by RIP RENSE
(April 14, 2005)
thrill and captivate me every bit as much as soccer. No, more. I will
never fathom a four-hour game with maybe one or two points scored, the rules
of which are: “move the ball around without using your hands.”
I put cars right there
with Donald Rumsfeld, “The Bachelor,” the dalliances of Jennifer Lopez,
colonoscopies. I realize this means I should promptly turn in my testicles.
An American male who does not fetishize automobiles doesn’t deserve to
Cars are supposed to be
rapturous, ecstatic, quasi-orgasmic---possibly religious--- experiences. Ask
any Lexus commercial. On the planet Tralfamadore, Kago and all his fellow
Tralfamadorians viewing Earth TV concluded long ago that Chrysler, not
Christ, is the prime object of human adoration. Incidentally, they refer to
Earth as “Blochcolochco,” roughly “Planet of Zooming Jackasses.”
The problem is, this
jackass needs a new zoom. Driving a beat-up 20th century Honda has put
me at risk, though not for mechanical reasons. I am passed, tailgated,
honked at, cut off, glared at, generally endangered---all because the car is
not au courant. Doesn’t matter how fast I drive. I am “outta the way,
loser” material. It’s Carwinian.
And they’re right,
really. I reject zoom-zoom ethos. I still putt-putt. BMW? Big Motherf---ing
Wow. Lexus? Vexes us. SUV? Stupid, Usurious, Venal. I think the relentless
production of cars equals relentless reduction of environment. Cars aren’t
built to go, they’re built for ego. Auto motives? All suspect.
And today’s vaunted
models have all the personality of Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and New
Age/”Christian” Music idol John Tesh combined. There are exactly two
body types: SUV/truck, and suppository-shaped sedan. Colors range from
silver-blue to silver-beige to silver-white to silver. They don't even have
names anymore, but numerical/alphabetical designations that sound like
characters in a bad spy movie. They have been dumbed down, design-wise,
demographically and diabolically geared to the dumb guys buying them.
|Perhaps when Knuckles said the engine and
transmission had been rebuilt, he meant they had been entirely
remade from materials that had never been an engine or transmission
The only vehicle in the market with anything approaching panache is the
Scion X-Box, which I actually considered purchasing until I discovered its
unnatural affection for potholes and bumps.
So. . .
It was with amazement,
the other day, that a nostalgic whim led me to Google up a mint, cherry, and
otherwise delicious looking yellow 1973 Volkswagen squareback. The “type 3,”
the last and best of the breed. $2200.
The finest car I ever
owned, you see, was a used 1973 VW squareback, chocolate brown, and so clean
and mechanically sound that my mechanic took its picture and framed it on
his garage wall. When you consider what mechanics usually frame on garage
walls, you understand how nice the car was.
The engine was tight, the
ride was a glide, the body functional yet aerodynamically sleek; even
subtly. . .suave. Gad, I’m writing like a one of those nutball "automotive
Caltrans murdered this
This fine state agency
closed a lane under the Barham bridge on the Hollywood Freeway one morning
in order to sweep up a cigarette butt. They put up big signs about the
closure that were visible from at least from twenty feet. You’d swing around
the corner, dip down at 60 mph, and. . .whoops! No fast lane.
Nine cars braked, all
were wiped out. Mine was number eight. The big television producer, Edward
Milkis (“Star Trek”), was number seven. In L.A., you never know when you’ll
meet a celebrity.
So crazed was I to
replace the squareback that I promptly found another, and it. too, gleamed
and purred and suaved. Yet the engine had enough miles to reach
Tralfamadore, so I unloaded it after a year in order buy a VW Rabbit. Second
biggest car mistake I ever made. (The first was selling a piquant 1966 green
four-door Rambler Classic with 70,000 original miles to a group of six
Vietnamese immigrants in 1985. Cheap, to boot.)
The Googled sight of
the mint yellow squareback made my eyes go stupid and excited, the way a
young man’s do when he spies a bare breast. (Okay, or an old man’s.) I
e-mailed the owner. He said I could look at it. He said it had a
I immediately considered
coloring the gray out of my moustache. Or maybe, if I got my old 'back back,
it would just spontaenously revert to brown. . .My brain screamed, as
Vonnegut’s did in “Breakfast of Champions,” “MAKE ME YOUNG AGAIN.” I needed
a rebuilt engine, too.
Allow, if you will, dear
reader, one of those dreary "I went to look at a car" tales:
I sent a second e-mail to
Owner, who had never introduced himself, saying I could come right over. No
response. When I next checked my e-mail, hours later, I found this:
“Hey, what gives? I
thought you wanted to look at the car.”
I figure it’s a good
thing e-mail doesn’t record grunts and snorts.
He was short on
etiquette, was Owner, but then, he lived in the Valley.
revealed directions over his cell phone. They were like something out of
“When you get near the street,
call me, because I live in an alley, and I’ll come out and meet you.”
At least he gave me his
first name, or a first name, after I prodded him. For purposes of this
column, it will be “Knuckles.” Who lived in an alley in the Valley.
I arrrived to find
Knuckles standing beside not one, but two ’73 VW squarebacks. I squinted
hard, but try as I might, neither of them looked very yellow, or very mint.
In fact, they looked so un-yellow that they were orange---at least, the
parts where the paint had not worn away.
We shook hands. Knuckles
seemed an affable sort, perhaps early ‘40s, with that two-day old beard
growth that conveys either unemployment or a starring role in the next
“summer blockbuster.” I mentioned that the car in the ad was the color of
sunshine and clean as a Placido Doming high C. (Well, I didn't put it quite
that way.) This surprised and perplexed Knuckles. Me, too. He told me that
one of the orange squarebacks was for “hauling my dog around,” and the other
for sale. I don’t have a dog, but I looked at the other one anyhow.
I can say this with
certainty: it had a body, and four wheels.
“Oh, you can’t get in
from the driver’s side,” warned Knuckles, who opened the passenger door
to reach across and unlock the driver’s. “The lock needs a little work.”
Then he lifted the hatchback and took hold of a shredded rubber mat.
Carefully peeling back several sections to reveal the engine hatch (heavily
rusted over), he said proudly, “This is the original rubber mat!.”
He pulled a pillow off
the driver’s seat to reveal a shock of stuffing sticking out like half of
Larry Fine’s head.
“The pillow is just to
keep that stuff from getting on your clothes,” he said. “I think it’s the
Another point of pride!
“Be careful rolling the
window down,” said Knuckles. “They put the speaker too close to it and you
can cut yourself.”
I sat down. There was
something off-kilter, misshapen. The inside of the car didn’t feel right,
like an Escher print. Something had taken the "square" out of "squareback."
It was as if the thing had been taken apart and put back together. By
I asked about the car's
history. Knuckles knew nothing, except it had "spent time" in Washington
State, and that a previous owner had named it "Tabitha."
I put the key in
Tabitha's ignition. The key did not like Tabitha. It did not want to be in
her ignition. It refused to turn. It knew better! I tried about a dozen
“That’s funny!” said
Knuckles, who grabbed and bent the key to his will.
Driving Tabitha was
sort of like walking an old lady across Wilshire Boulevard. You wanted
her to hurry because there was oncoming traffic, but she could only go so
fast. Perhaps when Knuckles said the engine and transmission had been
rebuilt, he meant they had been entirely remade from materials that had
never been an engine or transmission before. Bird cages, maybe, and Tinker
“It’s on special today,”
smiled Knuckles. “$3000!”
Hussein Iraq dollars, I managed not to say, as I inspected a hefty
amount of body rust behind the front bumper, and bade Knuckles farewell.
Along with thoughts of
reviving my moustache.
|Yet millions of mesmerized humans still obey
orders from Big TV Brother and rush out to buy expensive machines as
vivacious as department store mannequins. . .
the way home, I stopped in a parking lot and mused about the squareback, and
Knuckles, and cars in general. Well, it wasn’t really a parking lot---it was
the 405 south, just after the transition from the 118. Caltrans was
apparently sweeping up another cigarette butt, and the freeway was as dead
as Michael Jackson’s career. I tuned in a KFWB traffic report:
“There was dirt spill on
the 405 in the Valley near Victory,” chirped a female, “but that’s cleared
up now and traffic is moving.”
“Moving like your
brain,” I muttered, herky-jerking a quarter mile in 20 minutes. Around
me, people jockeyed and wedged in front of one another, just like the
freeway was wide open. Auto-matons. They honked, and lit up cigarettes, and
cranked up their thunderous hiphop, and were careful to not look at one
another, in case the guy next door wanted to know what gang your were from.
A trucker’s CB blather interrupted my radio, where KRTH was playing “It’s
Your Thing.” “F--- your poopy mother,” was one of the decorous outbursts.
It hit me: this is what
L.A. has become. This is what driving has become. F--- your poopy mother
stuff. Yet millions of mesmerized humans still obey orders from Big TV
Brother and rush out to buy stunningly costly machines as intriguing as
department store mannequins, as petite as Godzilla, just so they can sit in
them and develop heart attacks, strokes, and creative profanity.
An SUV drove over an
island to my right, entered a freeway on-ramp lane, and began backing down
the on-ramp! Followed by an airport van, followed by a Nissan Sentra,
followed by. . .a whole lot of silver suppositories on wheels. Going the
wrong way on a blacktop alimentary canal.
Followed by me.
Yes, folks, I jammed
the old loser tin-can into reverse down a freeway on-ramp that
eventually put me on to a broad, breezy boulevard, leaving a thousand
dutiful consumers baking in the Valley sun. I didn’t even stop for a woman
trying to cross in a crosswalk, so giddy with the joy of being free again
I e-mailed Knuckles later
and told him I would pass on the car.
And possibly, all cars
“Just out of curiosity,”
replied Knuckles, “what was your reason?”
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