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In a dirty, beat-up van, it's a matter of respect


He lived on the way, so I offered the friend a lift home. When we got to the parking lot, he stopped and stared at my minivan. Then he walked around it, a look of distaste coming over his face.

"How old is this thing?" he said.

"About two years? Why?"

He shook his head. "When was the last time you had it washed?"

I had to think for a moment. "Probably in March. Or maybe it was February."

"You haven't had it washed in six or seven months?"

"That's not entirely accurate. I regularly clean the windows inside and out. Need good visibility for safe driving. And at least once a month I scoop up the empty plastic coffee cups and throw them out."

He put a finger on the car and made a sound, something like "Uchh. The grime feels like it's an inch thick."

"Actually, it isn't that bad because of all the rain we've had. One more good thunderstorm and you'll be able to see what color it is. Blue, if you're interested."

He grimaced. "You know what kind of car this is? It's the kind that kids draw the words 'wash me' on."

We got in and in a disgusted voice he said: "Look, my hand got dirty just opening the car door."

"Sorry, I forgot to wipe off the handle on that side. I keep my handle clean."

His distaste growing, he said: "I don't understand this. It's a nice car. Or it could be. But it's filthy, you're missing two hubcaps, and there's a crease in the side."

"Yes, that crease. Somebody sideswiped it while it was parked on the street."

"Then why the heck don't you get it washed and have the dent taken out?"

So I explained. "If I had it washed and the crease removed and the hubcaps replaced, it would be just another middle-class, middle-priced American minivan. And I would not get any respect. But the way it is now, I get lots of respect."

"Respect?" he said. "What kind of respect do you get for a filthy car?"

"Watch," I said. "I'm going to change lanes."

When I did, a gleaming black Lexus dropped back, making room for me.

"See? Respect. Or at the very least, fear. There he is, in his $40,000 status symbol. But when he sees me, do you know what he thinks? He becomes terrified and thinks: 'There goes some illiterate slob who wouldn't give a second thought to having a fender bender with me. And he probably doesn't even have insurance.' Yes, that's what he thinks. That's what they all think, the hot-rodding young women in their little sports cars, the cigar chompers in the Lincolns and Caddies, the pork-belly traders in their Infinities and Lexuses. Fear, which in our society translates into respect. Watch this."

Once again, I changed lanes. And a shiny gray Lincoln Town Car seemed to flee in terror.

"See? When I merge onto an expressway, no matter how crowded it is, they make room. I think some of them are afraid that besides a dented fender, they'll contract some incurable infection. Especially when I wear the hat."

"What hat?" my friend asked.

I reached down and got it, a beat-up old cap, the kind house-painters wear.

"This is the final touch," I said, slapping it on my head backwards. "Now I look like a self-employed handyman, or part-time furniture mover, possibly a recent arrival from the Ozarks. I had it on the other day when a lane-hopping young woman in a red sports car persisted in trying to squeeze in front of me. When she glanced over, I let my tongue hang out and kind of leered. She not only decided to stay in her own lane, she got off at the next exit ramp.

"Or when I'm at a red light, and some swell in his BMW pulls up on my right and thinks he is going to zip ahead of me when the light changes. So I goose it and he has visions of his 12 coats of Bavarian paint rubbing up against my 12 coats of bird droppings. I have yet to see one call the bluff."

We arrived at my friend's building and he got out. Just then, one of his neighbors appeared. The neighbor gaped at my car. My friend looked embarrassed. So I rolled the window down and yelled:

"Remember, try the plunger. If that don't make it flush right, I'll come by and tear the dang thing apart. See you later, cousin."

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