By Phineas J. Stone
In these harsh winter months I often watch curiously as people drive around brand new vehicles, bearing shiny new rims and a spotless paint job, full of newly molded plastic just waiting to be destroyed by a plow or a moving pile of snow.
Such brand new cars aren’t a thing of Boston in the winter.
I figure these folks must be visiting from San Diego.
Boston is no friend to the motor car, whether it be in the depths of winter when salt tears at the undercarriage and the paint, or it be the raw carelessness of other drivers in the summer months as people – presumably letting off steam from the long winter – drive without regard and routinely hit one’s back bumper.
No, Boston isn’t a new car city.
Boston is a rusty bumper town.
If you’re like me, you learned long ago that if you chose to own a car in Boston and drive it frequently, it’s better off that it be what my family and friends call a “junk box.” (some might choose to use more colorful language here, but Mr. Boston likes to keep thing ‘PG’)
So it is, I drive a junk box, and I have done so for years. Any seasoned Bostonian likely does the same if they take the vehicle out on a daily basis. With it, I have nothing really to lose on the roads, and that has so many advantages so long as I’m not looking to impress those on the sidewalk or an occasional passenger.
The best advantage I have found is the unexpected respect on the road.
If one were to spend more than a few casual months in the old town, they would quickly find out Boston has fine-tuned the art of sticking it to the other driver. Pulling out in front of you and going 5 mph when there is no one else on the road, impeding ones ability to cruise by in the passing lane – just because, and doing whatever it takes to block and tackle one’s way into a briefly open parking spot.
But things like that change when you drive a junk box.
Those aggressive drivers who try all sorts of moves in their modern Toyota sedans suddenly have second thoughts when they see your rusty bumper and street-aged dents coming their way. Not long ago I was in the Fenway near the Landmark building and a vehicle was primed to needlessly cut me off. Suddenly, however, that driver hit the brakes and yielded. My passenger said she couldn’t believe they had yielded.
I knew why; saw it in the other driver’s eyes – the look of “that guy doesn’t care if he gets hit.”
Even on Tremont Street in the South End where pedestrians wear an iron-clad attitude of defiance, backed up by state law of course, a rumbling steel trap makes them stop their steps until they know you have stopped your wheels.
I’ve begun to call it respecting the rust.
Of course, if you have kids or young people that like to borrow your vehicle all the time, a benefit is they will not be asking for your keys anytime soon. You see, young people these days don’t want to buy a car, but they want to borrow your nice car – and the all-or-nothing generation coming up in Boston isn’t desperate enough just yet to drive a junk box to their favorite cafe or hang-out. So, if someone likes to hit you up for your vehicle to borrow as if it’s a library book, get a junk box.
There’s also the fact that you have built-in, free collision insurance – in the sense that you have no collision insurance and it’s because it doesn’t matter.
True story: last year I was parked in Charlestown and it was cold and hard to see in the mirrors. As I backed up, I failed to see a wall behind me that obviously pre-dated any kind of life that involves cars. The low wall smacked hard against my bumper, sending a jolt into the cab and that sinking feeling into my gut. Could this be the day my junk box dies?, I thought.
But the vehicle is made out of steel, not plastic. It just so happens that at the time, my turn signals weren’t working, and while the jolt rendered a regrettable dent into my rear bumper, it also corrected the problem with my turn signals – which for some reason, began to work again.
Years ago, I hadn’t learned my lesson about how hard Boston can be on a new vehicle. I drove a red Honda mini-van that no one respected and everyone seemed to hit. I was seemingly in the body shop repairing those plastic bumpers two or three times a year.
That was fresh on my mind last weekend when I observed, not one, but two hit and run drivers smash into newer cars and take off. The second one happened while I was waiting for my barber to open up early on Saturday. The driver of a conversion van – another junk box – smashed into the side of a brand new Honda sedan. The Honda’s plastic front end crumbled, and I ran out after the van driver as was my civic duty. He looked at me like I was crazy, but I got his plate anyhow – leaving a note for the Honda owner to discover later. The owner later contacted me and thanked me profusely. I knew what he was about to go through with insurance and body shops and adjusters and appraisers – perhaps even litigation.
I was grateful to help, but I also couldn’t help thinking that if he’d been driving a junk box, there would have been very little damage. He’d have likely shrugged his shoulders, cursed the driver of the van, and moved on with life unimpeded.
In Boston, those of us who are seasoned drive the old cars other Americans won’t drive, and trust me, life in the Hub is more manageable as such.