I was driving through the mountains on a hot summer day when I came upon a long line of traffic following an old Volkswagen Beetle, struggling to make it up a hill as the four-cylinder engine rattled and belched under the strain.
I pulled up alongside to pass and saw a fellow who looked like he was stranded in the hippie era — a relic from Haight-Ashbury or a roadie from the Grateful Dead. He was bald with a gray ponytail and granny glasses, and as dilapidated as his VW bug, which had a vent window that was blowing mountain air on him. There was no air conditioning in that German jalopy.
I hadn’t seen a vent window since my ’60 Ford Fairlane, which had holes in the floor and left a trail of burning oil like the contrail from a Boeing 747. I was overcome by nostalgia when I saw that small triangular window, also known as a “quarter glass.” They were functional, multipurpose windows that made it easy to toss out cigarette butts, wads of chewing gum and cold coffee without having it blow back in your face. Sad to say, littering was socially acceptable in those days.
Vent windows let you direct the air flow and helped keep you cool before cars had air conditioning, back when vinyl seats got so hot they had to pry your keister loose with a tire iron on an August afternoon at the beach.
I could also direct the vent so that when I was puffing on a Marlboro, it sucked the smoke out. My mother never knew I’d been smoking in her car, although she got suspicious when she saw ashes on the dashboard.
The vent window was a great idea that succumbed to progress. Some genius with an engineering degree from MIT decided it was more aerodynamically efficient to get rid of them and install air conditioning, so that you had less wind resistance and more control over the climate. He was probably named employee of the month.
Now, our cars are as hermetically sealed as NASA space capsules. I know some people — I happen to be related to them — who never open their car windows and always use climate control, regardless of the season. The wind, I’ve been told by my daughters, is bad for their hair. Besides, with an open window, a bee might fly into the car while they’re driving and cause more hysterics than a zit on Kim Kardashian’s nose.
One day last May, my wife insisted we had to put the air conditioning on because the dog was panting, even though it was 70 degrees outside.
“I’m not hot,” I said.
“Well, that’s because the sun isn’t coming in on your side. It’s hitting me and the dog.”
“Let’s open the windows,” I suggested. “And smell the fresh air!”
“No, it will mess up my hair … and the dog’s hair,” she said.
In my experience, dogs love to stick their noses out the window so they can take in the scents. Nevertheless, the air conditioner went on.
Then, came the day of reckoning. My air conditioner broke and I refused to have it fixed. Chipmunks, it seemed, had been storing acorns and bird seed in my ventilation system, and the repair cost was more than I wanted to pay, so I decided to swear off AC for Lent — nine months ahead of schedule. (Will that sacrifice still count next March?) Finally, I could be a free spirit like the antique hipster in his VW. However, no friend, foe or family member would ride with me. (The best laid plans of mice and men and chipmunks and cheapskates.)
While I was driving down old Route 8, feeling pretty self-righteous and living the good life with the wind blowing through my hair, at least what’s left of it, I came upon one of those fanatical landscapers you see on the roadside, who was blowing grass clippings and leaves onto the highway and kicking up a dust storm. I felt like Captain Kirk steering the Enterprise through an asteroid field.
Suddenly, I drove into a microburst of debris that flew into the car and went in my mouth, nose and eyes. Red alert! Red alert! Who had the crazy idea to drive with the windows open anyway?
Joe Pisani can be reached at [email protected]