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Drive Time

Putting the Carriage First

The lust for fast cars is transformed into a desire for the ultimate stroller.

November 14, 2001|MARY MCNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It sat alone, abandoned, empty of even a shred of personal detritus. The left rear tire was gone and the chassis sat back at a crooked angle, one front corner higher than the other, a bit like a dog begging. It had the worn-edged air of a vehicle that had served a family well, so there was poignancy in its solitary stillness. And perhaps its owners would be back for it yet; it's hard when you have a blow-out on the road. There is no AAA for baby strollers.

And this was a nice one. A Graco double-seater, a '98 or '99, if I don't miss my guess. Dual wheel suspension, nice roomy basket, removable sun-shade, front and back. A cherry of a stroller when she rolled off the assembly line, no doubt about that. As we passed it on our way out of the L.A. Zoo, I hesitated, saw possibilities in its lines. A wheel is easily replaced, even an axle.

My husband made an impatient sound in his throat, call it a choking sigh, and so we pushed on. Because we have enough strollers at the moment, thanks. Six of them, as a matter of fact, including a double we inherited that now, when full of children, is too heavy to push; a lightweight model with wheels just beginning to go; and the one I just bought to replace it. Even as I write this, my husband is moving a few of them out of the garage onto the curb. Because, apparently, enough is enough.

I think of strollers the way other people think about cars, the way I used to think about cars. While others watch what people drive, I watch what they push. Aprica, Peg Perego, Cosco, Graco, the Kolcraft umbrella, Combi's sporty Ultra Savvy--the choice of brand, model, even color is of endless interest to me.

When idling at the zebra exhibit, or in line for a hot dog on a stick at the beach, I grill other parents about their vehicles like a traveling salesman at an auto show. What kind of mileage do they get? How's it handle on the curves? Does it make time on the straightaway? How would they rate the brakes? The warranty? Does it fold up easily, come in other colors? Any annoying squeaks and rattles?

Are cup holders standard? That cool back zip bag? Does it clean up easy? What are the benefits of a two-seater versus a sit-and-stand? Is side-by-side easier to maneuver than the front and back model? I stop just short of asking complete strangers what they paid, although when I see a real beauty with, say, neon yellow appointments or a leopard-skin print interior, I will ask them where they got it.

Like cars, strollers reveal nothing so much as the socioeconomic proclivities of its owner--cruising the sales rack at a European kids' store in La Jolla I double-dared my husband to ask the price of the very sturdy looking off-road model. More than the rent on the Venice apartment he gave up when we got married, it turns out.

Beyond the mundane are the philosophic issues: Is there an umbrella stroller made with handles long enough for a man to push it without throwing out his back or is there a genuine conspiracy at work here? Is it impossible to collapse any model without catching your finger, skirt, toe or ID badge, or is it just me? Why is navy blue the predominant color of the industry?

Personally, I'd like a red stroller, a tartan, perhaps--how unflaggingly cheerful it would be, and so easy to spot among the herds at Disneyland. And then, of course, there are the stroller stories. Like middle-aged men comparing preferred travel routes ("You took the 5 the whole way? Now, I always jump off onto the 10, then scoot over to the 605 because that thing always bottlenecks. Adds a few miles but saves a whole lot of time"), stroller aficionados have their tales of triumph ("We take this one to LACMA even though it's hard to schlep in and out of the car because she can sleep in it for hours") and woe ("They might as well not put a basket on this one; you can't fit a purse in there much less a diaper bag, and if you hang anything on the back, it just tips right over"). Oh, yes, they are scintillating conversations indeed. But then, who among us could have foretold the amount of time and attention we now pay to matters of digestion and elimination? Or that one day we would buy one car rather than another simply because its seats are flat enough to change a baby on?

All such stroller musing is but one more reminder that baby boomers and post-boomers are The First People to Have Children Ever. How the world propagated itself before, say, 1980 is a complete mystery. My mother looks at all my strollers, the crib, the portable crib, the three sizes of diaper bag (work, car and on-the-go) and the metropolis of molded plastic in our backyard and simply sighs. "When you kids were babies," she says in the parental addendum to "When I was your age ... " "I had a crib, a stroller and a playpen. And you turned out just fine."

Well, sort of.

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