Sunday, May 13, 2001

A lemon will give that young squirt character




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        Kids these days drive those 12-ton Eddie Bauer Ford Gladiators and Chevrolet Suburban Marxist Guerrillas that sleep six and come with their own mulching mowers, for when you get tired of sitting in traffic behind a godforsaken Escort.

        They don't know.

        This comes up now as The Kid Down the Hall approaches 15 and starts talking about getting a car. As if it's a done deal. He'd prefer a Cadillac (a what?), but he'd settle for his mother's Honda Accord.

        Oh, no, my friend.

        Back when I was a kid, walking 10 miles to school in the snow uphill both ways, my man O'Fallon had a Datsun he started with a screwdriver. The ignition switch fell out of the instrument panel shortly after his parents bought the car. It hung there by a couple wires, like a graduation tassel from the rearview mirror.

        For his 18th birthday, O'Fallon's folks surprised him by giving him the screwdriver to the car.

        The Datsun was a beautiful driving event compared to my first ride, a yellow (naturally) '74 Vega. The Vega used a quart of oil every couple blocks. To get to work in the summer (about 5 miles), I'd stash a five-quart plastic jug in the trunk. I replaced it every couple weeks.

        I was personally responsible for turning bedouins into sheiks. To drive to the beach (about 150 miles) I had OPEC on speed-dial.

        The Vega didn't do hills. I'd drive back to college in Virginia. When I got to the mountains, I'd start lobbing personal belongings out the passenger window, so the car wouldn't roll back down the interstate.

        Eventually, friends refused to ride with me. They didn't want to push the Vega through the Shenandoah Mountains. To avoid the prospect of driving backwards, I motored to Virginia from Maryland via Kansas.

        The Vega was a marvel of engineering compared with the '79 Chevette. The 'Vette was the only car that came with an optional back seat. It even sounded like a dog. When you slammed the horn, it yipped like a Boston terrier.

        After the first winter, the 'Vette had holes in the floorboards big enough for Fred Flintstone's feet. It was so fragile, I hired a Dodge Ram Truck for protection on long trips. The Chevette made it to 80,000 miles, at which time I left it unlocked in Manhattan with the keys in the ignition and said some Hail Marys. It was like leaving a couch in the median.

        The Kid wants a better ride than that. Too bad for him. The Kid will start with something like the early '70s Buick my roommate Gula drove in college. We called it the Hibachi-mobile. Whenever it started smoking, we pulled over and cooked steaks on the engine block. The car barked, but we ate well.

        How 'bout the late '60s Plymouth (not so) Valiant my friend Yacoubian owned? We wrecked it so bad once it bent the frame. After that, whenever we made a left turn, the tires ground against the wheel well. Since we didn't have money for new left tires every six weeks, we only went places where we could turn right.

        My friend Cohen calls his dad the Lemon King. He owned, in succession, a Pinto, an AMC Pacer, a Dodge K-car and a Pontiac J-car.

        Mr. Cohen is, I'm sure, a man of unimpeachable character. So, son, when we find you a '76 Volare, remember we're only doing it because we love you.

       



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