Category Archives: cars

Most Saturday Mornings

On most Saturday mornings I wander around looking to see what my neighbors wisely or foolishly have put out for sale.  Some weeks it is stained Hello Kitty sheets, a three (formerly four) legged particle board laminate table, a used possum trap, a scratched Tijuana Brass album, a Kelvinator (I don’t know either but it requires 220 current), a collection of vintage margarine tubs, a not that clean stretched out plumbing snake, a Chevy muffler, a pile of enmeshed bamboo blinds, a mostly complete game of Sorry!, and a water-stained collection of Danielle Steel novels.  But some weeks there is nothing but junk!

Every collector has a “great find” story, told with the same gleeful chortle as Bain Capital executives over drinks at the club as they recount outsourcing an orphanage and shipping 900 children to be raised in India. The wily dealer came upon a pair of autographed Elvis socks for a dime and is later besieged with offers in the thousands.  Why he is still driving a rusted out, twenty year old Dodge van is never explained.  My tale is not of stealth, deceit or enormous gain, but rather impulse, regret, acceptance, and inconvenience.

A few months ago at a nearby apartment building I was early enough to witness the beginnings of an interesting looking sale.  A nondescript but pleasant accountant type in his 40s was bringing out boxes of model trains.  I have many weaknesses, but fortunately Lionel trains are not among them.  I asked if he would be bringing anything else out, and he replied that he would be selling his baseball cards.  I believe the term is feigned nonchalance and I am not very good at it.

Soon he began to bring out boxes of neatly organized baseball and football cards.   These were not the valuable Topps cards of my Ted Williams/Stan Musial childhood.  This younger neighbor collected in the 1980s-90s after other companies joined the “hobby” and proceeded to flood the market.  So this is not going to be a gloating, how I got rich story.  In truth, I was ambivalent. The owner of the cards was selling under a stress that I did not yet understand.  He was such a meek, likable guy, I did not want to take advantage of him.  Additionally, there were suddenly more shoppers; the hint of a real bargain can make an already unattractive crowd to turn ugly.

A sensible person might have said, “I’ll take one complete set.”  That would be about 770 cards in pristine condition, in number order, smartly boxed, and easy to carry.  I could look forward to many hours of reminiscing and did I mention the easy to store box?  Instead I heard myself saying, “How much for all of them?”  The now-crowded sale grew quiet.  People clutched their train sets and gasped.  “The crazy guy is going for it,” said one.  “He doesn’t know what these trains are worth,” said another.

In this bush league Las Vegas, I was “the most interesting man at the sale,” going all in with a pair of 7s showing.  Motioning me aside, he lead me behind a four foot tall potted plant.  His lips barely moved as he said quietly, “Look, I have a lot more cards.  We just got married and it’s a small apartment, and she wants my cards and trains gone.”

I was picturing my new best friend’s spouse: also early 40s, glasses, quiet, mousy, cautious, practical.  I imagined the quiet dinner where she summoned her courage and tentatively at first broached the subject of his collections.  She may have suggested that giving up baseball cards and model railroading, pursuits of a solitary man, might be a testament of their commitment to a new life together.  Perhaps she had coquettishly suggested other things they might do…

As if on cue the bride awoke and came out to the sale sputtering, “What are you doing talking to one guy in the corner when people are ready to buy the trains?”  She immediately struck me as someone who had not seen 7:00 AM in many years.   Braless, in very tight jeans, she may have lived forty years, but she had not spent her evenings setting up train switches or studying the Baltimore Orioles roster.  She made Janis Joplin look like a Junior Leaguer.   She had a very large eagle tattoo on her upper chest and many others tats on her forearms.  I believe her sleeveless T-shirt said something about being property of the Hell’s Angels.  Her boots, black leather belt and chains suggested that she was not the software designer I originally imagined.  I felt like asking her about John Belushi, and what it was like partying with Keith Richards.

Instead I held my tongue as she stormed off.  I watched him for reaction.  All I saw was love.  “Whatever she wants,” he shrugged.  He again asked if I wanted all the cards.  I assured him I did and we agreed on a price of $70.00.  As i loaded the 60,000 baseball cards into my car, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever love someone that much.

Only kidding, JoAnne.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  His collection, discretely covered by a tablecloth, occupies a corner of the living room.

 

 

 

 

Motorist Critique

Safety first: Keep both hands on the wheel. Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and see how happy you feel!

—Wrigley Gum commercial circa 1955

Most of us freely concede certain shortcomings, such as the inability to carry a tune, do simple math without a calculator, recall names of former neighbors, and even remember the title of last night’s video.  We are touchier about a subjects like having no sense of humor (no one admits they don’t have one) and operating a motor vehicle.  Just about everyone from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to your great Aunt Minnie believes they are  excellent drivers and it is the yahoos on the road that make modern ground travel hair-raising.

I have no such illusions. I drive when necessary and never for pleasure.  Still I reserve the right to savagely critique my fellow motorists.  Speeders, tailgaters, phone talkers, and drunk drivers are in another circle of Hell.  What follows are behaviors that are more annoying than life threatening. 

  1. No turn signal.  Generally a guy, often in an oversized vehicle.  The inference is, it is none of your business where or when I am turning, despite how much it may aid you in making your plans.  Turn signals are for wimps and people who want to take away my freedom and my country.  (The last part may be a stretch, but I have felt it.)
  2. That is my lane!  I am in the right lane signaling to move to the left to pass a slow moving vehicle.  A car in the left lane is well back, but on seeing my signaled intent develops a deep proprietary interest in all of the passing lane and immediately accelerates so that I am unable to get over.  Similarly, when one is faced with an upcoming lane merger there are only two types of drivers.  One sees the need to quickly assess, communicate, and accommodate.  The other decides they must beat you to the spot no matter the carnage.  The latter is a common impulse in preschoolers lining up for recess.
  3. The shaming pass.  I admit I usually stick to the speed limit plus 5 miles per hour in and around town.  As one lane turns to two I am sometimes passed by a driver who feels the need to explode around me as if I had been holding them underwater.  After accelerating as if on fire, or late to a consult at the Mayo Clinic, they usually turn into a Burger King.
  4. Left turn arrow.  We are in our left turn lane, waiting for a green arrow. We are the misfits; the vast majority of cars are happily and feverishly speeding on in both directions.  Who are we to stop the onslaught and make our puny turn?  The driver of the first car in the left turn lane is the captain.  Since the light changes only in months with an “R” in them, a good safe jump is imperative.  When I am the captain, I take pride in being alert and getting as many of my team through as possible.  I hate when captains dawdle.  They always get out but seem not to care about how many of us they leave behind.
  5. The left turn swoop.  This is related to #4, and may be caused by a derelict captain who is already blissfully down the road.  The green arrow has gone from yellow to bright red. “But it has not been red for long,” reasons the swooper who flies into the intersection and forces green-lit traffic to hit their brakes, shake their heads, and shudder.
  6. Red light/Blue light.  Long ago in the playground game, and on the highway red meant stop.  Red has become the new yellow.  To many, a light turning red is a challenge and a signal to accelerate.  Perhaps we need a fourth color.  A blue light that really means do not enter this intersection until it is your turn!

Tom H. Cook now annoys other drivers in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Minneapolis in Mid-September

What a wonderful week to come home.  Minneapolis in mid-September has always been one of my favorite times.  The lush trees and cool air, the young families (many with requisite lab or golden retriever), and most everyone’s pace is of hurried optimism.  Winter is coming, but not yet.

I have always loved to show off Minneapolis, whether to stray relatives, old friends from college, or friends of friends.  Even driving somewhere alone I would frequently play tour guide in my mind.  When Rachael returned for a wedding along with her husband Daniel, a New Zealander who had never been to Minnesota, it was the ultimate challenge.  I wanted him to see everything.  Working against my rapidly evolving plan was Rachael’s mortification at me dragging him off, and Daniel’s desperate need for sleep, something he had had almost none of for three days.  The kids also had a commitment with friends and a dash to the airport.  I had one hour.

We began at the old house.  It pays to sell to friends.  Barb and Alan welcomed us to 24th and Humboldt.  Poking around, showing off the still preserved height marks of growing children, and seeing the changes and improvements through Daniel’s eyes was fulfilling, but Tom the Taskmaster had more to point out, and the clock was running.

Flying out the door, we passed Walter and Joan Mondale’s house.  I wanted the Kiwi to see that at least one former U.S. vice president doesn’t need guards, a gated estate, and opulent surroundings.  The lakes impressed him immediately.  By the fourth lake and despite my running narrative and erratic driving he was ready to call a realtor.

JoAnne would have wanted to stop at the elf tree at Lake Harriet, or just walk peacefully around Isles, but she was visiting friends, and I am a quantity over quality guide.  We passed the beautiful mosaic at Lakewood cemetery, but it received short shrift compared to the Lake of the Isles dog park.  We raced and chased on a beautiful late summer afternoon.  Daniel was impressed by the number of people smiling (unlike in LA).  Dropping them off in Uptown as I pointed out Magers and Quinn and the Apple store, the kids forgave my exuberance.  I called out that Minneapolis has free WiFi as they sprinted away.  It is hard to do twenty-five years in an hour.

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The rest of the week was spent more leisurely.  Reminiscing, seeing old friends, going to garage sales, biking the lakes, it was great to be back.  JoAnne returned to The Minnesota Textile Center which has become the finest in the nation in our nine years away.  As a fiber artist it brings her as much joy as I feel watching a baseball game at Target Field.  On the flight back to LA, JoAnne smiled wistfully and said,”I miss Minnesotans.”

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer now stationed in southern California.  He realizes that he occasionally needs to abandon the bloody pulpit for more local observations.  He was particularly impressed that the (Cursetown) Crosstown/35W no longer does. 

Tom in Miata

Let’s Be Careful Out There!

Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
—Jack Kerouac from “On The Road”

Road rage is the expression of the amateur sociopath in all of us, cured by running into a professional.
—Robert Brault

The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers
 —Dave Barry

Hey! Let’s be careful out there!
  –Sargent Phil Esterhaus (Hill Street Blues)

Could the fault lay in our Google-driven need for immediate (though incomplete) answers and instant gratification?  Maybe we can saddle the blame on the coming of age graduates of a sabotaged public education system.  Perhaps the anomie and stark realization that we are a polarized, hopelessly divided nation facing a grim future of diminished expectations is getting to all of us.  Some suggest it is the powerless grasping for any semblance of control.  Whatever the reason, whether inane or tragically poignant, the roads are becoming more dangerous, and our fellow motorists less civil.  Rather than attempt to understand or make a citizen’s arrest, here are my “fab five” of least favorite transgressors.

Right turn tinted window guy.    You are approaching an intersection at the posted speed with a green light beckoning.  At the crossroads is an impatient cretin who remembers something from driver training class about being able to make a right hand turn on a red light.  Forgotten is the part about proceeding only if no one coming.  The light is green and there will not be a better or more legal time for you to cross, and besides, the driver in the car behind you seems to have his heart set on both of you making the light.  Right turn guy is a sphinx with his tinted windows.  The front third of his car is directly in your path as he decides whether to jack rabbit before you get there, or watch you frantically navigate oncoming traffic.  Neither he nor his car have a reverse gear.  He will not retreat; failure is not an option!  Either way, your rigid adherence to the law is a terrible inconvenience to him.

The tailgater/weaver.  Put simply, their life and time is more important than yours.  Every second counts, and they are losing valuable billable hours marooned behind you on a one lane road.  Their design of an information retrieval system that will render the Internet obsolete is behind schedule.  Some are on the med/surg. team at the Mayo Clinic doing groundbreaking research on the use of hamster bile to treat post myocardial infarctions.  One can feel the telegraphed shaming vibe and aggravating vitriol emanating as they race ahead like Pac Man in search of their next morsel.  If they are so important, why do they tend to drive rusty Dodge Chargers?  (I believe when they get to their destination they scratch themselves, turn on the tube and grab a “brewski.”)

The four way non-stopper  It doesn’t matter who goes first — perhaps it’s the car closest to the equator — but once begun there is a natural and legal order: counterclockwise.  I suspect the same rapscallions who budged the lunch line in grade school are still doing it today.  Perhaps they are unaware or scornful of the corollary to the counterclockwise rule which states “something before nothing.”  In our social contract, we pass to the right but a late arriver must wait for a full rotation to go.  The egregious will “me too” or “piggy back” behind a crossing vehicle.

The “It’s like barely red” dude/dudette  Red is stop; green is go.  Wrong!  After the light turns from red to green, do not proceed with caution but with trepidation.  You may even consider getting out of the car or at least taking a long look to your left and right.  The odds are good that a barreling “entitlement express” will be trying to make the light that has already passed through the autumn colors of yellow and red.  Since it was only yellow/orange the last time they peeked, it seems reasonable that accelerating will get them through the pesky intersection.  Fortunately there is often the sound of a pounding bass guitar to signal their arrival.  Their logic (using the term loosely) seems to be, “I came through this light yesterday at this time and it was green, so I should be able to go, and besides, if I am late again, my manager will kill me.”  The same applies for long left turns across four lanes of traffic.

The “What’s it to you?” non-turn signaler    You would like to make a left turn before all the traffic on your right is unleashed, but there is a vehicle approaching from your left at a speed that would make crossing in front dicey.  Waiting patiently you hope the car will pass before the onslaught.  Oh wait, they are turning right just in front of you.  Miffed or a bit stronger, you look at the driver as he/she completes the turn.  You are feet away, close enough to read their look.  Between arrogance and cluelessness, implied is Where and when I choose to turn is none of your business.”  There is ample time to mull this affront as the window for a left turn has closed and the gaggle of autos, ox carts and rickshaws streaming past right to left now appears to be unending.

Tom H. Cook is aware that he sounds like an old crank.  His defense is that he has always been like this.  He remains an above average driver and vehicular parliamentarian.

 

 

We Are Addicted to Oil

$3.59     —Mobil Station Price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline.  (Torrance, California 5/7/06)

We are addicted to oil.        –President G.W. Bush (2006)

The last successful initiative aimed at lessening our nation’s dependence on foreign oil took place in the southeastern region of the United States in 1962.   Mr. Jed Clampett, by his own admission a poor mountaineer, accidentally struck oil.  This infusion of domestic crude oil made Mr. Clampett and his family extremely wealthy, but more importantly helped keep the cost of gasoline at or below 35 cents per gallon until 1979.  The ethical and moral compromises we have made in the Middle East with shahs and scoundrels in our pursuit of oil are well documented.  That we find ourselves in a bidding war for fuel with China’s deep pockets suggests that gas prices will not be dropping anytime soon.  It is no consolation that the “winner” gets to emit more carbon monoxide to clog the roads, spoil the air, and melt glaciers.

Amazingly, I know someone who is working feverishly and intelligently to address this complex issue.  If the world (or at least the United States) would listen to Rick Woodbury of Spokane, Washington, we could end the energy crisis.  I know what you are thinking, but this is not another visionary I met at the Greyhound bus station, or a friend of the albino dwarf from Cleveland who knows who killed Kennedy.  Unlike those of us who talk about ideas for world peace and never get further than a few sketches on a napkin (which gets thrown out “accidentally” by someone I will not name),  Rick is a sane fifty-something engineer who has designed and built a highway-ready electric car.

The car exists.  Rick has walked through the field of dreamers and constructed the first “Tango” — so named because it takes two.  Actor George Clooney purchased it and drives it when he and a date (when he can get one) attend Hollywood premieres and other high profile events.  The Tango is a two-person commuter car about the width of a motorcycle.   The passenger sits directly behind the driver.  The car has great strength and stability due in part to the weight of the batteries which double as the floor of the vehicle.  And the Tango really moves.  This is not a hopped-up golf cart, but a safe ride perfect for getting to and from work.  Look on 35W: during the week 80% of the cars are only transporting a driver.  Gas, pollution, and traffic aside, think of the money we are spending on infrastructure to widen and expand roads.  A 39” wide, 5’4” length Tango takes up approximately half the space of a traditional automobile.  As a bonus, we would immediately double our available parking at no cost.

The Tango is solidly constructed and able to accommodate two six-footers.   I have sat in one and know some of the basics, such as 0-60 mph in 4 seconds, but my intent in writing is to pique your curiosity, provide the web address, and hope you will visit the site.  If you are interested, forward the link to others.  Rick makes a good “Mr. Smith”: quiet, unassuming and, in the Frank Capra tradition, a hero undaunted by astronomical odds.  Both naive and shrewd, he is manufacturing the Tango in a hostile environment.  He is unflappable and not given to complaint. The last ten years have seen him battle uphill, against the wind, and in the face of special interests and a federal bureaucracy that should be rushing to embrace and subsidize him.

In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to point out that JoAnne and I had Rick over for lunch (bean and cheese burritos) and a bike ride along the ocean the last time he was in L.A. on business.  Rick is not in this for the money, but instead, I suspect, for the challenge.  Somehow he has no discernable ego and speaks glowingly of being able to undertake this crusade with his son and vice-president Bryan. Other than a fondness for clean air, I have only a rooting interest in the Tango and no financial stake.  This is not a plea for money by him or me.  To my knowledge he is not currently even offering stock to the public.

My goal is to use my column, this small and rickety forum, to help publicize this humanitarian endeavor.  Malcolm Gladwell, prolific writer for The New Yorker suggests in his bestseller The Tipping Point that our collective consciousness increases exponentially and that ideas — particularly those surrounding technology — gather momentum as they are discussed.  If you are not tinkering with such a vehicle in your basement (wondering how you will get it up the stairs), perhaps you know someone with a piece to add to the environmental puzzle.  Rather than wait for Washington to provide any help we need to act constructively and support the creative innovators in our midst. Contact Rick; he answers his own mail and is a soul who will restore your faith in humankind.

To learn more and see a short video of the Tango in action, go to  www.commutercars.com
Or Google the words tango electric commuter car Rick Woodbury  (most any combination of the above gets you there)

 

Tom H. Cook is tired of feeling victimized at the pump.  He cannot remember the last time he received a free set of tumblers with fill-up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operating a Motor Vehicle

Wednesday March 14th, less than a month ago, with a single impulsive act, I abrogated my status as a law abiding citizen and surrendered my rights as a self anointed, detached, smugly superior critic, and condescending crank.  As a result of ‘my failing’, I have been forced at least temporarily to relinquish the monocle of righteous indignation through which I have sardonically viewed the folly others.  My offense was not an oedipal sin that would require poking myself in the eye with a stick, or donning  a sack cloth and ashes and wandering third rung suburbs in search of forgiveness.  Still, the total lack of reason I displayed has left me grasping for answers.

My world has historically divided other motorists into two categories; hedonistic demons with a death wish,  and reluctant roadies with their hands locked in the 10 and 2 o’clock  position on the steering wheel, and their cruise control set at the all condition, all purpose speed of 35 mph.  It is lonely in the middle, cast as the arbiter of automotive etiquette, and the sole voice of roadside reason.  As I have obliquely hinted, I am a tad fanatic on the subject of hurtling vast piles of steel at each other at great speeds.  I believe fervently in an ordered universe when it comes to all matters related to safely operating a motor vehicle whether on a street, via duct, avenue, road, highway, long driveway, or cul-de-sac.

On other topics I am much more flexible.  Maybe the NASDAQ is a sound place to invest our collective Social Security nest egg.  Perhaps it does move Democracy forward to blindly elect fools, con men, pretenders, charlatans, and moral pygmies to high office.  The Vikings sure give a lot back to the community, a new stadium may be a small price to keep them here.  There is a fair way to decide who to clone,  so we are careful to preserve the best of all groups.  Those extra cable channels have certainly expanded horizons and brought our family closer together.  Alright last winter was long, but hey get over it.  Isn’t it great to live in an era when beer can simultaneously both taste great, and be less filling.

Believe as you will on other subjects.  Approach me and I am likely to fall blindly in line with the other lemmings.  But on traffic related issues I am resolute.  Always allow a car length for every ten miles of speed, obey all signals, wear a seat belt even in the drive thru bank line, and never change lanes while entering an intersection.  I fear the rabble, those braying fools that race down the highway.  Their blithe disregard for human life terrifies me, exposes my latent reactionary tendencies, and sends me scurrying to suckle from the cold breast of totalitarianism.

Where are these bandits going?  Are they to be forgiven for tailgating and speeding maniacally.  They can not all have suddenly discovered a reactive element that greatly advances AIDS research.  Are they all racing to save the innocent livestock, herded like cattle, confined without trial, accused of hoof and mouth disease?  What if they have just experienced a eureka moment over a passage by Marcel Proust, or any portion of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” suddenly makes sense.  Do these carousers  have poetic license to drive like maniacs, running red lights in order to get to the lab or the classroom to share their epiphany ?

When these speeders get to their destination do they immediately immerse themselves in the problem of global warming or do they merely paddle barefoot around their kitchens, scratching, and searching for the last of the cheese dip.  Perhaps the yahoo in the green Plymouth Duster that roared by me doing 80 mph on Highway 100 (or was it 100 mph on route 80 ?), knows more about “Siddhartha” than Hesse himself, but the implication that his time and life is more valuable than the meagerexistence of the rest of us, staggers me.

Before last month, I could have continued my priggish rant for a number of paragraphs.  On the afternoon of March 14th I left work numb, and beaten down by  the cumulative effects of my eighth days in the throes of a 24 hour virus.  I was on my way to plead, grovel and have my accountant perform a lobotomy on me, or do my year 2000 taxes, which ever promised to be more painful.

I remember driving over the highway, and approaching the freeway entrance in the far left lane.  Next I was moving inexorably forward, and watching as the green arrow turned slowly to amber and then dissolved into the color of Mars,  the planet of war…Was the streaming light before me truly a ‘Minnesota yellow’.  Probably, but I have always scorned those who practice the belief that a recently red light was for all intents and purposes still  green.

To many a yellow light mean accelerate or you will not be the first car through the red light.  Slowing down as I approach a yellow signal causes me to glance reflexively into the rear view mirror to see if a driver behind me is swearing, about to launch themselves over my car in Joey Chitwood style, or is contemplating a last ditch impulsive, wild pass around me to so their hood may catch the last glimpses of amberlight, as they squeal forward.

But this time it is me sliding that extra step and risking a ‘travel call’  like an NBA point guard going for the hoop.  The car directly ahead sees the first blush of yellow light and instantly moves through it and on to the freeway.

It is Las Vegas time.  My turn, play or pass.  Just then the traffic arrow begins to sparkle and produce a rosy, not quite red glow.  I move forward as if in slow motion mesmerized by the light show.  I am transported in time and place.  Suddenly I am a child again,  at home in Pennsauken, New Jersey sitting up on a Sunday night watching “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” and eating popcorn in my parent’s bed.

Instead of the molting of an insect larvae I am transfixed, a wetness tothe special effects of the left arrow now a awash in flames of scarlet. Swinging wildly by one thin wire the beacon still implores and directs me to follow the trail of Blues men Bill Bronzy, and Mance (“Keys to theHighway”) Lipscomb.  I must take the road of the  restless Beat, Jack Kerouac.  A flaming red arrow is a double message.  Stop, but go thisway.  I make the turn, and with sparks raining down on my roof, I oozedown the entrance ramp, choosing to obey the much older and immutablelaw of gravity and motion.

My arching, perfect, seamless left hand maneuver had been done directlyin front of a police car.  Forty yards down the ramp I am stopped.  Thewail of my silent scream still echoes in my memory.  My arroganceshattered.   In an instant I have become that which I most despise, a careless driver.

Tom H. Cook is a local ‘bad actor’.  He wishes everyone a joyous Spring

and begs their forgiveness.

 

Buying a Car

For more than a decade I have been planning for this day.  I have kept the minimum balance necessary to be a member in good standing of my local credit union.  Now my wife and I sit across from a balding 40-ish man and wait for him to make the dream come true.  It is new car time, and this is my first visit to my credit union to apply for a loan.

In 1983 I bought a good car but had a distasteful experience.  Numerous friends and work associates have assured me that profound changes, equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall, have come about since I last car shopped.  “You just give the credit union the make, model and color, and let them wheel and deal for you.  They get it at a couple hundred dollars over cost and even deliver it to you.”  There is no need to even set foot in a showroom and have my hand pumped, my little jokes laughed at, and my first name used at least once in every sentence.

Some of the treatment sounded better than a massage, but I had to admit, in 1983 I made five enemies and one ingrate while buying a two-door compact.  It is better to stay removed and objective, judging MPG and headroom rather than the teeth and haircuts of soon-to-be strangers.  To be totally removed from the sale and not have to plead and grovel to get below the sticker price did not seem possible.  So it was with some skepticism we approached the venture.  Our countless hous spent discussing trunk space, horsepower, anti-lock disc brakes, and upgraded upholstery was about to bear fruit.  No more cult of personality; this was to be a business decision based on scientific research.

My wife JoAnne and I outline the decision to Richard (“Call me Dick”), the auto fleet manager.  JoAnne has virtually memorized Consumer Reports and as we begin to justify our vehicle choice we are somewhat animated and it is admittedly the long version.  Still, Dick is nodding in agreement and in hindsight I can recall phrases like “important feature,” “you’ve certainly done your homework,” and “sound decision” coming from his lips.

I am winded as I conclude the demonstration part of the presentation, turning my imaginary steering wheel rapidly to simulate (with sound effects) the back roads of Morocco as handled by the three leading brands.  I go overboard because I essentially know nothing about mechanical things and I am trying desperately to impress Dick, a crew cut, astronaut-type car guy.  There is a hushed silence as I bring the imaginary car to a stop.

By now many of the customers and credit union employees have returned to their own affairs and a few minutes later it is only Dick and a visibly impressed security guard who joined us somewhere in Nepal.  Dick breaks the reverie of the moment by asking how we choose to pay, and how may he be of service.  It is a fair question and one we have given considerable thought to.  Between our savings, the relatively modest price of the vehicle (compared to the Hope Diamond or beach front property), and a loan from my credit union where my $25 has sat since 1979, it seems that all the bases are covered.

Dick motions us closer, as if he is about to say, “Plastics!” or share that he has secretly embezzled over $11,000,000 from these poor Hush Puppy and cardigan-wearing saps and is about to go in business for himself.  His tone is conspiratorial but his message is less dramatic:  Have we ever considered leasing a car?  Why buy something that is depreciating every day?  Own a house, but lease a car with no money down.  He is whispering, but passionately now.  He wants to challenge our paradigm about vehicle choice.  The car we selected is a loser, and so are we, if we continue to think small.  He is fuelled by our polite indifference.

Why no drive a car that is nicer than one we can afford?  Don’t we want to impress our neighbors with a new car every year?  At this I chortle.  Dick is not talking 12-year-old Volvo station wagons with Breck School insignias on the rear window.  Dick is a suburban guy who assures us that he will never own another car again.  He is leasing block-long cars and his neighbors must think he has mob connections.

He laughs with disdain at the days he owned a Ford Taurus.  The memory is clearly painful to him, but he is willing to lay himself bare emotionally to save other soulds.  For $250 or $300 a month and nothing down, a new car, freshly washed (at no charge) will appear in our driveway this afternoon!  The hard sell is on, or Dick is just doing a convincing Al Jolson.

“The best part is, “he continues, “we take our nest egg and put it in our pocket, rather than throwing it away.”  We can invest it, wheel and deal with it, as opposed to sinking it into Ralph Nader’s nightmare of a car.  Or we could (he grins maniacally) give him the money we were going to blow on a car and let him invest it.  His eyes speak of wildcat oil drilling, cutting edge technology investments, high-yield insider stock trading.  If this red-faced man in a polyester suit is such a potential financial wizard, why is he sitting at this rickety desk in a nondescript, poorly lit credit union, only my $8,000 away from becoming the next Michael Milken?

Dick is on his feet, pacing and wringing his hands.  We are naïve dupes, sucked in by this car-owning conspiracy.  He has seen the light and will never own another car again.  JoAnne tries to tell him that we keep our cars ten or twelve years and that leasing would put us on a permanent cycle where we could never afford a car.  He is livid.  The security guard has switched sides and is helping me restrain the wiry and deceptively strong fleet manager.

I intimate that his commission may be greater on a leased car than a straight sale.  Soon there are papers everywhere as Dick and I tussle and roll around the office.  The pocket I was supposed to put my recovered down payment in has been shredded by Dick as he attempts to wedge his once happily clicking calculator into my esophagus.

Suddenly Dick’s spirit is as broken as his desk lamp and my watch.  He is weeping that we will be eating the depreciation, trapped in a mid-sized prison of our own making.  Suddenly he composes himself and the security guard loosens the grip on his wrists.  “None are so blind” he sniffs, “as those who will not see.”

We are infidels not worthy of his scorn—only his pity.  Besides, his eleven o’clock is here.  His hug is distant and perfunctory.  We are dismissed.

 

Tom H. Cook is a worldly local resident in the market for an ox cart.