Lemon Red

Originally published: April 22, 2005

Fed up with his troublesome 1994 Chrysler LeBaron, a Florida man fired five rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the hood.

"I'm putting my car out of its misery," John McGivney, 64, said after the incident outside an apartment building in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, according to a police report that listed the car as "deceased".

McGivney surrendered to police, was jailed on a firearms charge last Friday and released on bond a day later. He told them the car had been giving him trouble for years.

"I think every guy in the universe has wanted to do it," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted McGivney as saying. "It was worth every damn minute in that jail."



I felt for the man, I really did. It brought back to me the acrid smoke of roasting metal and plastic, a noxious, non-organic burning reek accompanied by the soft, rhythmic sound of bubbling radiator seepage. It also brought back a murderous rage, a desire for revenge, an overwhelming impotence. In our case, the particular candidate for euthanasia was an anemic red money pit with four doors and a crappy attitude. In all fairness, it was a used vehicle, purchased in Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá is notoriously hard on cars – apparently particularly so on this 1986 Renault 9. As I drive my almost laughably reliable car today, 16 years later, I wonder where the old Renault Naught is now. I would like to imagine that it is enjoying its eternal rest. I’d like to, but I am just as certain the pathetic thing is still coughing around the streets of Bogotá, its fourth-hand parts cobbled together with exhaust soot, glue, and surplus duct tape, its insolent refusal to die driving its tenth owner to the brink of insanity. 

Living in a new country (new to me, at least – Adolfo is Colombian and was well schooled already) affords one many lessons about the ways of the world. Any residual innocence infecting me was quickly cured. Here are some excerpts from what I called my Running Letters – about life in Bogotá during those years. We were just married, and quite without money – Adolfo was still in the midst of Graduate school, and I had just left a modestly paid job as a jeweler’s apprentice. By comparison, life was cheap in Colombia – but salaries were low and inflation was high. It amuses me now to read back, to see how green I was - and to note how quickly my blood pressure rises again, as if for the first time…


Bogotá, Colombia, early March 1989

“Buying this car here made us aware of one thing: car dealers are the same all over the world. Not only do they all wear the same suit, the same tie, use the same hair-pomade and cologne, they all have the same evil boss who won't let them give you the discount they'd really like to, (but he'll ask, just for you...) and the same already "rock-bottom" prices that can't possibly be lowered any farther. Do you know what we paid for this baby? Do you realize how much work we put into her? Do you know what other car dealers would charge for a fine machine like this one? You'd be, well, a fool not to take it! If you walk out of here today, tomorrow it'll be gone. A car like this? Do you know we've already had three offers on this beauty this morning alone? And for over the sticker price, too! But you seem like such a fine, young couple we wanted you to see it first, and after all, we've done business with your family for so many years... What's your dear mother's name?...And how do you spell that?... 'Robert' in San Jose, CA. and 'Roberto' in Bogotá, Colombia. I'm beginning to think it's the same guy. At any rate we finally got the best terms we could and shook hands, accepting a rather scary monthly payment plan. It's a good car, in excellent shape, which will retain its value. We will be able to sell it for almost what we paid. This is probably the only place in the world where used cars go up in value each year. They are very, very costly, as much as three times the cost of cars in the U.S. Here, since the value goes up, cars are bought as an investment. Driving this 'investment' around the streets of Bogotá is a lot like hiding your jewelry in a shoe-box, placing it out by the trash and hoping the garbage men don't take it away. 

(Reading back, the part I like best is where I said, “ It’s a good car, in excellent shape, which will retain its value.” God, I was hilarious back then!) 


March 20, 1989

Less than two weeks and the damn battery dies. 3.5 million pesos plus financing. In the middle of Semana Santa, a weeklong Easter holiday. Parked at the bottom of a very steeply inclined driveway. The image that keeps coming into my head is that of the oily salesman telling us that the car had been completamente gone over and made absolutamente  perfect for us. In fact, the Renault was so perfect that he could never seem to find words wonderful enough for it, and each time he wanted to enthuse over the car, he had to resort to nonverbal means of communicating his excitement. "This car is… is..." and his black eyes would brim with tears of joy and insuppressible fervor as his mouth worked to find words rapturous enough to express its beauty. Finally, in a reverent gesture, he would raise his hand, the first two fingers touching his thumb and the ring finger and pinkie raised, and then bring the hand down in front of him in a fast, straight line from his forehead to his chest. He would sigh happily and his moist eyes would seek ours, to see if we understood the depth of his suffering and his sacrifices in getting this car ready for us, that in this world of thieves and cheaters, here was one man who was, well...(put your fingers together and bring them down in a straight line in front of you from your forehead to your chest.) Yes, Josue was one in a million. 3.5 million to be exact. 

March 4

        Semana Santa is the longest week of the year, especially since there's no mail delivery all week, no newspaper for several days, very few stores open, and no mechanics on duty. Yes, our car is still having problems despite the fact that it was supposedly "fixed" at our dealer. Yesterday we'd planned to take a beautiful drive together, just the two of us, to the ancient town of Villa de Leyva. It was to be our first escape from the city since we arrived here 21/2 months ago. We got all our cameras together, extra film, and extra clothes, and headed happily down to our newly "fixed" car. We threw the things into the back, hopped in and Adolfo confidently put the key in the ignition and turned it. Grrr,urrr, uuurrrr, uuuhhhh, click. And again. Rahr, rahr, rr..rr..cliickk. And finally, rr..r..uh...u... click. A fine repair job. Lasted a day and a half. We stormed past the poor doorman who was still holding the garage door open for us, although he knew as well as we that the car was going nowhere that day, and up to the apartment to call dear, reliable Carlos Mejia. The uninterested voice of the watchman informed us that Sr. Mejia was away for the rest of Semana Santa. Swell. Adolfo went down to get our things from our car. On a whim he put the key in and tried it. Like something rising from the dead, it started up immediately. We stared at it in wonder and began to think there was something to this Semana Santa stuff after all, what with things coming back to life and all...

We haven't tried the car yet today. I assume that the miracle has passed and that we have once again a common car with no special powers. We are looking forward to biting Mejia's head off its scrawny little neck regardless. Yep, Semana Santa is a looong week if you have nowhere to go.

Monday March 27 

        Sometimes people are born with clouds over their heads. Bad things happen to them and life in general just doesn't seem to work out smoothly. Some cars are made with the same inherent tendency towards disaster. Our ill-fated Renault 9 is such a car. At 7am this morning, the first working day after Semana Santa, finally it was well and truly dead. During the preceding week it had limped along in a strange fashion, rolling over in the morning and coming grudgingly to life after an initial ominous 'click' that sounded hopeless. Today there were no such miracles. It groaned, sighed, clicked and wheezed, and gave up without ever turning over. I was forced to miss teaching my English class altogether, and Adolfo and I stormed righteously back upstairs to call Carlos Mejia. He's never in before nine, and having to wait another hour and a half, we were forced to sit and have our usual cafe-con-leche and bread, all the while cursing Mejia, his ancestors, and his forefathers as the crumbs sprayed from our mouths with the force of our insults. We called Mejia. No answer. We waited. We called Mejia again. Finally we caught up with him. He said he'd talk to the mechanic and call back. When he finally did, Mejia said we were to go to Megautos, (the dealership) and pick up the mechanic because it was too difficult for him to get to our apartment himself, poor thing. Furiously we drove my mother-in-law Fanny’s car to Megautos, which is not particularly close by and stormed in to find Mejia. He was waiting at his desk, looking small and gentle, his eyes bearing a pained, martyred expression. He stood, shook our hands and without letting us speak one word, said that the mechanic would crawl over every inch of the car and put it right. He admitted nothing and denied nothing. He just smiled sadly at us with the expression of an unappreciated parent. We sighed and got back into the borrowed car, our anger still glowing but expertly diffused. The mechanic climbed in back with his jumper cables and off we went. 

        Back at the apartment we drove down the steep driveway and nosed in towards the red Renault 9. The doorman, the mechanic, and I pushed the dead weight of the car back until the cables could reach. The jump did the trick and soon the poor red car was humming away. We handed the mechanic the papers and watched him drive away back to Megautos. At least this time they would fix it for sure. 

        Half an hour later Mejia called Adolfo. As the mechanic was driving back, a drunk in a jeep had crashed into the Renault, caving in the right side and the back passenger door. Mejia was racing around filing the correct insurance papers and getting the police record straight. When Adolfo called and told me, we almost started laughing. It was just the crowning touch. We're still in the middle of the situation, so as they say, more as the story develops.

 March 28

        The car started up this morning like a dream, but I got my first look at the damage. Apparently the drunk was turning right, totally misjudged the distance, and in his soggy, benumbed brain thought he was going in front of, or behind the Renault. What he did instead, of course, was to careen directly into it.  Excellent hand-eye-foot coordination, apparently enhanced by the tremendous quantity of Aquardiente or rum or paint thinner he'd been guzzling. Most of the damage was done with the oversized jeep tires. The door is now a neat convex shape, with a nice appliqué of light-blue jeep paint streaked across the chipped red enamel in what could be considered a dramatic and compelling statement of individuality. The rubber guard strip that once ran the length of each side of the car has been peeled up and it curls backwards over itself like a Husky's tail. 

To add to the injury, it turns out that we have to do all the insurance-related running around ourselves. Mejia, apart from giving us the proper names and papers, is suddenly helpless as far as legwork goes. It's up to us now, although we weren't even in the car when it happened. When Adolfo angrily pointed all this out to Mejia, his rather terse defensive answer was, "But you could have been!"  Not up to his usual high standards of slipperiness. They argued for half an hour before Adolfo gave up and angrily turned to go. Mejia seems very determined that we have a good feeling about him; that we like him. (I am reminded of Buck Henry in "Catch 22" when he grins broadly at a morally crushed and paranoid Yossarian (Alan Arkin), and says, "All you have to do is like us!  Be our pal!") Mejia has said many times that the dealership is very concerned with service, that he doesn't want us to drive by his store six months from now and say, "There's that jerk who sold us this pile of junk!" 

One guess what it was we said each time we drove past his store. And “Jerk” was not our word of choice. Our next fun with the Renault came soon thereafter: 

Adolfo and I had been talking about the necessity of getting the car tuned and checked out. It had a strange sporadic clutch problem, and we once had gone to put water in it, and found it bone-dry, which we found odd. So we'd decided on taking it in to a garage just as soon as we had the time and pesos to do it with. 

The lunch-hour traffic was horrendous, and we crept and crawled up the streets, heading northeast. It had been raining earlier, and the pavement was still wet and the cars were all steaming a bit as the moisture evaporated from their surfaces. At one light, I noticed with slight interest that the car in front of us seemed to be letting off quite a lot of smoke, and that it smelled like burning oil.  Hmph, I thought. What a fool to drive his car in that condition. The light turned green, and then red again, leaving us at the head of the line of traffic. I thought, how strange; the smoke from that other car is still lingering in front of our car... then I came to realize that the smoke and steam and smell were coming from under our own hood. We continued edging our way through traffic, hoping to see a gas station at each block. At the next light, a bored taxi driver leaned out his window and gazed dully at the smoke-screen we'd created, and said something to the effect of, "Ya know, ya got a lot o' smoke there, buddy." I stared at him, marveling at his perceptiveness, when at that moment we spotted a parking space on the left, and we pulled in and switched the damn thing off.

Adolfo lifted the hood and the steam came bellowing up like smoke from a barbecue. Adolfo used the nearby public phone to call Fanny and ask her to call her mechanic. She called back directly and said she'd called Carlos Mejia and he was sending a tow-truck. We waited what seemed like hours, and were about to call Mejia, when a tiny little jeep pulled up behind us, and a mechanic got out and walked toward us. He shook our hands and then peered into the depths of the smelly engine. After a few tests, he said it was a good thing we stopped when we did, that if we'd driven any farther, we might have done some real and costly damage. As it was, he said we'd tow it back to the garage and check it out. Adolfo got in, and steered as we pushed the car back into the street. Then the assistant backed this little jeep up to the front of our rather big Renault 9, and proceeded to hook it up to a tiny little tow bar, supporting it with two blocks of wood while Adolfo still sat inside, peering over the hood. When the mechanic was satisfied with the hook-up, he gave a nod to the assistant, and the mighty little crane raised up the front of our Goliath. I was giggling as I watched Adolfo's eyes widen as he felt the front wheels leave the ground. I stopped giggling when the mechanic busily signaled me to climb in, too. 

It's an odd feeling to be reclined at a 30-degree angle, in a constant state of tailgating, as only the rear wheels take the impact of the various potholes and dips the make up the streets of Bogotá. Adolfo found it disconcerting to look out the rear-view mirror only to see pavement rushing by. It was actually a lot of fun, despite the fact that the driver of the tow-truck seemed determined to lose us. This guy was passing other cars! And, like all drivers in Bogotá, ran yellow-red lights. It did occur to me that we would be the ones stuck in the intersection when the cross-traffic started up. 

That afternoon, Adolfo called to say that it was indeed the radiator, and the car wouldn't be ready until the next afternoon. 

That night, I walked up four blocks from work and grabbed a taxi. It cost about 280 pesos to get home, about .60 cents. If one didn't take one's life into one's hands with every taxi ride, I'd say dump the car and flag a taxi every day. (It would take twelve thousand five hundred taxi rides to equal the sticker price of that car. That doesn't include the 40% financing costs, the gas, the repairs...)

Conspiring with the internal turmoil of this car, were the dark forces of the city itself. One does not come unscathed from the streets of Bogotá. Each day Adolfo drove from his job at the central bank downtown to pick me up from work halfway across town. Each day sucked another sparkplug of life from the Renault. Bumper cars. That was Bogotá. Especially the day Colombia qualified for the World Cup:

Adolfo had been caught in one of the worst jams in the city, and had been completely trapped. Some drunk had rear-ended him, and had taken off, leaving us with a cracked taillight. The city had gone from celebration to mayhem in the last six hours. In addition to that, Fanny had scraped the side of the car when trying to park it earlier. This is a truly battle-scarred automobile. 

Slipping finally into full-blown paranoia, I began to suspect malevolence on the part of the Renault. 

One's life begins to seem terribly narrow and predictable when most of the major events revolve around one's automobile. But it is true that our lives for the last two weeks have centered around and depended on this car of ours, this well-over $10,000 piece of red scrap iron. 

 In all fairness, many of the catastrophes were not the direct fault of the car; Rationally I am aware that these accidents were a result of misfortune rather than mischief on the car's part, but I suspect that the Renault has a wicked inclination to get itself into these situations. It chooses the wrong route at the wrong time, it provokes other cars into hitting it, it distracts the driver with strange, new, and worrisome noises, and it periodically disconnects it's own warning lights, so that when some terrible problem is in progress, the last one to be informed is the driver, and then only because his engine is on fire.

 Admittedly, Bogotá road conditions destroy tires, axles, and shocks at an astonishing rate, the altitude dries up fluids and make gasoline less effective, and the insanity of the drivers here means that the only unblemished cars in the city are the ones that are never taken out of the garage. 

But our car had been having new problems every day. The over-heating, that horrible boiling under the hood, seems to have been caused by the idiot mechanic who fixed the radiator. He had simply not reconnected the fan correctly, and consequently we were driving around without a cooling system. The electrical engineer at Fanny's store, a nice and sensible man by the name of Héctor, had determined the problem and fixed it in about three seconds. He also fixed a disturbing difficulty that had developed with the lock on the front passenger door (mine). One day, it wouldn't open. It remained locked although the button, (which had broken within days of signing the final papers on the car) was up. Well, after several day of battling each time I wanted to extricate myself from the car, we mentioned the trouble to Héctor. He grabbed some screwdrivers, and all 5' 3" of him marched out to tackle the problem. He basically took the door apart, and righted the twisted-up rubber window guide that had been the cause of it all, then quickly reassembled the door. It took him no more than an hour. 

It was becoming more and more evident that we needed a major tune-up. This is a four-speed car that was straining so hard at high speeds that it sounded like it desperately wanted to give birth to a fifth gear. It was a deafening, nerve-shattering sound that we had to endure each time we hit the highway. 

Finally, when we felt we could afford it, and when we thought we could be without the car for a day, we took it to Fanny's mechanic, José Aldana. The next day it sounded like a new car. We were amazed to discover that it actually had power. Based on Aldana's performance, and on his low estimate, we entrusted him with the job of fixing the dented door and the smashed grill (we’d long since given up on Carlos Mejia fixing the damage his inept mechanic had caused) 

The next night, Adolfo picked me up in a car that looked like leprosy had struck. The dents and nicks were fixed but unpainted, so the right rear door was patched in a sickly gray color. But at least we were on our way. All that was needed now was the paint and the grill. 

The next day, Adolfo and I met for lunch. Afterwards, I still had about half an hour before I had to return to work, so I picked up my things from the car, said good-bye to Adolfo and walked off towards the post office to mail a few items. Half way down the block, from behind me, I heard the crunching sound of buckling metal. This isn't a terribly uncommon sound in this city, but I glanced back in mild curiosity. Then I saw our car pulling back into the parking space where it had been, disengaging it's rear-end from the side of a Fiat. 

I ran back to where a crowd of people had already gathered. First I saw the woman leap out of the Fiat and begin screaming at Adolfo, who had also gotten out. Then I saw our entire bumper lying on the ground, then I saw the crunched in side of the Fiat behind the driver's door. The woman was abusively telling Adolfo he hadn't looked and had just creamed into her, and Adolfo was trying to explain to her that he did look, but that she had seemed to come out of nowhere, and on the wrong side of the street to boot. Her brilliant and nonsensical comment had been, "How do you go the wrong way on a two-way street?!" This kind of logic leads me to understand why there are so many accidents here...  

As is common in Bogotá, delivery trucks tend to just park wherever suits them, and on this day, one was blocking the northbound lane of the narrow street. Adolfo began backing out slowly, looking first left, then right. Having determined that it was clear, he pulled out at a normal cautious speed into his lane. Now, the woman in the Fiat had pulled out a few cars down from Adolfo, who could not have seen that because yet another truck was obscuring the view on that side. She pulled out, then headed into the wrong lane in order to avoid the parked truck. So, when she came barreling past Adolfo, she was actually going the wrong way, and I say 'barreling' because she literally ripped our bumper right off. Adolfo had not been expecting anyone to be on the wrong side of the street, and so had not seen her as she sped up behind him.

As the unpleasantries flew, finally a traffic cop came up and took both drivers aside and talked to them. It was decided that we would deal with it on our own, as the legal system here regarding this kind of minor thing is a nightmare. The cop had implied it would all turn out to be Adolfo fault since by law here, the person who does the backing into is at fault, whether the other person was on the wrong side of the road or not. 

Once the woman realized we were going to pay for the damage to her car, she became all smiles and condolences, agreeing that it really was the fault of the street conditions. We exchanged all relevant information under the wise, watchful eyes of the police officer, and then drove off with the bumper wedged into the back seat. 

The next day, good old Héctor fixed the twisted bumper and replaced it on the car, making it look better than it had before. We called Aldana and explained the situation to him, and he agreed to fix the Fiat. The following week, he repaired her car, and painted ours. I've missed three classes and delayed my pay check due to lack of car, paid for taxis five times, and we've been hit with bills for not just our car, but for the Fiat. We'd finally pulled ourselves out of a financial hole and were actually saving some money, and now we're back where we started. Charming. 


That was the last I wrote about the old car. When it was time to return to the US at the end of 1992, I went on ahead to start work in California. Adolfo was left to sell off our stuff, including the Renault. It is true that cars do hold onto their value much better in Colombia than they do in the US, and we were counting on a good price. But even in parting with the little succubus we had a nasty surprise. The prospective buyer gently informed us that upon inspection, his mechanic had determined the car was not the model we’d been led to believe – the model number affixed on the back of the trunk was never manufactured in the year our Renault was spawned. It was, in fact, a less powerful, less expensive model than what we’d believed we’d purchased. The long, nimble arm of Mejia had even gone so far as to sand off the real number on the engine. Adolfo was forced to take a rather sizable drop in price.

So I understand the man who shot his car. I feel his pain. I consider myself a pacifist, and advocate the total control of firearms, but I know to the depths of my now jaded and stony heart that if I’d had access to a gun back then, I would have drilled that red tin devil right between the headlights.

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