Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Cars & Mechanics of My Life, Part I--How A Misdirected Romance Inspired an English Major to Purchase a 1971 VW Super Beetle Which Was, Decidedly, Not

            I am sitting in the showroom of the local Nissan dealer. My Nissan Maxima, the grey chariot which carries me from college to temple to college to home, is ill—its catalytic converter, an esoteric part which has something vaguely to do with a concept known as Emissions Control, needs a new Intake Valve, or something. I am a Jewish Male, and, like most Jewish Males, am not Mechanically Inclined; I live in Books. I have not the faintest idea how these contrivances of metal, plastic, rubber and fiberglass interact to ferry me from place to place, but, when I get into my car, turn the key, and the car starts up, I always thank Vulcan, Hephaestius, Talos, the Nibelungs, or whoever is responsible. On those rare occasions that I burrow beneath the hood, only to add windshield washer fluid (known universally to my people as “shpritz”), I stop to admire and silently bless the dark, sturdy-looking metal blocks and heavy wires that propel me from place to place.
Recently, one of them decided to cease working properly, causing a small light to flare up on my dashboard: SERVICE ENGINE SOON, it read, an oddly-worded warning suggesting that I ought to bring my car a valentine, or some other keepsake; a vehicular nosegay, perhaps; only don’t hurry, my car is patient, and will doubtless understand if there is a delay.
            Only in this case, little did I know that the nosegay would cost almost four hundred dollars, with the 10% discount I was able to wheedle out of the Nissan Technician, an earnest-looking young man in official NISSAN shirt and Dickies chinos, the photo of whose baby daughter and young wife before their living room Christmas Tree I complimented, despite mistaking the baby girl for a boy (the head was smaller than I first thought, now that I realize).  Worse: in hopes of saving money by not visiting the dealer, I took the car to a generic mechanic yesterday, whose obviously subpar IDENTIFIX machine mistakenly diagnosed my Maxima (a pretentious name, indeed, but I have been happy with the car, overall) as needing a new gas cap, for which he charged me a paltry $20. For that, a lube-oil-filter and some new belts (the old ones were emitting a sad, shrieking noise each morning), Mr. Generic charged me $200, and I believed I was getting off easy.
            No such thing: yesterday morning, en route to my morning College English class via the Florida Turnpike, the SERVICE SOON light lit up again; the gentle warning had returned, but the Nibelungs were becoming urgent. A phone call to the generic mechanic informed me that my $200 had been spent in vain; my car required the attention of a Nissan specialist, which sent me to the dealer; only dealers, it seems, have the Nissan-sensitive-machinery to plug into my Old Grey and figure out what is ailing—Him? It? I hesitate to personify my cars; more about that, below.
            Generic told me that he had done what he could; when I protested the $200 outlay, he offered to take back the gas cap—a paltry $20 saving—but it was clear that he and I had reached the End of Our Particular Vehicular Road. I am presently sitting in the Nissan Auto Showroom, surrounded by gleaming hunks of Shiny-New Japanese Rolling Steel, as if to mock my automotive dilemma. Four Hundred Dollars! How many college classes, how many rabbinical services must I conduct, to pay for this strange, small bit of plastic-and-metal esoterica which a faceless mechanic, back there in the bowels of Nissan Technicians’ Central, will insert into Old Grey? I wonder, and go back to grading my papers: it’s time to earn more money. Inhaling deeply that finest of American Male perfumes, the Scent of New Auto, I muse, and remember:
            I have had a car since the age of 23—late for most red-blooded American Men, but about average for city-dwellers, and then, mostly due to the Sad, Thin Librarian I was dating at the time. She lived in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York City; I, as many of my readers know, on the Lower East Side. I was aching—desperate, really—for feminine companionship; my male hormones were peaking; I was attending both rabbinical and graduate school, so my brain matter was fully engaged, but there are parts of a young, 20-something male which must be kept occupied in a wholesome fashion, or they will lead him astray.
            I cannot recall how we met, but her being a librarian meant that we could speak on a certain cultural level, a degree of snobbishness, really. She dwelt among the untrodden ways in Kew Gardens Hills, which meant that I, her carless swain, had to take the “F” train to the last stop, and then board the Jewel Avenue Bus. It was a long, dull ride, even for a young man armed with a paperback copy of The Sonnets of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or The Anchor Bible.
            Her apartment was in the basement of a two-family house; it was no Vale of Arcadia for a Passionate Shepherd and his Lass. Our Lover’s Nook had all the charm of a boiler factory. Suspended from the ceiling, steam- and water-pipes coursed and criss-crossed over our heads. A pair of timeworn, dented laundry machines stood in the corner opposite; both front-loaders, their door-windows stared at us like accusing eyes. Her sad little cot stood against the wall, a glum-looking, red-and-white little Valentine’s Day teddy bear propped against the worn pillow—she never told me who had given it to her; perhaps she had bought it herself, for company—and there were two high transom windows in the wall above the bed, through which we could watch the sullen and apathetic feet of passers-by, tramping through the muddy piles of late-fallen Queens snow, who had no idea of us, subterranean lover-wannabes, hunched there in the cavelike darkness below.
            I would sweep my Librarian off to Midtown Manhattan, to Greenwich Village; I was able to get Student Rush Tickets to Off-Off-Off-Broadway Plays—detestable, indecipherable drivel by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, but mostly Unknowns—but all of our encounters ended in that Sad Little Basement Apartment, on that tragic, tiny bed, where I attempted desperately to embrace her, and more. I was majoring in 17th Century Literature, grappling with the ghosts of John Donne, that Passionate Lover, and John Milton, who wrote love-poetry to the Holy Ghost and mocked at Parliament and the English Church. One of my two minors was the Romantic Poets; I drank deeply at the same font as Byron, Shelley, and Keats. In my poetry-addled brain, this girl—call her Sharon—had become La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and I, the knight-at-arms lost in her thrall, pathetic though it was.
            Sweating there from the heat of the overhead pipes, I hugged her, in vain, as hormones raced turgidly through my poet’s veins.
            “Just hold me,” she would moan, and push me away. Things were not going well.
            The situation was desperate. Clammy and twisted both within and without, I lightly kissed her cheek farewell—all the while thinking dark and tangled thoughts of mayhem and platonic assault—and stumbled out of her humid underground grotto, to breathe the foggy air of Kew Gardens Hills.
As I stumbled towards the bus stop, a bit of doggerel poked through my English-Literature-belabored brain:
I am His Highness’s Dog at Kew;
                                                Pray tell me, Sir,
                                                Whose Dog are You?

I was Sharon’s Dog, indeed; I was trapped at her beck and call, only she was neither beckoning nor calling, damn it! I thought.
Thick-legged baleboostehs, Jewish housewives swathed in babushkahs and shaitels (Orthodox wigs) glanced at me suspiciously and moved away; I veered like a drunken man, so full was I of unreleaseable passion. I made my way to the bus, panting, and swung aboard like a demented Pony-Express Rider switching mounts. The driver moved back away from me, suspiciously, as I poured my quarters into the farebox. They jangled hollowly, mockingly.
            Homeward bound on the F train, breathing that foetid underground smell of electrical sparks mixt with pee, I came to a resolution. Two rival driving schools were running TV campaigns: the US Auto Club and the Automobile Club of America. In the series run by the latter, a moaning, desperate pitchman, unable to pry the car keys away from his new-driver wife, looked heavenward towards God, the Ultimate Driver, and wailed, “Automobile Club of America—did you have to be THAT GOOD?”
            Accordingly, once home, I sat down and promptly phoned—the wrong driving school, the rival US Auto Club—our family has never been good at following directions. In this, I take after my mother a’h, who, when we presented her with a gift parakeet, intended to name her after a president’s wife, the redoubtable Dolley Madison.
When I came home the next day, the bird, a blue-green-yellow chatterbox who make short work of cuttlebones and was fanatically anti-social, pecked at my finger when I tried to wave “hello” through the cage bars.
“What’s the bird’s name, Mom?”
“Oh, you know, that President’s wife’s name—Abigail Adams.”
Which is why, intending to call the Automobile Club of America, I called the US Auto Club. It is a genetic failing; when all else in society breaks down, blame one’s parents; Sigmund Freud would applaud.
            Oh, and I broke up with Sharon, the Grieving Librarian. I was but flesh and bone, and could bear no more basement gropings.
            At my first driving lesson, entering the Dodge Dart, my car instructor told me, “My name is Mr. Smith (It really was.). I am a college graduate, and I will be teaching you to drive.”
            This seemed obvious, on the face of it, and I would have been surprised, indeed, if he had offered to teach me to whip up a souffle in the front seat of the car. I did fight down the urge to tell him that I had two Bachelor’s Degrees (one English, One Bible and Jewish Education) and a Master’s in English. He held the keys to the Automotive Kingdom, and I was not about to tick him off at our first meeting. I noted with reassurance that he kept both feet planted firmly on his brake pedal; I would not trust me, either.
            As we cruised amid the highways and streets of Manhattan, Mr. Smith proved to be a patient and thorough teacher. I learned to look over the traffic ahead of me, to assume the worst, be ready for sudden changes, and Leave Myself an Escape Route. When panel trucks and tractor-trailers loomed ahead on the highway, he said, “We refer to these, affectionately, as ‘billboards,’” I understood his point, but failed to share his affection. These monstrous objects served only to obscure what I needed to see; I would yield to them, and try not to get too close.
            In the end, my investment in driving did pay off. Mr. Smith got me my license—at the relatively advanced age of 23. I had lost a girlfriend—no great loss, there—and gained a sense of mobility.
            What remained was to get a Set of Wheels. Having no idea whatsoever about how to acquire them, I made a common Young Man’s Error: I purchased a car from a friend—in this case, Aaron Dursh, whom I had known since we were in Yeshiva High School together. We were not particularly close; he had a habit of coming into my college dorm room and bragging to me where he had found a parking spot, but mostly to mooch a cup of coffee; I was one of those rare individuals who had his own electric percolator in those days. Remember percolators?
            Aaron did have, and wished to sell, a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle. I knew nothing about the car, or any other; all I knew was that VWs had a reputation for lasting forever. What was super about this car I had no idea, but soon discovered that it had a shift lever, but no clutch pedal, which was fine with me; I had learned to drive Automatic.
            What I did not know was that the transmission of a Super Beetle was a delicate as a fine Swiss watch, and that the car’s second owner—Aaron, of course—had driven it like a Indianapolis race car driver, keeping his hand on the shift lever at all times, which the instructions for the car expressly stated Not to Do. I was naively unaware of this fact. All I knew was that he was asking a mere one thousand dollars for the car, that I had that much money in one of my hard-earned bank accounts, and that I wanted wheels, as quickly as possible.
            Phone calls to both my brother-in-law and my father gained me nothing in terms of support, and I was determined to express my personal independence and maturity in getting a car. In two seconds, Aaron had his check, and I had my car keys.
            “I have a good feeling about this car,” I told Aaron.
            He smiled. This was, ought to have been, a warning. It wasn’t that Aaron was trying to cheat me. He honestly did not know that the Super Beetle was a Super Lemon: that was for me to find out. Benjamin Franklin warns us, “Experience keeps a harsh school, but a Fool will learn in no other.” I should have listened to him.
            I ought to have been warned when, shortly after picking up the Beetle and following Aaron in his new car, the beast stalled out and refused to re-start in a busy intersection. I blew the horn as loudly as I could, which wasn’t very, until Aaron pulled around and came to assist me. The shift was not in neutral, a problem which would return to bedevil me in the six months I would go on to own the Beetle.
            A young man’s first car is an experience unmatched by any other in his life. This pile of metal, plastic, leather and wires is no mere machine. He may personify it with a loving nickname; he may adorn it with all sorts of gewgaws. I did neither of these things, although, in the months that were to follow, I was to call the car “that damned piece of sh*t” on, perhaps, more than one occasion. I loved that car; I cherished it; I simonized it to a fare-thee-well, and, in return, it gave me nothing but aggravation.
            The first problem I faced was where to park the car in the neighborhood. The Co-op Buildings where I lived had parking lots, it was true, but, having been built in the 1950s, an era of car scarcity, there were hardly enough spots for the larger number of motorists who lived there by the 1970s, and there was a long waiting list. I would come home at all hours of the day or night, and inevitably end up cruising up and down the long neighborhood streets, parking wherever I could find a spot.
            One night, tired and worn-out, I made the mistake of parking in a particularly dark corner of the City Projects that adjoined our development. I assumed that no one would be particularly interested in stealing my little car. Unfortunately, I had made the mistake of making it attractive; I loved it so, and had polished its bright, fire-engine-red chassis until it gleamed.
            Approaching the car the next morning, I was taken aback to see the windows rolled partway down, as if someone had been driving it. When I got in, I was further nonplused to see that the ignition lock cylinder had been jimmied out; someone had tried to hot-wire my car. What had saved my trunk from being broken into was a bit of Aaron’s advice: I had gone to Modells-Davega and bought a $5 bike lock, which I wrapped around the trunk handle and the front bumper, preventing anyone from opening the trunk—which was, if my readers recall, in the front of the car. It was the best $5 I ever spent.
            As for the thieves being unable to steal the car—luckily, Aaron had installed an ignition cut-off switch, which was mounted on the passenger seat just behind the driver, and, in the dark, they had been unable to find it. Still, I had a dilemma: I could not drive my own car. AAA towed me, but I had to pay for a new lock cylinder and keys. The car was rapidly becoming my bottomless Money Pit—and my limited student’s funds, built up by piddling jobs going back to my junior-high-school days, were sorely taxed.
            It was the clutchless shift and Aaron’s heavy-handed driving that led to the Beetle’s downfall. I used to believe, and still do, that the car “always wanted to die in the country, because whenever I drove it out of the five boroughs, it would break down.” This was not entirely true; there was one memorable occasion when I was teaching English at Queensborough Community College, and the car would not start. It was, obviously, the automatic shift lever, again, but I had no way at the time of knowing this.
            I called AAA, which, in accordance with the rules of those days, towed the car to the nearest mechanic nearby. He, knowing that he would never see me again, proceeded to run up an estimate running into the hundreds, from tuneup to new gaskets, drivebelts, and other esoterica. In desperation, I turned to my father—no driver, but he could tell a rook job when he heard of one.
            “Do you have a local mechanic that you trust?” he asked me.
I nodded.
“I will pay for AAA to tow your car from Queens to your own mechanic,” my father said.
“I would rather pay the tow than have that goniff (thief) in Queens take advantage of you.”
The car was towed into the city, and it arrived at Houston St., where Pedro, my—Portuguese? Brazilian?—mechanic, took charge of it. His “boys” swarmed all over it—they were all family, a strange, mustachio’ed, long-haired assortment of cousins, brothers, nephews, and uncles—and fixed it, to the tune of a mere $18. Without going into a rabbinic explanation of the numerological significance of that price, I wrote Pedro a check.
“What was wrong with the car, Pedro?” I asked, desperate to know why there was such a great disparity between his price and that of the Queens goniff.
Pedro looked up from his counter. I can see him there, today, amid FIRESTONE posters, girlie calendars showing pneumatic blondes draped over GOODYEAR tires, and piles of greasy, indescribable metal incunabulae piled in the corner. He opened his great brown eyes and peered at me, from beneath his mass of long, black hair, and above the handlebar mustache that concealed most of his mouth and lower jaw. Behind him, in the Work Area (BEWARE! Insurance Regulations forbid customers coming beyond this point!) I could see the boys swarming over yet another car, working their automotive legerdemain. In my mind, they were Portuguese Nibelungs, storing up treasure in a manner known only to them; they were Keepers of the Golden Hoard…. I took a deep, oil- and gasoline-scented breath, and waited for Pedro to pass along to me, a Mere, non-Automotive Mortal, the Ineffable Wisdom:
“Was broken,” he said, in his deep, slow voice, “We feex.”
I took the keys he proffered me, stepped out into the sunlight, and entered my Super Beetle. Turning the key, it answered, with its high, Germanic whine. We drove away, into the sunset.
What spelled The End for my Beetle was, sadly, Nana’s Fall. My Nana was not, in Dylan Thomas’s famous phrase, “going gently into that good night”; no, she was, instead, staying up late, watching TV, and stuffing herself with her favorite delicacies—matzo with butter and salt, and navel oranges. Her balance was shot—some Grandmother’s Gyroscope had gone out of balance—and she was falling, heavily, onto the floor of her apartment. My mother, a member of the Co-op House Committee, had been able to arrange moving Nana from her longtime eyrie on the 17th floor to our own, the 7th, where Mom could keep an eye on her errant, obese mother, but the strain of eldercare was beginning to tell. I remember her 17th-floor apartment: she had a balcony: the view of the courtyard and the East River beyond, with sightings of the bridges and parts of Brooklyn, never failed to take one’s breath away….
Finally, Nana’s brittle bones gave way: she broke a hip, and her health insurance plan placed her into a rehab facility ‘way out on Long Island, accessible only by car—and and I was the only driver in the immediate family; I, who had, ironically, purchased the Beetle, against parental wishes, using my own money.
“You will drive us out to the Rehab this Sunday,” my mother told me, in no uncertain terms. This did not bother me, though the only family member I had carried, up to that point, had been my sister Patti, who expressed a certain sense of awe, or perhaps fear, when we sat in traffic, my baby niece Jill strapped into the rear seat of the Beetle, with Patti noting how close we were able to approach the cars in front—the Beetle’s decided lack-of-hood gave that impression; one felt as if one could reach through the flat glass of the windshield and caress the trunk of our traffic neighbors.
There was no choice: that Sunday, the three of us—Mom, Dad, and I—embarked. My old friend Sam told me later how he saw us, that morning, jouncing and bouncing down Grand St. in the red Beetle, myself at the wheel, my father clinging to a forward strap, and my mother clinging for dear life to the rear seat. I must state that the rear seat of a Beetle was a universal joke—it was roomy and comfortable, only if one had no legs below the knees. We hit the Long Island Expressway, and made it out to Peninsula Rehab in due time—the “semi-automatic shift lever” that was the pride, joy, selling point, and chief bane of my existence could only be engaged if one were driving over 50 mph, and the Beetle, with its high profile, could reach that exalted speed only if it caught a strong tailwind.
The visit to Nana went well; she was on her way to recovering, but entered a nursing home soon after—sad, but necessary. Homeward bound, as if by Act of God, we somehow managed to get a flat tire. My poor parents, never having been in this sort of automotive dilemma, stood forlornly on the shoulder of the road, while I set about changing the tire. It was no difficulty: I had already rotated the tires of the Beetle single-handedly; its wheels were only slightly larger than bicycle tires. It was mid-Autumn, and a stiff wind was blowing from Long Island Sound; my mother, unfortunately, was turning blue with cold and panic. To calm her, I gave her Something to Do—I handed her a hubcap with the lug nuts in it; this would serve both to concentrate her attention and weigh her down. My father stood, wrapt in his hat and overcoat, hands thrust down in his pockets, in deep thought.
At one point, a police car cruised by, slowly; my mother began waving, in the manner of a demented mariner lost at sea, who spies a far-off sail. The police slackened not at all, did not even wave, but continued on their way.
“Why didn’t they stop?” my mother asked me, almost tearfully.
“It’s New York, Ma,” I told her, “they would only stop, maybe, if one of us were lying bleeding on the ground.”
In no time at all—at least, it seemed to me—we were on our way, bouncing back to Manhattan. My parents sat in silence, warming up after their open-air LI Expressway experience. I played the radio, which got only AM stations, and tuned in to the NewsRadio station to cheer my father’s mood.
The next evening, I looked up from my reading to see Dad in my doorway.
“Sit down, Dad?” I asked, turning away from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which never failed to brighten my mood; we seemed to have much in common, gloomy old Burton and I.
“Your mother and I have decided,” said my father, “to buy you a car.”
Realizing that this was less an act of generosity on their part than an admission that I was soon to be promoted to Family Chauffeur, I allowed myself a smile, as a feeling of happiness and gratitude began to arise in my bosom. Volkswagen had recently come out with the VW Rabbit, and I had seen a brochure featuring a lovely example, in a sort of sky-blue, with white upholstery.
“Can I get a VW Rabbit?” I asked, hopefully.
Dad gave me a baleful glance.
“You will get a Dodge Dart,” he intoned, “Your sister has a Dodge Dart, your uncle has a Dodge Dart, your cousin has a Dodge Dart. You will get a Dodge Dart.”
About a week later, Dad and I drove out to New Jersey, and sold the Super Beetle. The salesman took Dad and me out on the highway, floored the gas of the Beetle, got poor, abused old car to as fast a speed as it would go, and took his hands off the wheel. The Beetle veered alarmingly back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until the man grabbed it at the last minute.
“$400,” said the man.
“Done and done,” I said.
“You should have held out for more,” said my father, later; he had sat in the back seat—how he got himself in and out of there, I will never know.

But the Beetle passed out of our lives, and I was not sorry.