A Turn For the Worse, or Fickle Fate at Work?

Saturday night was one of those occasions that left me wondering whether the universe is a moral place. It was a night to wonder whether God, if there is a God, has a grand design, or whether He (or She or It) just leaves it all to chance and has a good laugh.

As I sat there in my car in the intersection, as I listened to the screeeeeech and the crunch and then sadly inspected the damage, I was left to wonder what I had done to deserve this fate. Was it a punishment for a major sin, a portfolio of infractions or simply an ill-advised U-turn? What is the lesson I’m supposed to learn?

Whatever. Let the record show that nobody was hurt. Let it also show that I was the crunchee, not the cruncher, which may not be the same as saying I am an innocent little lamb.

Truth is, the question of fault doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that I wasn’t driving my ratty, old ’86 Mustang with the busted radio, the missing hubcaps and the L-shaped scar in the vinyl top left by a burglar. Just last month, a dealer offered me $1,500 for it as a trade-in and for the first time in my life, I spent more than $9,600 on some wheels--a lot more, in fact.


Nope, I was driving my ’95 Nissan Maxima, just five weeks off the lot, so new that the license plates had arrived in the mail that day. Now my $25,000-plus purchase in moon-roofed black emerald has a smashed left fender, just ahead of the front wheel.

So I couldn’t help but think that the cosmos had punished me for this purchase.

You see, this was a car I’d long coveted but, until recently, had considered too rich for my cheapskate soul. For years I had balked at spending anything close to such a sum on a car. Indeed, I had long questioned the wisdom of buying new instead of used.

But last month, something changed. For one thing, with 108,000 hard miles on the odometer, my Mustang seemed ready to explode. For another thing, I had a birthday.

Still, I had to give myself the hard sell.

“Scott,” I said, “you’re doing a lot of driving these days. You need a good, comfortable, safe car--like Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year!

“Yes, 25 grand is serious money. But look at it this way: Your Mustang, a truly lousy car, survived nine years on the road. Surely Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year will last as long. Divide $25,000 by nine and your annual cost is less than $3,000 per year! That’s not so bad, is it?

“Besides, it’s your birthday! Buy yourself a present. Why, next year you’ll be 40. Don’t you think it’s about time to grow up and get rid of that toy? You need something with four doors and twin air bags. And who knows--someday you may need to put a child-safety seat back there. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

So, you see, it wasn’t purely an act of self-indulgence. I was also thinking about the safety of the wife I’ve yet to marry and the children we’ve yet to bring into the world. Others may scoff at my rationale, but God, if there is a God, would understand. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I wasn’t being punished for buying the car.

Now, I wouldn’t dare try to list all my sins. Some are none of your business. But that night, as I drearily drove home in my banged-up car, the sin of sloth came to mind.

I should have stayed home and done some chores. Tentative social plans had come to naught. There was a stack of dishes in the sink and a couple loads of laundry to wash. There was grocery shopping to do and Killer, my cat, needed a flea bath.

So I visited my neighborhood Lucky and then thought I’d catch a 10:15 p.m. showing of “Casino.”

En route I suddenly felt like I didn’t want to sit through a three-hour movie. So I turned off the main road into a residential neighborhood. At the intersection, the coast was clear. Preparing a U-turn, I turned to the right, then back to the left, appreciating my new machine’s turning radius.

Well, the coast wasn’t clear. Another car was coming up behind me. I braked, and came to a stop halfway into the intersection. Then came those brief moments that pass in slow motion. I didn’t think there would be a collision. Surely the driver would see me and swerve, avoiding me altogether. Just three feet to the left and there’s no contact.

Instead, there was the screeeeeech and the crunch.

“I wasn’t even going that fast,” the driver of the ’87 VW Jetta told me later.

Seemed like a nice guy. He didn’t brandish a gun and he did have insurance. Our encounter was as amicable as can be expected. He even expressed condolence over the condition of my new car.

A minute after impact, a woman in a blue jogging suit approached. “Off-duty LAPD,” she said in the clipped tones of Sgt. Joe Friday. “Anybody hurt?” No, nobody was hurt. And a minute after she left, a patrol car came by. The officer helped us exchange the necessary info and concluded that we didn’t need to file a police report.

On the way home it occurred to me that, cosmically speaking, the only reason I’d gone out for a drive was to wind up in an accident. I was feeling more annoyed than penitent.

I did the laundry. That didn’t make me feel much better. Then I moved dishes out of the sink and drew a flea bath.

Killer knew what I had in mind. I flushed him out from under the bed with a broomstick. Then he hid under the dresser and dashed behind the sofa. I stalked him from room to room.

Finally I had Killer cornered. To his right was an easy chair he could squeeze behind. To his left was the shelter of the sofa, my briefcase leaning beside it.

I tossed the briefcase to Killer’s left. He ran right into my trap.

He hates flea baths. He whines and fights and absolutely hates it.

But it made me feel a little better, just knowing there was someone in my house more miserable than me.

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: