June 8, 2006

eulogy for loretta

Michael brought her home one sunny afternoon in March, 2002. He had been driving home when he passed her parked in someone's driveway with a FOR SALE sign in her windshield. He knocked at the door, took her for a test drive and offered the owner $1700 in cash.

I was standing in the driveway when he pulled up with a grin on his face. "Isn't she great?" he said, more as a statement than a question. She was 26 years old, had a cracked windshield, rimless headlights, no radio or A/C, and pink upholstery. She smelled like the '70s and gasoline. I wasn't too impressed, though she was kind of cute.

I drove her for the first time in a shopping mall parking lot with Michael beside me explaining her quirks as I repeatedly tried to get her into first gear and stalled her. I had to work to stop her and steer her. She had her own way of doing things. And she took her time.

I didn't have a car and soon claimed her as my own. I drove her, took care of her, and adorned her with color. Over time, a collection of little plastic animal heads ringed the windshield. A spillproof bottle of bubbles came to live wedged between the seatbelt release buckle and the driver's seat. The glovebox and dash displayed various magnets and a bright yellow sunflower. A strand of colorful beads and bells dangled from the rearview mirror beside the scapulario my mother gave me for protection, brought from Colombia and blessed in the Señor de los Milagros Basílica. A Marlboro matchbook I found proclaiming Even Communists Are Free to Smoke was clipped to the ashtray. Behind the backseat I carried some tools, a quart of oil, a sunflower umbrella, and some VW manuals I long ago gave up trying to comprehend.

I named her Loretta. If she were a woman, she would have been a fiesty waitress in a small-town diner wearing rhinestone cats-eye glasses with her name embroidered in flowery script on her uniform. She was the kind of car that had no pretensions about what she was: a simple old car with nothing flashy or fast about her, but solid and dependable. She embodied for me the essence of what the Japanese call wabi-sabi: the beauty of modest, imperfect, impermanent, and unconventional objects.

We had many adventures around town. People would notice her, ask me what year she was ('76) and then eagerly tell me their own "when I had a Bug" stories. Children would point and their mouths would become little "O"s and sometimes they would ask me shyly about the animals on the windshield. I received many smiles and waves and questions. I was flashed the peace sign and beeped at by other VW owners in a gesture of solidarity that only VW owners display to other VW owners. I suddenly belonged to a unique car culture vastly different from the one of high-tech convenience and speed I lived in.

And then one day I was rear-ended while I was stopped at a light, on my way to give a presentation for work. I was fine, but Loretta's engine box was crushed. My good friends came and rescued us both, towing Loretta back to my place on their trailer. For weeks I walked by her and she seemed to still be smiling at me, as if she knew I would soon be taking her to the shop to get her fixed. But the insurance company told me it would cost more to fix her than she was worth. How do you explain to an insurance agent what a car like Loretta is really worth?

I cleaned her out and said goodbye and the insurance company towed her away to their auto auction lot, where she would be auctioned off to the highest bidder who most likely would use her for parts.

She was exactly 30 years old when she met her end, though I don't like to think of it as her end. Pieces of her will likely end up in other old Bugs. And now I have my own "when I had a Bug" stories to tell at the gas pump.

Goodbye, Loretta. You were fabulous.

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