September 7, 1994

I USED TO DRIVE a tomato-soup-red 1963 Volkswagen bug and so did everyone else in Berkeley. The 1950's VWs were mostly black, but by the early 'sixties the standard color was red, sprinkled with a few green or white ones. There were so many of them in the Co-op parking lot that people would do something like stick a plastic flower or a streamer on the radio antenna so they could tell their red VW from all the others. A VW owner became a conoisseur of distinctive bumps and dents. More than once, wool-gathering, I got into somebody else's bug and sat a moment confused until the slightly-out-of-kilter feeling culminated in the realization that I was in the wrong car. Once when I was in a crowded elevator a little girl reached her hand up and took mine. I looked down at her and she looked up at me and she looked shocked and started to cry and pulled away her hand. Her father reached down and took her hand, and we smiled at one another over her head, but I know how she felt.

A quarter of a million miles on the odometer and an antique six volt system and then in January of 1993 you couldn't get leaded gas anymore. Though cheap to maintain and easy to work on, things kept going wrong at the worst possible time. Electrical system shorts out in the biggest rainstorm of the year in downtown San Francisco; a fuse blows on the Bay Bridge and there's no lights or horn; fuel pump packs it in on 580 in blinding summer heat and so on. I was gradually fixing everything, and indeed the car was growing something like the wonderful old knife that had three new blades and two new handles. But still it was an old, tiny, unreliable car. My wife did not thrill to the opportunity of riding in it. Too many let-downs.

One morning I was looking out the window, and a car stopped for a pedestrian and another car stopped behind it. The second car was driven by my next-door-neighbor. I waved and she waved and then a third car piled into her without so much as stepping on the brakes. She'd done nothing wrong, but her car was wrecked and she was hurt. If that had been me in my bug, my car would have been a write-off and maybe me with it. As much as I loved my 30-year-old miracle of German engineering, it was a noisy, uncomfortable, outmoded death trap and it was time for a change. So, I got a slightly-used 1991 Volvo. Safe as houses, built like a tank and except for the color, I can still lose my car in a Berkeley parking lot.

But the VW was a dear old friend and I had a hard time letting go. Parked at the head of the driveway, its glamorous replacement pulled up behind, it sat for six months gathering dust. Faithfully, it started right up when I drove it for the last time to its new owner. I asked the same price as when the car was new and I was nineteen. When I took the money, I felt like a Judas.

A new car is like a new body-you don't know where anything is. It must be how a pregnant woman feels. I'm getting used to it, but slowly.


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