We’d been friends for 10 years when Harold told me he was dying.
Granted, Northern Virginia’s battered highways, repetitious stoplights, and erratic weather are tough on cars, but I didn’t expect Harold to give up so soon after we moved there. He kept bucking whenever we reached 60–70 miles per hour, and his check-engine light was on.
My thoughts weren’t: If this car dies, how the hell am I getting to work? Nor were they: How can I afford to fix this?
Rather, I thought: If this car dies, God damn I am going to miss it.
Harold is a 2005 Subaru Forester. He’s a small SUV, small enough that I call him a “car” more often than I call him an “SUV,” but still big enough to support my multi-residence, frequently-moving lifestyle. He has a turbo engine and a hood scoop to feed it, which has gotten me in many conversations with people who invariably know more about cars than me. They see the fancy hood and ask: “Hey, bro, what’s your car run?”
“Uh, I don’t know, man. It’s kinda zippy,” is one typical version of my reply.
Adding to Harold’s flashiness is his gold paint job. Subaru markets the color as Champagne Gold, which I think is a bit eccentric, but the car does look rather dashing.
Though the paint and hood scoop add some flare to the car, 180,000 miles have taken some off. For instance, I hit a deer around 100,000 miles in. The deer died, unfortunately, and Harold’s left front sustained moderate damage. Some of it got fixed, but not all. Because of that injury, cranking the car’s steering wheel hard left while in reverse produces a Robert Plant–worthy wail.
No mechanic has ever been able to explain the failure that produces that sound.
On the opposite side of the car, the plastic barriers which shield the engine from the road have pulled apart from the fender. I fixed it with gaffer’s tape, which has held for 50,000 miles (though I check after every car-wash visit to see if this part of the undercarriage has ripped apart again).
I’ve spent more time with Harold than I have with any of my human friends or family members. He’s been my full-time car for eight years, and I’ve put roughly 22,500 miles per year on him. Which, working with an estimated average speed of 60 miles per hour, means I spend about 375 hours per year in the car—better than an hour per day, and that doesn’t count the nights I’ve slept in it.
All that time has produced some permanent memories, such as driving back to central Virginia from a one-week film job on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I was drifting after college, and was at the end of yet another temporary movie gig. Unemployment wasn’t my only problem: On the last day of filming, my girlfriend had told me she was moving to China.
In the Forester, I played Craig Finn’s “Apollo Bay” and branded into my head the experience of driving down an endless strip of water-locked land, punctuated by iron toll bridges and Finn’s words: “I’m gonna drive around, gonna come down the coast by myself.” The car felt comfortable; everything outside it did not.
The car feels a different kind of comfortable when I sleep in it. Where I’m from—rural Virginia—people party wherever they can, and cabs are as rare and impractical as alcohol is cheap and plentiful. Hence, I created the Car Bed: I’ve passed many fitful—but safe—nights wallowing in a sleeping bag or on top of an air mattress stuffed into the back of the car. With the Forester’s back seats folded forward, I can just barely stretch out to my full length.
Aside from partying, I’ve also used the car to try to hold my circle of high-school friends together, enlisting Harold to transport us to various concerts: Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Lamb of God, Megadeth—name an aggressive band, and Harold’s probably been in the parking lot outside of one of their shows. (A staple of our concert road trips is playing “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” whenever we exit a toll booth.)
During college, Harold was always an anchor of my weekends. In my apartment complex one Saturday afternoon, I saw a drunk girl try to pull a hit-and-run on a parked car. I tracked the drunkard down with Harold, recorded her license-plate number, and returned to the damaged car’s owner with the information; he was gleeful that he now had what he needed to catch her. That is the only time I can remember making a stranger ecstatic.
Another weekend, I swooped into a parking lot to retrieve a drunk friend, and decided to pretend we were in an action movie to see how he’d react. I frantically motioned at him as he stumbled into the car, then yelled “THIS WASN’T PART OF THE PLAN!” while I hit the gas. My friend was confused but exhilarated.
But despite all my time with the Forester, I’ve only begun thinking of him as Harold over the past year. (That’s why I alternate between calling the car “it” and “him.”) My mom, an elementary- and middle-school librarian, named Harold after Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children’s book whose plot extends far beyond what the title implies.
Harold was part of Mom’s second act, a splurge after my dad died. That second act didn’t last long, but Mom tried to enjoy it. She chain-watched seasons of Six Feet Under, loving how the show mocked death. The Byrds’ song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” played at both my dad’s funeral and in our newly-two-occupant home for months after; my mom derived a pragmatic optimism from the lyrics. And she bought Harold outright with some of the life-insurance money, pleased that she’d acquired a vehicle that was sort of gold and had a turbo engine.
“It’s a turbo,” she’d say when the car came up in conversation, though I don’t think she quite knew how the turbo worked. For a brief time, we thought Harold’s hood scoop—which sucks in air for the turbocharger mechanism—was so you could drive the Forester through high water without drowning the engine.
Mom bought Harold to replace her first Forester, a black 2002 model named Blackie. (She named all of her cars. Her original one was a 1960s Rambler named The Moth.) When Harold came home, the turbo-less Blackie became mine. Not long after, my mom died of illness, and I was left with two Foresters.
I stored Harold and kept driving Blackie for awhile, just out of numb repetition, but eventually a wise friend told me keeping two cars around wasn’t practical. So, the older and slower Blackie went on the market, sitting with a For Sale sign on a roadside plot between where I was staying and my high school. For about a year, I drove past Blackie in Harold every day, and always kept my eyes cast down the road to avoid glancing at the abandoned Forester.
Naming cars was initially too sentimental for me, so I resisted calling Harold by his name for a long time. But my mom’s friends call him Harold. And my girlfriend also calls him Harold: “Oh, Harold,” she’ll scold whenever the car makes an off noise. Eventually, “Harold” started replacing “the Forester” in my head. And as Harold gets near the end of its life, he deserves his name.
He’s a damn reliable car, but that’s not the only reason I bristle whenever someone asks when I’m getting rid of him. He’s one of my last—and definitely my strongest—remaining links to my mom. I’ve seen such links crack before: When my father died, one of the first, and most painful, things Mom did was get rid of his ancient Subaru sedan, one pushing 300,000 miles.
“I know you want his car, but it has so many miles, and it’s not worth much at this point, and it’s rusty,” she said to me, but from her tone I think she was trying to convince both of us. She was probably right to get rid of it, though the fact that that Subaru’s body began rusting before its engine failed is a testament to the car’s stamina—a trait I hope Harold can mimic.
Harold told me he was dying over a year ago. He’s still here, though. His symptoms are better, but while they were around, they made me realize that much of what I like about my identity—the concerts, the parties, relentlessly getting to work on time, occasionally driving across the country—wouldn’t be possible without him.
The Byrds sang that there’s a time to break down, and a time to mourn. Harold will have the former and I will have the latter, but I hope both are far away.