Dumb and dumber

Yesterday I did what my father once did (see The stupid suit)—I poured water into a sink I’d just decoupled. I had to laugh. Was getting older like this? Was I going to do every dumb thing my father had ever done? I had hoped that I’d move on to bigger and dumber things, but it looked as though I was doomed to follow in his footsteps, one by one.

Then I remembered a story my parents had told time and again, a story that always put all dumbness into proper perspective. In the sixties, we lived in Leiden, a university city on the western coast of Holland, a southern province of the Netherlands. I was too young then to now remember much of this, but apparently the citizens of Leiden were—as most of the Dutch are to this day—a socially conscientious lot. My father had once painted our apartment only to be met by an angry man on our doorstep a few days later.

“I hear you’ve painted this apartment,” the man seethed.

“Yes—” thus my father.

“But I’m a painter,” the man declared and folded his arms.

“So it seems,” my father hesitated, “am I. It wasn’t too hard. I could do it just fine.”

“But I’m a painter!” the man insisted.

As it turned out, the neighbours had alerted the painter to this theft of his opportunities. They were like this with everything, into one another’s business, pushing a near-socialist agenda in ravingly democratic Holland.

“It was always strange to me,” my mother would say, “to see the barriers they’d erect in the name of freedom.”

“Then there were old Jan and Famke,” my father would relate. “They lived just down the street, with their only son, a boy they’d had when Famke was almost fifty.”

“He was pimply and stringy,” my mother added with pursed lips.

“His name was Joop,” my father said as if to correct for how pimply and stringy he’d been. “Anyway, Jan and Famke had decided, after much thought, to buy a BMW Isetta 300.”

The Isetta was a bubble-shaped bug of a car, he explained, essentially a motorcycle surrounded by a car-like helmet. The model Jan and Famke had bought was second-hand, a three-wheel thing that would arrive from England.

“There was much excitement up and down the street, where most people walked or used buses. Jan was getting on in years—older by a decade than Famke—and it seemed about time that he could sit down to get somewhere.”

“Jan had a mole between his eyes,” my mother added and lit a cigarette. “He always looked focused.”

“Jan was a mathematician,” my father said. “He was, mostly, a smart man.”

“He had a mole.”

“So,” my father forged ahead, “Jan and Famke decided to build a little garage. For the Isetta.”

As the story went, when the neighbours found out that Jan and Famke were building a garage—a bedroom-sized appendage to their little house—all hell broke loose. Why would they do that? Wouldn’t it be better to build a room for a boarding student? When the builders broke ground, neighbours stood in the street bearing signs. At one point, fruit was hurled as there were no stones to be found in Holland.

“A few months later,” my father went on, “despite incessant demonstrations by the neighbours, the garage was finished and the Isetta arrived.”

“It was orange,” my mother remarked.

“What difference does that make?” my father asked.

“Well,” she paused, “it looked like a tortoise crossed with a Ferrari.”

“So,” my father forged ahead again in what was by then a set rhythm of their story, “Jan and Famke and Joop got into the Isetta, Joop on the little shelf in the back, his legs around his ears, while the neighbours shouted their democratic disagreement.”

“There were people among them that I didn’t recognise,” my mother said. “They’d called in reinforcements from somewhere, it seemed.”

“And so,” my father said, “Jan and Famke and Joop drove their little Isetta into its newly-built little garage. The people in the street hefted signs and shouted things about space and students and capitalism.”

He shook his head—he always did at this point of the story—and said, “And here Jan discovered two things. First, since the Isetta’s only door opened to the front, it couldn’t now be opened. And second, the Isetta didn’t have a reverse gear.”

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