To Judge Him by His Car Would Be, Uh, Krazy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't have to be ashamed of the car I drive I'm just glad to be here, happy to be alive. . . . --The Traveling Wilburys

Unlike many people in this city, I do not define myself by my car. I certainly define others by their cars, though. People who drive Lexuses and Range Rovers and Mercedeses, I believe, are almost guaranteed to be arrogant, insufferable phonies and bores (foregone conclusion if they have vanity plates).

If I were to define myself by my car, however, the following categories would come immediately to mind: loser, starving artist, creep, loony, scuzbag or habitual purse snatcher. Well, I've not yet snatched a purse, and my attempts at painting are about on par with chimpanzee art. So that leaves loser, creep, loony, scuzbag.

I'm sure there are people who would gleefully put me into any of these categories, but I assure you, I'm not among them. I think I'm essentially well-meaning, and I pay my taxes. You'd never guess it, though, to judge me by my automobile.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet "Rip's Krazy Kar."

It travels as fast as 55 m.p.h. without shimmying. It has tires from four separate makers (they recently all became the same size--quite by coincidence). Shocks and struts are fond dreams. The front bumper is twisted into a kind of demented, crooked smile. There is no rearview mirror. The doors grudgingly open; one window does not roll up; only the driver's-side lock responds agreeably to keys. The steering wheel is worn through completely to its plastic bone in the place where I rest my hand (that's some potent body oil I emit). The odometer is approaching 167,000.

A friend dubbed it Krazy Kar after the wacky old cartoon, "Krazy Kat," I believe. Another friend calls it the "ratmobile," but I find that a bit harsh. You get the idea.

I bought the vehicle--it's a 1980 VW Rabbit, if it matters--from my brother in 1983. I scrubbed the interior, bought new tires and clutch, had it repainted. Due mostly to the spastic income of a free-lance writer, those were pretty much the last modifications I made until this year. I've been towed about six times in the last 10 months. Once an emergency-tow operator declared, "Oh, Rip, right? I remember you."

One of my most spectacular recent breakdowns occurred when I downshifted. By that, I mean the whole gearshift went straight down, right through the bottom of the car, and fell out. I had a friend's private mechanic replace it with a junkyard shift, but it turned out to be from a different model year. Now, as a result, first gear and reverse are practically indistinguishable. It's 50-50, when I'm shifting into first, that I'll get reverse instead, and start going backward. I find that this really entertains people waiting right behind me at stoplights.

There are endless other Krazy Kar idiosyncrasies. The wing windows, for instance, are sealed with many layers of duct tape, which occasionally peel loose and make a colorful flapping noise when I drive fast. The demise of those windows, incidentally, is a typical Krazy Kar tale. I had pumped my gas, only to find that I had accidentally locked the keys inside. Instead of loaning me a coat hanger so I could break in, the station attendants phoned a tow truck and threatened to take my car away. When I protested angrily, they just forced the wing windows open, breaking the locks. I didn't think it was worth Small Claims Court, and settled for tape.

Sometimes, when the Krazy Kar and I poke around the city, backfiring like a .357 magnum, I remember the first day I drove it home. A usually standoffish neighbor whose stated goal in life was to drive a black VW Cabriolet convertible declared, "Well, good for you!" The remark astonished me. She was offering congratulations, apparently. Perhaps she felt I had ascended to a higher realm of worth because I had sold my previous car--a mint, low-mileage, 1966 four-door green Rambler Classic, which I had practically donated to some Vietnamese refugees. (One of the great mistakes of my life, it was a great car.)

I admit that the Krazy Kar can make hectic, high-pressure, glamorous L.A. life more problematic. Accomplishing simple errands or keeping important appointments can become an adventure. Last year, a hotshot magazine editor invited me to lunch. I was only too happy to go, but the Krazy Kar refused. I rescheduled the lunch, then rescheduled again when car repairs dragged on. The editor then rescheduled me into oblivion. (I was later told by a friend at the magazine, "You just don't reschedule those things!" Oh, gee golly gosh oh my, I thought, darn that nasty Krazy Kar. )

It seems that the Krazy Kar remains crazy even without me. Once, when I was away for several months, I rented it (and the Krazy Apartment--that's another story) to a friend. When I returned to claim it, the car was nowhere to be found. A note from my friend explained that it was parked at a nearby market, for reasons unclear. Well, I found it there all right--brimming with discarded horse-racing forms, cigar ashes, soft drink cans--with the rear end newly bashed in. I left it unrepaired; the vehicle looked like it had been kicked in the behind--a rather good metaphor for life, I thought.

About a year ago, I gave up all pretense of cosmetic upkeep and just let the birds have their way with the Krazy Kar. This might seem hard to believe, but their deposits actually came to look decorative--in an abstract Expressionist kind of way. It was a sort of vehicular artslaughter-- make-over by nature. To give you an idea of how extreme the effect was, no one bothered to write "Wash me" with their fingers in the dust on the rear window. Perhaps they feared disease.

Oddly, this camouflage seemed to give me greater protection. Certainly, it put me on the bottom tier for potential carjacking. Also, where I had long been regarded with scorn by people with tinted windows and cellular phones, some now seemed to just steer a wide berth around the Krazy Kar. Instead of flashing brights at me, or honking, or giving me the finger for chugging too slowly up the steep grade in the Sepulveda pass, I could almost see them thinking, "Uh-oh, better just drive around that thing." Some drivers gave me sidelong glances of curiosity and fear. I liked to show them my teeth in return.

My very favorite Krazy Kar anecdote occurred a couple months ago on Sepulveda Boulevard, in the pass from the Westside to the Valley. The Kar had taken to mysteriously dying without warning. It would restart, sometimes instantly, sometimes after 15 minutes. It was late afternoon when the Krazy Kar quit right at the top of a hill.

I sat there, waiting for it to restart. Cars coming up the hill behind me at high speed were having trouble spotting me in time. One by one, they whooshed by at the last second. This was downright exciting! Then a fabulous-looking black convertible of some exotic ilk appeared behind, just as the Krazy Kar decided to cough to a start. The black car wanted to turn right, and couldn't decide whether to wait for me to move, or just zip around. Politely, I waved the car around. The driver passed oh-so-carefully by, regarding the Krazy Kar suspiciously, like perhaps he was going to be shot by the Krazy Driver. We made brief eye contact. Then it hit me. The driver was Fred Savage. Right. "The Wonder Years" kid--all grown up.

Well, I had interviewed Fred a few years earlier for a magazine, and we'd hit it off pretty well. So I yelled, "Hey Fred, it's me, Rip!" and he turned around, smiling and waving. There I was. Passed by a fabulously successful and wealthy young actor in a hot car. I had waved him around, no less. The symbolism was punishing.

Well, the Krazy Kar has been nickel and diming me too much lately, so I've decided to stop making repairs. I have vowed to, when it finally dies, purchase a vehicle more befitting my character. In the future, when people in this hard town judge me by my automobile, at least they will reach a more accurate conclusion.

Anybody got a mint 1966 four-door green Rambler Classic for sale?

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