I’ve stayed as far away from the Octomom story as one can get while remaining on this planet. Still, I felt uncomfortably close when I stumbled over a photo in the Los Angeles Times. It shows a display mounted on the outside wall of a Volkswagen parts business in Whittier, Calif., where Nadya Suleman lived until recently. (It’s something on the subject of my distance from this story that I learned the woman’s name for the first time today. For real.)

The item in the Times reads, in part, as follows:

Back in February, the world’s media converged on Whittier hoping to get a glimpse of octuplets mother Nadya Suleman and her 14 children.

There, drivers can’t help but chuckle at a display owners Ralph and Diva Chase have set up. Mounted on the wall of the building is half a grabber-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Inside, a black-hair mannequin — respectfully named Teri, not Nadya —  is sitting with her legs crossed and is surrounded by babies. A box of diapers sits on the bug’s roof.

Ralph Chase said his 22-year-old niece, Jenna White, put the display together, meant as a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.  “She’s Teri’s stylist,” he joked.

They sometimes change Teri’s clothes to freshen her look, and some people have come by to donate clothes for the display.

What caught me up short was the blue Beetle. See, I drive a blue Beetle. It’s not a ’69; it’s a ’99 with more than 167,000 miles on it, but from a distance it looks uncomfortably like the one Teri and the kids are sitting in.



So this is “a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.” It got me to wondering, if I were to sacrifice my Beetle to commemorate someone’s mark on Whittier, whom do I envision beaming out from behind the wheel. Oscar de la Hoya? Nomar Garciaparra? Andy Etchebarren? Eric Stoltz? Or – should I even say it? – That Man who, the tapes tell us, wanted to “destroy” Thomas Eagleton – “pipsqueak that he is”?

I have to go with Andy Etchebarren. He was the last player to bat against Sandy Koufax – and he hit into a double play. That seems about right.





The New York Times reports today on a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing that drivers who opt for minicars increase the chance of injury in a collision. To reinforce and quantify what we already knew through common sense, the institute conducted tests in which mincars collided with mid-sized cars while both cars were traveling at 40 mph. The laws of physics being the stubborn things they are, the midsized cars sustained much less damage.

This information will have as much impact on me as the known hazards of tobacco have on inveterate smokers. When Pat and I got married, she had a 1962 Corvair that looked a lot like the ’63 model in the photo above and I had a ’61 Volkwagen Beetle. We drove a lot of full-size and mid-size cars after that, but I always preferred the smaller models, and the more manual gears the car has, the better I like it. You can’t beat the small car in almost any situation except street racing, and I got that out of my system a long time ago. Now, we have a Chrysler that I drive only when I have to and a 1999 blue Beetle with 165,000 miles that I would marry if I were a single man.

The Times reported some questions raised about the institute’s study – for instance, that the collisions were head-on, which is relatively unusual. The institute had two recommendations: reduce speed limits and reduce horsepower. Neither one will fly, and that’s because there are so many self-absorbed, self-important drivers who prove their superiority over the rest of us by behaving irresponsibly while they’re on the road. They live for the weight and power. The vehicles, after all, don’t cause the accidents. 

All of which reminds me of The Playmates’ 1958 hit, of which these were the last two stanzas:





Now we were doing a hundred and ten
This certainly was a race
For a Rambler to pass a Caddy
Would be a big disgrace
The guy musta wanted to pass me up
As he kept on tooting his horn (beep beep)
I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn
Beep beep beep beep
His horn went beep beep beep

[Very quickly]
Now we’re going a hundred twenty
As fast as I can go
The Rambler pulled along side of me
As if we were going slow
The fella rolled down his window
And yelled for me to hear
“Hey buddy how do I get this car outa second gear?”

The old order passeth

March 11, 2009

180px-akaufman11When Dan was fixing the Beetle the other day, he pulled out the radio in order to get a code he needed. Don’t ask. The point is that when he pulled the radio out it fell apart in his hands. Literally – the facing and one of the circuit boards actually crumbled into bits. Dan is getting me another one from the VW dealer, and it’s going to be cheap, because the radio is obsolete in the sense that it plays audio casettes. I couldn’t be happier, because the radio in Pat’s car plays only CDs, and I have scores of audio tapes – store-bought and bootlegged. Life passes us by in such a hurry these days. Audio tapes were an inovation an eyeblink ago, and now they’re obsolete. The same thing applies to that Beta video player/recorder under my desk and all the Beta tapes that are squirreled away in the garage and in the den. I have all the “Taxi” episodes on Beta tapes. Why did I bother, Latka? Who knew that those tapes would so soon go the way of the flour sifter? The Baltimore Sun reported today on a video rental store in town that has been in business for 20 years – imagine! – and still does a brisk VHS business. One of the reasons for its durability is that the store has a very large selection and stocks hard-to-get stuff such as the complete works of the Russian director Sergei Einstein. 

Dan is going to put the new radio in tomorrow. Where did I put those Jimmy Durante tapes?,0,6848231.story

whisperingSometimes those who tell us the truth don’t do us any favors. For example, I’d rather Dan hadn’t told me what was wrong with my car. The battery was dead when I tried to start the Beetle on a recent morning, but Dan couldn’t find anything wrong with the battery, the alternator, or anything else in the car. The car ran for a week or so, but after it stood idle in the garage for a few days, the battery was dead again. After a closer and more invasive inspection, Dan told me that the battery went dead because of a bad door latch on the driver’s side. Dan says there’s an electronic component in the door latch that “tells” the car when the door is closed. But that component is defunct, so that the car “thinks” the door is open all the time – so Dan says. If the car thinks the door is open, it doesn’t shut down some systems and lights that are shut down when the door is both closed and locked – in other words, in “sleep mode.” As a result, Dan says, these systems are out there in the garage or the driveway humming away as though it were normal business hours. They’re “talking to each other” – those were Dan’s words – and heaven only knows what they’re saying, particularly what they’re saying about me. What if one of those systems had the personality of HAL, the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”? It might have decided that a driver too negligent to have a working door latch – and lock the door, for Pete’s sake – was incompetent to drive the machine. The systems that have been out there whispering in the night might have wound up, as the Scripture says, taking me where I did not choose to go.

Living on the edge

February 26, 2009

beetleI hate when this happens. I got in the Beetle Tuesday morning, and it wouldn’t start. It had the death rattle. Dan, the incomparable auto repair guy, said it sounded like a dead battery, so I had AAA lug it over there on a flatbed. The AAA driver jump started the bug before he took it away, so I had some assurance that it would live to fight another day. Dan had it overnight and came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with it. The battery is still good, even after a few “stress tests.” The alternator is functioning properly. The wheels turn in circles as Nature intended. Aside from the faded flower in the bud vase, there is nothing wrong. Good news, right? Except that the battery was dead on Tuesday morning for no apparent reason, so now I live in constant fear that it will be again be dead for no reason—and not in front of my house but, say, tonight, when I get done teaching my class in Passaic. Passaic, for the love of Pete!

I once had a Rambler that would just stop running, perhaps when I was in the middle lane doing 55. I’d coast over to the side of the road, get a ride home, and send Wayne the Mechanic out to get it. Wayne would get in and turn the key, and the car would start. “Mr. Paolino, I can’t fix it if it isn’t broken.” Yeah, I studied logic in college, too. But I drove that Rambler with my heart in my throat, because I never knew when it would stop running.

Maybe I’m missing the thrill inherent in such experiences. After all, if it weren’t for that battery, tonight would be just another night in class. Instead, I’ll be in a state of anxiety all night and, if I go out into that dark parking lot—in Passaic, for Pete’s sake—and the car does start, that’ll be more enlivening than the usual trip home. Maybe that’s what Winston Churchill was talking about when he said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”