I had a car …
… not in Africa, but in Montana. It was the first and only car I ever owned, and may be the last. The car was the result of a deal I struck with my mom: help me pay for my therapy and buy me a car, and I’ll go to grad school. How could she say no? Next time I went home, she said, “Your car’s out back.”
I went out back, strangely excited. I hadn’t expected to feel this way. I mean, I’d never needed a car of my own; I didn’t follow cars; cars didn’t get me hot. But all of a sudden, I found myself envisioning a bright red, shiny sports car that could beat anything on the road, probably with a convertible top that would be down as I flashed past admiring crowds, my left arm casually draped over the open window or adjusting my sunglasses, my right arm balanced lightly on the black leather steering wheel.
I arrived out back. I looked around, not seeing the car of my dreams. Then I saw it. It was the only car there. It was a faded yellow, aged, ’73 Volkswagen Superbeetle. It looked somehow lonely and sad. My heart sank, and I almost cried.
At that point in my life, I did not appreciate the cachet implicit in owning a true antique, especially one of the Volkswagen brand. If I had been surprised at feeling excited anticipation, I was also surprised at how depressed and upset I now felt. I opened the tiny door, which felt like opening a piece of tin foil, and got into the tiny driver’s seat.
Everything was tiny. It was like being in a toy car. The dashboard was literally in my face. In fact, the entire front of the car was in my face. There was no hood to speak of. I was looking down at the ground directly in front of the car. There were almost no controls or dials, aside from the speedometer, the gas gauge, and the stick shift. Everything was black—no, grey, after having been faded by age—plastic. Everything was dusty and smelled like the inside of a pawn store: tired, old, weathered, and forgotten.
I sat there for about ten minutes, wondering how my life had come to this.
I went back inside. My mom was proud of herself. “I got it for $1000,” she said. “There’s this guy that lives out in the middle of nowhere and all he does is fix up really old cars. He put a new engine in that VW, and he says it’s souped-up, now.” “Thanks a lot, mom,” I said, “It’s great.”
The first few times driving that car were very embarrassing. I felt like everyone was staring at the poverty-stricken backwoods hick driving this relic from the past. The car was noisy; it literally putt-putted around. I sort of hated it. Then I hated myself for hating it. It was like a damn abandoned, skinny, ugly cat. It needed someone to care for it.
I drove from Montana to Chicago to start grad school. All of my worldly possessions, including my six-foot-tall boyfriend and camping gear for wherever we ended up at the end of each day, fit into the Bug. Later, when I moved from Chicago to New York City to take a job, all of my worldly possessions, my boyfriend, the camping gear, and the three large houseplants I had acquired as pets all fit into the Bug. It had become home.
I’d always treated the Bug gently, respecting its age and toy-like aspect. My boyfriend, however, treated the Bug like, well, a car. He pushed it to its limits and that’s how we learned its limits were considerable. The first time we went over 90 mph, he was impressed and I was terrified. The next time we went over 90 mph, he was exhilarated and I was pissed. “This car is not made to do that!” I said. “Don’t make it do what it’s not built to do! You’ll hurt it!” “Your mom found someone good to rebuild this car,” he responded. “The engine is totally souped-up! Not like a regular VW at all.”
The car could not only go fast on the flats, it could climb mountains without losing steam and accelerate quickly when passing other cars. It was not a regular VW.
Crossing Minnesota, I fell asleep in the passenger seat and woke to the sound of a police siren. “You were going too fast,” I said accusingly to my boyfriend. “I told you not to do that.” “Well, it wasn’t that fast,” he said, looking in the rear view mirror at the state trooper approaching our car. The trooper was laughing as he reached the car. “Damn, when I saw this car go by, I thought it was Herbie the Love Bug! I never saw a Volkswagen go that fast! I thought I imagined it for a moment!” “How fast exactly were you going?” I asked my boyfriend. “Not that fast,” he said, “Maybe around 88 or so.” “Oh noooo!” said the trooper, still grinning in disbelief. “I clocked her at over 115.”
Let us charitably draw the curtain upon the remainder of this scene.
Anyway, that’s how the Bug got its name. We started out trying both Herbie and the Love Bug, but I had issues with the masculinity the names associated with the film implied. So we compromised by calling the car HLB, for Hermaphroditic Love Bug, since it was obviously so juiced it must possess full sets of both genitalia.
HLB drove us all over New York City, all over the state, all over the Northeast. We parked it on the streets of Brooklyn and moved it twice a week for alternate side street sweeping. It was broken into constantly, but there was nothing inside to take (no controls, remember?) so whoever broke into the car just left it unlocked and closed it up again. The VW medallion on the front of the hood was stolen—twice—so finally we gave up and didn’t replace it.
HLB got older, just as we did. It got to the point where it had to go into the shop at least once a month, and each time it went in, we had to pay at least half the original price my mom had paid for the car. But I couldn’t put it down. Finally, its bottom fell out. I slowly saw more and more of the street passing under my feet as I drove it. So this is how Fred Flintstone feels, I thought. It was time.
I couldn’t bear to do the deed myself, so my boyfriend took care of it. I just wanted someone to take it away, I wasn’t looking for anyone to buy it. The car was gone almost instantly; some dude was very happy to have it, my boyfriend told me. Gone, but not forgotten. You never forget your first.
Photo courtesy of Emel Isitan