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  (April 14, 2005)

Cars thrill and captivate me every bit as much as soccer. No, more. I will never fathom a four-hour game with maybe one or two points scored, the rules of which are: “move the ball around without using your hands.”
          I put cars right there with Donald Rumsfeld, “The Bachelor,” the dalliances of Jennifer Lopez, colonoscopies. I realize this means I should promptly turn in my testicles. An American male who does not fetishize automobiles doesn’t deserve to dangle.
          Cars are supposed to be rapturous, ecstatic, quasi-orgasmic---possibly religious--- experiences. Ask any Lexus commercial. On the planet Tralfamadore, Kago and all his fellow Tralfamadorians viewing Earth TV concluded long ago that Chrysler, not Christ, is the prime object of human adoration. Incidentally, they refer to Earth as “Blochcolochco,” roughly “Planet of Zooming Jackasses.”
          The problem is, this jackass needs a new zoom. Driving a beat-up 20th century Honda has put me at risk, though not for mechanical reasons. I am passed, tailgated, honked at, cut off, glared at, generally endangered---all because the car is not au courant. Doesn’t matter how fast I drive. I am “outta the way, loser” material. It’s Carwinian.
          And they’re right, really. I reject zoom-zoom ethos. I still putt-putt. BMW? Big Motherf---ing Wow. Lexus? Vexes us. SUV? Stupid, Usurious, Venal. I think the relentless production of cars equals relentless reduction of environment. Cars aren’t built to go, they’re built for ego. Auto motives? All suspect.
          And today’s vaunted models have all the personality of Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and New Age/”Christian” Music idol John Tesh combined. There are exactly two body types: SUV/truck, and suppository-shaped sedan. Colors range from silver-blue to silver-beige to silver-white to silver. They don't even have names anymore, but numerical/alphabetical designations that sound like characters in a bad spy movie. They have been dumbed down, design-wise, demographically and diabolically geared to the dumb guys buying them.
Perhaps when Knuckles said the engine and transmission had been rebuilt, he meant they had been entirely remade from materials that had never been an engine or transmission before.

          The only vehicle in the market with anything approaching panache is the Scion X-Box, which I actually considered purchasing until I discovered its unnatural affection for potholes and bumps.
          So. . .
          It was with amazement, the other day, that a nostalgic whim led me to Google up a mint, cherry, and otherwise delicious looking yellow 1973 Volkswagen squareback. The “type 3,” the last and best of the breed. $2200.
          The finest car I ever owned, you see, was a used 1973 VW squareback, chocolate brown, and so clean and mechanically sound that my mechanic took its picture and framed it on his garage wall. When you consider what mechanics usually frame on garage walls, you understand how nice the car was.
          The engine was tight, the ride was a glide, the body functional yet aerodynamically sleek; even subtly. . .suave. Gad, I’m writing like a one of those nutball "automotive journalists."
          Caltrans murdered this noble vehicle.
          This fine state agency closed a lane under the Barham bridge on the Hollywood Freeway one morning in order to sweep up a cigarette butt. They put up big signs about the closure that were visible from at least from twenty feet. You’d swing around the corner, dip down at 60 mph, and. . .whoops! No fast lane.
          Nine cars braked, all were wiped out. Mine was number eight. The big television producer, Edward Milkis (“Star Trek”), was number seven. In L.A., you never know when you’ll meet a celebrity.
          So crazed was I to replace the squareback that I promptly found another, and it. too, gleamed and purred and suaved. Yet the engine had enough miles to reach Tralfamadore, so I unloaded it after a year in order buy a VW Rabbit. Second biggest car mistake I ever made. (The first was selling a piquant 1966 green four-door Rambler Classic with 70,000 original miles to a group of six Vietnamese immigrants in 1985. Cheap, to boot.)
          The Googled sight of the mint yellow squareback made my eyes go stupid and excited, the way a young man’s do when he spies a bare breast. (Okay, or an old man’s.) I e-mailed the owner. He said I could look at it. He said it had a just-rebuilt engine.
          I immediately considered coloring the gray out of my moustache. Or maybe, if I got my old 'back back, it would just spontaenously revert to brown. . .My brain screamed, as Vonnegut’s did in “Breakfast of Champions,” “MAKE ME YOUNG AGAIN.” I needed a rebuilt engine, too.
          Allow, if you will, dear reader, one of those dreary "I went to look at a car" tales:
          I sent a second e-mail to Owner, who had never introduced himself, saying I could come right over. No response. When I next checked my e-mail, hours later, I found this:
          “Hey, what gives? I thought you wanted to look at the car.”
          I figure it’s a good thing e-mail doesn’t record grunts and snorts.
          He was short on etiquette, was Owner, but then, he lived in the Valley.
          Eventually, Owner revealed directions over his cell phone. They were like something out of film noir:
         “When you get near the street, call me, because I live in an alley, and I’ll come out and meet you.”
          At least he gave me his first name, or a first name, after I prodded him. For purposes of this column, it will be “Knuckles.” Who lived in an alley in the Valley.
          I arrrived to find Knuckles standing beside not one, but two ’73 VW squarebacks. I squinted hard, but try as I might, neither of them looked very yellow, or very mint. In fact, they looked so un-yellow that they were orange---at least, the parts where the paint had not worn away.
          We shook hands. Knuckles seemed an affable sort, perhaps early ‘40s, with that two-day old beard growth that conveys either unemployment or a starring role in the next “summer blockbuster.” I mentioned that the car in the ad was the color of sunshine and clean as a Placido Doming high C. (Well, I didn't put it quite that way.) This surprised and perplexed Knuckles. Me, too. He told me that one of the orange squarebacks was for “hauling my dog around,” and the other for sale. I don’t have a dog, but I looked at the other one anyhow.
          I can say this with certainty: it had a body, and four wheels.
          “Oh, you can’t get in from the driver’s side,” warned Knuckles, who opened the passenger door to reach across and unlock the driver’s. “The lock needs a little work.” Then he lifted the hatchback and took hold of a shredded rubber mat. Carefully peeling back several sections to reveal the engine hatch (heavily rusted over), he said proudly, “This is the original rubber mat!.”
          He pulled a pillow off the driver’s seat to reveal a shock of stuffing sticking out like half of Larry Fine’s head.
          “The pillow is just to keep that stuff from getting on your clothes,” he said. “I think it’s the original seat!”
          Another point of pride!
          “Be careful rolling the window down,” said Knuckles. “They put the speaker too close to it and you can cut yourself.”
          I sat down. There was something off-kilter, misshapen. The inside of the car didn’t feel right, like an Escher print. Something had taken the "square" out of "squareback." It was as if the thing had been taken apart and put back together. By monkeys.
          I asked about the car's history. Knuckles knew nothing, except it had "spent time" in Washington State, and that a previous owner had named it "Tabitha."
          I put the key in Tabitha's ignition. The key did not like Tabitha. It did not want to be in her ignition. It refused to turn. It knew better! I tried about a dozen times.
          “That’s funny!” said Knuckles, who grabbed and bent the key to his will. 
          Driving Tabitha was sort of like walking an old lady across Wilshire Boulevard. You wanted her to hurry because there was oncoming traffic, but she could only go so fast. Perhaps when Knuckles said the engine and transmission had been rebuilt, he meant they had been entirely remade from materials that had never been an engine or transmission before. Bird cages, maybe, and Tinker Toys.
          We parked.
          “It’s on special today,” smiled Knuckles. “$3000!”
          Three-thousand Saddam Hussein Iraq dollars, I managed not to say, as I inspected a hefty amount of body rust behind the front bumper, and bade Knuckles farewell.
          Along with thoughts of reviving my moustache.

Yet millions of mesmerized humans still obey orders from Big TV Brother and rush out to buy expensive machines as vivacious as department store mannequins. . .

          On the way home, I stopped in a parking lot and mused about the squareback, and Knuckles, and cars in general. Well, it wasn’t really a parking lot---it was the 405 south, just after the transition from the 118. Caltrans was apparently sweeping up another cigarette butt, and the freeway was as dead as Michael Jackson’s career. I tuned in a KFWB traffic report:
          “There was dirt spill on the 405 in the Valley near Victory,” chirped a female, “but that’s cleared up now and traffic is moving.”
          “Moving like your brain,” I muttered, herky-jerking a quarter mile in 20 minutes. Around me, people jockeyed and wedged in front of one another, just like the freeway was wide open. Auto-matons. They honked, and lit up cigarettes, and cranked up their thunderous hiphop, and were careful to not look at one another, in case the guy next door wanted to know what gang your were from. A trucker’s CB blather interrupted my radio, where KRTH was playing “It’s Your Thing.” “F--- your poopy mother,” was one of the decorous outbursts.
          It hit me: this is what L.A. has become. This is what driving has become. F--- your poopy mother stuff. Yet millions of mesmerized humans still obey orders from Big TV Brother and rush out to buy stunningly costly machines as intriguing as department store mannequins, as petite as Godzilla, just so they can sit in them and develop heart attacks, strokes, and creative profanity.
          An SUV drove over an island to my right, entered a freeway on-ramp lane, and began backing down the on-ramp! Followed by an airport van, followed by a Nissan Sentra, followed by. . .a whole lot of silver suppositories on wheels. Going the wrong way on a blacktop alimentary canal.
          Followed by me.
          Yes, folks, I jammed the old loser tin-can into reverse down a freeway on-ramp that eventually put me on to a broad, breezy boulevard, leaving a thousand dutiful consumers baking in the Valley sun. I didn’t even stop for a woman trying to cross in a crosswalk, so giddy with the joy of being free again was I.
          I e-mailed Knuckles later and told him I would pass on the car.
          And possibly, all cars forever.
          “Just out of curiosity,” replied Knuckles, “what was your reason?”

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