May I Smell Your Car?
By Nicole Freire
Like most people in California, I spend a fair amount of time in my car. In fact, I'm pretty sure that when I was born I was automatically issued a AAA membership card.
Sometimes I'm by myself, but more often than not I'm accompanied by my two daughters, Elder and Younger. Luckily they are old enough now that we don't have to listen to Sesame Street music and I can impose my own radio choices like the car dictator that I am. In the mornings it's strictly classical music because Mommy can't tolerate very much talking in the morning. Also I like to think that I'm improving their porous minds by listening to classical music.
In the evenings it's strictly "All Things Considered" on NPR. I didn't think they were paying that much attention to it until one day they were humming a song while we were loading the backpacks, various artworks of the day, and strapping seatbelts on and I realized they were humming the theme to "All Things Considered"! I cannot impress upon you all how proud I was. I'm thinking of taping them humming it and sending it to NPR.
The other thing about driving with children is their constant narration of where we're going, what roads we're taking, why Daddy takes a different way, why isn't that man on the bike wearing a helmet, why is that woman smoking, that man is talking on the phone, look at those clouds, and on and on and ON.
We also play the classic riding-in-the-car game, Slug Bug. You do remember this one, don't you? You see a Volkswagen Beetle and then whoever yells "Slug Bug!" first gets to punch the thigh of your sibling. There are other variations of course. We also say "Bruiser Cruiser" for the PT Cruiser, "Weep Jeep" for Jeeps of any kind, "Pain Train" for the occasional train, and our newest favorite, "Hurtable Convertible", which is so easy to play in Santa Barbara.
And because Elder and Younger were both born in California, naturally they can't wait to drive themselves. They already have cars picked out, although the paint jobs so far consist of polka dots and glitter, so I still have plenty of time to save up for the eventual car insurance costs. But one of the hot topics these days is what was Mommy's first car? And Daddy's? What about Papa and Mimi?
Well, my first car was a 1967 Volkswagen Squareback, white with red interior. I have such nostalgia for that car that sometimes it hurts a little bit. So we were in the car (currently, a Honda) last week and discussing my first car for the umpteenth time I went off on a little tangent (shocking, I know, a tangent, me?) about how all Volkswagens used to smell the same because of the upholstery. And how lots and lots of people Mimi and Papa's age (the grandparents) and Mommy and Daddy's age would know instantly, even if they were blindfolded, that they were in a Volkswagen, all because of the way the car smells.
"Like new car smell?" asked Eldest.
"Did it smell bad?" asked Younger.
I tried to explain that it was not new car smell, because that's just the plastic and upholstery off-gassing and the new car smell eventually goes away. That Volkswagens kept that particular smell, even when they were old, and no, it didn't smell bad, it smelled like, like, like, well, a Volkswagen. And that you can hardly find an older Volkswagen these days, because, well, they're old and not that many people drive them anymore.
The kids eventually tuned out because I kept trying to explain the smell of a Volkswagen and how your sense of smell is the strongest memory trigger there is, and how it takes you back to a time long past and by then they were busy annoying each other simply by looking at each other and then yelling, "Mom, she's copying me!"
But now I'm a tad obsessed. I want to smell the inside of an old Volkswagen. I've seen a few old Beetles and even a Squareback or two since the discussion in the car and it is all I can do to not tail the cars and beg the driver to pull over just so I can sit in their car and SMELL IT. I mean, really, I need to inhale that Volkswagen smell. I want to sit in a Volkswagen and sniff deeply and remember what it was like to have one of my very own.
And it makes me a little sad too. I mean, I laughed when Younger asked me the other day what a typewriter was, because, hey, progress marches on, you know? I don't miss the days of sitting in front of the television, switching the dial back and forth when I wanted to change the channel. I like my tv remote.
I don't miss everything about the good old days because hey, not everything was always good. There was one summer when my father decided to add some zucchini to the garden and you know zucchini, it was like Communism in Russia and it took over the whole garden plot and we had to eat it all and ate it in so many different ways, all of them horrible enough that to this day, I maintain that I'm allergic to zucchini just so that I won't have to eat any.
But I need to smell a Volkswagen. So if you happen to drive an old Volkswagen and maybe you're pulling into the parking lot to run into Vons for milk, please be kind to the lady who asks nicely if she can just sit in your car for a minute, just to SMELL IT.
Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.