The new year is supposed to be a time of rebirth and renewal, a clean slate on which people can begin to write entirely new versions of themselves, but now even after the ball drop one North Caldwell woman is finding that sort of reinvention difficult thanks to some questionable automotive life decisions. Cindy Bacala was just 17 when she first walked into her local New Jersey Subaru Outback dealer, using her hard-earned wages from the piercing kiosk at the mall to put a down payment on a used 2003 Outback. The vehicle served Bacala well over its nearly 20-year lifespan and was there for every milestone: high school graduation, Brad’s intervention, and that time her and Tiffany totally saw Jake Gyllenhaal coming out of Jamba Juice.
The Outback was a teenage Bacala’s ticket to freedom, but perhaps more importantly, a place for her to display all her innermost thoughts and feelings. Now in her 30s, the HR consultant says she still loves the vehicle, but is mortified on an everyday basis by the array of bumper stickers she’s accumulated over the years.
The humble bumper covers each distinct era of Bacala’s past, from her days as a dorm room activist/plant enthusiast (“Kony 2012,” “Save The Bees,” “Legalize It”) to her mid-20s punk phase (“Kill Your Television,” “Nobody for President”) and subsequent embrace of mass-produced pop culture (“It’s Bigger On The Inside,” “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Kodos”), all the way up to her most recent ready-made identity of hippie yoga girl (“Teach Peace,” “Ask Me About My Quartz,” “I’d Rather Be In Downward Facing Dog”).
“I also had one bumper sticker on there which emphasized my distrust of law enforcement agencies, but after I kept getting pulled over for violations I’d never heard of––missing tire valve caps, improper mirror angle, dented license plate––I took it off just so I wouldn’t always be late to work,” says Bacala.
With 2021 behind her, Bacala is looking toward the future and trying to start fresh. Having found greater fulfillment in her professional and social life in recent years, she now says she feels far less of an urge to expound her views on everything from politics to the state of modern U.S. agriculture to strangers passing her on the highway. While the will to wipe the slate clean is there, it might not be so easy in practice. Armed with a paint scraper and bottle of Goo Gone, Bacala made a very hungover, half-hearted effort to remove the stickers on New Year’s Day but soon gave up as entire sections of the bumper began to flake away. “I took it to our mechanic, and he said that at this point, the stickers are now a structural element of the car and basically the only thing holding the body together,” she said.
Some friends and family members say they’ll miss the wordy bumper, which served as a handy cheat sheet for interacting with Bacala. “Whenever she came to visit, I would spend a few minutes studying her newest additions to see what sort of conversation topics I might expect at dinner,” says Robert Bacala, Cindy’s father. “For the most part, it wasn’t terribly fruitful, but when I saw her ‘Ban Fracking Now’ sticker I knew I probably shouldn’t mention how well my petrochemical stocks were doing. It’s funny, though; she never seemed to be so angry at the oil and gas industry when they funded her horse riding lessons.”
While Bacala’s mother admires her daughter’s commitment to various and ever-growing causes, she often has trouble squaring the Tracy portrayed on the bumper from the woman she’s raised since childhood. “It’s lovely that she’s so passionate, but the fact is our insurance rates are sky-high because the woman with the “Coexist” bumper sticker keeps flipping people off in traffic and getting citations for road rage,” says Nancy Bacala.