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  • Volvo Trash
  • Katy Read (bio)

My car was not beautiful, nor was it supposed to be. A '92 Volvo 240 sedan, it was a safe-deposit box on wheels, dowdy by design, far too dignified to tart itself up with froufrou like curves or chrome. But it was bright red, a color that made my Volvo look uncharacteristically lighthearted, like a history professor wearing a flowered Hawaiian shirt on vacation. And it was in decent shape, at least on the outside.

Inside was another story. Stains ranging from condiments to unidentifiable body fluids mottled the upholstery. The floor was a heaving slough of petrified french fries, crumpled receipts, grimy unmatched socks, broken Happy Meal toys, loose change, sand-encrusted candy. Empty cans and bottles rolled beneath the seats, clinking at every stop sign. A colorful blob under the rear window was a souvenir of crayons left out on a sunny day. Brown splotches speckled the ceiling, as if someone had sprayed Coca-Cola like celebratory champagne.

When people asked how I liked my Volvo I told them that it was expensive to repair and terrible in snow. I did not give my Volvo an affectionate nickname. I did not greet other Volvo drivers like fellow alumni of a beloved alma mater. Americans are used to thinking of cars as extensions of their drivers' identities; our fine-tuned sense of vehicular semiotics lets us connect "minivan" with "soccer mom," "shiny red convertible" with "combed-over middle manager." I would not have drawn a line from "Volvo" to myself. But my car had come to reflect my life: presentable on the outside, a garbage can within.

Or so my husband and I liked to joke. "Volvo trash," we called ourselves, back when we both drove Volvos (Mike's was black, older but cleaner). It was shorthand for the contrast between the way we thought we were expected to behave and the way we actually lived. [End Page 33]

The evening we invented the term Mike and I sat with our two small boys watching The Simpsons, a program that we were acutely aware most of our sons' playmates were forbidden to see. As if to prove those parental fears well founded, the four of us crowded together on the sofa in front of the TV set just the way the Simpson family does at the opening of the show, only we were, if anything, more pathetic than our cartoon counterparts. The house was a mess. Cy and Jack were whiny, had dirty faces, and lacked key articles of clothing.

"Look at this place," Mike said during a commercial, gazing around at the squalor. "We're trailer trash."

"How can we be?" I asked. Slouched on the sofa I imagined propelling myself into the kitchen and whipping whatever ingredients I might find there—mango chutney, kalamata olives, Count Chocula—into a dinner somebody would eat. "We don't live in a trailer. There are two Volvos in the driveway, for God's sake."

"OK, so we're Volvo trash," Mike said, punctuating the remark with a long swig of microbrew.

The name stuck, a way to mockingly flagellate ourselves whenever we fell short of what we considered the standards for contemporary, educated, progressive, middle-class parents. That is to say it popped up frequently.

Not that we were wildly irresponsible. We didn't dodge bill collectors or leave the children home alone while we went out barhopping. We kept up the property, cheered from the sidelines at youth sporting events, toted pesto dip—artfully garnished with basil from our backyard herb garden—to National Night Out block parties.

But privately we never thought our lives quite matched the expectations of our demographic, our milieu, our zip code, our zeitgeist. Standing alongside Cy's hockey game on a brittle January night in Minneapolis, watery eyed and numb lipped, I would watch the other parents cheering the on-ice action, unfailingly attentive and supportive ("Let's go, Zachary!" "All right, Dylan!"), none complaining about the cold or even surreptitiously checking their watches, none looking remotely tempted to turn and bolt through shin-deep snow to the warming house. In the pediatrician's waiting room, as...


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pp. 33-48
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