All I had to do was meet the dude in a crowded parking lot for a perfectly-legal-as-far-as-you-know exchange of cash for goods. Easy as falling off a park bench.

You’re in, you’re out. Everyone’s happy.

“I’ll be driving a brownish Nissan Rogue,” I told this fellow I knew only as Craig S. List.

I pulled into the parking lot at the allotted time and squeezed into a space between a brownish Rogue on the left and a brownish Rogue on the right. In front of me was parked a brownish Rogue. I think there might have been a brownish Rogue circling in the air above me, I don’t know. It’s all very hazy.

“Can’t figure out which car is yours,” Craig S. List texted when he arrived. “I’m going to sell this perfectly-legal-item-as-far-as-you-know to someone in an El Camino. Better luck next time, loser.”

I drove back home in defeat, the brownish Nissan Rogue taking its place obediently within the homogeneous herd.

The next time I attempted such a transaction, I took my truck.

“In the parking lot now,” I wrote to Craig S. List II. “I’m in a blue Ford Ranger.”

“Screw you,” he wrote back, after encountering a half-dozen vehicles fitting this description. “I’m throwing the item into the river.”

This lack of a distinctive ride is killing me. Twice a day, I find that I’m unable to locate my vehicle in even a moderately-sized parking lot. Brownish Rogues and bruise-blue Rangers are everywhere. Every now and then, I end up trying to gain access to a car or truck that LOOKS like mine but which ISN’T mine, which typically results in the owner of said replica spraying me in the eyes with mace and trying out a new Judo kick her husband taught her.

This is why I walk funny, by the way.

It occurs to me that back in the day, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t replace our cars every two years because the old one had 3,000 miles on it and a scratch on the bumper. We paid cash for our wheels, and if you only had $300 to throw at it, what you got was a $300 car.

It was awesome!

A car you get for $300 typically looks like something that was chewed by a larger car and then spit out onto a lot somewhere. The result is that it’s very distinctive-looking. When you drove your $300 piece of chewed junk anywhere at all, everyone knew it was you.

“There goes LaFlamme in his Chevy Vega,” they would say. “Too bad Craigslist wasn’t invented yet, because I could probably sell him something.”

Ah, the Vega. Black with red pin stripes, it was, and only rusted a little bit around the door frame. Its rear end sagged drastically, like a dog who’s trying to scratch a very troublesome itch. When I drove it over frost heaves, sparks would fly as rolling Detroit iron met mangled Maine road.

The Vega also had an oil problem, guzzling it like it was Allen’s Coffee Brandy and belching blue smoke in great clouds that would float over entire city blocks. If I was off to meet someone, it was easy to provide that someone with a description. “I’ll be in the black Vega that looks like a dog scratching its butt in the thickest part of the blue fog.”

Bam! Perfectly legal meeting is underway.

It was the same with my Chevy Monza, with its crushed passenger-side door and a unique habit of honking its horn when I was nowhere near it.

It was no different with the Ford Escort wagon with luggage rack, whose hood was green while the rest of the car was white.

Same with the Geo Tracker, diaper-rash red, with its bent antenna and driver-side door that would swing open every time I turned to the right.

Cars used to be reflections of ourselves — which doesn’t say a lot about me personally — but which provided a greater level of intimacy between man and machine. What you drove was a statement about your personality and a symbol of your station in life. You owned your ride — you didn’t lease it from the dealership or finance it through a bank for 84 easy payments over seven freakin’ years. Your car was an extension of yourself, and if you wanted to festoon it with hilarious bumper stickers or paint your girlfriend’s face on the hood, by God, you did it.

Today, it seems like every car on the road is the same color, the same shape, the same size. They’re jam-packed with safety features like backup cameras, electronic stability control, advanced GPS systems, alarms that sound just to make sure you’re awake and giant boxing gloves that will pop out of the dashboard and punch you in the stomach if you forget to fasten your seat belt. There are computers under the hood to control everything so when your car misbehaves, simply swearing at it or punching the dashboard no longer accomplishes anything.

Marlene, the spinster librarian and part-time church organist, drives the same car as Ace W. Switchblade, who just got out of juvenile hall. High-speed chases captured by news helicopters now show Nissan Sentras and Honda Accords whizzing up the L.A. highways instead of Mustangs and Trans Ams. We used to make fun of station wagons and now everyone drives one. They just added a few curves and started calling them Sport Utility Vehicles, as if that was enough to completely exorcise the nerd from them.

It’s sad, what I’m saying — and it makes Craigslist transactions in parking lots more difficult than they need to be. It’s all very irksome and perfectly legal.

As far as you know.


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