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Old or New, There's No Way to Explain Strange Love Affair With Cars : Whew! Pressure Is Off Now That First Dent Is In

November 16, 1987|DIANE E. HILL | Diane E. Hill lives in Solana Beach. and

SOLANA BEACH — A week ago I put a dent and door-wide scratch onto my new Olds Cutlass, a psychic gash from which I've yet to recover. The instantaneous guilt I felt was only a little less intense than original sin.

Now, I'm not one of those people who considers washing and waxing a car a sacrament, but I am an American, and for an American, taking possession of a new car is the closest thing I'll ever know to feeling like royalty. I was being entrusted with something special, and in return I'd have only the best: power steering, power locks, air conditioning, stereo and tape deck. Even the new-car smell exalted me--better than Chanel No. 5.

When I drove off the lot, the salesmen smiled beneficently at me like a member of the House of Lords wishing his monarch Godspeed. Little did either of us suspect that within two months I would abdicate at a drive-through teller, attempting to withdraw a post as well as $10.

Call Me 'Klutz'

Checking the damage to my shiny gray automobile, I felt as though I had just crayoned the Mona Lisa. There is something primal about damaging a new car. Every inadequacy I had ever felt suddenly surfaced. I considered getting a personalized license plate to let the world know I was about as trustworthy as Typhoid Mary. KLUTZ or WRECKER seemed appropriate.

Driving away from the bank, I felt shaky, so I stopped at a supermarket for a chocolate fix. Returning to the car, I found I had left it unlocked with my mother's pearl earrings lying on the front seat. Only Divine Providence and our community's general honesty saved me from further calamity.

I immediately wished for my just-discarded Mustang. Now, there was a car--never dented or scratched--six guiltless years. I couldn't remember my begining days with the Mustang, but at the end I felt my soul had merged into its metal and we traveled as one. Driving my Mustang was like dancing with Fred Astaire. Even if I made a bad move, my partner, through ease of handling, made me look good.

Driving the Oldsmobile, on the other hand, is like dancing with a 300-pound man--I have to constantly watch my step and worry about my partner's next move.

However, sitting in the parking lot, I realized I had worse problems than feelings of inadequacy. I had to explain to my nearest and dearest, who had helped pay for the car, that I had ruined it. For a moment, I considered blaming it on a kamikaze driver in the parking lot: "Honest, I just left it for a minute, and look at it! Look at what someone did to it!" But, as the friend I rehearsed this routine on commented, lying rarely works and it is "ruinous for the reputation."

Finally, I hit on my excuse, which had the advantage of possibly being true: strabismus--lazy eye, poor vision. As a child, I had two operations for it. My parents shelled out thousands of dollars to cure it, but I still see mostly out of the left eye (never mind that the scratch and dent were on the left side of the car . . . I was rolling).

I tried it; it worked. My nearest and dearest were understanding. My father, who can go into orbit over a long-distance phone call, stayed earthbound. My mother was particularly philosophical. "Well," she said, "it's done. Now you can stop worrying about damaging your new car."

Pressure Was Off

This statement had some psychological depth to it. Humans live easiest with imperfection. There are primitive peoples who purposely mar whatever appears too good-looking (from children to works of art) so the gods won't be jealous. And my mother was right. The pressure was off in relation to the car. I could drive it without feeling targeted for disaster. I wouldn't be tempted to straddle two parking spaces like the Porsches and Lamborghinis that hog available space and generate tire-slashing fantasies in other would-be parkers.

Although I'm error-free on the highway, my record in parking lots stinks. I had my first accident at age 16, just after getting my license in Hawaii, when I backed into a Navy captain's car. Shortly thereafter, I scraped my car against the wall of a serpentine indoor parking garage (this is where the peripheral vision excuse first developed).

Then there was the time I lost the car door while backing out of the family garage. The door was slightly open, allowing me to see where I was going, when decorative railway ties caught it and pried it off like a bottle cap.

I've left quite a trail of dented fenders and scratched doors in my day, but I guess I've been lucky. While I leave a note on the windshield, a bit of parking lot etiquette I always observe (I'm reckless, not rude), none of my victims has ever witnessed me damaging their cars. This is probably a good thing since getting caught in the act is only safe if you've got a black belt in karate.

Men are particularly nasty about being dinged or dented, but women get feisty, too. So finding a note rather than a perpetrator gives the victim time to cool down and call his insurance company, which will call my insurance company. Once the matter is in the hands of the adjusters, everyone else can behave like adults. Apologies will be accepted in icy tones, and life goes on until the next parking lot fiasco.

Perhaps walking everywhere would solve my problem. However, because I live in California, where perambulating is considered a symptom of disorientation, it might get me in trouble. Skateboarding, even at age 33, is more socially acceptable than going anywhere on foot.

Oh, well, maybe I'll win the lottery or marry a Saudi. Then I can hire a chauffeur to do my demolition driving for me.

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