It's no secret that I've been having difficulty finding a car. After consulting eight different dealerships over the last month (maybe more, but I've stopped counting), I have had to concede defeat. There simply isn't any way for me to get a car right now, and for someone who is used to working at a problem until I find a solution, that's hard for me to accept. I am a Make-Things-Work, Get-Shit-Done machine, and giving up is really tough for me.
This morning on my ride in to work, I started to notice Serenity making this weird popping sound every once in a while. I have no idea what it means; it didn't seem to affect the drive at all. But, naturally, it worries me. She's started to squeak again too, and I didn't realize how bad the brakes were until I test-drove another car last weekend and kept jerking to a stop because those brakes were so responsive.
I decided, around the 17-mile mark, to write a letter to the president of Toyota in the US. I know this will get me nowhere and that there is almost no likelihood that he would actually read it, but I just needed to vent my frustrations at a situation that seems so ridiculous. Here is the letter, with some redactions:
James LentzToyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. (TMS)
xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx
May 20, 2011
Dear Mr. Lentz,
You don’t know me. I’m just a struggling middle-class American, like so many these days. If you even see this letter, which I know is highly unlikely, you will be far removed from my everyday life, in what is probably a very large office that has a very large paycheck associated with it. But, I’m not trying to make you feel bad for making more money than I do; you worked to get where you are too. I just want you to remember the people like me.
I’ve never been in a place where money came easy. Growing up as the youngest of five girls, my parents constantly struggled to make ends meet. One of my earliest memories is of the Boy Scouts bringing us Thanksgiving dinner one year, and the boxes of food we used to get from our church. We moved a lot, and I grew up hearing the word “no” a lot too. When I went away to college, it was on scholarships and financial aid; my parents could not pay for anything beyond a plane ticket to get me there. It was an expensive school, and like most people, I ended up heavily in debt by the time I was finished. I struggled through my twenties, living with my sister because I never made enough to afford to live on my own. After sharing so little space with so many people growing up, independence was a rare and treasured thing, something I wanted more than anything else. Finally, after two years of planning and scrimping and saving, I moved from Chicago to Long Beach, CA, into my own tiny apartment with nothing left in my savings and hopefully a good job waiting for me.
Unfortunately, the job wasn’t so good. I’d fought to try to build up my credit before the move, but the job that was supposed to be full time and pay a livable wage was actually part time, and barely paid enough to pay my rent and eat. My loved ones back in Chicago, not rich people themselves, were sending me money so I wouldn’t starve. For two months I desperately searched for other, better work, spending every free moment trying to survive. And, the car I had brought from Chicago was dying.
My xxxxxxxxxxxxx was a gift from my father the year before. I had only gotten my driver’s license recently; in Chicago, there’s usually little reason for a car, as the public transit is so prevalent. But, when I decided to move to California, I knew without a doubt that I would need a car. Every spare dollar went into my savings for the move, so there was nothing left to buy a car. So, my father, who was about to get a new car himself, gave me the xxxxxxx. It’s old. There’s rust everywhere. The rearview mirror fell off soon after I transferred the car to my name, and I’ve never been able to reattach it. The driver’s side door sticks. The A/C is broken. The top speed is 65, and she shakes like a palsy victim even at that speed. She stalls. I have a great amount of affection for her, she’s my first car, but I know she’s dangerous to drive: one bad day on the 405 and I could become one of those four-car accidents that make other drivers late for work. Every day I get in and pray as I turn the key, hoping I will make it safely to my destination.
I found a new job and it pays the bills, though just barely. I no longer lay awake nights thinking about how I’m going to eat or if I’ll be homeless next month, and I’m okay going without frills because I’m finally standing on my own two feet. After two months of terror, I’m getting back on track. I apologized to my credit card and cell phone carrier for being late for two months, and went back to my usual on-time payments. I knew my credit had suffered, but things were finally looking up. I knew I couldn’t put off looking for a car any longer. I had planned to wait until the end of the year, when my credit was in better shape, but the xxxxxx wasn’t going to let me. It had to be now.
I want to be a Toyota owner. My sister just bought a used xxxxxxxx, and loves it. I have friends and other family that own Toyotas and rave about them. Everywhere I look, I hear how dependable, how safe, how fuel-efficient they are (and with gas prices so high and a 60 mile commute each day, that’s important to me!). So, imagine my sadness and frustration in discovering that I will never be able to have one. No little dependable Yaris or Camry parked outside my tiny studio. I’ve been to dealership after dealership, and I hear the same story: “With your credit, you’ll get xx-xx% for financing. The banks will only finance a newer car with lower mileage. And the newer cars are all too expensive for you.” I’ve run the numbers; I know with my down payment and a trade-in not worth much, I can only afford an $xxxx car. But, this seems to be a fairy story: some of the dealers even laugh at me. Most won’t call me back. They tell me I’ll have to either “be more flexible” and be willing to pay $400 a month for a car payment, or just keep driving my death-trap on wheels. I feel like a leper, scorned for struggling to make ends meet, for trying to fight back from a difficult time in my life, laughed at for being poor.
Mr. Lentz, I know there’s nothing you can do for me personally. But, I also know I am not alone. There are hundreds, thousands of other Americans, good people who are trying to survive with jobs that barely make the rent and cars that they’re afraid to drive, that have to be replaced. And, I know they’re walking in dealerships wanting to get a car they can be safe in, comfortable in, that they can count on and be proud of. And they’re getting laughed at. They’re sitting outside the dealerships like I was, crying because no one will sell them a car they can afford. They’re trying to make the numbers work, thinking, “If I don’t get food every week, maybe I can afford $350 a month for a car. Maybe I can pay the electric bill late. Maybe I can put my gas on a credit card.” We do not deserve to be treated like we are unworthy because we are not wealthy, because we have had hard times. Trust me, we have been punished enough.
Remember us, Mr. Lentz. We want to drive Toyotas too, and tell our friends how much we love our cars, but not when it’s a choice between car-payment and rent. And nowadays, there are more and more of us in that situation. We deserve to be treated fairly and decently.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Maybe someday, when times are better, I will be able to buy a Toyota. I hope so. But not today.
I actually hope somebody at Toyota reads this, and it makes them think for a moment. In the meantime, I'll be putting another quart of oil in Serenity, and driving 60 on the 405 with my popping, shaking car.