My ex-wife B., who visits whenever either one of us has a medical problem, is deep in mourning over a recent loss: her beloved old Volvo station-wagon which has departed this earthly plane. She has moved briskly through the classic stages of grief (Anger, Denial, Bargaining, and Acceptance), and has now arrived at the Looking for a Replacement stage. I am helping with the search for a suitable, ancient replacement Volvo.

As it happens, I have been researching a replacement vehicle for myself as well. Brooding over the fate of the earth, as I do incessantly, it came to me that my used Nissan Altima is really too big for my needs. A much smaller car, such as a Nissan Versa, would do nicely. The Versa is a tiny vehicle, scarcely bigger than an office chair, and would do wonders to reduce my carbon footprint. Why, on the money I would save on gasoline alone, I could afford more jet-plane travel and a lot more fast food.

So, I have been searching alternately for a used ancient Volvo wagon and a newer used Nissan Versa. These explorations of the used car market have taken me to a garish strip development along an old highway, the part of town which consists of mile after mile of used car lots alternating with fast food outlets. This neighborhood is like a taste of heaven for those of us devoted to used cars and fast food, or, alternately, to fast cars and used food. It is also an invaluable resource for the study of business sociology.

Take Volvos. The newer used models --- those, say, a dozen years old or less --- are all to be found in lots owned by the Volvo dealerships. But the really old ones are all the province of Boris and Sasha, a pair of Russian emigrants who have cornered the business of rebuilding old Volvos. I stopped by their lot to check their wares.

Sasha, a burly, heavily mustachioed Cossack wearing a fur hat and a stick-on saber scar, was poking around under the hood of one of his cars. "Privyet, Sasha," I greeted him, "Kak vi zhivuhtye." He looked up to return my Russian greeting and nod, then turned back to his car and expertly set back the odometer. "Have you got a nice, reliable old Volvo station-wagon on the lot?", I asked. "Any car in my lot is being extra reliable," he replied. "A fox praises his own tail," I said, quoting a Russian proverb. "You can't tie a knot with one hand," he responded, quoting another, and added: "What kind price you thinking of?" "The kopeck saves the ruble," I replied. "Not everybody plows the field, but everybody wants to eat bread," he countered, deftly applying Bondo to the cracked engine bolts of the car he was working on.

After an hour, we ran low on Russian proverbs, and Sasha showed me a couple of his Volvo wagons. "Everything replaced in car," he said, patting one vehicle fondly on its hood, "Is like new car." "By the way," I asked conversationally, "where do you get the old Volvos that you rebuild?" Sasha made a vague, circular gesture in the air. "They are coming to me," he said, as if the old Volvos were pigeons attracted by a scattering of breadcrumbs. I recalled that the previous owners of the used car lot had been a couple of Gypsy brothers, with whom the present operators were perhaps still in contact.

"I like both your wagons" I said, "but I am thinking about the proverb: 'One who sits between two chairs may easily fall down.'" Quick as a wink, Sasha returned, "'Do not teach a pike to swim, a pike knows its own ways.'" Thanking him for the conversation, I assured him that I would be in touch, and set off to investigate the used car market elsewhere. As I left, Sasha was whistling the Song of the Volga Boatman, while pouring coolant system sealer into the radiator, the cylinders, the crankcase, and the radio of the car under his hands.

As a change of pace, I decided to defer the Volvo search for B. and spend some time looking for a Nissan Versa for me. At another lot along the strip, I found and test-drove a clean, 2007 Versa. It looked pretty good to me, although I was made a little nervous by the fact that the lot had acquired it at auction. Why, I thought to myself, would a two-year old car in good condition be auctioned off unless there was something fishy? In any case, I asked Stu, the affable salesman, what trade-in allowance they would give me for my old Nissan Altima toward the purchase of the Versa. He looked over my Altima, shaking his head sadly the whole time, and then explained in a mournful tone that my car's various exterior dings and scuffs would cost them thousands upon thousands of dollars to fix. Alas, he said, they couldn't offer me more than two hundred and fifty dollars, and that would be a gift.

I thanked him for this information and got up to leave, at which point Stu said: "Wait a minute, let me ask my Assistant Manager about your trade-in," and disappeared into an inner office. A few minutes later he emerged, and, without saying a number aloud, he ceremoniously placed a sheet of paper before me which listed $2200 as the trade-in allowance for the Altima. "What do you think of that?", he inquired.

"Hmmm," I said, rising, "that would be worth thinking about. Let me think about it and get back to you later." In a flash, the Assistant Manager himself materialized out of nowhere and sat down next to me. "How much would you need to close the deal?", he murmured in my ear. With one of them in front of me and one on my left, I asked if they wanted to call over a few more guys so as to surround me on every side. The Assistant Manager smiled thinly, and said he liked my sense of humor. In fact, he liked it so well, he said, that he was prepared to actually lose money on a deal with me in order to make me happy.

"What were you expecting to sell the Altima for?", he queried. "Well," I replied, trying to think of a really excessive sum, "I was thinking it might be worth something like six K." The Assistant Manager assumed an expression of deep thought, and then crossed off the $2200 on the sheet of paper and wordlessly wrote in its place: "$4000". He looked at me inquiringly. "Shall we write this up right now?" he said.

At this point I began to feel an urgent need to escape their clutches, so I groaned, and clapped a hand to my bladder. "I'm suffering from a dangerous case of bladder stones, you know," I explained brightly, edging toward the door, "and I just felt a pang in there. I have to rush home right now and telephone my urologist." "You can telephone him from right here," the AM replied smoothly, moving to block my escape, "What's his number?" "Well, he might have to do an emergency operation on me," I said, trying to maneuver past him. "No problem, we could let you have the inner office for the operation," the AM countered, clawing at my lapel, "and I'll add another $300 to the trade-in while you're under the knife." "I don't think I can write a check in my present condition," I said, "but I'll come right back as soon as I can, honest, if I survive." As I backed out the door in the direction of my car, I heard the AM shout: "We could make it $4500 for the Altima right now, but the deal won't be here tomorrow."

Later that afternoon, I went to visit Entropy Car Sales, which sells well-maintained cars from the Entropy rental fleet after a year or two of use. I am very familiar with the place, because it was there, a few years ago, that I originally purchased the used Altima. The car itself seemed to recognize the location too. It's engine sounded especially smooth as we pulled in, and after I got out, it started up on its own and drove itself right into the corral, where it began to nuzzle a blindingly white 2008 Nissan Versa. I took the Versa out for a spin myself, while my Altima negotiated its own trade-in deal with the sales staff. They were so pleased to see it come home that they offered $5650 right off the bat, without any discussion. I didn't have to think too long about that: I actually did experience a tingling feeling in my nether regions this time, but it came from the checkbook in my pocket.

So, now I am the owner of a blindingly white 2008 Versa. Its color is very helpful, because it is so small that if it were darker I would have difficulty finding it in my carport. I find that driving something the size of a skate-board is stimulating, a tonic for the old fight-or-flight reflex that had grown dull in my nervous system during recent years.

But the car seems to have nervous troubles of its own. Last night, as I was sitting in my easy chair, I suddenly heard a series of deafening horn blasts from my driveway. I raced out the door, to discover my new car honking its own horn and frantically blinking its own headlights, as if in great distress. What was I to do? Fortunately, Entropy Car Sales had given me a curious, fob-like thing with buttons on it, attached to the same ring as the car key, so I pressed the red button. This had a calming effect on the vehicle, apparently the automotive equivalent of a Valium, if not of electroshock therapy.

I fear that my Versa may have a touch of dissociative identity disorder (DSM-IV Codes 300.14). Like some other small autos, it suffers a morbid fear that it is about to be kidnapped and subjected to an auto-da-fé. I suppose the two of us will have to consult a therapist. I'd hate to have my car start honking and blinking like crazy sometime while we are hurtling together through the streets. What could I do then, except maybe try to calm it down with old Russian proverbs? Such as: "A horse has four legs, but still it stumbles."

--- Dr. Phage
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