Posted by: patti | August 3, 2010


Ladybug’s mechanical problems, the inevitable ones I was too inexperienced to detect, started showing up almost immediately.  Considering that I learned to drive by watching instructional videos on the interwebnets and by relying on the kindness of strangers, you’d expect that her ultimate fate was determined by my abuse of the clutch, but this was not the case.  Pretty much everything but the transmission went wrong with my poor Ladybug.

But don’t call her a lemon.  (She says, the same way Otto snarls “Don’t call me stupid!” in A Fish Called Wanda.)

I brought her home at the end of August, and I was driving fairly competently by the end of September.  By October, I was no longer stalling on hills (but still cursing at every fool who placed a stop sign at the top of a hill).  By Christmas, I no longer needed my gas-clutch-gas mantra.  In January I could do a k-turn in one fluid motion instead of three distinct steps, and I could parallel park, often on a hill, without incident.  Sometime in February, I got cut off by a ginormous SUV making a left turn from the center lane, and not only did I not hit the jerk, I stopped short without stalling.  That’s when I knew I had really mastered driving stick.  The details of my driver’s education are worth recording, worth recounting, and I will, but for the moment: Ladybug.

My first afternoon with Ladybug, I hurched and lurched all over Connecticut.  I started out at Montesi Volkswagen in North Haven.  My thought was that while a dealership would be more expensive, they would be the best ones to check her over first, because they would know the usual problems with the car, and would give me the best advice, starting out.  I was right about the more expensive part.

Montesi’s shop is closed on the weekends, so I only dealt with salesmen.  They welcomed me to the Volkswagen family, and they were polite when they saw the condition of Ladybug.  One salesman gave me a driving lesson around the parking lot, much like McGruff did.  Some of what he advised me contradicted what McGruff had said — I’d been reading and watching enough that I was learning to detect what was a style choice and what was basic knowledge.

I asked the salesman what to expect with Ladybug — I’d done some research already and knew there were some minor recalls, and some potential problems, but I figured he could tell me more.  “It’s a great car.  You won’t have any problems with it,” he assured me.  One of those statements was true.

The very next day, Sunday, I planned to take her down to Long Island to show her off to my parents and the Little Brother, who was visiting from DC.  But instead, I had to take her to get four new tires because the tread on the rear driver’s-side was completely separated.  It looked like a ratty old sneaker whose sole has come unglued.

Jittery had owned the car for just over a year, and he only put 5000 miles on it. And the family before him had it for almost seven years, and they only put 53,000 miles on it.  I don’t know a whole lot about cars — well, I know more now than I did last August — but what I do know is that cars need to drive, not sit.  Ladybug sat. And sat. And sat.

So day one: four new tires.  I drove her for about a week before Montesi could do the checkup for me, and some strange things were happening.  Sometimes she wouldn’t start.  And sometimes all of her dashboard and console lights randomly blinked on and off.  And occasionally, the engine would just shut off while I was on the highway, when I shifted from fourth to fifth, but I figured all of this was due to user error, because, after all, I still didn’t know what I was doing.  Montesi charged me an outrageous amount of money to tell me that she was basically fine — she needed an oil change and the front brakes were 80% worn, but everything else checked out.

About a month later, both of my headlamps burned out.  Someone at AutoZone may have handled the halogen bulb improperly, because the replacement bulb went first, and shorted out the system and popped the other one.  (This is a known problem with Beetles — the halogens burn quickly and have a tendency to cause other electric problems when they go.  Which, at 20 bucks a bulb, ew.)  I was in Virginia at the time, so I had to take her to another VW dealership.  It took them almost two hours and it cost me over $200.  For two light bulbs.  Apparently, at some point in her life, probably before Jittery, Ladybug had been in an accident and had not been put back together properly:  nothing in the front end of the car lined up as it should.

Some time after the headlamps went, the trunk filled with water.  The drains from the sunroof were clogged, and so water was draining directly into the trunk. I paid Montesi more than I’m willing to admit to fix it, but I will be reimbursed for this because it’s part of a class-action lawsuit against VW/Audi.  I had Ladybug completely cleaned, but I battled mold spots in the trunk padding for months.

This was just the beginning.  At the end of October, the battery died.  Montesi replaced it, but the new battery died on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I was stranded in the Home Depot parking lot just off 95 in East Haven. Montesi said they couldn’t help me because it was the holiday weekend — well, they could help by towing the car to the dealership and fixing it Monday or Tuesday.

Um, what? The month-old battery you put in failed and you want me to wait three days without a car for you to replace it?  Really?  I guess you don’t want anymore of my money.

But this minor disaster turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Ladybug.  I have roadside assistance through my insurance, and they towed me to RJ Shore on Shore Drive in Branford.

If you live in Connecticut and you are reading this, you need to know that these guys are the best mechanics in your state.  They took such incredible care of me and my Ladybug for the months I drove her — I cannot say enough good things about them.  They are honest, they are reliable, and they are friendly, all of which are just as important as being the absolute best mechanics you’ll find anywhere.

One of the owners of RJ Shore was there the night Ladybug and I showed up, and he stayed late to replace the battery.  He gave me the documentation I needed to get a refund from Monesti.  I did get that refund, but only a partial one — they only refunded the cost of the battery itself, not the extra charges for labor and a “systems check.”  For every good word I can and will say about RJ Shore, I will say three or four bad ones about Montesi.

So let’s see.  At RJ Shore, my favorite mechanic of all time, Harry, replaced the front brakes.  And then the timing belt and water pump.  He saved the water pump to show me: the little propeller thingy on top had only one blade left.  This may have had something to do with that random stopping on the highway between fourth and fifth gear.

Most of these jobs were normal for a car with 60K miles on it — particularly one that had sat for so long.  I bought her with 58K, and I was racking up miles quickly.  Once I was comfortable driving, I was averaging 2000 miles a week.  (What?  I like to drive.)

But then the front grille disappeared.

The front grille had always been a bit of a hassle.  It had a tendency to pop off in one corner, which meant I was constantly sticking it back in after misjudging curbs or hitting too many potholes.  The grille had openings where fog lights belonged, but no fog lights.

But one day, the grille was just gone.  I still drove, but only locally, because without the grille, the radiator was completely exposed, and one kicked-up rock on 95 could be the end of me and Ladybug.  I ordered a new grille and fog light kit on eBay and brought it to Harry.

Harry had to print out the specs from the Volkswagen website because he’d never installed fog lights on a Beetle before.  One of the things I love about Harry is how he does research — there’s no one more knowledgeable, but if he’s ever uncertain, he goes and looks it up before taking things apart.  And he explains everything to you before he goes taking things apart, in his very endearing, stammering, stuttering way.  I wish I could take him to California with me.

The three hours it took to replace Ladybug’s grille is an entire story on its own, one that involves a van with bullet holes, the New Haven police, a gas tank patch, missing pieces, too many bad jokes about a minstrel show on wheels, and black paint.  But the part that is relevant right now is when Harry came in and asked me to follow him into the garage to take a look at Ladybug.  “When were you in an accident?” he asked.  “I wasn’t,” I replied, and he said, “Ok, fine, but this car was.”

She was up on the lift, at about my eye level.  Harry said:  “So, the mystery is not how your front grille disappeared.  The mystery is how your radiator has not dropped onto the street by now.”  He pushed on the radiator, and we both watched it swing back and forth: eee-oo-eee-oo.  He pointed to a crack in the bottom of the fiberglass frame that should be holding the radiator in place.  He pointed to all of the holes in the connection where bolts should be.  The radiator was held in place by two bolts and the pipes and hoses and whatnot that connect it back to the engine.  Harry pushed it again, just for effect.  Eee-oo-eee-oo.

Harry MacGyvered Ladybug back together.  A few uneventful months went by, during which I tacked on another 10,000 miles or so.

But then I started hearing a funny noise.  A metal on metal noise.  A metal rod rattling in a tin can noise.  I brought it right to Harry, who told me Ladybug was two-and-a-half quarts low on oil.  In a four-quart oil tank.  He showed me how to check the oil, and instructed me to check it every time I got gas and to keep bottles of oil in the trunk to refill it.  We monitored it, we tried heavier grades of oil and special additives, but nothing really helped:  I was adding a quart of oil with every gas fill-up, which was about a quart every 500 miles.  Which is not good.

This is a known problem with Beetles around this age — the seal on the piston rings becomes less, well, sealed, over time.   Harry and the other guys at RJ Shore started to hint that it was time to get rid of her or to spend three or four grand to overhaul the engine.  Driving her across the country was out of the question.

I bought Ladybug in August 2009 with 58,694 miles on her.  I drove her everywhere: into the city or out to Long Island once a week, to Maryland, DC, and Virginia countless times, to Boston on occasional bouts of insomnia drives, to South Carolina (another story that will have to wait).  I learned to drive stick in Ladybug; I rediscovered independence and a very particular type of confidence in Ladybug.  In May of 2010, she had 79,887 miles, the best and hardest of which I had put on.  I couldn’t give up on Ladybug.

And having just been traded in myself for a sporty younger model, you can imagine how I felt about giving up on my Ladybug.

But yeah, I guess you could say I totally gave up on Ladybug.  So what kind of car could possibly take the place of Ladybug?  Only the Lovebug, of course.

Posted by: patti | July 30, 2010

How Not to Buy a Car, Part 3

The Nimitz was parked exactly where I left it up the block from the bank, without a ticket, untowed.  Jittery followed me, still clutching his plastic bag, and when he saw the truck, and saw me swing up into the driver’s seat, he developed a sudden inability to form complete words: “Buh…? Wha…?”  Eventually, he climbed into the pickup next to me.  The adrenaline rush from the bank heist had left me shaky, but I managed to chatter away and drive like this was a normal Friday afternoon outing for me, like it wasn’t the Nimitz I was navigating through the East 30s.

I had to circle the block a few times, but I finally found enough room to park the trailer on First Avenue, just past the entryway of the Beetle’s garage.  Jittery had rediscovered language and was just starting to ask questions about what had happened back at the bank (“The check was good?”).  I hopped out and began to set up the trailer, just like McGruff taught me.  The lessons had paid off:  Jittery stood and watched, and finally asked, “How you know how to do this?”  Instead of answering, I suggested that he go get my car from the garage.

Once the trailer was all set up, I spread the paperwork on the dashboard of the pickup.  I filled out what I had to, and arranged everything so all he had to do was sign on all the dotted lines.  Then I stood on the trailer to wait.  The Beetle’s nose appeared in the mouth of the garage, like she was sniffing to check the weather, uncertain she wanted to venture outside.  But then Jittery guided her out and parked right behind the trailer ramps.

And being jittery, Jittery refused to drive her onto the trailer.  He explained that he did not want to be responsible for damaging my tires.

It was all I could do to not laugh out loud. My tires.  Up on the trailer, looking down at the little black Beetle squatting at the end of the ramps, her headlamps seemed like big sad eyes.  Time to go home, Ladybug, I thought, and just like that, I was that person, the one who gives her car a name.

I, of course, could not drive Ladybug onto the trailer.  The garage attendants had been hovering, watching me set up the trailer, clearly curious about what was going on.  Still up on the trailer, I called out to them, and asked them for help.  There was a Three Stooges moment as they responded—a knot of garage attendants vied to be the first to open Ladybug’s door.

The losing attendants swarmed the trailer.  One hopped up on the trailer to direct: “Allow me, little lady.”  (They were helping, so I let it go, but: ugh.)  The others checked the ramps, checked the straps, directed from the street.  The Three Stooges moments continued, with lots of alarmed shouting in Spanish.  I couldn’t bear to watch — more than once it looked like my car was going to end up on its side in the street, a helpless dead bug, wheels spinning at the gray sky.

I had Jittery fill out the paperwork while the Stooges did their thing.  I don’t know if it was the relative quiet of the pickup cab, or how organized I was with the papers, or the relief of seeing the end of this insane transaction, or if years of working as a bureaucrat had conditioned him to find filling out forms soothing, but Jittery was suddenly a lot less jittery and a lot more chatty.  We talked about living in New York, about adjusting to a new home, about driving.

All of a sudden, Ladybug was secure on her trailer, the paperwork was finished, and there was nothing left to do but shake hands and say goodbye.  Actually, there was one more thing:  I had to pry that plastic bag out of Jittery’s hands.  He let me take the manuals, and I managed to get most of the papers I needed, but he would not hand the whole thing over — I would have liked to have the car’s mechanical history, which I’d caught a glimpse of the day of the test drive, but I let it go.

My last sight of Jittery was in the rear-view mirrror, as the Nimitz and Ladybug and I eased into First Avenue traffic:  standing on the corner, in the rain, clutching the nearly empty plastic bag to his thin chest.  He turned right, walked a few steps, then turned around and walked back a few steps.  He turned again, and stood still, looking like he had entered a room and forgotten why he’d gone in there.  I had left poor Jittery literally walking in circles.

But I had my car.  Ladybug’s big eyes peeped over the back of the pickup truck in my rearview mirror: Where are we going? Home, little girl.  Home.

The traffic back to Connecticut was as bad as the traffic out of Connecticut had been, so I stopped off in Fairfield and had wings and a Guinness to celebrate my victory at Grand Theft Auto.  If you got off the train in Fairfield one rainy Friday night last August and saw a U-Haul pickup and car trailer carrying a little black Beetle taking up ten parking spots, yeah, that was me.

It was nearly 11 pm when I returned to New Haven. My apartment is in a good part of New Haven, but it is on the cusp of a bad part of New Haven, and after all that work and drama, there was no way I was going to let any harm come to my car.  On-street parking would have been hard to find for just the Beetle, let alone a Beetle on the Nimitz.  But there was also no way I could drive around all night until it was time to go to the DMV in the morning, so I improvised.

I went back to the U-Haul lot on Whalley Avenue.  It’s a huge double-lot, sharing space with a Staples, and I figured that as long as I was back in the morning before McGruff opened U-Haul, Ladybug would be safe and out of the way.  There was a perfect spot, a huge space between two trucks, up against the back fence.  I could position the trailer so that Ladybug would be between the two trucks, and if anyone wanted to molest or steal her, they’d really have to work at it.

There was just one problem.  I had to back the trailer into the space.  It took me almost an hour, but I did it — once I figured out that the trailer in reverse works basically like a little red wagon, things went a lot more smoothly.  I started doing the opposite of what my spatial intuition wanted me to do, and all of a sudden, Ladybug was nestled in for the night and the Nimitz was straight.

I barely slept.  Even though I knew the trailer was fine, I still fretted about it, and I was also worried about oversleeping.  The schedule for Saturday was impossibly tight:  The Bridgeport DMV (my closest option for Saturday hours) was open from 8 to noon, and I had promised McGruff to have the trailer back to him by noon. To complicate matters, Jittery had told me that a front headlamp was burned out, so I needed to get that fixed before it would pass inspection.

So I was up and out by 6 am.  It seemed to me like Ladybug wagged her tail when she saw me coming, but I can’t be sure.  I had mapped an AutoZone in Bridgeport near the DMV, but that whole part of the world is really hard to navigate — the intersections are confusing and signs are unreadable to nonexistent — but even harder in the Nimitz.

I circled and circled, trying to find the AutoZone, and I was starting to get really nervous about time — I needed to get on line at the DMV because I only had that small four hour window to get everything done.  I finally pulled into a tire place to ask for help.  They didn’t have the bulb I needed, but they drew me a map for both the AutoZone and the DMV, and they were delighted to help because they had seen the trailer go by something like four times and had wanted to know the story.  It took up more precious time, but I told them, of course.  I’ve never been able to resist a good audience.

The Nimitz and I took up the whole AutoZone parking lot.  A crew of AutoZone guys helped me find and replace the bulb I needed, and it was a bit of a saga, because the Beetle’s headlamps are very hard to replace and are halogen, two details that will come back to haunt me.

Somehow, please don’t ask me how, I found a legal parking spot outside the DMV for the Nimitz.  It was 7:15, but the line outside was much longer than I had hoped, and it was raining, of course.  For those forty-five minutes, I checked and rechecked all of my papers and wished I had thought to carry them in a plastic bag instead of the folder that was growing limp from rain.

But things went very quickly.  By 8:30, I had temporary plates and all the papers I needed to get the car inspected.  I hopped back in the Nimitz and drove to the first service station that advertised inspections — not surprisingly, I did not have to go very far.

Unfortunately, they could not inspect the car on the trailer.  They backed the trailer up to the garage, thinking they could hook everything up with her still on the trailer, but the garage door was too low.  They tried to move the equipment out of the garage to the trailer, but the cords were too short.  Because the line of impatient people waiting for inspection was growing, the guys said I had to take the car off the trailer and get on line myself, but, of course, I can’t do this because I can’t drive the car.  So they made me wait.  When the line was finished, they drove the car off the trailer, inspected it, and drove it back on.  They were surly and annoyed, and they kept trying to make me go away, but I refused to give up.

But that inspection process took two hours.  The inspection itself took maybe five minutes, which made me think that Connecticut’s inspection regulations are a bit of a joke.  By the time I parked the Nimitz back at the DMV — much less legally, this time — I was pretty jittery myself, because it was 10:30 and the lines were much longer.

I didn’t need to be jittery, as it turns out.  For one thing, I had 30 days to complete the registration, but I had no idea if I’d ever learn to drive in time to get back there.  More importantly, though, I really just wanted the whole thing done.  With the inspection certificate in hand and the temporary paperwork already completed, processing was very simple.  The Nimitz and I were on our way back to New Haven by 11:15 — cutting it a little close for our noon deadline.

Thank goodness for the Mobil rest stop on 95 in Milford — I can’t think of another spot where there would have been room for me to refuel the Nimitz without causing major traffic jams and/or property damage.  But I was able to pull right in, gas up, and keep going.  Of course, I blocked two other tanks in the process, but I was quick about it.

When I pulled the trailer into the U-Haul lot, with ten minutes to spare, McGruff once again left a long line of surly renters to take care of me.  As I stepped out of the pickup, he was right there, holding the door for me, saying “You made it!”  He wanted to know what the problem with the car was, and so I explained that the car was fine, but I couldn’t drive it because I was still learning stick.

And just like nearly everyone else who featured in this story, he did more than he needed to, and helped me.  He drove Ladybug off the trailer for me and parked her off to the side.  Another customer was waiting for the pickup, so he processed all of that while I attached my license plates and visited with my new car.

She was a mess.  The damage I’d noticed on that first day was even worse than I thought.  But I didn’t care.  Who needs cup holders, anyway?  And a working glovebox?  Pfft.  The windows getting stuck open in the rain might be a problem, but for now, the drizzle on my arm felt wonderful.  The last digits of my license plate were XOU, and as silly as this sounds, it made me happy to see hugs and kisses on my Ladybug.

When McGruff was finished with the crowd, he gave me a quick driving lesson in the U-Haul parking lot.  He showed me reverse.  He tried to teach me how to feel the stall starting and how to prevent it.  He did the best he could, but I still had a long way to go.

I lurched out of the parking lot, and I turned left onto Whalley, across traffic, stalled on the double yellow line, burst into tears, started the car again, and lurched and sputtered up the street, only to realize that I was heading the wrong way.  Home was behind me and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to  turn around.

Posted by: patti | July 27, 2010

How Not to Buy a Car, Part 2

While Jittery arranged to have the title returned from the State Department, I was busy doing more research.  I needed to get an unregistered car I didn’t know how to drive across state lines.  The simplest thing to do would have been to borrow plates from someone who was both willing to participate in such a scheme and had at least a rudimentary understanding of driving stick.  But the more I shared with my friends and family, the harder they tried to talk me out of buying this car, and I was not going to be talked out of this car.  So I stuck with my flatbed trailer plan.

And while I was hatching the plot for Grand Theft Auto V, Jittery was harassing my credit union.  He called my loan officer, Rose.  He didn’t believe her that it was an official check with certified funds, so he asked to speak to her manager.  Rose’s manager could not convince Jittery that the check was good.  Ultimately, the president of the credit union spoke to Jittery and he could not convince him that the check was good.  Jittery called me almost every day, with an update, looking for assurances that he wasn’t going to get stuck with an unregistered car weeks away from his departure for Japan.

I realized that the only way I was going to get my Beetle was to show up and take it, which made the flatbed idea even better.  So, in my conversations with Jittery, I may have left him with the impression that I was going to give him the check and he was going to give me the title, but not the keys, and that I would take the title back to Connecticut and get temporary plates.  Which would have given the check time to clear while he still held on to the car, which might make him less jittery, and then with the cash in his account and my paperwork official, I’d return to New York and get the keys and drive home.

There was no way I was going to do that.  There was absolutely no way I was handing over money and getting only a piece of paper.  I was leaving New York City with my Beetle.

Jittery called at 11 am on Friday to say he had the title, and I told him I was on my way, and I immediately ran to U-Haul.  I had a reservation, and the guy there knew me well, because I’d rented vans from him for my trips to Ikea to outfit my new apartment.  A big mess of a man, he wore stained shirts that never quite buttoned over his belly, he had a beard that was thick and unruly enough to house small woodland creatures, and he had a tendency to use his sweaty hat to wipe his sweaty face.  He was the manager, the type of manager who doesn’t look like a manager, and who only softens his gruff demeanor if you are pleasant and attentive enough to fill out the contracts properly.  It took me a few visits to figure out that he was treating me with more respect and kindness than most other customers — on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, he does not get many renters who are responsible or friendly.

So when I showed up this particular Friday, McGruff left a long line of irritable renters to teach me how to use the flatbed.  There were three steps: pull out the ramps, flip open the wheel well, align the straps.  And then attach and secure the straps to the car.  And then do the three steps in reverse.  McGruff demonstrated everything multiple times, then made me show him I could do it, multiple times, and then made me recite the steps back to him, multiple times.  I knew the traffic from New Haven to New York City was going to be horrific, and I wrestled with growing impatience and anxiety.  But I listened, and I demonstrated, and I practiced, and I let what should have been a quick rental turn into an hour and a half.  Which is precisely why I did not admit to McGruff that I had never driven a pickup truck, let alone a pickup truck with a flatbed car trailer attached to it.

But driving it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.   As long as I took my time and left myself plenty of room, it was no different than driving, say, a nice Honda Civic, if that Honda Civic had been retrofitted as the USS Nimitz.  Traffic, however, was way worse than I thought it would be.  It was move-in week for Yale, which meant it was almost 1 pm when I merged the Nimitz onto 95 South.  On the Friday before Labor Day.  In the rain.

Without traffic, without rain, it should have taken an hour and forty minutes, give or take, to get to the bank on Forty Second and First.  Jittery had already started calling me, because I may have left him with the impression that I was taking the train to meet him.  I called his bank, confirmed that they were open until 6 pm, and then called him back and told him I’d meet him at 4 pm.  I’m an optimist, you see.

Stuck in the interminable traffic, I reviewed the plan, and began to have doubts.  Maybe I was being too stubborn.  Maybe it was perfectly reasonable to give him the money and process the paperwork and then get the keys after it had all cleared.  Maybe Rose and everyone else who had tried to talk me out of this deal was right.  What if I had gone to all this trouble and expense, and he freaked out and refused to give me the car?  It was too late for all of these doubts — I had already gone to the trouble and the expense, and there was no turning back.  Literally, no turning back, because I didn’t even want to contemplate the idea of having to figure out reverse in the Nimitz.

I had an idea, and called Rose.  I explained what I was doing, with the trailer and the traffic and my concerns.  She listened, quietly, and then said, “Honey, I only met you a few times, and you seem real smart.  But this is the craziest, stupidest car purchase I have ever seen in thirty years of doing car loans.”

I really didn’t know what to say to that, except, “Yeah, I know, but if he freaks out at the bank, can I have him or his bank call you to verify that the funds are there?”  She reminded me that the entire credit union could not convince him it was a good check.  “A guy like that, that nervous, you don’t want to do business with him, honey.”

No, probably not, but I wanted my car.  And Rose’s reaction confirmed that I had done the right thing in telling exactly no one the real plan for getting this car.  Rose reluctantly agreed to field a call from the bank or Jittery if it came, but warned me that she was leaving at five, on the dot.

That hour and forty minutes came and went.  Two hours became three hours, became three and a half.  Jittery kept calling and I kept adding half an hour to our meeting time, and I finally had to admit that I was stuck in traffic but would definitely be there by five.  I had to get creative with my route — between the traffic and the rain, and the commercial plates, and the fact that I was driving the freaking USS Nimitz, I had to use every New-York-driver trick I knew, plus a few I made up along the way.  It’s not for nothing I learned to drive in Queens.  At one stretch on Willis Avenue, I thought I saw the trailer disappear completely into a pothole, but it bounced back into view and somehow stayed attached.

At five minutes to five, just under four hours after I left New Haven, I parked the Nimitz in a loading zone on Forty-Second Street, right before First Avenue.  I popped the hazards on, hoped I’d be back before I got a ticket, or worse, towed, and ran to the bank.  Jittery was standing on the corner, clutching his plastic bag.

I ran up to him, and out of breath, quickly summarized what was going to happen, with many emphatic hand gestures:  “I have a trailer for the car.  You’re going to go in, deposit the check, and then we’re going to drive the trailer over to the garage to get the car.  If you are still worried about the check, which you shouldn’t be, the bank manager can call Rose at the credit union to verify that the funds are there.”

I didn’t give him, or me, a chance to stop and think.  I held the bank door open for him, and he just stood and blinked at me.  I stared back at him, pretending I knew what I was doing and that my heart wasn’t going to beat right out of my chest.  He finally found his voice: “But, no, I give you the title and I wait for the money, and then you get the car.”

I let the door close and faced him straight on.  He is quite tall, and I am not, but somehow, putting my hands on my hips made me grow an inch or two.  “No.  That’s not how it works.  I give you money, you give me a car.  That is how it works.”

His face crumbled.  He knew I was right.  He protested some more, and I just kept repeating, “That’s not how it works.”  He followed me into the bank.

It was now five on the dot, so I marched him to customer service, and I talked fast.  The World’s Most Bored Bank Employees sat expressionless as I held up the check, explained that the gentleman did not believe that this was a good check, but if they would just call this woman at this number, they could verify for the gentleman that this was indeed a good check.  Please and thank you.  With emphatic hand gestures.

Most Bored Number One looked over her glasses at the check, and at us.  “It’s a good check,” she said to Jittery.  The clock was ticking.  “Yes,” I said.  “Could you call, please?” Most Bored Number Two looked at the check.  “It’s a good check,” he said to me.  It was all too much.  I snapped.  “I know that!  Just call!”  Jittery was worrying a hole in his plastic bag.

Still staring at us over her glasses, Number One punched the speakerphone button with the end of her pencil, which she drew, excruciatingly slowly, from her pouffy hair.  She punched each number to Rose slowly slowly maddeningly slowly.  It was after five, but Rose, God bless you, Rose, Rose answered on the first ring.  She didn’t answer with the name of the credit union, nothing like that.  She just sighed, “Hello,” knowing what the call was going to be.  Number One recited the information on the check.  Rose’s response was crisp, irritated — she bit off every word, ready to be done with this particular brand of insanity: “That is a good check.” And she hung up.

Number One ended the call and stared at Jittery.  Number Two had never stopped staring at Jittery.  I turned and stared at Jittery.  I handed him the check that was a good check, the check that had always been a good check.  Jittery clutched his plastic bag tighter with one hand, but he took the very very good check with the other.  He looked back at us.  “This is a good check?” he asked us.  Number One’s voice was completely devoid of the exasperation her eyebrows betrayed as she pointed to the phone and said, “You heard the woman say it was a good check.”  Shoulders drooping, looking utterly stunned and completely defeated, Jittery slumped to the teller’s window and deposited the check.

Number One and Number Two and I exchanged looks that said, Can you believe…? and looks that said, Not at all, and looks that said, It takes all kinds.  But as I stood there, feeling the adrenaline drain, I realized that as hard as this part was, I still had to go get the car.  I still had to get it on the trailer.  I still had to get it back to Connecticut on the trailer.  It had to be inspected.  And then registered.

And then, if that all worked out, I still had to learn how to drive it.

Posted by: patti | July 26, 2010

How Not to Buy a Car, Part 1

When I moved to New Haven last summer, I did so assuming I would manage just fine without a car.  I was a city girl, more used to not having a car than having one, and I’d been without for eight or so years.  I had chosen New Haven specifically because it’s a compact, lively, walkable city.  I didn’t want the expense, the hassle, the responsibility of a car.

I underestimated the need to have a car in the Nutmeg State, however.  It was a long walk to the train station, not impossible, but long, and it got old fast.  I had a supermarket and most amenities within walking distance, but I was renting a car almost every weekend to visit my family or to do bigger errands or to just get out of my sweltering apartment.

The truth is, I was restless.  Looking back, I think I probably could have continued occasionally renting a car or joined ZipCar, but just as my need to move out of Inwood had grown and grown and grown and could not be ignored, my need for the independence and freedom of a car grew and grew and could not be ignored.

I found my car on the interwebnets.  Private sale, Volkswagen New Beetle, 2001, only 59K miles — that’s a baby for a Volkswagen — listed as “$5,500 but negotiable.”   There was just one detail — it was a manual transmission, which I did not know how to drive.  I’d tried to learn, many times, eons ago, but I had a kind of mental block about it and I’d run out of friends and family willing to sacrifice their transmission to teach me.

I decided I’d go for it anyway.  I emailed the guy, he emailed back.  I bought the CarFax report and emailed him a long list of questions based on what I found, and asked if I could arrange a pre-buy inspection.  He answered the questions as best he could, and explained that he was selling the car because he worked for the Chinese Consulate and was being transferred to Japan.  He was sorry, he didn’t have time for a pre-buy, he had to sell it now, and would I please come see it Friday and buy it for $4,200?

Hells yeah, I would.  I found a credit union, got a car loan for an insanely low rate, and took the train to meet him on East Thirty-First Street, right across from NYU Medical Center.  I had it all worked out — I’d go, see that it wasn’t a piece of junk, try to drive it without giving away that I’d only watched instructional videos on driving stick on the Internet and didn’t really know what I was doing, hand over the check, do the paperwork, get the title and keys.

I figured I would leave the car in the city with his plates, go back to Connecticut to get the temporary registration and new plates, watch more instructional videos, and return to the city and drive home.  Mee-meep.  Perfect.

Of course that’s not what happened.

The seller was a tall, thin, agitated Chinese man.  I found him twitching against the low wall outside the parking garage, clutching a plastic bag to his chest with one hand, flipping his phone open and closed with the other.   He was on the wall, off the wall, on the wall, feet and hands a blur of nervous energy.  His agitation made me calmer.

I had been worried that because I was a woman buying a car on my own, I was going to run into some problems.  And, oh, I ran into problems, but not because I was a woman on my own.  But, unexpectedly, Jittery was soft-spoken and gentle, and his English was hesitant but perfect.  He handed me the plastic bag — it contained the full documentation for the car, from user manuals to mechanical records — and disappeared into the parking garage to get the car.

It was not love at first sight, when I sat in the little black Beetle.  I’d learned in the paperwork that Jittery had only owned the car about a year; he had purchased it from a family in Brooklyn.  There was evidence of this family all over the inside of the car:  the glove box handle was broken, the bud vase was gone, the cup holders were missing or melted to unusable lumps (. . . I have no idea), most of the inside trim was all scratched and worn.  The center console was busted.  The automatic window switches had a tendency to stick.

But it was a little black Beetle, cute as can be, with a toy black Beetle glued to its dashboard, and the seats were comfy and all the problems were minor and truly cosmetic.  I looked at the engine for cracked hoses and belts (I’d read an article online about what to look for), checked for signs of oil leaks, and kicked the tires, but really, I was just delaying the inevitable.  Eventually, I would have to admit that I was going to grind his gears down to little nubs because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Lucky for me, Jittery was fascinated that I would buy a car I didn’t know how to drive, and he gave me a few pointers to get me started.  Literally, he had to get me started — I didn’t know, or forgot, that you have to hold the clutch down to start the car.  I drove around the block in first gear —  I realize now that First Avenue and Thirty-First Street on a Friday afternoon would not have let most people out of first gear — and stalled about a dozen times.  But the reading I had done and Jittery’s suggestions were starting to make sense, even though I had my own blur of nervous energy in my chest the whole time.

We pulled into the parking garage again — we switched once he realized there was no way I’d manage the ramps — and I handed him the check from the credit union.  Yes, the car was a cosmetic mess, yes, it might turn out to have mechanical issues I was too inexperienced to detect, and yes, yes, yes, I didn’t exactly know how to drive it, but it was a good, cheap car, and I had found it by myself and I was buying it.

Now, what I hadn’t counted on, other than Jittery’s nerves, was how the detail of his employment with the Chinese Consulate would affect the purchase of his car.  The car had plates issued by the State Department, which meant that the title was with the State Department, which meant he couldn’t fill out any paperwork, which meant my plan was not going to happen.

As disappointed I was to be returning to Connecticut without owning a car I couldn’t drive, Jittery was more nervous about the check I had showed him.  It was an official check from the credit union, but it wasn’t a bank check, and because he had been cheated in the past, he needed it to be cash or a “real” bank check.  I could not convince him that it was an official check.  And there was no way I was handing over the check without getting something in return.  And he had nothing to give me, anyway, because the title was with the State Department.  With this impasse, I headed back to Connecticut, Beetle-less and disappointed.

A week went by.  I researched the car some more, discovered that 2001 Beetles have some known problems, mostly electrical.  Everyone I spoke with insisted that this deal was obviously not meant to be, and that I should keep looking.  My dad kept suggesting that I look for a “nice Honda Civic.”  But I couldn’t let it go — where else was I going to find a great car for so little money?  And this disaster of a Beetle was my disaster of a Beetle.

Jittery had obviously decided that it was my Beetle, too, because he called me and said that he had turned in the plates to the State Department and was getting the title.  He wanted me to mail him the check so that he could cash it in advance and be certain that I wasn’t cheating him.  Instead, I gave him the name and number of the loan officer of the credit union, and he called her for assurances that no one was cheating him.   We agreed to meet on Friday at his bank, which was on First Avenue and Forty-Second Street.

Now I was faced with a new problem.  If I gave Jittery the check that Friday, I would take possession of a car that had no license plates and had to get from New York to Connecticut to be registered.  A car I didn’t know how to drive.

So I did the only logical thing to do in this situation.  I rented a pickup truck and a flatbed car trailer from U-Haul and drove it into midtown Manhattan on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day.  And I got my car.

Posted by: patti | July 11, 2010


I can tell you exactly when I made the decision to quit my job and move to California.

Plans to do so had already been in the works, but that did not mean I was decided.  Each step that moved me closer to the Golden State created an imbalance in me.  Thrilled one minute at the prospect of my new life, paralyzed by that very prospect the next.  The sheer magnitude of such a move, the financial logistics of it, my fragile emotional state because of the Librarian — every fiber of me, and every friend I confided in, told me to wait.  Told me too much change at once is a bad bad thing.  Told me I wasn’t thinking clearly.  Told me I was just running away, again, from all the things that hurt too much to face.

But California.  And a chance to write full time, or very nearly full time, and yes, of course I am running away, because, right now, I need a continent between me and the city that holds my heart.

The plans are as solid as they are ever going to be — I have a network of emotional support in place and freelance work arranged for the next nine months.  And here is the best part:  I will be taking care of a friend’s house because his work keeps him too far from home to maintain things properly.  I will take care of his house and garden and live nearly rent-free in Southern California.  This dear, dear friend, who I’ve known almost twenty years, is giving me the chance of my life, for so very little in return.

That is not entirely true, however.  He would like our relationship to be deeper, different, but I am not even close to considering such a thing.  He understands this, and understands that in patiently waiting for me to be ready, he runs the risk that I will never be ready.  In many strange and startling ways, this is the most honest relationship I’ve ever had with anyone, even the Librarian, which is very hard for me to admit.

The plans could not have been more solid.  Even so, fear and doubt ate at me.  I was making plans as if it was settled, but I had not really decided.  There seemed to be as many reasons not to do it as there were temptations to do it.

At the end of May, I flew to California.  My friend and I created a writing room for me in his house.  We put together a schedule for the coming months and finalized the details.  The plan was in place, and as plans go, it is pretty perfect.  I would finally quit my job. I would drive from Connecticut to California.  I would take care of a garden and do yoga and write full time and live in Southern California without incurring major debt.  I was happy.  I was excited.  I was scared, but in a good way.

But still, I wasn’t decided.  It took the airlines and a Chernobyl-sized meltdown to do that.

In addition being on the road something like fifty weeks a year, my friend is also a pilot.  He is an expert traveler; nothing the airline industry does can surprise or upset him.  I, on the other hand . . . not so much.

My flight home was canceled.  They notified me by text message that I had been rebooked on another flight, out of a different airport, the next day. It was extremely inconvenient, deeply frustrating, and just generally angry-making.  But the temper tantrum — there’s no other word for it — I threw at the airline rep and at my friend was completely out of proportion with the magnitude of the disruption.

I am ashamed of myself, remembering how I spoke to that woman on the phone.  She was just doing her job, which cannot be easy, what with having to deal with the recently unhinged like me.  She found me another flight home, with a layover in Salt Lake City.  Unfortunately, taking this flight gave me exactly forty minutes to shower, pack, and get to the airport, which is thirty-five minutes away.

In those forty minutes, my friend the Pilot saw the full-on banshee side of me.  I was angry at the Librarian, at the airline, at the choices I had to make, at the universe, at having to travel with dirty hair.  And I aimed that fire hose of misplaced anger and vitriol directly at the Pilot, whose only crime was actively, patiently, trying to make my dream come true.  It goes without saying that I am ashamed of this behavior as well.

I cried myself to sleep on the flight to Salt Lake City.  My meltdown and the stress of the new travel arrangements had worn me out, but so had the realization that this meltdown was just the latest in a growing pattern.  For months I had been having these types of outbursts, spectacular displays of impotent rage, usually directed at people just like that unfortunate airline rep, usually over the phone.  I was dangerously close to being defined by and ruled by the hot coal of anger that had replaced my heart.

When I landed in Salt Lake City, I woke to find something still and quiet had replaced the anger.  I called the Pilot and apologized.  I found tea, I wandered to the gate for my connecting flight.  And as I wandered, I began to notice things around me, little details I used to collect as a matter of course but had been unable to for I don’t know how long.  The tingle of bergamot under my tongue.  Yellow cap and blue sneakers on a little boy.  The click-tick click-tick click-tick of a luggage cart.  The stickiness of the smell that defines any food court with a Cinnabon and an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels.

But what I noticed most of all was the landscape outside the airport.  Much of SLC is floor-to-ceiling glass, so almost everywhere you walk, you can see Utah’s eerie beauty.  I had never seen anything like it.  I had never seen a place that was both flat and mountainous, that had muted colors giving way to vibrant ones, that was dry and wet, that was simple and magnificent.  I spent my layover in SLC with my nose almost literally pressed against the window, looking out at physical contradictions that painfully mirrored the contradictions lined up inside me.  I longed for this strange new world waiting to be discovered as much as I longed for the familiar old world I have lost.

And so I decided.  I decided I wanted to keep this calm, this peace.  I decided I want to see and do more things I’ve never done before.  I decided that sometimes too much change all at once is a good good thing, if they are the right changes.

So I’m doing it.  At the beginning of August, I am driving from Connecticut to California.  I have three weeks left on the East Coast, weeks that are busy with details and goodbyes and more decisions.  I am happy.  I am excited.  I cannot wait.

I have stories to tell.  Some of them are real, some of them are made up, but as best as I can, at the time of the telling, they will all be true.

Posted by: patti | May 12, 2010


Three years ago today, the Little Brother married the Little Sister-in-Law.  Their wedding was in St. Alban’s Church, a sweet pile of Episcopal stone on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

It’s sense memory that comes back to me when I think of their day:  the shocking red door on the pale stone church, the floral cotton dresses of the women, the fragrant spikes of lavender lining the paths between the church and the hall.  My grandmother’s cool hand in mine.  The Librarian’s hand in the damp small of my back.  The whisper of the bride’s dress.  The hot pressure of tears.

I cried during the homily — everyone did, or almost did, or pretended they didn’t.  Later on in the day, you could easily spot the ones who almost cried, and those who pretended they didn’t:  there is only so much emotion you can hold in.  It doesn’t matter if it’s happiness or sadness you’re holding in, if you hold it in too long, you come apart at the seams.

But these were not sad tears, not at all.  The Little Sis-in-Law was visibly pregnant, beaming, glowing, and the Little Brother’s smile was so big, Disney bluebirds were getting caught and trapped in his dimples.  The LSIL’s mother conducted the ceremony.  I need to repeat that:  the officiating priest was the bride’s mother.  Sarabeth, who is one of my favorite people, ever, radiated love.   She could not wait to meet her granddaughter.  She spoke of family, of patience, of love, of acceptance.  I cried because those are the only gifts I’ve ever wanted for my little brother, and because I knew my little niece, who I also couldn’t wait to meet, would also know those gifts.

And then there was the heat.  Oh my God, the heat.  If you know the District in early May, you can guess the weather forecast for their wedding:  humid with a chance of swampy.  And there was no air conditioning, or it was broken, or it really doesn’t matter because oh my GOD the heat.  An AA meeting was assembled somewhere else in the same hall, either downstairs or in a side room, and they systematically appropriated every fan that had been set up for the wedding reception.

There was a thunderstorm.  My aunt and my mother had a fight that they are only just now, three years later, recovering from.  There was food, and drink, and family, and dancing, and there was singing — singing!  Family, singing! At a Varol wedding!  Ok, ok, the Varols watched, we didn’t sing.  But we were there, and we were smiling.  That counts.

And then a strange thing, strange to Varols, anyway, a strange thing started happening.  The LSIL’s stepfather gave a toast.  And then the Maid of Honor gave a toast.  And then the Best Man gave a toast.  And then a cousin of LSIL gave a toast.  And then another cousin — guests were randomly, as the spirit or spirits moved them, picking up the mike and letting everyone know how much they loved the LSIL and the LB.   Somewhere in there was the thunderstorm, and more dancing, and the fight, and the Varols thinned out, but the Varols left didn’t know what to do.

I turned to the Librarian and said, “I should go up there. I should say something,” the speech already half-forming in my mind.  The Librarian shook his head: “No, your family has made enough of a scene here tonight.”  And so I didn’t take the mike from Lisa’s stepfather, who was making his third delightful speech, and I stayed to the side, sweating, waiting for the dancing to resume.

When we got back to the hotel, I wrote out the speech that had started to take shape when I was tempted to pick up the mike.  I regret, deeply, that no one from our family gave a toast that night.  I hate that I didn’t tell the Librarian, “Fuck you for thinking I’d make a scene.”   I wish, not only do I wish I had given this speech that night, but I also wish I had not let three years go by before I let Stephen and Lisa know how much I love them, and how close I felt to them on that happy, happy night.

Here is the speech, exactly as I found it in my journal, three years late, but no less true:

We Varols, we’re a Northern people.  We like to think of ourselves as tough New Yorkers, and we are, certainly, but really, maybe, not so much:  we know humidity maybe a month a year.  We’re dropping like the toughest of flies out there, but don’t take it personally, and please, don’t comment on it.  We’ll just say we’re fine, really.

I’m raising a glass to you, before the sweat slips it right out of my grip, to say I love you.  Stephen, it took us a long time to discover that we had more in common than parents and memories.  We were close when we were very little, but we grew apart and had to learn to be friends.  It has always astonished me how fiercely loyal you have always, always been to me, even when I was too self-absorbed to see that you were the only one who was looking out for me.

Lisa, you and I are only just getting to know each other, but I already know I love you, because I can see how happy you make him.  You bring out something in Stephen, the part of him that I treasure, that playfulness, that joy.  You manage — I’ve never known anyone who could do this so completely for him — you manage to encourage him in all of his whimsy and creativity, you inspire him and push him to be better, to do better, to reach, while all along, you love and accept all that he is, right now.

I can’t offer anything in the way of advice about The Kid.  I can’t wait to meet her, because I know she will be as beautiful and as smart and as funny and as loved as you are.  What I can offer you in the way of advice has to do with the everyday choice that is marriage.  Humor goes a long way.  Be kind to each other.  Be strong.  Expect the best, and always be your best self.  Be yourself.  Trust.  And be fiercely loyal.

I love you.

Engagement photo

Posted by: patti | May 4, 2010


It was humid in New York yesterday, with the heaviness you expect in July or August, not the first weekend in May.  I spent Sunday and Monday on the Upper East Side, haunting the places the Librarian and I once called our own.  By the time the rain started late Monday morning, rain that did nothing but add to the oppressiveness, I still had not encountered anyone I recognized from our six years living there.  Not a single waitress, bartender, or bookseller was familiar.  In spite of this, and in spite of the Second Avenue subway construction, the East 80s are maddeningly, eerily the same.  Nothing, and everything, has changed.

I could have taken this as a bad sign.  I could have taken the weather as a bad sign. I also could have taken the whole day, the whole visit to the Upper East Side, as a good sign, as a talisman against what was to come Monday night.  Instead, I just took it as comfort, something to ease the last months of anger and hurt and damage. I’m learning, slowly, how to be, one moment at a time.

But I believed, I realize now, right up until we left the mediator’s office with our signed and initialed documents, I believed the Librarian was going to say, “No, wait, stop.  This is crazy.  We can’t do this.”

Instead, we signed the divorce papers.

The mediator had made a lot of mistakes with our separation agreement — everything from misspelling my name to sending us documents that belonged to another couple to calling me Monday morning to say they’d filed everything wrong and we had to wait another two weeks.  (This declaration was also incorrect.) Before and after each appointment, the Librarian and I would sit and talk, and usually,  drink, and we would inevitably joke about how we were hiring a man to do paperwork for us, and paperwork was the one thing he couldn’t get right.  And because neither of us really wants this to end at all, let alone this way, we put the process on hold half a dozen times.

He was my partner, my best friend, my lover, for sixteen years.  He will always be a part of me.  I am having a very hard time letting go, and an even harder time understanding how it turned out this way.  I’ve had plenty of time to prepare, months and months of evidence that my marriage has been over, but I am walking around in a state of shock that can only be associated with a new, fresh, deep loss.

The mediator is a semi-retired lawyer, author of a handful of terribly written but informative books on how to get divorced with a mediator, and he is quite deaf.  The Librarian and I had to shout our personal information at him; we had to endure rambling speeches on New York State divorce law.  We made each other laugh, trading jokes the mediator couldn’t hear.

There was no joking yesterday, no private, gentle smiles.  Every time I looked at the Librarian, I saw again how thin he is now, how much older he seems, and I would start to cry.  His eyes were sunken and red-rimmed, too.  There were opportunities to make jokes, to ease the tension, but I let them pass.  And as we flipped pages, initialing and signing the most ridiculous documents I’ve ever seen in my life, I kept waiting for him to stop, to put his pen down and touch my hand.

He did not.  The mediator reached to take the petition back from me, thinking I had already signed it, because I had signed everything quickly until I hit this document, but I had not signed it.  I had realized that this was my last chance.  I could refuse to sign it.   I could beg him, again, to reconsider.

I did not.  I couldn’t bear hearing him say no, or worse, nothing at all.  It’s his silence that has hurt me the most these last awful months, his inability to express what he wants.  His inability to choose me.

We left the office together, and he walked me to Grand Central.  I started crying before we got to the end of the block, and he couldn’t look at me.  I wanted to take his hand, slip my fingers into his where they belong, where they fit perfectly, but I did not.

We walked in silence. A cab passed us, and I commented on its roof ad: “I have a hard time believing that the world needs another Robin Hood movie.”  I said it slowly, and he probably thought I was going to say something else altogether.  He laughed with sudden relief, and we bantered the rest of the way to the station about Russell Crowe, old Bell telephones, and pool cues. We have our own particular dialect, the Librarian and I, like Esperanto, or some language twins teach each other, and oh, I miss the daily joy of it.

At the clock in GCT, he held his arms to ask for a hug, and as my forehead touched his chest, I sobbed, “I’m afraid I’ll never let go.”  And I stepped back and away from him, to stop myself from holding on to his shirt, gathering the material in my fingers, clutching.  He was crying, too, and we both found we couldn’t look at each other and hold it together.  “I never really thought we’d do this,” I said, and he couldn’t answer me, couldn’t look at me.  We wished each other a safe ride home.  I don’t know how I found my train.  I’ve been numb and almost catatonic since the clock.

We’ve made a mess of things, a terrible, terrible mess of things, the Librarian and I.  I moved out last summer because I did not know who I was or what I wanted, and we’d been together too long for me to know my own voice.  He gave me that time to figure it out, a gift that was as hard for me to accept as it was for him to give.

The problem is, I discovered that who I am is the Librarian’s wife, and by the time I knew that for certain, he had moved on without me.  It sounds very simple, and in a lot of ways it is that simple, but it’s also a lot more than this.  And I’m afraid I will never understand, and I am desperately afraid I am going to spend the rest of my life waiting for my Terence to come home to me.

I know I can’t do that.   I also know that I won’t do that, that I will move on and grow and write, the best I can.  But, oh.  I am so, so afraid.

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