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Ben Shaberman

Unavoidable Bumps — and Bumpers — in the Road

January 21st, 2008 by Ben

Unavoidable Bumps — and Bumpers — in the Road
The Washington Post
By Ben A. Shaberman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 21, 2008; C10

Nothing says you’re pathetic quite like losing your bumper in the middle of traffic — except maybe the act of retrieving said bumper in front of an audience sitting comfortably in their shiny SUVs and late-model sports cars.

I lost my bumper after hitting the edge of a curb. I heard a loud clank but figured it was just the jack bouncing around in the trunk. Imagine my surprise when I saw my unattached bumper in the rearview mirror. By then, I was beginning to cross a bridge — a very unsafe place to stop. Once over the span, I pulled off and hustled back on foot to claim my car’s posterior appendage.

Fortunately, some good Samaritan had moved the bumper out of the traffic and onto the sidewalk, a doubly good deed because the road gunk covering the old hunk of rubber and metal was surely toxic.

As I began my Walk of Shame — trudging back over the bridge with bumper in hand — I wondered if it was time to give up on my 1989 Volvo 240. It had racked up more than 225,000 miles and the average Vespa has a higher book value, but like many ancient Volvo 240s, it still ran great. And, investing in a new car would reduce the amount of money I could put toward retirement. Not that I’m close to retiring, but what with Social Security sinking and the cost of everything else skyrocketing, I estimate that to maintain my modest standard of living in retirement, I’ll need roughly $9 million in my 401(k) — more if my vegan diet translates into longevity.

What also came to mind during that five-minute trek with my detachable bumper was how much I had grown to dislike our automobile-driven society. I began imagining what it would be like if we all drove SmartCars, or hybrids, or just any vehicle that got a minimum of 40 miles per gallon. What if we took the savings from fewer trips to the pump, smaller car payments and fewer pollution-caused illnesses and invested it in education for our kids, or health care for the elderly and underserved, or a $9 million retirement fund for me?

By the time I got back to the Volvo, I was feeling pretty good about my frugal choice of transportation. Sure the old car wasn’t perfect — I wish it got better than 25 miles per gallon — but many cars out there are more wasteful. My Walk of Shame had become a Walk of Hope. I found myself humming “We’ve Only Just Begun.”And so it seemed. My trusty independent mechanic, Han, was able to hook me up with a used, i.e. recycled, bumper from a junkyard for $150. I hoped to take my Volvo to 300,000 miles and beyond.

At the 235,000-mile mark, I learned a new automotive lesson:Losing a bumper isn’t nearly as pathetic as having your car catch on fire in front of your place of employment at the height of evening rush hour.

The first hint of trouble was when the car stalled as I was leaving my office parking lot. It started right back up but made it only a few yards before conking out again.

The second hint of trouble was the plume of smoke coming from under the hood.I made a hurried search for any valuable items, got out of the Volvo and, standing in the cloud of smoke, directed traffic around my burning car. The police and fire department came. My co-workers — Angie, Mitsy, Linda and Dorie — came driving by on their way home for the evening. I’m not sure what proper car-fire etiquette is, but they were all very willing to give me a ride or help in any way they could.

Frankly, this was the most excitement I’d had since someone brought a dish made with chicken stock to a vegan potluck.

I must admit, I was hoping to see my car burst into flames. I’m not an arsonist nor do I seek out mass destruction, but I am a guy and even we compassionate men have a bit of pyromaniac tucked away in the recesses of our crowded minds.

Alas, there was no explosive drama, though there was significant damage under the hood, and the car was later deemed totaled. I got $751 from my insurance company — not quite enough to buy a new hybrid but a respectable sum nonetheless.

About a week after The Great Fire, I paid a visit to the junkyard to claim a few items from the car trunk — snow shovel, boots, portable radio. I was sad to see my old Volvo in a muddy field among piles of twisted and rusting car frames. This really was the end of the road.I take consolation in the fact that the Volvo outlasted three computers, three careers and four relationships. And maybe a bumper or wheel will live on as a replacement part for another 240. With the huge cost of retirement, used auto parts just might be my legacy.

Posted in The Washington Post

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