How to Be a Planter: A Junk Car’s Hard Luck Story

rusted out car

If you live in rural America long enough you develop a tolerance for abandoned cars, or, as is the case with the vast majority of cars I see as I travel the back roads, abandoned projects that now are junk cars.

In my lifetime I’ve seen the pictured car cruising around the streets of Delmar. I’ve woken on the occasional Saturday morning to hear its owner (one of my neighbors) struggling to get it running, keep it running and tune it up.

Although I remember when it became a losing battle, I cannot recall when I realized that the car project was put on permanent hiatus. It probably was the week before it started doubling as a planter. The temptation to ask what’s going on with the car is almost overwhelming, but I fight it constantly and for several reasons.

The first has to do with my own biases. Nothing about me suggests I’m a car guy and I don’t want to come off as some neighborhood improvement carpetbagger.

As people from wealthier metropolitan areas continue gentrifying the rural south there is a kind of “Gone with the Wind” notion of how things should look.

People don’t retire here to see ugliness and poverty, they retire here for the serene rural landscapes, the quaint natives and the cheap land.

To that end, beautification projects often extend beyond the desire to improve flagging downtowns. They become crusades against the reality of garbage, stink and the life-y things that are offensive to the Disney sensibilities that we impose upon rural people and things.

Fines are issued, words are exchanged at public meetings and, in the end, the neighborhoods are brought more into line with the brochures advertising the planned communities coming to dominate the landscape.

I can’t ask my neighbor about his plans for the car because I don’t want to give him the impression that I think it is a nuisance and want it removed. Which lightly tethers this reason to the next: I don’t want to be on the enforcement team.

For a while, I had my own car parked in the side yard. There were maybe six months during which I struggled to save enough to have it repaired.

Eventually, the town threatened to fine me for having an unregistered car parked in my yard. I had covered the car and even tried to pull it into the small shed as to be inoffensive, but the town was relentless and I gave the car away.

My neighbor, whose car was parked fewer than 20 feet from mine, essentially told them to go pound sand down a rat hole. That was more than a decade ago.

I feel like, even now, asking about the car would insinuate that I was on the town’s side. So, the enemy of my enemy and all that, I’m keeping my trap shut about the car (except on the internet).

Setting aside all else, the real reason I can’t ask about the car is because it obviously is a tender subject.  It’s obvious that my neighbor sees it.

He is yard-proud in the extreme, keeping flower gardens and woodland vignettes all around the property, mowing obsessively around the dead car and even cultivating new domestic foliage to continue to improve the small plot he bought from his siblings when his father died.

He got damn close to getting the car up and running, but then it got away from him, beyond him. He doesn’t need me to point that out.

That’s probably why he was able to tell the town to go scratch while I buckled and gave my car away. For him, saving the car (and, let’s be clear, property rights, this is the South after all) was a point of pride.

He doesn’t need a fine or a nosy neighbor to remind him that his pride was misplaced and that the car’s presence detracts from his overall vision for his property.

In a life wherein things go poorly regularly and pride is difficult enough to come by, the fantasy that eventually you will catch a break can be the difference between getting up in the morning and not.

I’m sure having the car removed is just a matter of a phone call for him, but it is a tough one to make. Like calling to apologize for an age-old slight, admitting you were wrong is tough, but the hardest thing to admit is that you were foolish.

This story originally was published in 2016. The neighbor since has dealt with the car, so you know.