Car trouble

For somebody who works at a—and I don't mean as a Kozmo delivery guy—my ignorance of technology is astonishing. I have friends who are poised to run the world via their Palm Pilots, yet I still prefer scribbling phone numbers on Post-Its rather than embarrassing myself trying to program them into my Nokia.

Recently, I've been consumed by a mounting sense of impending doom. In an alternate dimension, a disgruntled 8-year-old is playing with an action figure fashioned in my likeness, and he's about to decapitate it with a hacksaw and let the family dog use my head for a chew toy.

Part of this anxiety stems from my new job. Every time someone pops by with a question and I can't remember which program hidden in one of half-a-dozen minimized windows holds the key to the answer, I start popping them open at random like a crazed Whack-A-Mole player and spend the rest of the day dreading a "see me later" e-mail from the boss.

But the main culprit is my car.

I drive a 1995 Toyota Tercel, selected because of their notorious reliability. But lately, even that sterling track record isn't enough to assuage my certainty that one day, very soon, my unassuming little vehicle is going to burst into flames as I'm navigating rush hour traffic on 99.

My tense relationship with my car, like all machines, stems from utter ignorance of its inner workings. Not that I ever tried to understand. Much as I fantasize about grease monkeys now, the boys in high school auto shop were definitely off-limits. And my Dad's idea of teaching me the subtleties of driving a stick shift was simply to hijack the automatic I drove for a business trip one day, leaving me no recourse for getting to my after-school job except to strip the gears on his five-speed VW.

I postponed buying my first car until I was 31, and I only did so then because I'd grown exhausted with piling my record crates into a taxi whenever I had to DJ. My little Tercel led a pampered existence for the first few years, rarely leaving the driveway. But then I stopped working from home and took a job that required a commute. And my car started acting fussy about the daily grind.

It hasn't dealt me any unexpected blows yet. But automobiles, like our bodies, are always waiting to betray us. And they're certainly capable of passive-aggressive behavior. So when mine began making unusual noises a few weeks ago—right about the time I told my boss I was glad I'd accepted the position—I renewed my AAA membership.

I first noticed the faint popping sound, like I'd parked over a bowl of Rice Krispies, whenever I turned off the ignition. I tried to show my car I cared by getting an overdue oil change and a new air filter. No dice. Then the crackling started to become audible while I was driving, albeit very faintly and only when I'd pass through a tunnel or anything that created an echo and had the windows down and the radio off.

Then, just the other day, while crossing the Fremont Bridge, "the sound" grew a little louder, like one of those wind-up Godzilla toys that shoots sparks from its mouth. I braced myself for billows of smoke that would surely start pouring from the hood any instant, my knuckles white with fear as I scanned the shoulder for places to pull over the whole way home.

My car has been sitting happily in its parking space ever since, save for a pair of DJ gigs, before both of which I gently stroked the hood of my disgruntled chariot and assured it that if it would just get me to the venue and back safely, I'd take it to the mechanic as soon as they'd schedule an appointment.

In the interim, I've been taking the bus to work and enjoying it. Not only are there far more cute, sleepy-eyed boys on the No. 26 than I've ever seen in my car, but I can listen to music without mistaking every snare drum crack for an axle snapping. Which has given me a chance to spend many mornings becoming intimately acquainted with the appropriately titled Excuses for Travellers, the forthcoming CD (on 4AD) from low-key, country-tinged UK quintet Mojave 3. Very soothing for jangled nerves. I'm especially smitten with the hazy "My Life in Art," so much so that I'm looking forward to figuring out how to play it on my new guitar.

Didn't I mention the guitar? How after 30-odd years of being intimidated by my utter ignorance of those, too, I finally purchased one? Well, that's a tale for next week. . . .

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