Dirty car serves as a character reference

You know an easy way a landlord can tell if he wants to rent to you?  By following you to your car and checking out the condition of it.  I know this is true because Terry Knowles says it is.  And he heard it from the brother of one of my former landlords, who is also a successful landlord.  Three reputable sources.  That’s good enough for me.

When Terry broke the news to me, the first thought that came to mind was how could the parents of small children expect to ever find housing?  They and their garbage barge of a vehicle would simply float from rental to rental unit forever, never finding a permanent place to dock.

My second thought was to be grateful that I’m already a homeowner, safely under the radar of landlord scrutiny.  If I had to pass the car character reference test today, I’d be homeless.

Like most people, I would sooner talk about sex or finances than the condition of my car.  However, this is a family publication.

Let me state up front that I don’t believe judging a person’s housekeeping by the condition of his car is foolproof.  While my car may be a mobile sty, my home is a different story.  My house remains relatively well maintained, mostly because we’re rarely there except to sleep.  The real hub of our family life has hubcaps.  Our car is where we actually live. 

It’s a combination wheeled file cabinet for work stuff, toy box, sports equipment storage locker, pharmacy, jukebox, and restaurant.  It serves as the catch-all for everything the kids haul out of their pockets and often the things we’re not sure where to put elsewhere.  I’m thinking of the huge pudding stone fossil we found last fall at Lake Michigan that still resides on the floor of the backseat.

In my case, “compact car” really means trash compacter.

I view the current condition of my car as symptomatic of this phase in life.  I have young children, multiple responsibilities, and many places I need to be.  There’s not always the time or the daylight at the end of my day to clean out the car.  And it’s hard to pull the car into the lighted garage I don’t have, using the energy I don’t have, to tackle the problem.  I tell myself I’ll get to it first thing the next morning, but then something more pressing supersedes.  Always.  Before you know it I’ve got zero visibility and no room for passengers.

My fiancé recalls negotiating that same stage in life.  Only he faced it with six kids, driving a Suburban.  When work required him to take important out of town clients to lunch, imagine how impressed they were by French fries rolling out as they were getting in. 

On a brighter note, my dirty car has served as a source of inspiration.  Not for others, but for me.  Last spring I won the Jackson area Toastmasters International speech contest with a seven-minute rationalization called, “Why I Never, Ever Clean My Car.”  At the regional competition in Lansing, one audience member told me I should be ashamed, while another tried to follow me to my car for a glimpse.  Made me realize I’d achieved a new low:  I’d become a good, bad example for others. 

Although my car was not always like this, it’s likely to remain this way for some time.  So I’ve done what any self-respecting person would do when he discovers change is impossible:  I found someone worse than me.

There’s a older lady in Jackson who has so much crap in her car that there’s barely room for her to get behind the wheel.  She has to bungee-cord her walker to the hood of the car.  Really.  Rumor has it she got stopped by police last year for erratic driving.  Drunkenness was not the cause.  Rather, she had been to a farm market and the area under her feet was the only place she had room to transport the watermelon she bought.

I’m not there quite yet, but I’d better avoid roadside fruit stands just to be safe.


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