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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Just Another Family Car

My parents have very strange relationships with cars.

I suppose it's no accident that I do, too.

My father learned to drive, he says, in a beat up Citroen in the deserts of Israel. If you've ever been in a car with him, or, far worse, if you've ever tried to follow him somewhere, you'd believe it for sure. I like to close my eyes and picture this mustachioed, swarthy man behind the hard, gleaming steering wheel of a DS, his Jewfro scraping against the perforated headliner as my young father bounded merrily up and down over sand dunes in an untamed land, in a long forgotten fairytale time-- a shiteating grin plastered across his face.

Road signs mean absolutely nothing to him, they might as well be in Japanese, or great, big lollipops-- it wouldn't matter. What he doesn't want to hear or see, he ignores. Like people honking at him. Or stop signs. He speeds through life, no matter where he's going. Whether he's late for something (wait-- he's never late for things) or whether he's going to The Camera Store on some secret Israeli mission, or whether he's going to pick up red grapes for $0.63 a pound at the Shop Rite on 63rd Street. Speed is of the essence. I guess he learned this way of operating from his youth in Israel where, if you didn't book it, a sniper's bullet or a rocket could take your fucking head off.

He's been pulled over more times than I have fingers, toes, and capillaries. My phone rang a week or so ago.

"Mummy, leeesten, I have a qvestion," he began in earnest in his slightly accented English. "I was driving in Allentown, to pick up fabric from Naajib, and I was going down this small alley..."

"Were you pulled over?" I interrupted.

"Wait-- no. Leeesten-- so, I'm going down there, and I had my blinker on" (Sidebar: this was a complete lie. He has never used a turn signal in his life) "and I'm turning and the cop pulls me over. I mean, I turned, with my blinker-- I did not know where I was..."

"How fast were you going?" I asked, nonplussed.

"Oh!" he laughs, "I don' know..."

Right. He and I discussed the finer points of negotiating your way out of points on your license in traffic court, how, if you plead guilty to a lesser charge, they will make you pay a fine but they take away the points. Which is good, because my father already has four points on his driver's license-- take two more away, and he won't be able to drive that brand new, black BMW 328xi that is sitting in my parent's driveway right now.

Which brings me to my original point about their strange relationship with cars. For decades, my parents drove shitbuckets. My mother, who was petrified of motor vehicles and didn't get her driver's license until she was thirty, began her motoring life behind the wheel of a two-door Chevy Nova. She then graduated to a Pontiac Sunbird, which was exactly the same thing as the Nova, just with a different name. My grandfather bought my mother this car, for $300 from a police auction-- a pretty lame gesture coming from a man who never drove anything that wasn't a Cadillac himself. The Sunbird didn't last long. One day my father was driving the car on the Atlantic City Expressway and it caught fire, thus ending its brief stay on this earth. We later theorized that my mother's father had rigged the car in an effort to kill my dad. This was a pretty unlikely theory since my maternal grandfather couldn't even put together a TV table or make a door stop squeaking.

When I was a boy, my parents graduated to a 1986 Toyota Camry. It was in this car that I asked my father if we were Jewish, prompting him to almost crash the car as he reached blindly and furiously behind his seat to try to grab any part of me to throttle. He didn't succeed in wrecking that car, but he did wreck the next one-- a 1987 Buick Century. We're still not sure who ran the stop sign, but it was either my father or the other guy. Either way, someone slammed into the driver's side of the Century sending it careening into the curb and flipping it over three times. Being Israeli, my father doesn't believe in seatbelts, in spite of our repeated efforts to get him to wear them. (As a child, I would scream and cry until he would put it on, which was reasonably effective, but only when I was in the car.) Miraculously, he came out without a scratch. The Century, however, came out with several scratches and a crushed roof.

We had a couple Centuries and a couple Oldsmobile Cutlass Cieras, which were the same exact things as the Centuries. Except for the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera International Edition. This car was jet black with gray leather seats and a kickass V-6 that my father would punish mercilessly on his 81 mile to-and-from work every single day commute. When he was finished kicking the shit out that car, he gave it to my sister. Not being allowed to bring her car to college freshman year, she left it at our house. One morning, my father went outside to get the newspaper and, instead of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera International Edition, there was a small pile of broken glass. My father looked the pile of glass, took the newspaper, turned around and went inside. He finished his coffee, read the newspaper, and then called the police. Four months later, my father got a phone call. Officers in the 18th District had found the car.

"Is it okay?" my father asked.

"Um... Well, we need you to come identify it," they said, as if they had just found a decomposed corpse.

Turns out all that was left of the car was the chassis, some wires and the little "International Edition" emblem.

That car was the beginning of my father's affiliation with luxury and performance. Never again would he drive a car with cloth interior. The Volvo 740. The Taurus SHO. The Pontiac Bonneville. The Volvo 850. The Volvo S70. The Saab 9(3). And now, the BMW328xi.

This steadily rising trend of luxo-rockets is in pretty stark contradiction to my father's inherent belief in what an automobile is, and what it should do for its owner.

"A car is to get you from poin' A, to poin' B," he loves to say. Apparently, though, it must be capable of getting you from "poin' A to poin' B" with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. But then, that's my father. He's an enigma. Or "exioma," as he says.

As for my mother, well, she gets whatever he and my oldest sister bring home for her. It's a luxury car, too, which says more about the equality of their marriage than it does about her need for speed, or luxury. Christ, she works 0.02 miles away from her house and doesn't go anywhere else. She could drive a golf cart or a Smurf-trike for all that it would matter. But, whenever it's time to get a new car for the triumverate that is my oldest sister, my father and my mother, she goes straight to the Consumer Reports Battlestation and researches the shit out of every single car out on the market, all the safety statistics. A car that is suitable for them must have at least thirty-seven airbags and a safety-cage made of reinforced titanium and kryptonite alloys. It is her self-appointed duty to pick the safest car for her mommy, her daddy, and, of course, herself. And, of course, it can't just be the safest car-- it must be the safest luxury/performance car.

After all, my family's days of careening through the desert or dickering around the police impound lot are long, long gone.

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