Tales of Texas 45 - Front Ended by the French Fry Mobile
The other day I was front-ended by a car at a red light. Wait a minute. Front-ended? How do you get front-ended? Rear-ended is easy. People drive so fast and tailgate so closely that getting rear-ended is all too frequent an occurrence. And maybe that's a little more true in Texas than in other places, but I wouldn't bet on it. People say that other drivers are worse, at least worse tailgaters. For instance New York and Boston are often cited in this regard. Having lived in the Boston area for twenty-five years I can attest to the insanity of its vehicular mayhem perpetrators. And having driven across and through New York many times over the years, I agree their reputation is also well-deserved. However, I should also note that I did get rear-ended four days after moving to Texas, so Texas clearly has to be in the running, too. But this particular incident, on the other hand, is an almost anti-Texas Tale of Texas.
So I'm driving happily along, Sean and I on the way to lunch in a civilized part of town. We're minding our own business, stopped at a light. Something strange about the placement of the cars already stopped at the light makes me stop a couple car lengths behind them. For no obvious reason, the car in front of me starts to back up, and fast. What the hell is he doing? All I see of this car is this solid I-beam of a bumper headed toward me. How could he miss a great white beast like my Moby Pontiac in his rear view mirror? I lean on the horn. He slows down but not fast enough. Crunch nudge oops. At least he didn't push me back far enough to hit the car behind me. Gee, how could it not have? I really look at the car now. It's only a little mini truck, I see, no bigger than a small station wagon, but still, that big steel bumper and all. . . .
We pull over and assess the damage. Not bad. Hardly noticeable. My bug-covered license plate is still bug-covered but now wrinkled also. The plastic bumper, the Detroit version of a 5 mph bumper I guess, did its job. It suffered some cuts and bruises in the process, and the plastic skin was peeled off the plastic bumper in spots. But nothing broken. At least the impact didn't break the headlights.
Modern headlights are unbelievably expensive. I learned this lesson when I hit a Bambi one night, Christmas day night, up in New Jersey some years ago. Bambi was running down Deer Highway #1 where it goes over a grade crossing intersecting Pennington-Rocky Hill Road near Princeton. Bambi neglected to signal at the grade crossing, or to look both ways. Bambi and the car intersected. Bambi didn't make it. The car was only severely wounded: grill, radiator, hood, quarter panel, and, finally to get to the point, headlight.
A modern headlight comes in three major pieces. Well, four, but two are pretty much the same. There is a front lens, which is a thick piece of glass cast or pressed into a shape that helps focus the beam. Two halogen bulbs. And a reflector. Not a simple hemispheric or parabolic reflector, no, no, no. Long, narrow parabolas, two of them, one for low beam and one for high beam, that are parallel but intersect near the front, a single piece of glass cast into this improbable shape then silvered on the inside. The shapes of the lens and reflector are both, I'm sure, proprietary, unique to some small series of cars, and therefore expensive. As I recall, these pieces of the headlight added up to more than four hundred dollars at the body shop, and nobody but me even blinked. The headlight cost more than the radiator.
But back to that afternoon in Texas. No damage on my car. Check his car. What a strange little car. This vehicle turns out to be a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel truck. A VW mini-truck, just a tiny little thing. I had never heard of such a thing. VW was famous for its diesel Rabbits. They were real dogs on the road, could only accelerate downhill, but got terrific mileage, like forty-plus miles per gallon. Who knew that they made this odd body style? It's small, it's low, a little squarish station wagon that shrank in the wash. The only odd thing about this one is that the rear bumper has been replaced by or covered by a rusty I-beam mounted on the back. Looks like an "I dare you to rear-end me" attachment that I used to see on some, um, rural trucks and SUXs in New Hampshire and Maine. If driven in reverse, though, it's equally effective as a "Watch me front-end you" device.
Most of the car is sort of a mustard color that blends gradually into the rust of the bumper. It has Arkansas license plates. Old, rusty, Arkansas license plates. Oh, great, a tourist. And not a very prosperous one at that. Nope, wrong guess. It turns out to be driven by a young neo-hippie couple, twenty-five-ish, from Arcata, California. Incredibly, Ms. T. and I have actually been to Arcata, California, stayed there one night on a trip from SF to Portland some years ago. But now the question is, What is a couple from California doing in central Texas driving a car from Arkansas? The answer is, well, amazing, and this is the anti-Texas part of the story.
They came from California to Texas because her parents are in Austin, that's the straightforward part. Then they went up to Arkansas to buy this car. Not just any car of this type, but this particular individual car. Huh? HuHuHuh They bought this junker? They came halfway across the continent to buy this junker? Wow. There must be some more compelling reason. And the reason is, ta-da, that this particular diesel car has been converted to burn used cooking oil instead of diesel oil. How cool is that, tooling down the highway leaving a trail that smells like fried chicken? Usually, diesel trucks stink so much that it's hard to breathe in their wake. If there's a particularly stinky truck in front of me, I will either pass or drop back so far I can't smell him anymore. Not this one. This car, you would want to follow, drooling all the way, at least until you pass the next fast food outlet.
Aside: the distinction between smell and stink. It is recorded that Dr. Samuel Johnson was not in the habit of bathing frequently. One time a lady with whom he shared a carriage was so overwhelmed that she just had to comment on it, but delicately. "Dr. Johnson, I really hate to say anything, but, well, you smell." He replied, "On the contrary, Madam. You smell. I stink."
I had heard something a year ago about a movement to re-use used fry oil from restaurants, burning it instead of chucking it. Foolishly, I thought that it would be burned under more controlled conditions, maybe in diesel generators or turbines where the temperatures are high enough to break down whatever toxic crap comes out of the frying process, or where you can post-process the exhaust in a catalytic converter, afterburner, something.
One also has to wonder about the wisdom of couple of young eco-Nazis driving an anti-petroleum car here in Texas, the home of Big Oil. The concept of this vehicle strikes at the very soul of the state. Every clank of its valves hammers an upside-down derrick-shaped stake Deep in the Heart of Texas. Had they run into a true native son, anyone from a Midland oil baron to a Gulf roughneck, they might had some trouble. Incredible, their luck running into a rare un-Texan. I just laughed.
Oh, and the Rabbit truck has an extra add-on gas tank to give it sufficient capacity. I guess you don't get quite enough miles per gallon of used cooking oil. What's the right measure: feet per fry? And it's a long way between gas stations that carry the right fuel. Do you have to filter out the chunks of potato, chicken, and mozzarella before you can squeeze it through a fuel injector? On the other hand, if they can burn the output of the local McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Denny's, Chili's, Church's, Popeye's, and any other chain or local greasy spoon, they should never have trouble filling up across this continent. The CholesterolMobile sliding down the American artery!
Later I find out that Willie is a big proponent of this technology. And there is a cottage industry in the US converting old diesel engines to cooking oil. See Willie's www.wnbiodiesel.com, www.biodiesel.com, and lots of other sites on the web. Just google "biodiesel willie" and check the first hundred thousand hits.
Donald Westlake wrote a song parody with the refrain, "If it ain't fried, it ain't food!" Well, when things get weird enough, if it ain't fried, it ain't fuel.