I’ve always liked to think that while the rich stew that is my own stupidity is made of many, many ingredients, overconfidence and hubris are not major ones. But then I think back to the incident I’m about to tell you about and I realise that, yeah, my stupidity stew is spiced with plenty of those, too. This incident involves my Beetle, a roof rack, and an armchair my then-girlfriend really loved. This doesn’t end well.15
This all happened back when my then-girlfriend — we’ll call her Kat, because that was her name — and I moved out to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. We were young and beautiful and ready to be brutally masticated by that exciting city. It was a fun time.
That was also a point in my life when I only owned one car — my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, a car I still have and still love. When you have only one car, that one car tends to become all of the types of cars you may need, filling all the roles you demand of it, because it’s all you’ve got.
I always liked to build and make things, and sometimes what I wanted to do were the sorts of things that a little pickup truck would be ideal for. Not having the resources or the space for a pickup truck, I did the best I could and got an old VW dealer accessory roof rack for my Beetle.
Mine was kind of rusty, but solid, and I painted it a metalflake blue, which I thought worked well with my yellow Bug. Here’s a rare picture from that pre-everyone-has-a-camera-always era:
Man, look at that lush head of hair.
Anyway, I used the shit out of that roof rack, carrying all kinds of things. For example, when I decided to build a work shed for the backyard of our Fairfax Avenue apartment, I carried all the wood and everything on the roof rack.
Ladders, firewood, bicycles, big bins of things, a desk, a table, whatever, I strapped it to the Beetle’s blue hat and took it wherever I needed to go. It was great.
I got really good at securing things to the rack, and I never had an issue with anything falling off or coming loose. I thought I was roof rack hauling hot shit.
That’s why when Kat decided she wanted to re-upholster this funny old mid-century armchair we had, the idea of renting a truck or something never entered my mind. I knew we could transport the thing like I transported everything too big to cram into the back of a Beetle — on the roof!
And, getting the chair to the upholsterer, I did just that. It worked great! I was feeling pretty proud of my little teamster Beetle.
A few weeks later we got the call that the chair was finished, and we could pick it up. Excited, Kat and I drove out to the shop — somewhere in East LA, I think — and paid what I remember as being a hell of a lot of money for the freshly-recovered and re-stuffed chair.
It looked great, and everyone involved was excited. We hefted it up onto the roof rack, and I very carefully and methodically strapped it securely to the tubes of the rack.
Everything seemed good, and it felt as secure as when I drove it to the shop in the first place. So good, in fact, that this caused me to make a fatal mistake: I figured it’d be fine to go home on a freeway, to save time.
This was a deeply, lavishly stupid idea, borne out of hubris and thoughtlessness. When I took the chair to the upholster’s shop initially, we went on surface streets, at low speeds, in LA traffic. We very likely didn’t even get over 35 or 64 km/h, I bet.
The freeway, though, that was a different story. I think we went back on the 110, and it was unusually relatively traffic-free, which was great, since Kat was excited to get the chair home, and I was riding high on the delusion that I wasn’t such a fuck-up.
Just to be clear, I am a fuck-up, as this next bit will illustrate.
I started out slow and cautious, occasionally reaching out the window to confirm the straps were solid and didn’t loosen or shift. Everything felt good, so I increased speed — 50, then 55, then 60, and by then I felt pretty invincible.
All was good, my straps were holding, we were about halfway home, Kat was happy, everything was right in Los Angeles.
Then this happened:
Sure, my strapping was top-notch, that really didn’t matter, because that roof rack was just held onto the car via a pair of little clamps on the rain gutters, one on each side, right above the B-pillar.
So, when all of that 55 to 60 mph air was slamming into that huge, sail-like chair back sitting proudly on the roof, it was just a matter of time before the drag force of that chair overwhelmed those little clamps, and wooosh, off flew the chair and the whole damn roof rack, clipping the edge of my licence plate light housing before landing, like some kind of perverse, horribly-designed helicopter, on the road.
I still vividly remember seeing the blur of green in my rear-view mirror as the chair and roof rack took flight off the roof of the car. I think Kat screamed.
I pulled over almost immediately, and we ran back on the shoulder of the road to see the chair. Incredibly, it landed upright, and the roof rack, acting as a sort of landing gear, absorbed all of the shock of the impact, breaking its legs off but miraculously leaving the chair intact and relatively unharmed.
I remember Kat and I looking in stunned silence at the chair, sitting there so comfortably in the middle of the highway, both our minds forming a bold, idiotic plan: We’re gonna go grab it.
This is, of course, a terrible, terrible idea: Running out into the middle of a fucking Los Angeles freeway to grab something big and ungainly and try to run it back to the shoulder? Dangerous, stupid, stupid plan. And we were getting ready to do it.
We squared up at the shoulder of the road, waiting for a break in traffic. Incredibly, there was a pause, and we looked at each other, ready to sprint. A moment before we launched ourselves into those asphalt rapids, this happened:
Seemingly out of nowhere, a big 18-wheeler appeared, and without even slowing down, drove right over the chair, reducing it to an expensive pile of period-correct fabrics and toothpicks.
We stood there, for a moment, stunned at what happened, maybe each processing how close we came to getting ourselves killed, and accepting that the chair was now very truly fucked.
Still stupid, I did run out and drag the remains off the road, so the wouldn’t cause damage or danger to other cars, and as I finished that, a cop pulled up to us.
All I really remember is him yelling at me for being an idiot, and saying “do you have any idea what a speeding truck would do to you if you got hit?”
The thing was, yeah, I kind of did, since I pretty much just saw it happen.
The ride home was no fun at all. I loaded up the wreckage into the rear luggage well, and I recall that Kat didn’t say a word to me for the whole ride back. And maybe most of the next day.
To this very day, if you look on the licence plate light housing of my Beetle, you can still see the scrapes left by that chair and roof rack jettisoning from the roof, and I want to keep them there as long as I have the car, as a good visual reminder of my own prodigious capacity to be an idiot, because sometimes it’s good to remember such things.
There’s a lot of lessons here: Don’t drive fast with big, vertical things on your roof, it’s not just how you’ve secured something to the rack that matters, but also how the rack is secured to the car, don’t do dumb things that make your partner miserable, but maybe mostly that physics does not care one bit how confident you are about, well, anything.
RIP, chair. You deserved better.