I was stuck in traffic on U.S. 1 in Miami, sweating, because the air conditioning in my clunker of a car had broken and no amount of Freon could bring it back to life, when my cell phone rang.
“Hello, is this Vanessa Garcia? You’ve won a Mercedes-Benz.”
I hung up. Obviously, this was a joke. They called back. “Don’t hang up. You filled out a form, in Miami Beach…”
My thoughts tunneled back, and I remembered. Two years earlier. Art Basel, Miami Beach, one of the world’s biggest art fairs. I’d gone to feed on all the art I needed to keep making my own work. I also had a press pass to the opening — one of my jobs back then was as a stringer for the Miami Herald. So I invited my boyfriend, and we joined the parade of collectors at the vernissage. A raffle greeted us at the door. If you filled out a form, you could win a car. “Let’s do it,” my boyfriend said. Why not? I thought, then I laughed it off and forgot about it.
Fast forward to two years later, sitting in my red jalopy, hoping the engine didn’t stall, phone ringing — Mercedes-Benz.
Apparently, the sweepstakes had traveled the country before selecting a winner. And the winner was, indeed, little old me. The car was worth $50,000. I’d have to secure the money for the taxes, several grand, and then I could claim the car.
Immediately, a plan began to formulate in my mind. I would borrow the money for the taxes from my boyfriend, then sell the Benz right away. Pay my boyfriend back, pay off the remainder of my credit cards, which were halfway there, pay off my student loans in full, and then buy a reasonable car. Debt had been drowning me for years, and I’d just been given a life raft in the shape of a luxury SUV.
In 2001, I’d graduated from Barnard College, the worst possible year to graduate from college ever. It was bad enough being twenty-two years old in New York City — an artist and writer with a degree in English and Art History — trying to start a life. But now, the city I lived in had just turned into a war zone.
There was plenty of fodder for stories there, but stories didn’t pay, not back then; I was an unknown, too young to be taken seriously. It didn’t matter that I was summa cum laude and Phi Betta Kappa, nobody cared — the best job I could get was writing SparkNotes, Barnes & Nobles’ version of CliffsNotes.
I was managing to pay my rent — most of the time anyway — but there was also the need to eat and get around. My credit cards took that load. Thirty grand was easy to rack up on Visa and American Express. Add to that the student loans that were accruing interest in the background, and the future didn’t look as bright as it had when I’d signed up for my liberal arts education.
There were days, in the years after graduation, when I’d get a string of collection calls from Sallie Mae, and Visa, and Amex, and I’d look down the stairs into the subway station with envy — if only I could avoid the rain, if only I had $2.00. Young, hungry, broke, and overwhelmed by debt, I tread the city streets until there was no more pulp to squeeze from the big apple.
In 2004, after a total of seven years in Manhattan, I decided to take a break from the city, find work in Miami, my hometown, and pay off my debts.
Soon, I was in the Sunshine State, flora-filled Florida — working three jobs, not sleeping, tutoring, teaching, and still trying to paint and write. My poor parents were even pitching in, because the interest on my cards kept upping my debt.
And then, the phone call.
A couple of days after I received the call, I followed through with my plan and walked in to claim the car at the dealership. A redheaded Brit at the fancy Coral Gables location took one look at me and smiled. “It’s rare that somebody like you wins,” he said, jauntily. Then he asked me if I wanted to sell the car to the dealership. I said: “Right away.”
Two weeks later, I picked up a check for $50,000. Because I didn’t even ask to see the car, or sit in it, or even test drive it, they gave me the exact worth of the car and kept it on the dealership lot when they received it from the sweepstakes. I’d never held so much money in my hands at once. Could the weight of all these years be lifted, just like that?
After the check cleared, I called up Sallie Mae and told them:
“I want to pay my loans off in full.”
No words, not any before, and very few since, have ever felt so good. My mentor, a writer I worked for after the SparkNotes gig, was trying to get rid of his car because he was moving, and he was willing to sell it to me for $5,000. The car was, ironically, another Mercedes. This one, however, was a 1998, four-door, not a brand new $50,000 SUV. I bought my ex-boss’ car, which I drove until 2013, until it sputtered its last breath and collapsed in the heat of a desert road trip out west in Calico, California.
I made my way out of that mire, into publication, into a life where writing pays the bills. Sometimes I wonder, though, where I’d be if I hadn’t won that car? Sometimes I look at my students and I worry at the debt they are accumulating just to get a BA. Because I know, there’s not always the mercy of a Mercedes waiting at the other end.