My first car, bought to get me from my inexpensive neighborhood to my Chicago law school, had some problems. The inside handle on the driver’s side did not work. I would have to lower the window and open the door from the outside to get out. It did not have a radio. I bought a small transistor radio and propped it on the dashboard so I could listen to the great Larry Lujack. That soon got stolen, and I learned to hide the radio when I parked the car. The heat could not be turned off, which was a considerable defect in a sweltering Chicago summer. It did not have a gas gauge. It had a reserve tank. A lever needed to be turned when the car was filled up and then flipped back. When the main gas tank emptied, the lever would be flipped back for more gas. The first time I drove the car, I ran out of gas, but nothing happened when I engaged the reserve tank. It had not been filled. I coasted to a stop in some not entirely safe place and trudged to a filling station for a can of gas. I learned to note the mileage when I filled up so that I could determine when I needed gas. The car was underpowered. On the highway, it was pedal to the metal, but even so, that VW could not make seventy. To pass a truck on the interstate that was going a few miles an hour slower, I would have to channel my NASCAR and get as close to the semi as possible to draft it, and then pull sharply to the left to slingshot myself around it. Scary, but, hey, I was young. The girlfriend—soon to be the spouse—did not appreciate the skill and derring-do of the maneuver. I learned that the road surfaces in Wisconsin and Illinois must have had slightly different compositions, because the car went a tad faster in Wisconsin. When the temperatures hovered near zero, as they often did in those Chicago winters, the car might not start, but if I could get the car rolling down even the slightest of hills or from pushing, I could pop the clutch, and the car would spring (an exaggeration) to life.
The car, however, had positive qualities. The steering and brakes worked, and it took me to many parts of Chicago I would not have otherwise experienced. I loved that car.
But it had one other flaw: It did not have a front bumper. This seemed unimportant. It had no effect on my driving. The steering was not affected. The brakes were not affected. But one day driving in perhaps a part of Chicago that was the farthest away from the university campus and my apartment, I was pulled over by a police officer. I had not been speeding. I didn’t think that I had run a light or a stop sign. I lowered my window, and the officer did that slow walk over to my car. (Are they taught not to walk quickly to a car they pulled over? Is this done to increase the pulled-over driver’s tension? Does that tension serve a purpose or do the cops just like increasing the driver’s concern? Is it merely a little power play?) “Your car does not have a front bumper,” the uniformed man said. He imparted this wisdom as if the fender must have just fallen off and I had not notice or that I had not otherwise been aware that in the bumper department the car was deficient to the tune of one. I said, “Yes.” He said, “You are driving an unsafe vehicle,” pronouncing that last word in three distinct syllables with the last one sounding like ‘kill’. I had run my course of snappy comebacks and was quiet for a bit but finally responded, “I wasn’t aware that made it unsafe.” This was the truth; I had never before contemplated this particular issue. I waited; he pondered. He broke the silence. “I am just giving you a warning. Get it fixed.” I thanked him. He walked more quickly back to his vehicle and drove off.
I didn’t know where to get a bumper for an old VW or who would attach it. I did figure that it would probably cost more than the car was worth–money I did not have. By then I had driven the car for more than half a year all over Chicago. The car, no doubt, had been seen by many police officers who apparently had not considered it a death-dealing or maiming missile. I had only been in the Chicago neighborhood where I had been stopped by happenstance. I determined that it would be easy to avoid it in the future where that one cop was stationed. So, I did; I stayed out of it.
I continued to drive it to school and many other parts of Chicago, Illinois, and Wisconsin without a problem. Then months later I saw the bubble light of a cop car behind me in the university neighborhood, and I pull over. Wondering what I had done wrong, I looked at the rear view mirror to see a cop slowly, slowly approaching me. It was the same friggin’ one who stopped me before! He immediately said, “I see you didn’t get it fixed. You’re getting a ticket for an unsafe vehicle.” And he immediately wrote it out.
(Concluded on October 22)