Leaving Greensboro I drove west along the rural two-lane state highway. Past the county offices the road gradually descended toward the creek at the bottom. On the right, just before the bridge, the ramshackle bar that my friend told me about came into view. It looked like the kind of place that is one-hundred percent guaranteed to get at least one visit from the sheriff on any given Saturday night. The intact plate glass window seemed a whimsical, ephemeral concept.
On the other side of the road was the billboard I was looking for. I slowed and craned my neck to try to see into the trees beyond but, as usual, there was an SUV on my tail. I couldn’t make any sudden moves. I crossed the creek, signaled, slowed, and turned around in a dirt driveway. The SUV sped off and the road was clear.
I crossed back over the bridge, pulled onto the shoulder, and shut the motor off. I could see it now, barely, right where he said it would be — that unmistakable profile of a Volkswagen Bus, similar in shape, styling, and (in this case) color to an antique, cast-off Frigidaire.
I had heard about it several months before from a guy I cycle with from time to time, who passes it every day on his way to work, and who knows that I’m a vintage Volkswagen nut. Greensboro, Georgia is the better part of an hour from here, and not very convenient for me to make a special trip. But the next time I visited my family in Savannah, I decided that a little detour on the way back would be well worth it. It wouldn’t be the most direct way to go, but I’m a country driver anyhow. I said goodbye to my folks a little earlier than was really necessary so as to have plenty of daylight left.
I retrieved my little Nikon CoolPix camera from the glove box and stepped out of the car. The red clay on the shoulder was hard and crusty. There hadn’t been much rain. I leapt over the drainage ditch and headed up toward the site. Both the billboard and the Bus were penned in by that ubiquitous garland of the American countryside — a barbed-wire fence. Fortunately the fence was rickety and sagging in several places. I glanced up and down the highway. Nobody around. I found a low spot, swung my legs over, and kept walking.
Just the facts: a very, very rusty 15-window Deluxe. You might even say it was a cluster of rot-pocked, rust-cankered, spider-infested steel scraps roughly suggesting the ghost of a 15-window Deluxe. Because of those rear corner windows (one of which was actually intact) and the “fried egg” style turn signals, I guessed it to be a ’62 or ’63. A very tiny plexiglass sunroof appeared to have been grafted in at some point — more like a skylight you might find in someone’s bathroom than anything I’d ever seen on a car. In another apparent aftermarket modification, air scoops were fastened over the intakes with sheet metal screws. On the deck lid it still displayed a Georgia license plate, of a vintage I vaguely remember from when I first moved here. This Bus hadn’t seen the road in at least 25 years. I’m not usually skittish about creepy-crawlies, but with the decades of leaves and rubbish accumulated on the inside (in addition to the fact that I was likely trespassing) I decided it was best not to poke around in there.
To me, there is something more here than “just the facts.” It is a piece of four-wheeled art slowly disassembling itself into its elemental form. It is a marvel of engineering simply disintegrating back into the earth. It is a piece of history slowly fading until it’s gone. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Yes, there are others like it — some in pristine showroom condition, no less. But it is my conviction that, just like the sentient beings of the animal kingdom, each is precious and every loss is significant.
I find myself continually having to adjust my notion of what constitutes a car that is “too far gone.” With the prices of these Volkswagens (especially buses) continuing their precipitous climb amidst a shaken and wobbling global economy, it seems that the bar is being continually raised on what is permitted into the realm of the possible. Every month the magazines arrive in my mailbox, and every month I am awestruck by what can be done by the talent showcased within.
One thing was certain: saving this basket case under the billboard was not possible for me. Not even close. All I could do was to stare in wonder, tugged by a vague, aching hunger to do something — anything — more than simply taking a few photographs. My urge to find out more — who it belonged to, would they sell it to me, could I at least cut it up for parts — was tempered primarily by knowing my own limits, and recognizing that this surpassed those limits by a factor of many. Sure, there were also the practical issues of not having the space, not knowing how to properly part out a Bus, not having the logistical resources at my disposal to drag the Bus out from among the trees, and being up to my armpits in my current project. So really — although I was aching to act — you couldn’t really say I was tempted.
Real temptation, in my way of thinking, implies at least the potential to act. For example, I’d love to have a summer home on my very own private island off the coast of Maine, and maybe a country chateau in Provence as well. But there is no danger of my succumbing to such temptation because, well, I’m not a one-percenter. Similarly, I’d love to own a Hebmüller, but it just ain’t gonna happen. So I don’t worry myself too much about it. And know this: if you own a Velvet Green SO-42 Westfalia Camper, I hate you. (But that’s not temptation — that’s envy).
It’s not just about money. Early on in this game I said to my wife, in an attempt to rationalize my growing and single-minded madness, “Think of this as my mistress. A man’s gotta have his mistress.”
Men, I’m sorry to report that she failed to see the obvious logic in this analogy. “Well,” she said, looking at me over the rim of the reading glasses she’d kill me for even mentioning, “I wish you would have just gone ahead and had an actual mistress, and gotten it out of your system already.”
“Really?” I said, slowly stroking the stubble on my chin where my goatee would be, if I had a goatee. The sad part here was that she knew, without any backpedaling on my part, that this gauntlet would forever lie where she threw it. The garage is not the only venue in which I have no idea what I’m doing. Again, the potential to act is nil.
Sometimes I think being flat broke would make it easier to resist temptation — if not of the carnal sort, than certainly the material. I’ve already spent more on the old ’65 than I care to think about. But since most of the expenditure up to this point has been of the manual variety — sweat, busted knuckles, burns, cuts, profanity, and tears (for I am a sensitive man) — dollars have been allowed to accumulate in the proverbial coffee can at a fairly respectable rate. I figure that by now I likely have just enough in there for a decent paint job.
The problem is all of those alerts I get from eBay and www.TheSamba.com, and the realization that, with just a little bit of stretching, I could probably bring home a Bus! Now, it wouldn’t be a Samba (in any condition), nor any other split-window of the caliber that a charlatan like me could do something with. Nor would it be a super-sharp, later-model Westy that anyone would actually want to drive or camp in. But on a number of occasions lately, dangerously tempting offers have come up for some respectable-looking, tin-top bay-window “drivers”. One was a 1971 model that had been used to deliver flowers. The photos showed it resplendent and shiny in its white-over-powder-blue paint. The bench seats were missing and it needed some “cosmetic” work, but it was reported to run “like a champ.”
He was asking $5000, and it was located only two hours from here. I was obsessed by it for about a week. It nearly drove me mad. I practically had to straightjacket myself. As a matter of fact, after a couple of beers one night I did send an e-mail to the guy, asking if it was still available. Luckily there was no response. The ad was taken down a few days later. I presume he sold it.
I recognize that this is all for the best. Now is not the time. Something would have to go. For starters, I barely have the space to work on my current project. I suppose I could park the Bus out front, allowing me sit on the porch and behold its timeless silhouette while sipping a good German doppelbock and watching the sun go down on another frittered-away day in Volkslandia. But as it is I’m already pushing my luck, neighbor- and covenant-wise.
And obviously, such silliness would once again leave me broke. There would be no money to finish the Beetle. More than likely, I’d have to get rid of it. And this is the part I just can’t wrap my mind around — watching the shell of the car I’ve been extremely intimate with for three years being dragged off by some yay-hoo with plans to chop it, slam it, or otherwise transform it into some sort of redneck abomination.
It’s my Beetle, dammit. I simply can’t let that happen.
As penitence, I shut off all of my alerts for two weeks. But temptation comes from all sides, not just via the internet. There are any number of things that tug at me. For instance, I’m constantly constructing — in my head, at least — the perfect bicycle. I’d love to have a piano. And without the burden of that lump in my garage, I could probably give consideration to that cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains that I often daydream about. Most shamefully, in my weakest moments I fantasize about chucking it all and buying a Benz.
The alternate reality in which I drive a Mercedes-Benz is perpetually time-stuck in 1978. The music, the clothes, and the culture in general had all taken a dramatic turn for the worse in the decade since my other alternate reality (in which I drive an air-cooled Volkswagen). But 1978 was the year in which my grandparents took me to their native Germany. It was a rare episode of permissiveness on the part of my mother to allow me to skip three weeks of school that fall to make the trip. But my mother’s calculus in this matter was no doubt colored by personal experience. Her parents had done the same with her on a regular basis. More than once, they made the crossing on an ocean liner. Once was aboard the Ile de France, on its first post-war luxury crossing. They survived, defying the naysayers who questioned the wisdom of entrusting your entire German family to a French ship and crew in the year 1949. Another of my mother’s memories is that of waving farewell to her boyfriend (and my future father) from the deck of the Bremen in New York Harbor.
In my own memories of a later age I recall disappointment, on that fall day in 1978, to see a lousy old Lufthansa Boeing 707 parked at our gate at Kennedy. I was hoping to get the chance to ride on “the biggie” — the 747. Lufthansa had them but no, I was stuck in steerage of a rickety old jet among a bunch of severe chain-smoking Krauts with bad breath and crooked teeth. I registered my grievance in my journal, which (oddly) I still have: “The plane was a Lufthansa Boing [sic] 707. We wanted a 747.” Obviously, at the age of nine I had not yet acquired the sensibilities that now allow me to appreciate the evolution of form, function, and styling; and now I recollect my ride in that old Boeing with much greater nostalgia then the ride I finally did get, years later, on the 747.
At some point during the flight my grandfather waved down a flight attendant and asked her something in German. She nodded and disappeared, only to return a minute later. Again she nodded and smiled at my grandfather. “I think she has something you’d like to see,” my grandfather leaned over and said to me. (I’ll bet she does, the lascivious prepubescent inside of me thought, with a smirk.) I clambered from my window seat and across the laps of both grandparents until I stood in the aisle next to the flight attendant. She held her open palm towards the front of the jet. This way.
She led me up through the sleeping first-class cabin and right into the cockpit. Just like that. Hard to imagine, nowadays. But there I stood, bug-eyed and mesmerized by all of the lights, dials, switches, knobs, and levers. As I remember it, none of the flight crew — the captain, first officer, or flight engineer — said anything to me. I was completely ignored. Possibly this was due to the language barrier. English is the standard language for international aviation but “roger” and “wilco” and “affirmative” will only go so far when a goofy American kid suddenly appears in the doorway of your office. So I just stood there silently for a while, checking it all out.
The real reason I was ignored, I’m now convinced, was that all three were half asleep. I distinctly remember how freakin’ bored these guys looked. Especially the flight engineer, whom I could see in profile — slouching in his chair, languidly smoking a pipe. A folded up newspaper lay on the map table before him. I guess I’d expected them to be riveted to their instruments without blinking for the better part of seven hours, jacked up to the eyeballs with this bright beeping blinking five-hundred-mile-an-hour Atari for grownups. Clearly this was not the case.
Perhaps this should have served as a portent for future consideration for young Bruce. But there was scant time for it to register because, next thing you know, somebody farted up there and it sure as hell wasn’t me. Nobody made a move except the captain, who shifted in his seat for a second or two, in an apparent Teutonic version of see? It was the chair! But nobody was buying it. We all knew the captain farted.
Except maybe the flight attendant, whose lithesome hand suddenly appeared on my shoulder. Time to go. I wondered how much she saw, and was absolutely horrified that she might suspect me of being the gaseous offender. Not knowing how to say, “The captain has farted” auf Deutsch, I simply pointed at him and looked up to make sure she understood what I was getting at. She smiled, but it was the kind of smile that could have meant anything. Perhaps she knew damn well who farted, having spent the night in the same bed with the flatulent culprit. But more likely she just wanted me to leave the men alone now, to let them get some shut-eye, snort blow, read S & M magazines, or to pursue whatever other lurid occupations ensued once that door was closed. She forthwith escorted me back through the dark first-class section and to my window seat in the caboose.
As I settled back into my seat, my grandfather leaned over my grandmother to ask, “What did you think about that?”
I glanced at my grandmother, who was obviously out cold. It was always obvious when she was asleep. With her high cheekbones, straight black hair (likely dyed by then), and almond-shaped eyes that came to well-defined points at the ends, we often teased her about looking more Chinese than German. Being a bit of a xenophobe, this of course made her furious. But as she slept, the effect was even more pronounced. Gravity gained absolute control over all of her facial features and her jaw would hang completely slack. I’d seen this many times, usually on the couch long after The Lawrence Welk Show was over. Finally my grandfather would get up and switch the television off.
“Ach, Peter Harder!” my grandmother would instantly pipe up, calling him by his full name, as she often did. “I was watching that, du dummkopf du!” He’d just shrug his shoulders, switch it back on, and settle back into his recliner with his crossword puzzle. In about a minute the jaw would drop and she’d be snoring again.
My grandmother was an enthusiastic snorer. I remembered an even earlier episode when they invited me to join them for a summer weekend in the small cabin they kept in Harriman State Park as part of the German Ski Club of New York. I had a great time — swimming in the lake, sailing in my grandfather’s Sunfish, and being fascinated by the lusty, gusty, red-nosed, lederhosen-clad accordion player in the oompah band down at the mess hall in the evening. But I didn’t get much sleep. As my grandmother snored away in the other room, I just lay on my cot, wide-eyed and terrified by the growling and snorting gremlin lying in wait in the dark woods behind the cabin.
So I knew the signs, and knew that my grandmother was definitely asleep in that cramped and noisy airplane. There was no television to turn off so I was certain she’d stay that way.
“When we get to Germany,” I said to my grandfather, ignoring his question, “can I buy a pair of leather pants?”
“What?” he said, unsure if he had heard me right.
“I want a pair of leather pants when we get there,” I said. “Please,” I added, remembering the magic word.
“Oh,” he chuckled. “You mean lederhosen.”
“No,” I corrected him, “just a normal pair of leather pants. Black ones.”
“What?” he said again, this time for lack of anything better to say.
“Never mind,” I sighed.
He never minded and we didn’t discuss the leatherwear any further. By that point he was probably used to the fact that his grandson could be, at times, a little strange.
“I want to be a pilot when I grow up,” I said after a minute or two.
My grandfather just smiled and nodded. He’d heard it before. Oddly, I found his reticence much more palatable than the usual response I got from most grownups on the matter. You have to have perfect vision, they said. You have to get straight A’s so you can get into the Air Force Academy, they said. And worse of all: you have to be good at math.
I’ve worn glasses since the first grade. I’ve never been an A student — especially in math. And I’ve always been bad enough of a misfit without being compelled to toe the line and look, act, and think just like everyone else, with a hearty Yes, Sir! to boot. No, all those grownups were not trying to actively discourage me. Probably they just felt that a little bit of realism — however misinformed it may have been — would gently prod me in another direction. They didn’t know me very well.
It turns out I didn’t know me very well either. For if I did, I would never have embarked upon that ongoing existential experiment to determine if one can wither and die from ennui.
Just now I reread what I wrote, starting with “the alternate reality in which I drive a Mercedes-Benz . . .” and was puzzled as to how I ended up on the whole visit-to-the-cockpit thing. It was not my original intention. It just sorta happened. I set out to relate an experience I had once we arrived Germany, but instead indulged in an overwritten account of what seemed a relatively minor episode, unrelated to the subject at hand. I was about to delete the entire passage — in this digital age, an act that would consign it forever to oblivion, and further ensure that no executors would someday discover shoeboxes full of old notebooks among my personal affects, subsequently publish the contents therein as The Lost Chronicles of The VolksFool, or other such nonsense, and thereby bestow unto my recently late person all the questionable benefits of posthumous fame.
In the end I decided to leave everything it as it was, because it occurred to me, when I really thought about it, that the episode had everything to do with the subject at hand. Just like that Bus I’d love to own someday, to that nine-year-old in the cockpit, thirty-three years ago, somewhere over the dark North Atlantic, the idea of actually being at the controls of such a magical contraption — basking in the delusion that all of it was created especially for me, and being master of all I survey — was so preposterously out of reach that I just couldn’t let it go. Maybe this should tell me something.
But I would count none of this among the most salient memories of my trip to Germany. As you can see, it didn’t even merit mentioning in my journal. Things that more readily come to mind are the wet, gray weather; how modern and industrial everything seemed, at least until we arrived at the village of my grandfather’s birth in Schleswig-Holstein; strange toilets, without the puddle of water at the bottom; same Looney Tunes, but for some reason the concept of a lisping, wise-ass duck speaking something other than English being very strange to fathom; and the fact that in that village everyone — most of whom seemed to be great-aunts, second cousins, or some other distant relative of the classification better understood by a full-color diagram — had blond hair and blue eyes. Clearly the genes from my father’s side run stronger in my veins.
Right up there with those other new sights and sounds was the moment my grandfather’s brother pulled up to the curb at the airport in Hamburg and loaded us into his green Mercedes-Benz. At the time, my immediate family was still in its “salad days.” We lived in a distinctly blue-collar neighborhood, on the far-flung fringes of suburban New York City. In my neighborhood, I was likely the only kid — or adult for that matter — who had the privilege of traveling to Europe. Ever. Being of such humble origins I had never even seen a Mercedes-Benz up close. In my neighborhood there were some Volkswagens, I recall — the Meyers had an orange Beetle (a ’73 or ’74, if memory serves), and the Fritners had a red bay-window Bus. But most families had Detroit behemoths in varying stages of decay gracing their driveways. Buicks and Chevys and Fords. Dodges and Pontiacs. Plymouths. Chryslers. And a Gremlin or Pacer here and there.
I cannot recall the exact model and year of Onkel Heinrich’s (“Heini” for short) Mercedes. But I’m positive of a few things: it was fairly new, it was a diesel, it was green with a tan leather interior, and it had the same body style as the four-door import Benzes that could be found in the US at the time (at least in the fancier neighborhoods). In a quick search online I found this example, a 1976 Caledonia Green 240D — which, for all practical purposes, could have been Onkel Heini’s exact ride:
Perhaps the fact that the high quality of this strange automobile would have been immediately apparent, even to a jet-lagged nine-year-old, might come as little surprise when you consider what I had to compare it against. The second-hand Chrysler that served (with varying degrees of loyalty) as our family car at the time was certainly no older than this Mercedes. But whereas the doors of Onkel Heini’s Benz closed with a single, definite, airtight-sounding thwunk, the doors on the Chrysler were already sagging and misaligned. Even if you did manage to slam the door tight on the first try, you would be treated to the reverberation of the frameless window rattling in its track. Everything on that Chrysler was electric, which meant that most of it didn’t work. But whether or not the power windows would go all the way up without manual assistance on any given day was a moot point because they would probably leak anyway.
You might protest that pitting a used Chrysler against a high-end luxury vehicle is an unfair comparison. Okay then. About that same time period I was on a neighborhood bowling league. I can’t remember why. Probably the impetus came from my parents, in their ongoing (and ultimately fruitless) battle to cultivate in their elder son a sense of team spirit and camaraderie. Rather than risk taking my turn — and the certain ridicule that would follow yet another gutter ball — I mostly just sat on the back bench, out of the way, munching cold french fries and polishing my ball.
Every Saturday morning, one of our fathers would pick up the three or four other kids on our street, and off we’d go to the bowling alley downtown. I can’t remember what the parent/driver-of-the-week did while we bowled — played tennis, ran errands, drank, returned home for a quickie, or all of the above — but I do remember that I hated it when it was Mr. Moskowitz’s turn to drive, because that meant riding in the plush, overstuffed back seat of his black Cadillac Fleetwood. Every pothole would set off a nausea-inducing phugoid that would oscillate long after the pothole was gone. Every corner would throw the Caddy’s ass end into a lurching, swaying tizzy that left me amazed that the back could ever keep up with the front. I learned the hard way to pass on the fries when Mr. Moskowitz was driving.
I sat behind Onkel Heini as we left the city. He and my grandparents, reunited for the first time in many years, chatted away in Plattdeutsch. This left me out but I didn’t mind. I was very tired. In the rain, the industrial landscape rolling by my window looked slightly more charming than Newark. But it could have been a sunny, blue day in the Bavarian Alps for all I cared, as my attention was drawn inside. Maybe it was my level of fatigue, but I remember feeling quite content in that back seat. One was not swallowed in a formless pillow of flame-resistant stuffing. Instead, the fine leather surfaces — which smelled wonderful, as you would expect — gave just enough support to be comfy without me having to lean against the door, the fold-down armrest, or my grandmother. There was little, if any, chromed plastic to be found in the interior. If there was plastic of any kind, it was certainly not showcased. Leather and burled walnut. Understated, functional luxury.
Imperfections in the road were trivialized not by trying to mask them, but by merely acknowledging the bump, getting it over with, and moving on. The car cornered as one cohesive unit. And I’ll never forget the purring precision of that low-revving diesel that seemed content to go on forever. As I craned my neck to see that spare hood ornament piercing the morning mist that rolled in from the North Sea, I was convinced that it would.
The was way, way cooler than some shitty old Boeing.
At some point after my trip to Germany — but not too long after that — Mr. Saunders drove up the street with a car just like Onkel Heini’s. The only remarkable difference was that Mr. Saunder’s Mercedes was blue. But like my great-uncle’s car, it was a diesel, and had the de rigueur body-color wheel covers with chrome accents. I don’t know if it was new or used, but it was beautiful and always turned heads in that neighborhood.
In that neighborhood, the Saunders were unusual in several ways. Both Mr. and Mrs. Saunders were highly educated — as a matter of fact, they may very well have been the Doctors Saunders for all I knew. Both had professional careers of some sort. With two kids in the mix, they employed a Norwegian nanny who drove a baby blue Checker with a “Norge” sticker on the bumper. Kenny Saunders, a playmate of mine, referred to her by a name that sounded a lot like “Fumey.” I don’t know whether this was a descriptor or some version of her actual name. I was never in close proximity to Fumey so I never got the chance to investigate this thoroughly. Whenever I hung out at Kenny’s she seemed to be on the telephone in another room, with the door closed. Really the only thing I remember about Fumey’s person was that she had a rump — there is no charitable way to put it — to match the wide girth of that Checker.
In my teens we moved to a fancier — and blatantly WASP-ier — town, but until then most of my friends were Jewish. On my street there were two unrelated Moskowitz households, in addition to the Sheikowitzes and the Goldfarbs. By the time we moved away, I’d been to more Bar Mitzvahs than baptisms, communions, weddings, and funerals combined. And of course I’ll never forget Martin Finkelstein, that lout who thought it sporting fun to drag me across his front lawn by my hair.
There were also Italians, and several Puerto Rican families. At least one of the three Rivera kids across the street was always up for a game of wiffleball or hide-and-seek. Once I lost a Big Wheel race against David Rivera so badly that it made front page news in the local paper. My mother still has the clipping, somewhere, but for some reason was unable to find it when I recently asked to have a look. Just as well, I suppose. I have no idea what would compel a young mother to retain media coverage of her three-year-old getting humiliated.
My friend Kenny was African-American. I don’t know if it was some sort of demographic anomaly but the Saunders were the only black family in the entire neighborhood. But I seldom gave this any thought as a kid. Sure, I suppose I recognized that Kenny’s skin was darker and his hair was tight and kinky. Once when I was about five, three of us — Rich, Kenny, and myself — were playing in the sandbox when Rich put down his pail and shovel and pointed at Kenny’s hands.
“Hey Kenny, what’s wrong with your hands?” he wanted to know.
Kenny clapped the sand off his hands, then looked at his palms. “What do you mean?”
“The color on your hands is wearing off!” Rich cried, alarmed.
“Oh,” Kenny shrugged, “It’s always been like that.”
“Oh,” Rich said, satisfied with the explanation. We all three went about our business and that was that. It didn’t matter. Which is, of course, how it should be. We could appreciate how each of us was different without feeling compelled by the typical grownup convention of categorizing everything.
Years later, at Rich’s Bar Mitzvah, both Kenny and I were good sports and wore the royal blue satin yarmulkes we were offered as we entered the synagogue.
“Check it out,” Kenny elbowed me as he slipped the cap onto his head. “Sammy Davis Junior.”
The only person who seemed to mind the fact that Kenny was black was my grandmother. I would not say she was a racist — in the active sense, at any rate. It was more subtle than that. My grandmother was not a bad person. She just lived a very narrow, old-world life and people who were different were seen as a threat.
Even after they moved to Florida, my grandparents drove up every summer to visit — just the two of them and their German-speaking parakeet. It was always great to see them but I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit around the house for the three weeks they were staying (“two and a half weeks too long,” my father would grumble — a comment aimed mainly at my grandmother). I still remember the grilling I got when I returned from an afternoon at Kenny’s house. More in a curious than disciplinary way, my grandmother asked me what we’d been up to all day. I started to recount the cartoons we watched, the baseball cards we traded, or the Lego helicopter we built, when suddenly a horrified look washed over her face.
“You didn’t eat anything while you were there!” she said with a furrowed brow. This was inflected more like a statement than a question, as if it was a virtual given that I wouldn’t even consider doing something so foolish.
I thought about it. “Well, yeah. We had some Oreos —”
“Egads!” she cried. “I don’t like it. Ingrid!” she called to my mother, in the other room. “He’s eating cookies over there.” Fortunately my mother saw fit to ignore her when she said such ridiculous things.
I can laugh about this today because my grandmother’s mindset was so preposterously, well, laughable. We laughed at Archie Bunker, too. And I didn’t take it as a personal slight against my friend Kenny because, even as a child, I knew better. It is likely that the Saunders had more money than anyone else on the block. But one got the impression that, unlike so many Mercedes drivers of today, they were actually living below their means. Even with the Norwegian nanny and the fancy German car, their spotless and well-kept house was not vastly different from any of the other houses. They never came across as ostentatious. More importantly than money, the Saunders had class.
When temptation nags hard — when I lie away at night enumerating the hundreds of tasks and subtasks that remain, and the thousands of dollars not yet spent so that my Beetle can leave the garage under its own power one fine day — eBay starts calling to me. There I could surely find a car just like Mr. Saunders’ or Onkel Heini’s. It would set me back a bit for sure. But as I said, I have a bit saved up. I could liquidate the contents of my garage — Beetle, tools, compressor, and MIG welder. I could throw open the overhead door of my rented storage unit and offer the entire stock to the first bidder with a truck big enough to haul it off. I know nothing about the care and feeding of a 35-year-old Mercedes diesel, but lacking both tools and motivation I’d simply pay someone else to worry about it and go about my merry way. My wife would probably be quite pleased with this arrangement. While I would surely find myself in an impecunious state, at least I would have a life. I would be a free man again.
At times this temptation takes a far more modern bent. I’m not proud of what I’m about to disclose, since this inclination flies directly in the face of everything that might be called my ethos. But I’m nothing if not honest. And long-winded.
A few weeks ago I pulled into the employee parking lot and stopped at the security checkpoint. As I fumbled for my ID, I glanced in the rearview and saw one of these:
I tried to ignore it. I passed through the gate and parked the car, but as luck would have it the guy parked right next to me. Work (both as a concept and as formal employment) and I don’t always see eye to eye. I’m almost always grumpy when I get there. I know this, and I know it’s not good for the fostering of gemütlichkeit in the workplace. As a compromise, my practice is to immerse myself slowly. For the first hour or so I pass in the shadows and talk to nobody. I take up as little space as possible and try to pretend that I’m invisible. If allowed to thaw in my own time, I might come around. Or I might not. I am cognizant, of course, that such behavior could have something to do with the fact that in my twelve years with the same employer, the number of friends I’ve made is somewhere near zero. But a man’s gotta be true to himself.
“Nice,” I said to the guy as I stepped out of my car. It was a risky break with tradition, but I meant it. Newer-model automobiles — “newer” meaning the last twenty years or so — rarely excite me. This was one of the few exceptions. “I really like the new C-Class.” I was trying. Really I was. But I almost instantly regretted it.
“Is that an EJ25?” he wanted to know. Between my hearing loss and the jets roaring overhead, I just assumed I’d heard him wrong. Plus, he had one of those blinky Bluetooth thingies in his ear so I wasn’t sure he was even talking to me. But he pointed at my Subaru so I figured he was.
“It’s a Forester,” I said.
“No. I mean the engine. Is that an EJ25 in there?”
Why me? I could tell him anything he wanted to know about my Volkswagen, but as to the ass that bears me on a daily basis I was in the dark. I had no idea what he was asking me.
“I have no idea what you’re asking me,” I said, flatly.
During our short walk to the bus stop, he explained that he had used modified Subaru engines on several airplanes he’d built. But he’d since moved on to turbines, he wanted me to know. He was currently at work on a new engine for one of his helicopters. No, this was not a business on the side, he said. He lived on a private airstrip. It was more of a hobby.
I should note here that, in my place of employment, everybody knows how much everybody else brings in, ball park, given their position and years of service. I don’t normally concern myself with any of this, but given the course of the conversation, well, you gotta wonder sometimes. Like me, he wore the four stripes on his shoulders. And a surreptitious glance at the employee number on his ID told me that I had several years on him. So, family money, one might assume. Or maybe his wife was a CEO, a hedge fund manager, a corporate lobbyist, or Madonna. Maybe he’d won a lawsuit of some kind, or had invested in real estate and gotten out while the gettin’ out was good. Who knows? But this sort of thing seems to happen with enough regularity that I’m all but convinced everyone’s on a vastly different pay scale than I.
While we waited for the employee shuttle, he overwhelmed me with a soporific dissertation on thermodynamics, aerodynamics, and turbine engine engineering. I wondered why the hell he was here, pursuing such mindless pursuits, and not gracing the hallowed halls of Stanford or MIT. Or surely, I thought, there was a defense contractor who would make his time far more worthwhile. Then I noticed the dual magazine pouch clipped to his belt, right next to his cell phone, forming a puckered dimple in his ample American-style midsection.
Oh, I thought. One of those guys.
Naturally, the actual magazines — as well as the standard-issue Heckler & Koch .40 caliber pistol — were concealed elsewhere among his personal affects. In his man-purse, maybe, or in the side-pocket of his lunch cooler. I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know. I thought it a bit unusual that he should openly display even the empty pouch, but apparently these things are no concern of mine. One thing, at least, was explained: I can’t imagine that the powers that be at Stanford would approve of such a behavior.
Against my better judgement, I kept trying. I asked him to tell me about his Benz. He corrected me, saying that it was actually his wife’s car. The baby had been running a fever that morning and the car seat was in his Escalade. They’d decided to simply switch cars so she and the baby could make the trip to the pediatrician without too much ado. Plus, he said, driving the Escalade made his wife feel “safer” (translated: more of a menace to other drivers). But, he admitted, the Mercedes was a blast to drive. Handles like a dream, he said, and can haul some serious ass. He claimed to have had it up to 160 miles an hour on a lonely stretch of pavement in south Georgia.
I don’t know if I was supposed to be impressed by this, but I wasn’t. My jaw dropped. “One hundred and sixty!?!”
“Yep,” he guffawed. “And she was still pullin’, too!”
If my opinion matters (and it does, here, because it’s my blog), unless you are a highly trained driver on a closed course, it is incumbent upon you to drive at a safe speed. Ideally this would be somewhere near the speed limit; but for the sake of diplomacy let’s start with, say, keeping the speedometer in the double-digits. Personally, I’m an advocate of the slow-driving movement. I much prefer secondary roads, where the pace is more civilized and the scenery more varied. Instead of bypassing the outskirts of towns at cruise control speeds, I like to easily roll through, maybe stop for a cup of joe at the local diner, or poke around in the antique market. Sometimes the coffee sucks and the antique market is just a huge box of junk with a lid on it, but that’s all part of the fun.
On those occasions when the multilane, super-slab death race is unavoidable, I’m usually the one cowering far to the right, with the needle on the speedo hovering just below the posted limit, eyes lidless and both hands clenching the wheel. The whole car shudders as SUV’s, semis, and school buses blast on by. One after another. I may as well paste a photograph of a large, scowling chrome grille on my rearview, because that’s all I ever see back there. It scares the bejesus out of me. When I finally arrive at my destination I’m a jittery, blithering idiot. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. Having the good fortune of not being able to vouch for this either way, I can say that nothing brings me closer to God than rush hour traffic in Atlanta.
I don’t know how I got this way, and I know I’m unusual in this. But damn. One-sixty? I was a pilot for several years before I flew anything that could go that fast — even in a power-dive. Heck, I’ve never driven half that fast!
“Wow. I’ve never driven half that fast,” I mumbled, airlessly. I’d been completely overpowered and beaten, victim of a multi-pronged frontal assault of raw speed, firepower, technical ingenuity, and conspicuous consumerism. There was no way I could compete with that — insignificant, inconsequential, insubstantial speck that I am. I hadn’t even realized it was a competition until it was too late.
There was only one point in the entire conversation (if you could call it that) when the table was turned and it was he who was baffled. I’d simply asked him what kind of gas mileage he got from the car. For a fleeting moment he looked liked I’d just smacked him upside the head with the stupid stick. He knees wobbled, his eyeballs decoupled, and his lips tried different shapes on for size but found no articulate sounds. Just when I thought he might be having some sort of seizure he recovered his composure.
“Pretty good, I guess,” he sighed, scratching his balding pate. “Never measured it, though.”
By that point it no longer mattered. He’d pretty much ruined it for me. In this regard, maybe he was the Buddha in disguise, manifest to school me in the folly of my temptations, and to deliver an urgent message: you can never go back.
That doesn’t stop me from trying. Over the years I’ve gotten many messages from the Buddha, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that these messages are never straightforward. Sometimes the true meaning takes time to blossom, just like the lotus flower. So I guess it’s not so strange that, since this episode, my inclinations have started to come completely full circle. The more progress I make on my Beetle (however slow it may seem), the more excited I get about it. To this day, I still enjoy just sitting and looking at the thing, even in the midst of its metamorphosis, and admiring how beautifully the curves converge to form that classic outline. There is simply nothing like it.
I sold my first Beetle in 1988 and have regretted it ever since. I dreamed about that car for years afterwards. I still do, from time to time. In one recurring dream, I’m driving along a lonely road on a very dark night. The headlights don’t seem to be doing much of anything. I feel a vague sense of doom and I press down a little harder on the gas pedal. I glance in the rearview and suddenly see a pack of wild dogs bearing down, teeth gnashing, hungry for meat. Terrified, I stomp hard on the pedal but nothing happens. Over the groaning of the engine I can hear the dogs snarling back there. The muscles in my leg are burning, trying to eke out just a little more speed from the little car. But the dogs are gaining fast, feeding on my fear, and then — I’m suddenly wide awake, hopping around the dark bedroom with a wicked charley horse in my right calf, cats scattering in multiple directions.
“The Beetle dream again?” mumbles my groggy wife into her pillow.
“(ouch ouch) Yes! (ouch ouch ouch)” I managed to affirm.
Lately I’ve found myself dreaming about my current Beetle, too. Usually it’s in the form of simple, vague dreams in which nothing particularly exciting occurs, other than driving along on a nice spring day. Once I dreamt that I’d decided to simply put everything back together the way it is. Then I drive off into the sunset with this incomplete and impossible rattletrap Frankenbeetle, backfiring and shedding parts, but still with a smile on my face. But mostly these dreams are of the waking type. Certain songs, or even certain weather — especially clear, cold, and breezy days like the one on which I bought the car — make me nostalgic for the way it was when I brought it home, even with all of its faults.
In this roundabout way I’ve discovered, I think, the true meaning of the message delivered to me that day at the airport.
The message, I think, is contentment.
I’ll let you know how that goes for me.