In My Own Write: Wheeling and dealing

It’s heartbreaking seeing Mr. Useful become Mr. Useless.

By
December 6, 2011 21:52
Woman driving

Woman driving 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock)

 
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If you had a faithful retainer, one that served you closely and well for nearly 20 years, easing your life in so many ways, wouldn’t you grieve over the loss of this almost-member of your family? You would. And it is for this reason that in mourning the demise of Mr. Useful, I reject any charge of self-indulgence or affectation, just as I feel no need to apologize for employing the personal pronoun.

YOU NEVER forget your first love – or your first car. But to me, Mr.

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Useful was much more than a car: He symbolized the achievement of the near-impossible, the rout of the naysayers who had, all my life, mocked my abysmal sense of direction. He was the instrument of a spreading of wings heretofore tightly folded against my body, of the transformation from a person who accepted favors from others to someone able to do favors for others.

From this partnership emerged a more confident, more adult, more mobile me.

I NEVER believed I would one day be a driver. Nor did I dream that Saddam Hussein would be the catalyst.

I well remember the pivotal moment: It was a warm winter’s day in 1991, during the First Gulf War, and I was doing errands with my daughter, then five. In the manner common to five-yearolds, she was carrying nothing, while I was laden on all sides by my gas mask, her gas mask, both of our winter jackets and a bag of groceries. I felt like a pack animal.

Then I saw a man carrying some stuff, plus one of those Mamat plastic chambers designed to protect babies from chemical agents.

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He strolled up to a parked car, opened the back door and tossed everything in. Then he sauntered off.

I stood there, stunned. It was as if I had never seen a car before. The shining vista of possibilities offered by owning a vehicle suddenly opened up before me, setting in motion a chain of events that led to (many) driving lessons and, in 1993, my acquisition of a new Mitsubishi Lancer. We called him Mr. Useful because he was so, well… useful.

NOW he stands under our building, motionless and folorn in the way of broken-down cars, his gears all gone. After 18 years, replacing them would cost more than the car is worth. And so one day this week, I will summon the towing company and have him borne away forever.

He isn’t a person – of that I’m quite aware – but it’s been heartbreaking to see Mr. Useful become Mr. Useless.

I pat his hood consolingly as I pass, and don’t allow anyone to malign him in his hearing. A faithful servant deserves a dignified end.

SO the question arises of Mr. U’s successor, a topic currently much debated in our home. My husband, newly arrived from Canada, the land of wide roads and mostly sane drivers, doesn’t need a car. Of that he is sure. He says it isn’t necessary in Jerusalem, which has better than adequate public transportation.

“When you drive a car here,” he says, “you’re faced with the outrageous cost of buying one; with constant traffic jams, with an inability to find a decent parking space, with high gasoline prices, high insurance rates – and Israeli drivers, who delight in ignoring the rules almost as much as they do in bumping and scraping your car. And – as I’ve heard – they almost never leave a contact number so they can make good the damage they have inflicted.”

Moreover, he concludes with a shudder, “You’re at the mercy of every garage mechanic, who sees you as a ticket to his next vacation.

“For the times you actually need a car,” he declares, “there are taxis; and if you’re going on a longer trip, you can rent a car. How much better to use your own two feet, and not add to the pollution of the city.”

He leans back, satisfied that his stand is near-unassailable, though he does concede that not everyone is as able as he – a runner for 30 years – to substitute feet for wheels.

‘ABLE or willing,” I counter. This last is my main argument, since his other points – expense, exploitation, aggravation from other drivers, pollution and potential danger – are hard to refute.

My stand is that while one might just be able to manage without a car, why should one if owning a car is within one’s means? I enjoy a walk as much as the next person, and it can be refreshing to take a bus and know you won’t have to look for a parking place. There is an undeniable pleasure and freedom in getting around under your own steam – when you choose to do so.

It’s one thing to say you can always take taxis and rent a car, another to actually do it. The occasional taxi maybe; regular taxis, one generally doesn’t. Even though it would take thousands of taxi fares a year to add up to the outlay on a car, psychologically it just feels too pricey. As for renting a car, one might do it for really long trips – but there are lots of medium-length ones where one just wouldn’t.

Buses are all very well, but I can think of several destinations I would want to get to within the city to which there is no direct bus, or where using several buses – augmented or not by the light rail – would make the journey incredibly time-consuming and therefore a drag.

You can’t avoid the fact: Lack of a car restricts your options.

SOME OF the most enduring memories of my earlier years in this country are of waiting endlessly at bus stops exposed to the searing heat of summer, or the wet, wind and cold of winter. A car – air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter – renders these weather conditions largely irrelevant.

Then there is the huge, huge benefit of a vehicle’s capacity to shlep. Without a car, leaving for the whole day, you must carry items – for example, outer clothing you may end up not needing – with you. And anything you pick up during the day, you must bear home.

With a car, just open the trunk, and throw it all in.

And when you’re shopping for groceries, the advantage of your own wheels is self-evident.

SO WHAT it boils down to is expense and annoyance vs convenience and luxury – especially when, as in my case, I no longer have to show up for work every day, and there are no children living at home (though children do need to be visited from time to time, preferably with plenty of homemade goodies in hand).

I say: If you want convenience and the luxury having a car affords, go for it. And my husband, an estimable fellow mindful of the benefits of shalom bayit – domestic peace – is, despite his personal disinclination, ready to go along, though he says he will hardly ever use the car to go anywhere on his own.

The only question now is picking a worthy successor to Mr. Useful.

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