Scratching the surface of minivan life


A FEW months ago, after the transmission on our '87 Subaru station wagon dropped out and scattered across the driveway like a bag of Skittles, my wife and I bought a new car.

Originally we were looking at minivans, which, of course, you're required by law to buy if you have three kids.

Instead we ended up buying a Ford station wagon that has all the sex appeal of a Big Wheel.

The first time I got behind the wheel, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and thought: My God, I've turned into Dagwood Bumstead.

It was a chilling notion, but my wife liked the car. So we decided to ignore the fact that if the front air bags ever inflated, they would fly back at a reported 200 miles an hour and rip a hole in your sternum the size of a bowling ball.

Anyway, whenever we buy a new car, my wife and I play this little game called: Who's Going To Put The First Scratch In The New Car?

This allows the person who DIDN'T cause the first scratch to claim to be the superior driver, and to lord it over the other person for many weeks.

Fun? Oh, you have no idea. But to tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about playing the game. Because, driving-wise, I've sort of been on a bad streak lately.

Not too long ago, I test-drove a new $250,000 Lamborghini Diablo VT for a magazine story and actually managed to scratch that baby.

The Lamborghini dealer was very understanding. I'm sure he wanted to summon his entire service staff, hand them each a tire iron and say: "Beat him to a bloody pulp."

But all he said was: "You have insurance, right?" Then, face drained of color, he walked slowly back into his office and put his head down on his desk and stayed in this position for several minutes.

Anyway, getting back to the new station wagon, for three months it remained scratch-free, which made our marriage incredibly boring.

It got to the point where, if we pulled into a parking lot and my wife was driving, I'd say a silent prayer: Please let her sideswipe that Honda Civic over there. Nothing major, just a little gash on the driver's-side door.

Then last week, we took a family trip to Washington to visit the Smithsonian Museum and I thought: "This is it. If I can get her to drive, there's no WAY the car comes back without a scratch."

See, my philosophy on driving in Washington is: You have to be prepared to die in a fiery car wreck at any moment.

This is because the only people driving there are crack dealers running from the cops and tourists too busy oohing and aahing at the monuments to pay attention to where they're going.

But my wife wouldn't drive -- the little baby said she didn't know where she was going. So I ended up behind the wheel on southbound I-95 during the morning rush hour, dodging the amphetamine-crazed truckers and car-pooling government workers hopped up on Dunkin' Donuts coffee who make this highway such a joy to drive.

Anyway, we got to Washington at 9: 30 in the morning, just in time to circle the Mall endlessly looking for a parking space.

There were four kids in the back and of course they handled this gracefully, pounding the seats with their fists and screaming: "Park the car! Park the car! We're going INSANE!"

Then I saw it. A car pulled out from a space about 500 yards away. So I gunned the station wagon and we went rocketing through the intersection, scattering a couple of tour groups and a woman pushing a baby stroller.

Then I discovered I was going to have to parallel-park to get into the space. Normally, this is no problem, as I am one of the finest parallel-parkers in the universe (he said modestly.)

But this was a tight squeeze. Plus it was kind of hard to concentrate, since the kids were going nuts in the back, particularly the 5-year-old, who was now throwing these Ali-like bolo punches at his sister.

Anyway, as I backed in slowly and cut the wheel, we heard it: WHUMP! the distinctive sound of one fender bumping against another.

Jumping out, we discovered a tiny five-inch scrape on our front fender on the driver's side. Naturally, there was no damage to the other car, which I tried to point out to my wife, except she was pointing a finger at me and singing: "You scratched the car-r-r, you scratched the car-r-r!"

It was an incredibly childish display -- in our nation's capital, no less.

The good news is, she has only brought the subject up a couple of dozen times since then and says she'll probably stop bringing it up one day.

Although that will probably be when I'm dead.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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