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Waving bye-bye to her Beetle

The Baltimore Sun

Together, we drove past the glorious cornstalks of the Midwest, sped and weaved through the throngs of yellow cabs in Manhattan and spent countless hours in the stop-and-go of the Baltimore and Washington beltways.

She is dead now. My beloved 1999 lime-green Volkswagen Beetle, constant companion for a little more than three years, will run no more.

As I drove home from work late a few Sundays ago, the timing belt broke. Any mechanic will tell you a worn timing belt is like an IED waiting for an insurgent to hit the switch. And when my timing belt exploded, it took the engine with it.

A mechanic at the Volkswagen dealership in College Park dealt me the bad news: A new engine would set me back $7,000. And just to make me cry a little harder, he said, "If you had changed the timing belt at 60,000 miles, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

More than a rescue from long and smelly hours aboard a Greyhound bus or the unreliability of subways and city buses, my Beetle was something of a badge of coolness. It said to all the other cars, "My driver is fun and funky."

Just looking at my Beetle, with her vibrant coloring and curvy body, could conjure a smile.

Driving down the street, on a jaunt to Giant or a trip to the park, we commanded attention. But not the booming-system, 20-inch-rims type. Nor the dragging-muffler, "What a hoopty!" kind.

Children would wave to me, with pure delight on their faces. As I waved back, their parents would smile, appreciative of the gesture. And teenagers would jab each other, shouting, "Punchbuggy!"

And when I whizzed down Interstate 95 pushing 80 mph, I felt somehow she was less threatening. Not like those overbearing SUVs that bully other cars to speed up or move to the right lane. The Beetle's purr says, "Excuse me, please."

And when my horn-beeping road-rage tendencies reared their ugly face, I sensed the Beetle softened the blow.

Somehow, too, I felt she was a deterrent to those pesky speed-busting police officers. What speeding criminal would drive a car with a fake sunflower sprouting from the dash?

I was a student at American University in Washington in May 2003 when I bought my Beetle, used. For $7,750, she was mine.

I pined for a sleek black or silver model, but settled for the green.

That summer I drove her home to Providence, R.I. My mother thought she was a bit gaudy. But my younger sister and brother and baby niece adored her.

Every day she took me to and from my internship in Boston. It was that reliability that I grew to love.

I took good care of her, too, making sure her oil was changed frequently. We made plenty of trips to the carwash, where I often paid extra for Armor All on her tires. And when I let the gas gauge get so low that a little red light would come on, I'd rub the steering wheel as I drove to a gas station and say, "Don't worry, baby. I'm going to feed you."

Along the way, we racked up a mighty stack of parking tickets. I always treated, but my tardiness sometimes tripled the bill.

She was almost too perfect, with her two power plugs: one for recharging my cell phone, the other for my Sidekick. And the red-and-purple glow that illuminated her interior at night, stirring images of "Purple Rain" at a disco. Small and rounded, not unlike a spaceship, the Beetle could fit in the tiniest of parking spaces - a hot commodity for city living.

Our relationship wasn't always the best. She let me down a few times.

When I took my first job after college at a newspaper in Pittsburgh, she crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It wasn't entirely her fault; icy rain was falling that night on the mountains above Somerset, and her brakes were no match. Major body damage ensued, but in a few weeks she was as good as new. I escaped with not a scratch.

And forget about the trunk. All I could fit in it was a six-changer CD player and a bottle of window cleaner.

But at 103,000 miles, her death was unexpected.

And so my boyfriend has graciously allowed me to drive his car - a rather bland white Toyota Camry - to work until I buy another.

Driving the Camry has left me longing for the Beetle.

I remember a few months ago, I was stuck in Orioles traffic on Pratt Street. A little girl, wide-eyed with excitement, spotted the Beetle. Tugging on her mom's shirt, she pointed and waved.

Lately I've been thinking dependable: Ford, Dodge, maybe a Saturn.

But will the kids still wave?

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