My mother found my first car in the PennySaver. It was a used silver 1987 Toyota minivan and to my great delight, the first owner had spared no upgrade. The vehicle, marketed in the U.S. simply as “Van,” sported swivel seats, a sunroof, a moonroof, four-wheel drive and even a cooler/icemaker with mini ice-cube trays.
We named it the Silver Bullet. With both celestial roofs open to the skies, I drove around south Orange County relishing my freedom. I met friends at Table Rock Beach in Laguna and attended football games at Saddleback College. As I drove home at night, the 5 freeway was nearly empty and the streetlamps shone with copper light.
An ’80s-era Toyota minivan has no real front, more like a sheer drop-off where a hood might be. The driver sits atop the engine, inches from the windshield. This gives driving a sense of immediacy and thrill I have yet to experience in more stylish cars. It also gives the vehicle a physics-defying turning radius. From my “captain’s chair” (Toyota’s official name for my adjustable driver’s seat), I could see each jagged detail of the asphalt stretching before me, a reminder of the privilege and the peril of driving. On weekdays, I carefully ferried two neighbor kids and my siblings from Mission Viejo to our Baptist school in San Juan Capistrano, my hands at 10 and 2. We made our way under an early-morning marine layer past fields of wild mustard and the In-N-Out at Avery, a place suspected of wafting the smell of french fries onto the 5 freeway through a series of vents.
Like any loved one, the Silver Bullet had quirks. If I ran the air conditioning too long, the ducts hurled small ice crystals at the faces of back-seat passengers. The narrowness and height of the vehicle meant that it wobbled in autumn when Santa Ana winds gusted. And one day, after the air conditioning gave out, I received an interesting call from our family’s mechanic.
“You’ve got squirrels,” he said with profound resignation.
“Squirrels, rats, mice, some sort of animals in your vehicle. They’ve chewed through the ducts.”
I tried not to laugh. At 17, I had yet to understand the heavy realities of money. Whenever I spotted a friend’s car at a stoplight on our way to school, I would slowly approach it, hitting the bumper with my van. My friends thought this was hilarious, but their parents were less than charmed.
After a heat wave or two, my own parents were kind enough to get my air conditioning fixed. But in my senior year of high school, a series of practical jokes with a friend spun wildly out of control. After school one day in May, I opened my car door and was hit in the face with a stench, pungent and distinct. The only clue was a metal lid left carefully on the dashboard like a sinister calling card. It belonged to a jar of limburger cheese spread that my now-former friend had liberally slathered under the Silver Bullet’s floor mats and left to bake in the sun. That afternoon, I drove my carpool home slowly, our heads as close to the open windows as we could crane our necks. My long-suffering parents again sprang for repairs, this time hiring a mysterious entity named “The Odor Specialist,” whom my father located in the phonebook. After several hours of fumigation and potions, my van smelled only vaguely of rotten corpses, the signature scent of cut-rate limburger cheese.
It is the nature of things to change, and soon the van passed to my sister and then my brother. I began driving a black Jetta that had a bit more pickup, but left all sorts of unwanted space between me and the road. After more than a decade, the van was such a fixture in our lives that it seemed we would never part with it. We sometimes dreamed that if ever the Silver Bullet did croak, we would set it afire and launch it, blazing and airborne, into Lake Mission Viejo — our version of a Viking ship funeral.
In college, I read Frances Mayes’ lovely book on the study of poetry, but one of her similes always puzzled me. “His death came slowly like a Mexican bus” — what could it mean? Did death make many stops and starts, or fail to pick up speed on thoroughfares? If so, how was a Mexican bus any different than an American bus? When I went to Mexico, to work at an orphanage with my church, say, or to visit Tijuana with my Spanish class, I traveled there in the Silver Bullet. Yet the simile, lodged in my brain, became a sort of prophecy.
In the end, my van’s death came slowly in Mexico, perhaps like a Mexican bus. When driving through Ensenada one summer, the van stalled and then started, and then stalled again, this process repeating for hours until a group of compassionate locals helped push it through an intersection. We tinkered with it a bit and coaxed it back to Mission Viejo, but something was clearly wrong.
How is it that objects take on personalities, far out-valuing the sum of their parts? The sound of my mother’s violin is as distinct as her voice; it transcends spruce and ebony. My son’s first drawings mean much more than paper and crayon. A bottle of wine might conjure the smell of the wind in a sun-soaked field two decades ago. Americans have too much stuff, many say; what matters is relationships. But what are we to feel about our relationships to our stuff? When I gassed up the Silver Bullet and cleaned its windshield, the feeling in my heart was not “I am maintaining this object” or “I am burdened by material possessions.” I felt something closer to companionship, even love.
Perhaps cars are special objects because they accompany us through so much of life, during work commutes and errands, airport pickups and road trips. In this way they are like pets, mute but everpresent. Or perhaps cars function more like places, scenes where we receive a first-date kiss or an important phone call from our boss. The Silver Bullet was with me as I listened to Y107 and sang along to ’90s songs, as I ate entire quarts of farm-stand strawberries, as I transitioned from child to adult.
When my parents sold the Silver Bullet for parts, we mourned the end of an era, yet wondered how a large trapezoid of metal, glass and ice crystals had driven its way so deeply into our hearts. If I close my eyes, I can still feel an ocean breeze blowing through the moonroof, the faintest smell of limburger lingering in the vents.
Manager - Accounting Services
Vanessa Y. Birman, CPA joined Echelbarger, Himebaugh, Tamm & Co., P.C. (EHTC) as an Accounting Services Manager in June 2016. She has been a CPA since 1998 and is a QuickBooks ProAdvisor in both Online and Desktop, specializing in small business accounting. This includes assisting in business setup, special projects, payroll taxes and much more. Prior to EHTC, Vanessa worked for nine years at BDO USA, LLC in the Assurance Department. In addition, she has held Controller and Accounting Manager positions for local businesses and has worked with smaller CPA firms and their clients providing assurance, tax, and accounting services.
She is a member of the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants (MICPA) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and volunteers at the Wildlife Rehab Center of Grand Rapids.
In her spare time, Vanessa can be found spending time with her husband and two teenage daughters. She also enjoys birding, traveling, nature walks, photography, gardening and reading.
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Areas of Expertise:
- Payroll and Payroll Taxes
- Individual Tax Returns