Walkin’ Tall

…‘Cause all my cars they broke down, they layin’ in my front yard. I oughtta get one together Lord, but the work just seems so hard.

—Steve Young, in “The White Trash Song”

There are a few things worse things than car trouble—death, taxes, cancer—but not that many. And as for alternate transport, the options are damn minimal.

While I applaud walking and cycling (in theory, and for other people), these are really not things that have ever caught on in my life.

Partly because I’m usually transporting heavy, bulky items that’d never fit on a set of handlebars and which are guaranteed to bust open if you drag them any distance… 40 pounds of dog food, dozens of bags of mulch, 48-pack “cubes” of Mountain Dew… those kinds of things.

Also, partly because I’m horribly out of shape—in fact, I got winded just typing that paragraph — but that’s really not the issue.

My neighbors, in their usual gracious spirit of kindness and generosity, recently offered to loan me one of their vehicles. But I couldn’t feel right about tossing giant bags of compost into the trunk of one of their exquisite cars. Also, I try not to drive anything that cost more than my house.

They’ve already gone far beyond ordinary neighborliness (I’m pretty sure they’re about one meal shy of declaring me as a dependant on their income taxes)—regularly mowing my yard and bringing me dinner after I work late, while my dog shamelessly imposes on their hospitality every chance he gets—darting through the fence uninvited so he can visit his “harem” (a smallish pack of all female Labs and an English sheepdog, which I think he sees as his very own Laker Girls). I strongly suspect that while I’m at work, he’s lolling about on their sofa in a smoking jacket while Josephine (the sheepdog) mixes dry martinis (she is English).

I’ve damaged their property values enough as it is, and I’m pretty sure it’s my house that’s responsible for their ant problem, since the little bastards showed up in my kitchen first. (It probably says something about our respective households that their ants march purposefully up and down the walls in well organized columns. You can practically hear them chanting “OOOO EEEEE Ohhhhhh” as they intently go about their work. Whereas the ants at my house mill about like a bunch of lazy anarchists, pausing only to cough and sputter on the rare occasions I can be bothered to launch a sporadic cloud of pesticide dust in their general direction—probably mutating the genes of everyone in a two-mile radius, but scarcely disturbing this breed of hippie ants in the slightest.)

Anyway. In the interest of harmony, I ultimately concluded it’d be very bad for my neighbors to come home to find one of their exquisite pieces of European automotive engineering wrapped around a telephone pole in their driveway.

Unwilling to avail myself of several incredibly generous offers of a loaner, my first thought was, obviously, a rickshaw… but as soon as the interns got wind of that, they threatened to go on strike if they had to tow me around town in one. After that spontaneous revolt, I pretty much knew there was no point in even bringing up the idea of a litter that they could carry me around on.

The first hint of all the vehicular travails to come was the weekend the Engine Light came on in my truck (oh how its mocking wink now haunts my every waking and sleeping moment).

I happened to be on my way to a movie with my gay husband that Saturday (he has all the escort and host duties of a real husband, but his conjugal preferences lie elsewhere) and we pulled into a full service station (where the gas is roughly $382 a gallon) so I could at least have the oil checked. (Yes, I know how to do that myself; I’m just too short to reach the hood without a stepladder. Also, I was wearing kitten heels.)

What annoyed me was the way the service station guy directed all questions to my male companion. Who I’m pretty sure doesn’t even know where the oil is, or what it does. (I bookmarked a website called “Lubrication: In theory and practice,” to send him, from Do It Yourself network — but I suspect it’s not what he thinks it is.)

I’m not disparaging his brilliance, mind you. He’s a doctor—and he’s definitely your guy in any sort of crisis involving say, a severed limb, a late night need for prescription pharmaceuticals, or perhaps common sense questions about which wine might best complement a mood elevator; to say nothing of what an absolute ROCK he was when I insisted I had a 24-hour case of “the SARS” — but practical things involving home or vehicle are not his forte.

So you can imagine the effort it took to restrain the guffaws when the Chevron man asked him “what weight?”

I suspect he was on the verge of telling him “about 160, but these Gucci pants aren’t very slimming…” when I leaned over to order a couple quarts of 10W-30, and we were on our way.

The engine light stayed on all the way home, and with no time to hunt up a new mechanic (who’ll deign to work on American-made cars), I just parked the 3-ton piece of now-useless yard art out front and switched over to my emergency backup vehicle, which is my 15-year-old car from grad school. I’ve never had the heart to part with it, since I define it as the ultimate in luxury vehicles, in that, it’s paid for.
I tooled around for days and sanctimoniously touted my new environmental consciousness (at about 38 miles per gallon) to anyone who’d listen—until the clutch went out later that week, at the precise moment I happened to be driving up the Broadway hill at Rupp Arena (causing me to slide precipitously backward and nearly into the lap of some soccer mom in a Lexus SUV, whose expression clearly indicated that she had neither the time nor inclination to swat a nuisance like me off her windshield should I land there, marring her view).

That left me with no wheels, relying on the kindness of strangers, caught up in what could only be described as a mobius strip of despair for someone as cheap as I am (why would anybody sink $350 of repairs into a car that’s barely worth twice that? On the other hand, where’s the mechanic who’s willing to lift the hood on three tons of Detroit steel for a penny less than $437,000—and that’s just diagnostics. I hear it’s more if they actually fix it.)

My ex (fake) husband suggested I just swipe a shopping cart from the grocery near my house, and use it to cart around my cargo, but I pointed out, A. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, and B. the sight of me pushing a shopping cart filled with dog food up and down my street might be the straw that finally breaks the back of my Neighborhood Association.

So if you see me on the side of the road with my thumb extended, I’m actually (probably) not making an obscene gesture. I just need a lift.