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Fun new toy, or 4-wheeled window into the psyche?

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


It is not true that cars are symbolically important only to men.

Take my own case. First there was the secondhand Beetle that needed a new engine. Then came a stretch of years when I was living in a big city in the Northeast and didn't need a car. I used public transit.

That was out of the question once I got to Florida. My first car here was something called a Renault Alliance. It was so sorry that the manufacturers quit making them after a few years. Then I bought a Ford Escort. I gave up on it after the brakes failed one day and I spun out of control on the interstate. After my brush with death, I started thinking about tanks. So I bought a Volvo. It was secondhand, but it was still a Volvo.

So you see my life's trend in the car department. My vehicle of choice was either cheap, a lemon, or used. I was not intentionally tight-fisted. I've had one of those realizations that come with the eye-opening insights common in middle age. I see now that when it came to cars, I didn't think all those years that I was deserving of something better.

Armed with this insight, I started thinking about cars. The Volvo was 12 years old. It had six-figure mileage on the engine, and recently a four-figure bill for repairs and a trail of a small child's debris -- old sticky candy, broken crayons, wrinkled pages of artwork -- in the back seat. It was time. I bought a car.

Secretly I wanted a sports car, but they don't mix with small children. I settled on a Honda. It was roomy and champagne colored, with a sound system to die for, and full of that new car smell that could have been, given the way I was feeling, a whiff of Chanel.

It must have been the state I was in. Thrilled but anxious. On my way out of the dealer's parking lot, I backed up and struck the rear bumper of my old Volvo.

The salesman, a pleasant guy who did not at all fit the aggressive stereotype, came running over. He was trying to make me feel better. He said no damage had been done.

I checked once I got home. The back bumper showed an infinitesimal ding, a paint bubble big as a pin prick.

It this column were literature, which Lord knows it is not, we would call what happened in the car lot a foreshadowing, a hint of what was to come.

For a week later, while pulling out of a doctor's office, I smacked the Honda into the rear of a van that was parked quite correctly behind me. Respectable damage was done to both cars.

My victim was far kinder than I would have been. I apologized to her profusely. I called the insurance company.

Then my overly analytical mind clicked into gear.

I told myself not to get too serious about this. Except for the money, the car is only a package of metal, rubber and a tank full of fuel.

But still -- there's something precious about a new car. The first thing I did when I got home the day I bought it (after finding that pinprick of a bump) was to spray the spotless upholstery with Scotchgard. I made vows to heaven. There'll be no coffee stains on these seats, by God. And no child of mine will ride on these fabulous four wheels while eating an ice cream cone.

And there's something about me. It's like I said in the beginning, about believing all those years that I was undeserving. That Honda is a very nice thing. Maybe I banged the car because I didn't think I deserved it. Maybe I was so scared that I had to damage it before somebody else, some errant driver on Kennedy Boulevard, say, got the chance.

Or perhaps I am just having really bad luck.

The car salesman had asked me to call and tell him how I was liking the car. So I called him after the second collision. He was sorry to hear what happened, he said. Then he reminded me that events tend to come in clusters of three.

He was trying to be helpful.

I can hardly wait.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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