A guest on NPR's 'Car Talk' gets an unexpected answer

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Before my brief cameo on National Public Radio's "Car Talk," I assumed a great deal. I assumed the show was live. I assumed the hosts - Tom and Ray Magliozzi - and I would become good friends, thrilled by the fact that their engineer was my boyfriend's cousin. And I assumed they would solve the problem of what to do with my beloved orange Isuzu Amigo in this troubled time of war in oil-rich Iraq.

Three years ago, I found myself teaching English in southern California full time - a respectable 30-year-old with a retirement plan and graying hair. Terrified, I bought a sporty car with a convertible top.

"I thought you'd get something more conservative," friends said.

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I assumed they were commenting on my car's eye-popping color. But when I moved to the liberal town of Eugene, Ore., two years ago, I realized they'd actually been passing judgment on my Amigo's 4 X 4 chassis and questionable gas mileage.

The question of whether my car is an SUV grew critical as some ecoterrorists in Eugene blew up several Chevy Expeditions at a dealership. Last month, I recoiled from a placard brandished during a peace rally that read: "SUV drivers should be drafted first!"

Terrified that I'd have to sell my Amigo, I decided to consult the experts. My boyfriend and I listened to Tom and Ray weekend mornings on our way to the dog park, impressed with their repartee and free advice.

At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, the "Car Talk" phone lines were busy. A veteran of radio-ticket-giveaways, I hit redial until I got through. But instead of a brisk Boston accent calling out, "Hello! You're on 'Car Talk'!" a recorded message advised me to state my problem after the tone, along with my contact information. Someone would decide later whether my problem was worthy of discussing on the show.

At the beep, I took a deep breath, calling upon my high school acting classes to make my question appropriately poignant. I told my tale of dealership explosives and peace marches, noting eagerly that my Amigo perfectly holds two adults, three dogs, and a ton of camping equipment. Finally, I wailed into the machine: "Is my car an SUV, and should I sell it?"

On Tuesday, I received an e-mail from the show's exuberant producer, indicating that she liked my question, and would I be available to tape on Wednesday morning between 8:30 and 10:30?

"Will I get to talk with Tom and Ray beforehand?" I asked.

"No."

"But your engineer, Tad Curry, is my boyfriend's cousin."

I thought I heard her smile over the phone. "Actually, Tad doesn't work here anymore.

On Wednesday, at 8:30 a.m., I made a cup of tea to soothe my throat and sat at my desk with three dogs panting underfoot. At 10:15, tea cold and dogs passed out on my slippers, the phone rang.

"Hello! You're on 'Car Talk'!"

My words tumbled over each other, tangling in my tongue. I stuttered and stammered, trying to explain my concerns about ecoterrorism and the draft. Finally, I choked out my questions.

"Is my car an SUV, and should I sell it?"

Silence. Then one of the brothers asked, "Why are you asking us?"

Red-faced, I mumbled something about how I regarded Tom and Ray as experts. The rest of the conversation was a blur of jokes and dogs barking.

Why was I asking them, indeed?

The next day, another e-mail informed me that I may or may not make the show, depending on time constraints. If my question aired, I'd hear it that weekend.

Early Saturday morning, my boyfriend's mother called from New York. "I heard Melissa on the radio!" I turned the program on low. There was my voice, lilting and confident. Gone were the stammers. Gone were the barking dogs. Gone was the question, "Why are you asking us?" The magic of sound-editing had turned me darned near eloquent as I explained my dilemma.

At the end of my two minutes of fame, I heard my answer ... sort of. "Some people actually need an SUV," one of then decreed. "And no, your car isn't one."

My phone continued to ring all weekend, friends and family calling to tell me they'd heard the show. An older woman sidled up to me at church, her chest covered with "No War" buttons. "Do you drive an orange Amigo?" she asked slyly. "That was wonderful of you to discuss the problems of oil consumption and war."

"Oil consumption?"

Ihad forgotten to mention the problem of oil consumption. We'd talked momentarily about how my Isuzu gets 22 miles to the gallon, and the SUVs Tom and Ray rail against get 12. But none of us mentioned those smaller passenger cars that run at 30-plus. And no one mentioned the war against Iraq. The question of what we, as American drivers, should do to alter our lives for the betterment of the world had us all stumped.

In the end, I got a different answer than I'd bargained for. I assumed I would drive my car with newfound confidence after the "Car Talk" brothers let me publicly off the hook. But I don't. Now, every chance I get, I ride my bike.

Recently, I received a link to a signed photograph of Tom and Ray - a gift for being on the show. I'll print it out and pin it to my bulletin board as a reminder that experts are only people, after all. They can help with day-to-day problems, such as faulty spark plugs. But it's up to each of us to answer the big questions for ourselves.

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