Monday, Feb. 17, 2003, 1:09 AM


Let me tell you something about my childhood, if you will indulge me in such a narcissistic act. Every act of speaking about one's self is an expression of self-love. But we know where my heart hangs, and it hangs ever so gently in my chest--though usually visible on my sleeve.

We had a little yellow Volkswagen beetle, my mother and I. It was a bright lemon yellow and would only start every third time. We lived in a run down apartment complex known as Leechburg Gardens. Don't let the name fool you, the only thing that sprouted from the ground were three brown brick buildings, a squat three stories tall, in a sea of asphalt parking lot with a rusty swing set for the wind to play high pitched serenades to the lonely cars. The wind would kick up dust and rattle the chains holding the swings producing an effect very like a rusty gate in a ghost town. It was a desolate place with a desolate atmosphere.

The apartment complex was set up on a rise off of the main road. My mother would park the car at the top of the small incline that connected the sea of parking lot and road and we would walk a good distance to our apartment building. The following morning we would traverse the pox marked parking lot, carefully avoiding the potholes like mines, until we came to the edge of the slope where the car awaited. Its surface, long since devoid of luster, would fail to reflect anything at all. The cold vinyl seats showed more of an interest in our reflection than the paint ever could. As the car sat there absorbing the image of everything around it my mother would lean through the open door and give the key a turn. If the little car failed to start, as was the case the majority of the time, she would swear, transfer her lit cigarette from her hand to her mouth, and get into a stance gripping the door and roof of the car like a professional wrestler locking arms for a match. She'd tell me to release the brake, which I did, but always with two hands pulling up just a bit and pushing the button in on the end before letting it rest flush on the console.

There was a time when I thought that the car and my mother were magically linked. You see, from my perspective she would lean forward and the car would start to roll. Then it was like taking the dog for a walk--she would walk along beside the car saying things like c'mon baby, here we go, and a little faster. After a short distance mother would hop into the seat and the car seamed to lurch a bit and then the engine sputtered to life. I was never really certain what walking the car had to do with getting it to run, but she always managed to do it that way.

This car was entirely my mother's. I think it may have been the fist new car she ever purchased. This being the case, she was especially possessive of it, which is why I was so surprised when she let my father and uncle borrow it to run some errands one afternoon. I remember the three of us cramming ourselves into the front seat together. The beetle had bucket seats, so my uncle and I were sitting on the passenger seat together. I remember reaching for the seat belt and having my father tell me that I should not worry about it, that we were just going up the road, and that everything would be cool. I argued about getting into trouble and he told me not to worry about it.

A few days before my father had come to take my mother's car and me away I had seen my first accident. It was at the bottom of the little hill leaving our apartment complex and running to the road. The main road had a blind curve that some incredibly intelligent person had decided would be a good place to position the entrance to our apartment complex, and the entrance to the parking lot for a bar. The entrance for the bar parking lot sat opposite the entrance to our apartment. On mornings when our little Volkswagen had failed to start, my mother would coast across the street and roll the car into a parking place along the wall of the bar.

Well, as it turned out, this arrangement was not only ill conceived, but also fatal for several individuals. It seems that a rather intoxicated patron was leaving the bar one evening in a great hurry. His speed had momentarily propelled him into the opposite lane in which a speeding car was driving around the bend. This speeding car tried to circumnavigate the drunk man's vehicle unsuccessfully. What he did accomplish was sliding the back end of his car into the drunk man's, bouncing free and colliding with the car of a family which had been sitting in the drive of our apartment complex waiting to pull out.

I remember hearing tires squeal, and the loud crashing of colliding metal. I remember my mother parking in the lot for the bar and carrying me across the road toward our apartment. I was looking over her shoulder at the cars. There was glass and blood everywhere, but the thing I remember the most was the drunk driver. When he collided head-on with the other car he had been launched through his windshield. He was halfway out of the car with his torso was lying on the hood and his legs still in the car. I don't think I realized or understood that these people were hurt or dead. Television had prepared me for such gruesome things.

The accident impacted me so little that I was more concerned with my mother being angry with me for not wearing a seat belt than with what terrible things might occur if I was in an accident. Which brings me to the meat of my story.

The reason my mother let them borrow her car was because she had to go to work and my father was having his car serviced at a garage near the apartment. So rather than pay a babysitter she had my father drive her to work, and let them use the car for the day while they were watching me. So that's how we wound up driving to an auto parts store on a road that just happened to pass by a very busy little Italian deli, where, at that very moment, a man was getting into his car contemplating the good deal he got on a two pounds of hard salami instead of paying attention to what was behind him when he backed out of the parking lot and onto the road.

First hand experience is always the best teacher. She is very thorough and teaches by example. The lesson I learned about inertia that day has stuck with me forever. You see, a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by some other force. The brakes acted upon the little Volkswagen, which being a small car, decelerated quickly. Everything attached to the car decelerated quickly as well--all those people who had long enough legs to reach the floor were able to hold themselves in place and decelerate, and all loose objects in the car continued traveling at the same speed, minus drag coefficient of course, until acted upon by some other force. The loose object was me and the other force was the windshield.

The resulting pattern did resemble a spider web, with a bubble at its convergence and a hole in the center. I had managed to break the opposing force (windshield) with my head, reducing my speed to an abrupt zero. The top of my head had actually broken through the plane of the windshield when some of the glass gave under the pressure, but the majority of my head and face remained on the inside and helped push the expanding bubble outward. All of this action occurred in such a brief period of time that I could only register that something red was in the road that roughly resembled a car before our car stopped without me.

I have worn my seatbelt since then. My father has worn his seatbelt since then. My mother has never let my father borrow a car since.