From a Penny a Mile to Four Bucks a Gallon

My first car was a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. It was a tiny little thing. You didn't get in it, you put it on.

I loved my "bug" for two reasons. First, when I was in high school and managed to get a date, I would always take her to a movie at the Highway 51 Drive-in. My Beetle was so tiny that my date had no alternative but to snuggle right next to me. There was a stick shift between us, but that was just something I had to work around.

Second, my Beetle was a very cheap, reliable form of transportation.

Forty years ago, it cost me $3 to fill up my Beetle with gas. Not $3 a gallon, mind you, three bucks to fill the entire tank.

In 1968, gas cost 30 cents a gallon, and my Beetle would go about 30 miles on a gallon of gas. Based on my UT math, that means I drove my Beetle for about a penny a mile.

My Beetle drove me through high school, college, law school, and the first several years of my law practice. And then, sometime during the first term of the Reagan Administration, I made a terrible mistake. I sold my Beetle. I can't remember how much I got for it, but believe me, it wasn't enough.

These days I drive a Toyota Avalon. My father, a veteran who spent WWII in the South Pacific, doesn't like my Japanese Toyota, but he wasn't crazy about my German Beetle either. Dad, who is now 84, no longer drives, but if he did, his car of choice would be a 1956 Ford Fairlane. I can't argue with him. The car I have lusted in my heart for most of my life is a 1965 Ford Mustang with an 8-track tape deck. (The really cool thing about old 8-track tape decks is that you could listen to two songs at the same time.)

It now costs me nearly 70 bucks to fill my Toyota's Japanese tank. I would love nothing more than to put the Toyota in moth balls and "go green" by taking mass transit. But there are just two problems.

First, like most lawyers, I live in my car. While, like Rain Man, I am a very good driver, I am your typical multitasking lawyer motorist, talking on my cell phone in one hand and blabbing into a dictaphone in the other while I cruise down the expressway "holding" the steering wheel with my knees.

Second, I live in Memphis, a city known for its great barbeque and absolutely pathetic mass transit. While other cities across America are developing light rail transit, Memphis has a trolley line that can transport me from one abandoned building in downtown Memphis to many other abandoned buildings in north Memphis, south Memphis and midtown Memphis. For example, I can take the Memphis trolley from the abandoned Sterick Building in downtown Memphis where no one works, all the way to the abandoned Sears Crosstown building in midtown where no one shops. But if I wanted to go from my office (which is located in a downtown building that, at least at this point, we have not abandoned) to my home, which my family and I have also not abandoned, it just couldn't be done.

To utilize Memphis Area Transit, I have to leave my occupied office and go find an abandoned building. There I can ride the trolley to another abandoned building that is located as close as possible to my currently occupied house. Of course, with the price of gas continuing to soar upward like an out-of-control NASA rocket, my family and I may soon have to abandon our house and just live in our car. When this happens, the Memphis Area Transit Authority will immediately re-route the trolley system so that it goes directly to our abandoned house.

I am still hoping that if I live long enough, my city will have a light rail transit system that (now here's an idea) transports me to places where I actually want to go. Until then, as a traveling lawyer, I am apparently left with the following options:

  • Take out a third mortgage on my house so that I can continue to fill the tank on my thirsty Japanese car.
  • Start riding my bike to work every day. This may be dangerous given the potential conflict between my constant use of my cell phone and dictaphone and my need to grip both handle bars. I've tried gripping the handle bars with my knees. It just doesn't work.
  • Borrow my 12-year-old daughter's skateboard.

I heard on my car radio the other day that Detroit may soon produce the "Chevy Volt," a plug-in electric car. If I can afford it, I'll buy one, although with all my driving, it would have to have one incredibly long extension cord.

I just wish I knew where I could find my 1968 Beetle. I realize I can no longer drive it for a penny a mile, but I might just want to park it and use it either for my office or my home.

And if the Memphis Area Transit Authority thinks my Beetle is abandoned, they'll send a trolley right to it.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.