I owned a bright orange 1973 VW Bug for 30 years. I loved and in many ways “identified” with it. I parked it on campus almost every day as close to the physics buildings as I could, and students and colleagues knew I was in when they saw the car.
I bought it while on sabbatical in Paris. Although I wanted to buy a French car, I couldn’t because they weren’t certified for California without elaborate changes to the exhaust system. So I ordered a yellow, automatic VW bug. The VW people wanted $2400 in American cash (car plus insurance plus shipping!). American cash was not easy to get in Paris, but I managed. I felt uncomfortable carrying that much cash in my wallet or pocket, so I put twelve one hundred dollar bills in each shoe and set off for the VW factory in Wolfsburg.
Because of heavy rain, my money got wet. I tried to dry the bills under a heat lamp at a Holiday Inn. I wasn’t too careful and the edges got burned, but the VW people took the money anyway. They said their automatic bugs were awful, however, and wouldn’t make it up a Berkeley hill. They insisted that I take the orange manual model.
In Paris, my colleagues didn’t like the color and were mad that I didn’t get a French car, but they liked knowing “when I was in” just by looking for my car. I drove across Paris to take my children to school everyday, an hour each way. The bug was such a faithful companion that I took it with me on my next sabbatical to Honolulu. Colleagues there, in Berkeley, and in Paris would say things like, “Marvin is inseparable from his car.”
In 1995, when Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien called and told me that I was to be honored with a University Professorship, which would give me the opportunity to serve at all of the UC campuses, I felt grateful for the recognition. After my colleagues found out about my appointment, they offered congratulations, and most of them asked, “Do you get a parking place like the Nobel Laureates?” None asked if I got a salary raise (I didn’t), which tells you something about the priorities of academics. I said I didn’t know, but I’d find out when I went to renew my permit.
At the Parking Office I asked the person working there about it. He said, “Do you also have a Nobel Prize like Professor Townes?” who was the only other University Professor on our campus at that time.
I said, “I don’t.”
He said, “That’s too bad.”
I answered, “Yes, it is.”
He said he couldn’t do anything for me but said I should ask the Parking & Transportation Office. I did, and they said they would refer it to the Parking Committee, but in the meantime, I would get assigned parking. Soon after that my bright orange bug (license plate “POPOKI,” which was also the name of our cat and means ‘cat’ in Hawaiian) was parked next to a pole with a “UP” sign on it, for University Professor. Popoki and I were delighted, but it was not to last. The Parking Committee put my case on their schedule and interviewed me. Unfortunately, at one point I did state that our football coaches and assistant coaches had parking provided for them, so why not one more permit? That did not sit well with the committee.
After the interview, I reported to my colleagues that I had flunked my oral exam, which is what they called it, and soon the UP pole was gone, replaced by an undignified cement mound. It was sad, particularly for my bug which had looked so proud parked in its own special space, its “UP Parking Permit” dangling from its rearview mirror.
Read our 2015 profile of theoretical physicist Marvin L. Cohen here, and Zen and the Art of Bug Repair, from our Fall 2017 issue, here. Got a VW tale of your own to tell? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.