let you know when we've escaped the shitbox shuffle, but I'm beginning to think that might never be. In the meantime, does anyone have a hatchback for sale? Preferably a manual.

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