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CITY SMART | Street Smart

Carpooling Fuels Reunion, Romance


John Streltzoff says they helped him put his children through college. Bernard Hernandez believes they saved his career as an engineer. But Kimberly Arguelles has a story to top them all.

Without carpools, she says, she might never have been reunited with the sister she hadn't seen since they were young girls.

"I still can't believe it," says Arguelles, 32.

To the compendium of war stories and quirky tales that make up the urban lore of our lives, we add Tales From the Fast Lane. Stories drawn from the day-to-day events that occur as we travel that oft-maligned fixture of Southern California's culture: the carpool lanes.

In a contest sponsored by several state and local agencies, more than 500 people submitted stories--humorous or poignant, printable and not--about their most memorable experience in a van, car or bus in Southern California. The top winners were judged by a panel from the California Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Hernandez, of Huntington Beach, and Robert Neu of Los Angeles shared third place--Hernandez for the story of how a carpool allowed him to return to work after knee surgery left him on crutches; Neu for recalling an appendicitis attack while carpooling and later married the woman in his carpool who had waited with him at the hospital.

Second place went to Streltzoff, of Thousand Oaks, a financial specialist for Hughes Aircraft. Streltzoff's entry dealt with how much he had saved since he began using van pools in 1972. "Figure very conservatively," he wrote in his entry, "at 30 cents per mile times 20,000 miles times 24 years [equals] $144,000."

Subtracting $37,440 in van pool fares, Streltzoff calculated, left a savings of $106,560. And that was more than enough, he said, to help him and his wife put their two children through college.

But while others had stories of how carpools helped them save or kept them mobile or allowed them to meet their spouses, there were no tales like the one shared by Arguelles and her sister, Jennifer Martinez, 29.

In 1974, they said, their mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident while on vacation in Mexico. For a time, the girls remained with their father in Rosemead, but Arguelles was so distraught that she rebelled and became unmanageable. So, she said, she was sent to live with a grandmother in New Mexico.

For years afterward, Martinez wrote and called her older sister, trying to maintain some link with her only sibling. But Arguelles would have none of it.

In 1987, Arguelles returned to this area and got a job as a clerk at a Lucky supermarket in Walnut. One day, with her car broken down, she accepted an offer from a co-worker to join a carpool--one that included Martinez, who coincidentally worked at another Lucky.

Martinez couldn't shake the notion that there was something too familiar about the new woman in the car. One of the first things she noticed, Martinez said, was that the woman nervously cracked her knuckles. Just like she remembered her sister used to do.

Then Martinez began probing. "[She] kept staring at me and . . . she started asking me a lot of personal questions," Arguelles recalled.

Martinez was haunted by the possibility she might have found the sister she had not spoken to in a decade.

The next day, Martinez had her answer. She asked Arguelles about her middle name. Arguelles told her it was Liza (pronounced like Lisa). But did she spell it with a Z? Martinez asked. Yes, Arguelles answered.

"That was the clincher," Arguelles said, remembering how her parents pronounced the name differently from its spelling.

"I just . . . started crying," Martinez said. "And then I started to get mad. I wanted to know why she never wrote or called."

Said Arguelles: "It was just like a shock. I felt really guilty because I was sort of the reason" for the sisters losing contact.

But time has helped heal the wounds, the sisters said.

Arguelles, a dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol, is settled now in Mira Loma.

Martinez, who still works for Lucky, is married to Arguelles' former co-worker and carpool driver, Phillip.

"If it wasn't for the carpool, we wouldn't have found each other, I don't think," Arguelles said at the luncheon, where they received an airline trip, $1,000 in cash and a six-month membership at a health club.

Then, with a smile, Arguelles added: "We carpooled here too."

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