A few weeks ago, the Jalopnik staff all wrote about their first cars. Many of these cars included tales of broken parts, tow trucks and teenage memories. But for me, my first car was so much more than teenage freedom. My first car was the first place that I could discover who I really was on my own terms. My first car was where the writer that you’re reading today was born.
In order for you the reader to get the full-bodied experience of this story we must hop aboard my Smart-shaped time machine and go back to childhood. I can’t exactly pinpoint when I was first introduced to cars, but after they were, they became an integral part of my life. Today, you can’t have Mercedes without vehicles of steel, glass, tires and propulsion.
I think it started when a now-long-distant uncle gave me an old Pontiac Firebird diecast car. I still have it today, and that little car was only the start of what would become the car person that I am today. As a kid, I collected hundreds, then eventually thousands, of Matchbox, Maisto and similar diecast cars. When I got my Playstation 2 in 2001 at eight years old, my first games were Grand Theft Auto 3 and Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. And I didn’t play Grand Theft Auto the way it was meant to be played. No, I obeyed traffic lights and went the same speed as the AI cars.
At around the same time, my parents also bought me an off-road go kart. Sure, this thing made just five horsepower and drove just a single wheel, but it helped formulate the very enthusiasm that I have for absolutely sending it in anything today. When I jumped the Can-Am Commander last year, I felt like kid me again, tearing up that red Manco Critter through the makeshift racetrack that the neighborhood kids built in a forest. Little did I know just how far my newfound love would go.
School was never particularly a fun place for me. My family moved around a lot growing up — sometimes more than once a year — and it didn’t seem to matter which schools I ended up in, my fellow classmates would always find something to bully me over. Perhaps they found my voice too high, my skin too dark, or my mannerisms not masculine enough. At times, it would escalate beyond words and into violence. I still remember when someone — a person who calls themselves my friend today — dragged me across a field at recess by my hair. Today, my jaw occasionally clicks and reminds me of the time that I was punched in the face for trying to defend myself. It was bad enough that I sometimes faked illnesses just to stay home.
And when I wasn’t at school, my head was behind the wheel, be it a videogame or sending my Manco Critter through the forest. Those times, nothing could stop me.
As I got older, my body started developing a more feminine shape. Concerned, my parents took me to a number of doctors, all of which informed us that my body was just naturally cranking out all of the estrogen. They warned that, by going into puberty, I was going to go through some weird changes that didn’t exactly follow what I learned in health classes.
Before this even happened, looking into a mirror was a strange curiosity. I saw me and knew it was me, but I had long felt that something was off. But I couldn’t describe what was off for years. I tried on my first bra in 2008 at the age of 15 and for the first time in my life I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel like something was off. But again, I still had no idea why things felt the way they did.
Being the curious person that I am, I decided to experiment further with my findings. But there was one problem: my parents. I knew from their reactions in church and in the news whenever the topic of gay people came up that they would certainly never accept whatever was happening here. In fact, as I grew up, they frequently tried to teach me that the worst thing that I could ever become was a gay man. Our home was an active place where nobody really had any privacy, so my experimentation had to happen elsewhere.
As timing would have it, I’d soon get my driver’s license, which meant that I could start to figure myself out away from home. I started searching for places where I could be by myself and found the Illinois Beach State Park.
Through my research, I discovered that everyone went to the southern unit but not the northern unit, which sat directly next to a decommissioned nuclear power station. The southern unit had facilities, a beach with fewer rocks, vast parking and yeah, it wasn’t next to a power plant.
As soon as I got my license, I started borrowing my parents’ 2003 GMC Envoy XL and started driving out to the northern beach.
As I expected, it was deserted. On my many visits, there would perhaps be a jogger, a small family, or a group of kids; that’s it. The Illinois Beach State Park quickly became my favorite place in the world. I could do anything here, I could be whoever I wanted here. There wasn’t anyone to tell me no or to judge me. But my days were too short — just a couple of hours — as I had to return the GMC.
Things would change a few years down the road when in 2011, I got my first car: A 2001 Kia Rio sedan.
The Kia was a beater in the truest sense, and it wasn’t my dream car, the Smart Fortwo. But it was my car, and since it was my car, it was also my sanctuary. Where I didn’t have privacy at home, I had it in my car. It wasn’t so much transportation as it was my personal escape capsule.
As my experimentation continued, I got a little sloppy, and my parents found bras and other clothes in my room. Such sparked interrogation sessions where I listened to lectures about what would happen to me if I were to become gay. I was not to do anything girly because it was sin and unbecoming of a man.
After those grilling sessions, I often hopped into that little red Kia and drove until I ran out of road, tears and music. Depression crept in as I soon felt I had nowhere to turn to help me figure myself out. My parents responded fiercely, and I was afraid to tell my friends. I didn’t even know how to describe what was happening — I didn’t even learn what “transgender” was until I was 21. I had no idea who I was, but the Kia didn’t care. It dutifully carried me to wherever I pointed it. Oftentimes I felt it was just me, that car and the open road.
One day my parents were gone for the entire day for an event. This meant that I could dress up at home, drive to the beach and come back home. I didn’t need to change into my “guy clothes” at all. I seized the opportunity.
Unfortunately, the Kia’s serpentine belt snapped the moment that I started it up at the beach. Amazingly, I was able to nurse it about 25 miles home before it first overheated. Then I found myself in a Walmart parking lot, coolant bubbling, hood open and myself in an outfit that probably didn’t even match and with one of my mom’s wigs.
It hit me that I just couldn’t call a tow truck. Instead, it hit me that I could just make a serpentine belt. I fished some extra bra straps out of the trunk and fashioned them into a makeshift belt. They didn’t work great, but they got the car home with just enough charge left in the battery and coolant temperature just a smidge below the hot mark.
I went on to put 11,000 miles on that little car. And it wasn’t just my sanctuary but the place that I built friendships with people who I regard as my best friends today. This car experienced so many of my firsts in life from first date, first girlfriend and more.
When it was time to retire the Kia, it was like saying goodbye to a good friend forever. The little red car was so instrumental in the development in who I am today. And now it was getting sold to CarMax to fund the purchase of my dream car.
Forgive this somewhat embarrassing video that I made oh so many years ago with Microsoft Movie Maker of all programs.
Many wonder why I’ve attached myself to Smart perhaps more than anyone else in the world. I mean, I did name myself after its parent company. And, well, there’s your answer. My first Smart was proof that dreams could come true and that I could do anything that I put my mind to. The Smart carried on the torch, allowing me to find myself in the security of a tiny escape pod. And it wasn’t long before I picked a new name for myself: Mercedes. Eventually I learned about transgender people, went to a therapist and put all of the pieces together. I then got brave enough to come out. Now, some eight years later I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
And I doubt I would be where I am today if not for that Kia.
Sometimes I search its VIN to see if it’s still out there. The trail went cold a few years ago, but I hope it’s out there doing for someone else what it did for me.