Here In My Car

Sorry ladies - this image is probably a letdown for you after last week.

The Mystery Wagon doesn’t look like much or sound like much, and most of the time it doesn’t smell like much either, although occasionally I do get a burning rubber smell out of the A/C vent that I should probably have checked out. Fortunately, none of that cosmetic stuff means much to me because my car has a kickass set of power locks that I’m thankful for just about every day.

Take this morning, for example. I was on my way to work, waiting a red light by an elementary school, when I spotted a middle aged woman jogging across the street toward my car. She was wearing mismatched athletic gear and looked to be wheezing pretty heavily, most likely trying to catch up on a long-abandoned New Year’s resolution.

My left hand shot out like lightning and hit the LOCK button on the inside panel of my driver’s side door, and with a comforting KER-CHUNK every door in my car was immediately secured shut. Behind my Ray-Bans, my eyes followed her warily as she huffed and puffed past the hood of my car, hung a right, and continued south down the sidewalk past my passenger side door.

That one was a little too close for comfort.

When I first started driving I almost never locked my doors on the road, although a lot of this was because I lived in Salem, Oregon at the time. Salem isn’t especially pedestrian-friendly thanks to the fact that many of the streets have muddy, garbage-strewn shoulders instead of sidewalks; what few pedestrians you do see are usually tooling around in motorized scooters due either to old age or obesity. It’s not a terribly threatening environment.

My small town naïveté was put to bed shortly after my family moved to Portland, when I was giving my then-girlfriend a ride somewhere.

“Woah,” she said as we crossed the bridge into downtown. “You don’t lock your doors when you drive?”

“No,” I said slowly, trying to gauge if this was going to turn into a fight. “Am I supposed to?”

“I always lock my doors when I drive. In high school my driver’s ed teacher said that if you don’t lock your doors, homeless people downtown will jump into your car and force you to drive them wherever they want to go, and if you don’t they’ll, like, pee in your car and stuff.”

If she’d been talking about anything else, I would’ve laughed that notion right the hell off no matter how big of a fight it got me into. But I grew up in the suburbs, and when you grow up in the suburbs the notion of being trapped in a small space with a urinating homeless person is like double 9/11.

So I locked the doors – KER-CHUNK – and have been spontaneously locking them at intersections ever since, all based on one secondhand anecdote from a decidedly unreliable source four years ago. 95% of me knows it’s stupid, but 5% of me knows I’ll feel a lot more stupid when there’s a homeless person pissing in my backseat and demanding that I drive him to Santa Monica.

For the record, I don’t care what race you are, or even if you outwardly appear to be homeless – if you’re a stranger within 10 feet of my car I’m just going to assume you’re a homeless person and will take all the necessary steps to defend The Mystery Wagon from your pee. 

I think the most irrational part of this irrational fear is the idea that a person with no job and no home has some sort of urgent appointment on the other side of town. “I’m delivering the keynote at the National Association of Angry Streetcorner Schizophrenics luncheon in 20 minutes and I don’t have a ride! If I miss this speech it could really mess up my otherwise perfect life! My kingdom for a Subaru!”

Nothing betrays a sheltered upper middle class upbringing more than the assumption that every homeless person is A) crazy and B) absolutely desperate to fuck with you.

Most of my actual encounters with the homeless – with the exception of a dude who offered to blow me on the subway – have been limited to me pretending to not have any money and them muttering “God bless.” Even the guy who wanted to suck my dick was pretty gracious about it when I refused; he certainly didn’t strike me as the sort of criminal mastermind who’d hijack my car by threatening to pee in it.

Honestly, when I’m driving I act crazier than most homeless people probably are. I talk to myself constantly in the car, either practicing standup routines I’ll never do or rehearsing conversations with famous people I’ll never have – and that’s when I’m not singing along with one of the six songs on my iPhone that are in my vocal range. By contrast, the homeless people I see on the sidewalks are usually just standing there waiting for the light.

Maybe it’s my apparent insanity – not my power locks – that have warded off the legions of aggressive homeless people in need of rides over the years. For all I know they could have hilariously out of touch myths about me:

“Woah, you get close to cars at intersections? My driver’s ed teacher said that if you get within ten feet of a car, a dorky college educated Subaru-driving yuppie will pull you inside and force you to ride around with them, listening to their unfunny, derivative standup routines and terrible singing.”

Maybe I don’t need to lock my doors anymore. If I just wear a tinfoil hat when I drive I’m pretty sure nobody would want to get into my car – and maybe people wouldn’t tailgate me as closely, either.

Truman Capps was so well brought up that if a homeless person did jump into his car he’d probably drive the guy to his destination just to be polite.