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By Christine Schoenwald

You get a sick feeling when you realize your family isn't just odd -- they are out of the park eccentric, and your hopes of just blending in will never be realized.

When I was nine, two older girls went around our suburban neighborhood and left notes rating everybody's Christmas decorations. I could handle the fact that they gave us demerits for our lack of lights, roof Santas and nativity displays -- it was just some eighth graders' opinions. What the hell did they know about holiday décor? (Though secretly I was mortified.) When my brother was kicked out of school for being so out of control on drugs that he imitated a fire engine, I took it in stride. "Fire Engine Fritz," ha ha now there's a funny nickname. Ha ha funny until somebody called me "Fire Engine Chris," but still I handled it.

But there was one secret I could not handle. One secret that if it ever became public knowledge, the Schoenwald family would be branded with an F for Freak for the rest of our natural lives. I can barely say it now, it pains me so. Okay, I'll just blurt it out: My parents didn't drive. They didn't drive. And needless to say, we didn't have a car. Gasp!

I know if we had been native New Yorkers it might have been different, but we lived in San Jose, California, a bedroom community south of San Francisco that just reeks of commute and drive time and car pool and drive-ins and everything automotive. Everybody had at least one car, maybe two, maybe three. Parked in the garage with the Genie door opener, or in the carport, or proudly in front of their tract houses. Sometimes people haughtily parked their cars on their lawn as if to say, "Fuck greenery, our Impala is as beautiful as any flora or fauna." Washing their cars, waxing their cars, and working on their cars was what they did every weekend. With carburetors and engines laying prostrate on the parkway, these car owners were real Americans, normal people who ate hot dogs not wieners, and apple pie not apple strudel. My father was from Vienna, Austria, and I knew that was our first strike. He was used to walking or using public transportation. He took the Orient Express to Shanghai during the war, and a ship to San Francisco after. He may have also had a fear of driving, I don't know. I do know he had a fear of flying. He never flew in an airplane -- ever! He would take the train from San Jose to San Francisco every day for work. Like a New Yorker, not like a Californian.

My mother had one driving lesson in 1955, crashed into a curb, got out of the car and never got behind the wheel again.

I would lie to my friends about our lack of wheels. Crazy lies about how my father wasn't the financial consultant for Dole Pineapple Company, but a race car driver. "Yeah my Dad drives, he just doesn't want to bring his work home with him."

My father walked everywhere, and speedily -- like he was always in a race! He would also take the bus. No object was too big or cumbersome for Dad to take on the MTA. I'm pretty sure my father is the only one in San Jose to have brought a five foot tall, bushy and undecorated Christmas tree onto the Northbound 82. When I got a bike for Christmas he brought that on, too. Of course I didn't appreciate that effort on his part, I was too angry that he had bought me a bike with a curved bar. A curved bar!? How queer -- and not queer in stylish cool way, but queer in a deeply embarrassing way. No one had curved bars on their bikes. Could he never get me anything normal? Could he never be like all those other normal dads?

Walking anywhere with my parents was excruciating. If I could have disguised myself with a big floppy hat and sunglasses a la Lucy Ricardo, I would have. Around this time my mother became what was then called a "health nut," which is now called "someone who eats right". Her "health nut" status could explain all the walking we did. It was for health reasons. Nobody went to the gym in the seventies. Gyms were for muscle bound meatheads, not regular people. Health conscience people had stationary bikes in their rumpus rooms and took long walks around their neighborhoods. That's why it was O.K. for my mother to be seen walking and it wasn't as demoralizing for me to be seen with her. She was just getting some exercise. "Working out" hadn't been invented yet.

Then a miracle happened when I was in the fifth grade. Somebody gave my parents a car. It wasn't even a junky car, but a station wagon in fairly good shape. A car that any normal mother would have been proud to take the kids out to Dairy Queen in. Having a car parked in our driveway was the back-up I needed for my lies. "See we've got a car, it's right there! Why would we have a car if no one was driving it?" Yes, why indeed? Unfortunately that's what my parents thought, and gave it away to some deserving family! Didn't they realize we were the deserving family? We were teetering on the brink of weirdo-land, and they were oblivious to the danger.

Now you would think that with all this shame I felt about my family not driving and not owning a car, that I would have gotten my driver's license immediately upon turning 16. But I knew they would never buy me a car and I couldn't afford to buy myself one. I needed to save my babysitting money for important stuff like Partridge Family records, Bonnie Bell lip gloss, and Lemon Up shampoo. I didn't get a license until I was 30 and my father had already passed away.

My mother still doesn't understand the need for having a car. She lives in a small town called Walnut Grove now. She'll take the one bus on alternative Thursdays into Sacramento if she needs something out of the ordinary like yogurt or wheat germ. (She's still a "health nut".) She continues to walk everywhere. When my first car was stolen and then my second car, I was perplexed about what I could do to prevent the third one from getting stolen. My mother had what she felt was a genius idea. "What you should do is keep a bag of poop in the car, that way it will smell really badly and no one will want to steal it."

"Yes Mother," I countered," but it will smell while I'm driving it."

"No silly, you take the poop out when you're in the car."

Ah, the famous bag o' poo security system, so much more effective than Lojack.

I live in L.A. on Cloverdale, a street where parking is at a premium. It is not unlikely for me to spend hours driving in circles looking for a space. I work some nights too. Does she expect me to spend an hour looking for parking and then another hour looking for poop? I have cats -- perhaps I shouldn't throw out the old litter, just dump it into the back of the car.

"My car is so crappy," I could say honestly. I could then become the girl who carries shit in her car, and that would be far more eccentric than just having parents who didn't drive.

Freakville, your prodigal daughter has come home.

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