I was only 45 minutes late getting home with the Ford, and that was only because Darrell, who is my best friend, wanted to be dropped off at his girl friend’s house in Cupertino. If I had known what was going on at home, I would have hurried. What was going on at home was the end of my peace and happiness.
“Shhh,” said Anne, my younger sister who is 16 and had been driving for three wonderful months of parking tickets and running out of gas in odd places.
“What’s up? Somebody having a surprise party?” I asked.
“No,” said my brother Todd. “At least, we’re not. But Mom and Dad seem to be having some kind of party.”
“What’s wrong? Everybody looks so serious.”
“What’s wrong?” asked my older sister Val in tones of righteous indignation. “What’s wrong?”
“Yeah. I mean, what’s wrong?”
And then they told me. All at once, in loud whispers. When I had finally sorted out all the different stories, this is what I got:
When Anne got home with the Pinto, it had a new dent in the door from opening it hard into a light pole in a parking lot. But Mom and Dad weren’t angry—they just smiled and took the car keys from her and went into the bedroom and locked the door. When Todd got home with the car, it was nearly out of gas, and he didn’t have enough money to fill it up; but Mom and Dad didn’t complain, just took the keys and went back to their bedroom and locked the door. And when Val came home four hours late from a “quick trip to the store to get more shampoo,” Mom and Dad didn’t complain about the Volkswagen being gone so long—just took the car keys, and you know what happened then.
And no sooner had they finished telling me their stories than out of their bedroom came Mom and Dad, chortling and smiling. “Hi, Jerry,” said Dad.
“Hi,” I said. “Sorry I was late getting back, but I had to take Darrell to his girl friend’s house in Cupertino.”
“That’s fine,” said Mom.
“Is the car nearly out of gas?” asked Dad.
“I didn’t have any money to fill it up,” I said.
“Oh, fine, fine,” Mom said, giggling a little. “Could I have your car keys?”
“How come?” I asked.
Father just grinned a little broader. “We want to press them and put them in your baby book.”
I handed over the keys.
“Come into the living room, children, my loves,” sang Mother, and I swear it looked like they were prancing as they led the way.
As we followed them, Anne looked at me with a frightened expression on her face. “I think Mom and Dad are going crazy, Jerry,” she said. Her voice was trembling.
When we got into the living room, Mom and Dad were playing catch with the car keys.
“Definitely,” I told Anne. “Bonkers. Bananas. Out, so to speak, of their minds.”
When we had all settled down, looking at our once-stable parents with expressions that ranged from concern to near panic, Father began a little speech.
“Perhaps you children have never counted, but we, a middle income family, have four cars. Four cars is an unusually large number of automobiles for a middle income family, but then we have an unusually large number of drivers at home. Six, to be exact. Six drivers and four cars. One could reasonably suppose that this would be enough cars to go around, but not so. Today your mother had an appointment at the dentist’s. The appointment was at 2:00, but at 2:00, even though there were supposed to be three cars at home, there were none. Mother missed her dental appointment. Does your tooth hurt, Mother?”
Mother nodded, holding her jaw. “My tooth hurts, Father.” She laughed.
“And I today received three pieces of mail. One was the insurance bill. One was the bill from our gasoline credit card. And one was the monthly statement from the bank on the two cars we are still paying for. I added them up and reached a sobering conclusion.”
He did not look particularly somber.
“My dear children, I believe we are the largest single mainstay for the automobile and insurance and oil business in America today. If we did not use our cars for one week, Ford Motor Company stock would drop three points and there would be a coup in Saudi Arabia. If we did not use our cars for a year, our country would be plunged into a major depression. We are supporting the economy of the United States of America.
“We are honored. This is a privilege for us, and we don’t plan to shirk our responsibilities. However, some of this privilege ought to be shared. Mother, will you get the documents?”
Mother left the room. While she was gone, Father asked each of us in turn how much we made at our jobs. None of us was making a fortune, but we were doing surprisingly well. Even Anne, who worked in a hamburger drive-in after school, pulled down about a hundred a month. No wonder she always looked like she stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
And then Mother came back and handed each of us a piece of paper with the words LEASE AGREEMENT at the top of the page. I won’t give you the legal language. Boiled down, it went this way:
Each of us who planned to drive any car at all during a given month had to pay a basic fee of $8.00 to cover part of the insurance costs. If our grades fell below a B average, we had to pay $20.00 a month.
“That’s quite a jump,” said Anne, who often did not have a B average.
“So is the jump in insurance rates when your grades go down,” answered Mom.
The agreement also called for us to pay all traffic fines, the deductible on the insurance in case of collision, and all the gas we used.
“What?” asked Val, turning white. “All the gas?”
“The car is to be returned home with the tank full, every time,” Dad said.
There was also a mileage fee. For the LTD, 10¢ per mile. For the Pinto, 8¢ per mile. For the Volkswagen, because it was old, 6¢ per mile, and for the Galaxy, commonly known around the house as “the Ford,” 12¢ a mile.
“Twelve cents a mile!” I shouted. That was the car I preferred to drive.
“It’s the newest car. It has the greatest depreciation,” said my father, smiling.
“You will keep track of the mileage,” said Mother, “on these handy little Automobile Record sheets, which we will have printed up and placed in the glove compartment of every car. After every use of the car, you will write down your mileage and the number on the odometer. When you come home, you will give your Automobile Record sheet to the leasing company—your father or myself.”
And the final clause of the contract was the stinger. “Permission for use of the cars will automatically be suspended until all dues and remunerations are paid in full.”
“You mean we can’t even be late?”
“Not even by a day,” Father said, smiling.
Anne was outraged. “I thought we were a family, not a business!”
Mother only smiled her if-you-get-upset-it-will-only-make-it-worse smile. “Every family is a business, dear. There are income and expenses and cash flow. We just think it’s time that your father stopped supplying all the income and you stopped monopolizing the expenses. There’s the contract. You will all please sign.”
“And if we don’t?” asked Todd, already cringing because he knew the answer before he asked.
Father held up all the car keys—quite a bundle of them—and said, “The cars will no doubt miss you, and you will probably wear out your shoes faster, but the walking will be good for your health.”
Anne didn’t get it. “You mean if we don’t sign, we don’t drive?”
“That’s what he means,” said Val.
“Here are the pens,” said Mother.
“Sign or walk,” said Father. We signed.
“After all these years,” I said, “I never knew that my parents were so greedy.”
“Think of it this way,” Dad said, putting his arm around my shoulder. “By saving money on the cars, we can go on putting food on the table. It’s a fringe benefit that isn’t written into the contract. Your parents won’t go broke.”
As we left the room, Val whispered to me, “They go through these phases—it’s part of being parents. They’ll forget about it in a week.”
They didn’t forget about it in a week. They didn’t forget about it in a month.
“Mom, can I take the car tonight?” Anne asked. “Debbie and I want to see Superman.”
“Again?” Mother asked. “How many times have you seen it?”
“Only three,” Anne said. “Star Wars still holds the record.”
“I hardly dare ask how often.”
“You may take the car,” said Mother.
“Thanks!” Anne said.
“As soon,” Mother added, “as you settle up your car leasing bill.”
Anne looked horrified. “You didn’t say anything about it.”
“Why should I have? It’s your bill, not mine.”
“But I’ve spent almost all my money.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe Debbie can drive.”
They went over the accounts. “Your total bill is now $38.56,” Mother said.
Anne gulped. “But, Mom, that’s more than a new top.”
“And just think,” Mother said with a smile, “we’re only charging you half what it costs us!”
Anne went to her bedroom and got the money and paid Mother. “Take it,” Anne said. “Take it all. I don’t like money anyway. I hate money. I never want to see money again. Money is filthy and disgusting. Take all of it.”
“Aren’t you going to the movie?” Mother asked.
“I have 42¢ left. That wouldn’t pay for the gas to get the car out of the driveway. Let alone the movie.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” said Mother. “Perhaps if you walked to Debbie’s house more often—it isn’t even a mile.”
“What am I supposed to be, a pioneer?”
“But haven’t you heard, dear?” asked Mother. “The sidewalks are paved all the way there.”
“Would you really thrust your own youngest daughter out in the snow and the sleet—”
“This is California, dear. If it starts snowing, I’ll let you take the car for half price.”
I was in the kitchen helping Mom make tuna sandwiches for 14 billion of Todd’s friends who had just happened to come over on a Saturday. We couldn’t help but overhear their conversation in the living room.
“How will we all get home after the game?” asked one of his friends. They were seniors in high school and didn’t have anything better to do than worry about getting home from the game.
“Maybe I could take you,” Todd said. “That’d be great,” said another friend.
“Wait a minute,” Todd said.
“We’d have to share the costs.”
“The only car big enough is the LTD. That’s ten cents a mile. I figure that with the eight of you that’s got to be around 50 miles. Plus a pro rata share of my monthly insurance bill and the cost of gasoline, which at 69¢ a gallon and 11 miles to the gallon comes to $3.13, plus the mileage and share—that’s $9.13. And there are eight of us so it’s $1.14 each, with a penny left over. I’ll treat you to the penny.”
They were astounded. They were appalled. “A dollar each just to get home from the game?”
“A dollar and fourteen cents. And don’t forget the free penny.”
“I think my parents can take me.” Pretty soon all of them decided their parents could take them home.
“Too bad,” Todd said. “It probably costs your parents more than a buck to make a special trip there and back. You guys just don’t know how much it costs to keep cars running these days.”
I spread tuna on the last sandwich as Mother ran water in the bowl. “Do you hear what I hear?” I asked.
“I think my son Todd is beginning to get some sense about money,” she answered.
I didn’t say anything. I thought it sounded like my brother Todd wasn’t pulling a full train.
I don’t make much money at my job. Not when I have to support my driving habit and my taste in clothes and all my records and tapes and a minor addiction to buying four science fiction novels a week. I began to discover the joys of walking.
Do you have any idea how many barking, savage dogs there are on an average residential block in a California suburban community? (Seven—one with rabies.)
Do you know how many steps it takes to go a mile and a half to school on foot? (Exactly 3,168, unless you have a blister and take shorter steps.)
Do you know how hot it gets when you walk outside in the summer in California? And they don’t even air-condition the street.
I also discovered that rain is wet, wind is cold, passing cars like to go fast through puddles to splash you, and you meet the strangest people waiting for the WALK signal at a busy intersection.
And even with all that walking, my automobile leasing bill was still horrendous. I had given up on the LTD except for dates, but even with the Volkswagen I was paying $30 or $40 a month.
“I give up,” I said. “I won’t do any more business with this rip-off car leasing business.”
“Really?” asked Father, looking up from his copy of the San Jose Mercury.
“Really,” I said. “I will not pay your fees. I will not drive your cars.”
“Mother!” Father called. “Jerry has decided to become a pedestrian!”
“I have not,” I said. “I have decided to take my patronage elsewhere.”
“Where?” he asked.
“If Hertz is good enough for O. J. Simpson, it’s good enough for me.”
As I left the room Dad called after me, “But, Jerry! We try harder!”
I came back three hours later. Whipped. Beaten. Defeated.
“Do you know what they charge?” I asked.
“A lot?” Father guessed helpfully.
“I couldn’t rent a pair of roller skates from them for less than $50 a month.”
“You and Mom may be a rip-off leasing company, but at least you’re competitive.”
“Oh, come off it,” Father said, laughing. “We have the best rates in town.”
“I want to buy a horse,” I said.
“I can get you a good price on hay,” Father answered. He laughed and laughed. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I managed to keep a smile off my face until my bedroom door was closed behind me. Then I laughed.
And then Miriam finally agreed to go on a date with me. She was the best-looking girl in the ward (also in the stake; probably in the Church), and she had finally broken up with Alvin Hopper, which was no great loss to her and a tremendous gain to a college freshman like myself with excellent taste in girls. On my fourth try she agreed to go out with me. I shot the works. The LTD, complete with car wash, a $30 dinner in San Francisco, a drive through beautiful scenery on the way up, Bayshore Freeway on the way back, and charming, delightful conversation all the way. The conversation was the only thing free on the whole date.
And she was worth it. She could discuss at least 13 different topics intelligently and got a B- on all the others, which means she was more than just a pretty face. She let me open doors for her and took my arm without my even having to hint. She looked me right in the eye and never let her gaze linger for a moment on the slight complexion problem that had appeared mysteriously on my chin the day before. She was perfect.
On the way home, after we left the freeway, she asked, “You don’t happen to have a throat lozenge or anything like that? I have kind of a sore throat.”
“In the glove compartment,” I said. Mom kept the glove compartment like a medicine chest—aspirin, throat lozenges, cough drops, breath mints, Kleenex, eye drops, bandages, and disinfectant. She figured that if we all had the flu and got into a traffic accident, she could make everybody feel better in minutes. Miriam reached into the glove compartment, found the lozenges, and also found the pad of Automobile Record sheets.
“What’s this?” she asked.
So I told her. All about the lease agreement. How much it cost and everything. I was just about to tell her how terrible it all was when she interrupted me.
“That’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t believe parents doing anything like that! Who do they think they are?”
“Parents,” I said.
“Well, I’m glad my parents are more generous than that. It sounds like your father must be Ebenezer Scrooge and your mother must be Shylock.”
“Shylock was a man.”
“Stingy, anyway. How much do they charge you for lunch and dinner?”
“I’m surprised. Do they have a coin box and water meter on the shower? Do they make you pay for clean sheets?”
“Of course not,” I said.
“A car is a necessity of life,” she said. “Parents have a responsibility to provide them for their children.”
Now, you have to understand. I’m not an argumentative person. I’m quite easy to get along with. But she was talking about my parents, judging them just by the fact that they ran a rip-off car leasing business with a captive clientele. I couldn’t let her go unanswered. So I answered.
“Listen, Miriam, a car is different from showers and food and bedding. It’s a lot more expensive. And I eat three meals a day and sleep once a night and take a shower every morning. It’s regular and predictable and it doesn’t go up and down. But the car I use as often as I like, and we kids used to use the cars all the time. It cost the folks hundreds and hundreds of dollars every month. And so it was perfectly fair for them to decide we should help pay.”
“You can’t live in the modern world without a car. They might as well charge you for air.” She sounded upset.
“You can live without a car,” I said. “You can walk, for example. I’ve walked to school a lot the last few months.”
“I can imagine,” she said darkly.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve discovered there are things you can’t see from a car.”
“Like bubble gum on a sidewalk,” she said, sounding rather snide.
“I think it’s a good idea for us to help our parents pay for the cars.”
“And I think anybody who thinks that is crazy.”
“You do?” I asked, and I think by now I also sounded upset.
“I do. If word of this gets around, other people’s parents will try it, too, and pretty soon an entire generation of young people will be trapped at home with their families night after night.”
It shows you how angry I was. I said, “That doesn’t sound like a bad idea. And furthermore, I think that it’s perfectly possible for people to have a good time together without having a car at all. I think it would be a wonderful date just to walk over to a girl’s house and take her out walking and talking and maybe looking in store windows or maybe just seeing a little bit of the neighborhood and just getting to know each other without spending any money at all.”
“That sounds hideous.”
“Then,” I said, “I won’t ask you out on such a date.”
I took her home and neither of us said another word except for a perfunctory good-night-and-thanks-for-a-wonderful-evening at the door.
When I got home, after filling the gas tank, I wrote down the mileage on the odometer, figured out my total car costs for the evening, and went inside, got the money from my room, and went into Mom and Dad’s bedroom, where they were reading the Old Testament out loud to each other the way they do every night.
“Did you have a nice time?” asked Mother.
“Wonderful,” I said. “I want to settle up for tonight.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that until the first of the month,” Dad said.
“I want to do it now.” I showed them how much I owed them, counted out the money, and handed it to them. Then I carefully placed a five dollar bill on top of the rest.
“What’s that for?” asked Mother.
“It’s a tip,” I said. “For service above and beyond the call of duty.
“I think you’re wonderful. I’m glad you laid it on the line with us. I’m glad you shared the responsibility of paying for the entire U.S. automobile industry with us kids. It’s the most adult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Mother got tears in her eyes. Father said, “I think Jerry’s grown up, don’t you, Mother?”
“Yes,” Mother agreed.
“Well, you’re both wrong,” I said. “I’m just completely out of my mind.”
I kissed them both good-night and went straight to bed feeling pretty doggone good. Also pretty doggone poor, since I had about six bucks to last me through the rest of the month. But as my sister Anne pointed out, money isn’t everything. In fact, it’s hardly anything.