An Ode to Shitcan, My Car

Jan. 23 was the 12th birthday of my car, a 2003 Volkswagen Golf affectionately nicknamed Shitcan.


Life was very different when Shitcan came into my life. She was the third car I had owned in five years — the first being a 1986 Ford Tempo purchased from a family friend — and the first new car I purchased.

I bought Shitcan — with my mom as my co-signer — on Jan. 23, 2003. I was fresh out of college (well, eight months out), working a part-time job at the local library and living at home. I settled on who would come to be known as Shitcan after an exhaustive search — which included sporty wagons (Mazda Protege 5), mediocre sedans (Hyundai Elantra) and a car that had a smoking engine during the test drive (Mercury Cougar) — that was a comprehensive mixture of sporty-like handling, a tight turning radius, hauling versatility, and a relatively cheap price.

Going in, I knew that fuel economy and overall reliability were not in the car’s favor, but dammit, I could afford it. Also, I let my brother have my previous car, a 12-year-old Chevrolet Cavalier (that replaced my Tempo in 1998) that had a smoking engine two years prior. (There are some trends here.)

My resolve was almost immediately tested when I got my first full-time job a little over a month later: scraping the bottom of my car over a curb on the way to work to a blood-curdling sound, I panicked when I heard the cost of the repair bill — something that I relayed to my mom by payphone. The nickname Shitcan was born that day.

It was never love at first sight with Shitcan. Before the test drive, the dealer had to jump-start the battery, as the Midwestern winter had culled the long-idled car. (The dealer took delivery of Shitcan on Oct. 8, 2012.) Even after the test drive, the salesman tried to tempt us with a slightly pricier, used four-door Golf with a moonroof (zounds!) before I cut through the bull and signed the dotted line. That higher-optioned Golf wasn’t the only temptress for my car heart; if I had the means (money), I would have bought a Mazda6 sedan, the mix of athletic looks, handling, and enthusiast cache that I longed for — the spiritual successor to my first real car love, the 1993 Ford Probe (also Mazda-based).

And the Mazda6 called me back time after time, most memorably on a rain-soaked night within the first few months of owning Shitcan. Pacing back and forth in my mom’s den, I thought out loud about trading the Golf — and taking the depreciation hit, which I didn’t think about at the time — for what I REALLY wanted. But I’m lucky that common sense got through to me, as my emotional state would have led to a decision in the vein of my father, who had traded in a two-year-old SUV for the newest model despite not having any issues. I didn’t want to be my father, and the panic subsided.

Shitcan would become a valuable ally from that point on, carrying the load for when I moved out of my mom’s house and into my first condo, hauling furniture and a counter-top (with my brother tightly holding on each time), and carrying my life when I moved onto the next stage of my life in Arizona. Shitcan was there when I needed her most.

But I lamented the expensive upkeep and repairs, which came on stronger and with more tenacity. I hated having my car go into limp mode on a major highway, cursed when the car would jerk into another gear, and sighed when the car would suddenly and briefly lose power above 60 miles-per-hour. Constant fuel leaks, a broken airbag, and belts and hoses and fuel pumps and filters and all the parts that added up to sums of money I hated forking over. Oh, and I can’t forget the black sludge from the door sills that oozed out every hot summer, coating the bottom of the car and my pants in an oily mess.

There was a brief period when the nickname Shitcan was sidelined. When I dated my now-ex, she suggested a new name for the car: “Black Beauty.” It was sweet, adorable and good-natured — all things I attributed to the woman who stole my heart. But I couldn’t commit to the new name; I knew Shitcan better than my lady did. And when the relationship ended, so did the lip service to Black Beauty. Like the relationship, I had my regrets of how things occurred with Shitcan and the flirtation with the Mazda6; I finally got extended time with the 6 as a rental, and it was out of my league — big turning radius, slightly too large for city parking. It wouldn’t have worked, but I could love it from afar.

Despite the whining and the troubles with the car, the dings and missing hubcaps, Shitcan took on more than 125,000 miles before she would take her last big road trip: assisting with the uprooting of my life once more, this time to San Francisco. But her life was on borrowed time; a month before the move, a dealer tuneup revealed a whopping $2,100 in needed repairs. Knowing that my car’s value was less than that, I had vowed months before to not exceed the car’s value in upkeep for a calendar year. And so, car loaded to the gills, I tested fate with a 12-hour, 800-mile journey. And once more, Shitcan shined.

When I arrived in the city, I gave Shitcan the semi-retirement she needed, as public transit and working primarily from home relieved her of daily commuting duties. Driving Shitcan on weekends and occasional trips is a more joyful experience, knowing that her presence alone is a luxury (keeping a car in the city, with parking permits and high insurance costs, is a challenge in itself). And when Jan. 23 approached, I knew I had to treat her right; a few days later, I got her washed — the first time since the previous dealer visit — in what would be a half-assed attempt by the nearby gas station. Seeing the remaining dirt amused me; even when I wanted to do right by her, Shitcan managed to get dinged in some sort of way.

But it was the thought that counted, and my 12 years with Shitcan have been a testament to taking care of something that would be pivotal in my life. Lots of thoughts guided her travels as well as her place in my trajectory. And knowing that her time with me is coming to a close, I am treasuring every day with her. When she is inevitably towed away to car heaven (the scrapyard), probably this year, as my cars last about 12 years, I will mourn the loss but be grateful for the years I had with her. And that is something you can only get with something you love — terrible nickname and all.


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