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Street Smart

Car-Poolers Take a Write Turn for Tales From the Fast Lane

September 16, 1996|GREG KRIKORIAN and DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

John Streltzoff says they helped him put his children through college. Bernard Hernandez believes that they saved his career as an engineer. And for Amy Walker, they set the stage for romance.

The three commuters were among hundreds of entrants in a recent contest sponsored by several state and local agencies, including Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 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 are drawn from the day-to-day events that occur as we travel that oft-maligned fixture of Southern California's culture: the carpool lane.

About 500 people submitted stories--humorous and poignant, printable and not--about their most memorable experience in a van, car or bus in Southern California.

Among the winners were two residents of Orange County, an area with one of the most miles of carpool lanes in the country.

Hernandez of Huntington Beach tied for third place with his tale of how car-pooling saved his career. In 1992, it seems, the 38-year-old engineer for Hughes Aircraft was scheduled for layoff when the company received a new order that would put him back to work. The only problem was that he had injured his knee playing basketball and could no longer drive to the company's plant in El Segundo.

The solution: A fellow worker living in Huntington Beach ferried him to work for 3 1/2 months until his knee healed in exchange for future reciprocity.

"It saved my job," the father of three said. "It saved my career. Without being able to get to work, who knows what would have happened?"

What happened for fourth-place winner Walker of Dana Point as a result of car-pooling probably will result in marriage, she said.

Two years ago, when she started a job as a tax analyst in Fountain Valley, she had lost her faith in romantic relationships after her parents' divorce. Matched by ZIP Code with a fellow commuter, she began car-pooling to work with him every day. And after about six months, her car-pooling partner, Roger Nguyen, asked her out on a date.

"At first I didn't want to go out with him," she said. "I wasn't interested in dating."

Daily commuting allowed lots of time for persuasion, however. Eventually, Walker consented, and they've been a couple ever since.

"He's a babe," she said.

Other winners included Streltzoff, a financial specialist from Thousand Oaks who took second place for his account of how much money he had saved since beginning to use 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--more than enough to help him and his wife put their two children through college.

Robert Neu of Los Angeles shared third place for recalling an appendicitis attack that occurred while car-pooling, landing him in the hospital with the carpool partner who later became his wife.

And Kimberly Arguelles of Mira Loma took top honors for her tale of the reuniting with her long-lost sister, Jennifer Martinez, in none other than a carpool lane. In 1974, the sisters said, their mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident while vacationing in Mexico. For a time, the girls remained with their father in Rosemead, but eventually Arguelles went to live with a grandmother in New Mexico.

Over the years, the two girls lost contact.

Then, in 1987, Arguelles returned to Southern California 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 her sister used to do. And later she asked her about her middle name, which is spelled Liza but pronounced as Lisa.

"That was the clincher," said Arguelles, 32, remembering how her parents pronounced the name differently from the way it is spelled. "I still can't believe it."

Martinez, 29, said, "I just . . . started crying."

For her winning entry, Arguelles won an airline trip for two to anywhere in the United States, Mexico or the Caribbean, as well as a $1,000 spending spree and a six-month membership to Family Fitness Centers.

"If it wasn't for the carpool, we wouldn't have found each other," Arguelles said at the recent luncheon where she received her prize.

Then, with a smile, she added: "We car-pooled here too."

Street Smart appears Mondays in The Times Orange County Edition. Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about traffic, commuting and what makes it difficult to get around in Orange County. Include simple sketches if helpful. Letters may be published in upcoming columns. Please write to David Haldane, c/o Street Smart, The Times Orange County, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626, send faxes to (714) 966-7711 or e-mail him David.Haldane@latimes.com. Include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers. Letters may be edited, and no anonymous letters will be accepted.

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