I understand that there are certain native cultures in Africa where a person's wealth is determined by how many cows he owns. What's important isn't the condition of the cows, but the number. Ten scrawny, emaciated cows are preferable to five fat and healthy cows. We have the same thing in America, but we do it with cars instead of cows. Why have one flawless Toyota Camry when you can have a rusty Renault Le Car, a Ford Taurus with power-steering issues and a wheel-less Plymouth Duster up on cinder blocks in your front yard? That is true status.
For example, I own three cars. At least two-thirds of them aren't running right now. That's because I abandoned them for 10 months when we swanned off to Oxford. Now, there is a way to prepare a vehicle for an extended hibernation: flushing the fluids, raising the tires off the ground, disconnecting the battery, swaddling the entire machine in Barbicide-soaked canvas and parking it in a climate-controlled limestone cave run by Mormons. But I didn't do any of that. The Mini we left under a friend's carport. The Mazda MPV we paid to store in the parking lot of a place in Laurel that repairs recreational vehicles. It looks as if the Mini will--fingers crossed--just need a new battery. The minivan required more work to coax it back to life.
My Lovely Wife and I actually hadn't seen the place where the minivan was parked. After our hurried departure last year my friend Pat graciously agreed to bring it over there. Yesterday Ruth and I drove up in a rented car. The minivan was at the back of the weedy, gravel lot, sandwiched between a rusted trailer and a hulking pull-behind RV. It's hard to make a minivan look small, but small ours looked. And pathetic: dwarfed by the vehicles around it, grimy, leaf-strewn, the windshield wipers fused to the windshield, the doors stuck shut from months of disuse. It was the automotive equivalent of a person in an old folk's home: vibrant when it went in, brought down by its surroundings. Worst of all, the front left tire was totally flat. The rubber had, to use an English term I've always liked, "perished." You could see that where the rubber met the road, so to speak, it had split. The steel belts were poking through at the bottom like threads in a frayed pair of jeans. Out came the tire-changing tools.
Who invented the screw? Archimedes? Well thank you, Archimedes. There's little more satisfying than using the principal of the inclined plane to lift two tons of metal. Up went the MPV, off came the lug nuts. The wheel was stuck, of course, but the skillful application of a lug wrench (bang! bang!) and it came off. The space-saver spare was a little squishy but I stuck it on and it was time to jump start the slumbering beast.
Extremely prudent people will tell you that the proper way to jump start a car is by attaching the cables between the positive posts of the two batteries and between the negative post of the booster car's battery and a grounded location on the dead car. But that never seems to work for me which is why I do it old school: positive to positive and negative to negative baby! Which worked. We took back roads home, just in case any of the other tires decided to perish, and dropped it at the corner garage for a check-up. The Mini should get a new battery today.
As for the other 33 percent of our cars, it's a 1968 Datsun roadster that I consigned to a barn in Leesburg owned by a guy who stores old sports cars. He said he'd start it every few weeks and drive it around the block to keep the juices flowing. I hope to pick it up this weekend. I'll bring my jumper cables, just in case.
Show & Tell
If you're curious about what I was doing in Oxford, there's a little mention at the end of Sarah Laurence's blog. Sarah is an American writer blogging about her time in Oxford and her academic husband, Henry, came to my final presentation.