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Of cars and streets

I'VE been running on empty of late, my battery's low, and my emergency brake won't hold at all, so today I rose untowardly early to drive to Nat's garage. I'd laced my jogging shoes for the return hike across town, and was just cranking up my car when my friend Archibald lumbered up the street and offered to follow me. I could then drop him off downtown and keep his car for the day. ``What a neighborly offer! Thanks!'' I am indeed grateful, because this will save me an hour I desperately need, for writing, the floodtides of daily life, and other people's thoughts and needs overwhelm me, and while I could use an hour's walk -- but I'll get that later. The loan of a car now.

Except that Archibald's car is not an onyx-black 1984 Volcedes or Bent-Rolls with stereo and television and space to play a cello in the back seat, no powder-blue 1985 Cadalink all white plush and chrome, but rather a 1975 Klunko. She drives like a tank from World War I. Sometimes she doesn't drive at all. She swallows a quart of oil a day, but to find the leak would mean tearing the engine apart, and there's no hope of getting it back together. His kids broke the AM radio and left troves of archaeological artifacts in the back seat, which is also torn. For his birthday I took Klunko to the Kar-Wash, and when she emerged from under those squishy red-white-and-blue mop-head rollers, most of the silver-gray paint was gone. Now rust red. The right fender still shows an aggressive encounter with a telephone pole. One is also warned against rear-end collisions.

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But the tires are new, and the battery has a lifetime guarantee, and that year he Bought American, so Archibald refuses to junk his Klunko.

Except that Archibald envies the nice AM/FM in Nippon-gee-des, my hybrid Japanese car, because he loves good music, and needs to know all the news of the day, and tomorrow's too. As I drive ahead of him now, keeping sight of his dented Klunko in my rearview mirror, I switch from shortwave from Finland to Brahms from Tennessee, then settle in to National Public Radio and learn about tax enhancements.

Meanwhile I am careening around corners -- slowly, I assure you, since Klunko behind me has her limits -- but it's so early, we're ahead of traffic. Traffic makes me frantic, I want life in the inside lane. I avoid main avenues, weave through back alleys, scenic routes past magnificent decrepit buildings and variegated neighborhoods, taking my regular short cuts downtown, and even discover some irregular new ones (which may not be so short). In the rearview mirror I see Klunko in cold pursuit, and when Archibald pulls up right behind me at stoplights, I notice his expression of puzzlement, or forbearance, or possibly terror. Never boredom, though without a radio, poor thing, he has only his own thoughts to think. Or maybe he is singing.

I can't sing. When Nat takes the ignition key from Nippon-gee-des and begins to jot down what needs to be repaired and retuned, a list long as a sestina, and warns that I shouldn't count on my car before tomorrow -- parts have to come from beyond the Beltway and they're slow lately and his chief mechanic was out playing blue grass half the night -- I see I look forward to a day of dull and silent drives.

Outside Nat's garage, Archibald triumphantly opens Klunko's creaky door for me. ``Old Reliable has come through again!''

``Wonderful,'' I smile gratefully, and mentally apologize for maligning his momentarily steadfast car.

As we bump along together, we don't need any radio. We're talking away on our own six channels, switching wavelengths, inventing our own news, and broadcasting our commentaries. No commercials, either.

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Finally I drop him off at his corner, scramble over the gearshift and emergency brake to the driver's seat, take the wheel, stall, rev her up again, and it's off and away. But traffic is heavy now, and there is no hope for it. I'm stuck at 5 mph, or zero at the long red lights, and droves of pedestrians splay out at the green. And no radio.

Suddenly slicing through and above the horns of cabs and brakes of cars, the hiss and huff of trucks, comes a glorious sound. I look out the side window: There on the corner by the Metro, a man is playing a trumpet. Silver and shining. At 8 a.m. The melodious notes waft and whirl out over the crowd, into the car windows, lap at the sealed windows of the office buildings, envelop us, set us dancing.

All the slow way home, the music stays with me, and when I reach my door, it carries me over the threshold and into my study and through tomorrow.

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