The automobile market in Washington is surging like a certain local pro football team.
The classifieds are choked with cream puffs of every size and vintage. Even a dim-bulb salesperson routinely "moves" 10 cars each weekend -- often more. Vehicles costing more than $25,000 apiece account for more than 60 percent of all new car and truck sales in the area, according to industry figures.
And the surge doesn't look as if it's about to go poof.
Asked in a recent survey what their first major purchase will be after graduation, members of the local college classes of 2000 said it would be a car (not a house, not a truckload of beer, not a trip to Europe). Meanwhile, a Montgomery County businessman told me that 20,000 families in that jurisdiction alone expect to be in the market for a new or additional car in 2000.
Moaning about traffic is a staple of local life. Yet we Washingtonians clearly intend to create more of it.
If you look deeper, however, you'll find that a major spur to all this car buying is change in marital status. As soon as a person goes from being single to being hitched, or as soon as a person gets divorced or separated, old wheels go on the block and new ones soon get bought.
We've known for ages that having children causes larger vehicles to appear in driveways. All those minivans -- and all the jokes about them -- aren't based on fiction, after all.
But what's happening now in the Washington marketplace is: Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl bring two cars to the marriage, boy and girl decide to keep one "single car" and buy one new "couple car." Thus, one member of the wedding sells a Singlemobile that he or she loved dearly.
Sharon Richardson's story shows how this works. A reader with a husband and two children, she called the other day to ask me how she might dispose of her midnight blue 1986 Nissan 200SX sports car without trying to sell it.
Sharon's Nissan had been sitting in the family's garage for two years. At the time she put it there, "it was running. It was driving fine," Sharon said. But the car got shelved in 1997, three weeks before her second child was born, because it had only two doors. Lately, it had just been taking up space, Sharon says.
Besides, her family didn't need any more car capacity than it was getting from its 1990 Toyota Camry and its 1998 Dodge Caravan minivan. The Midnight Blue Express, which Sharon had driven for many years as a single adult, had been pushed out of her life when she acquired her husband, Claiborne Richardson II, and later, their two children.
Sharon was embarrassed at the thought of trying to sell a rattletrap that might fetch only $100. She ended up donating the car to Children's Hospital rather than selling it. This is a luscious option for any of you with similar clunkers. You get a tax deduction and a ton of garage space back, while Children's gets the fair-market value of the car.
But the metropolitan area also gets a Singlemobile back on its streets.
Children's sells donated cars at auction, usually to dealers. So do other charities. These cars are soon resold, usually to singles. Thus, the cycle repeats.
Sharon says her minivan is a sea of "cracker crumbs, Cheerios, swim goggles and Girl Scout uniforms." She says she "loved my little Nissan. It took me all over the place. I was very fond of it." Yet the fact that she cashed in the latter for the former shows you that family status is what's moving the mountainous auto market these days.
It turns out that Susan B. Anthony was my ace in the hole. She can be yours, too.
In a recent column, I heaped scorn upon my clumsy self for messing up the "tooth fairy" ritual. The problem was what I called "the crinkle factor."
Several years ago, as I tried to slip a dollar bill under my son's pillow one night -- and slip his carefully left-behind tooth out -- I inadvertently grazed the pillowcase with the buck. My son stirred, I wasn't able to finish the transaction -- and another fatherly failure went into the books.
Judith M. Costello, of Atlanta, was the first reader among several to weigh in with a great idea.
"I'm surprised you didn't think to recommend keeping a supply of one-dollar coins on hand for the purpose," Judith wrote.
"Unlike George Washington, Susan B. Anthony (and soon, Sacajawea) won't make crinkling noises under the pillow. And if the toothless recipients have never before seen such a coin, imagine their dawning pleasure with the recognition that, no, it's not a quarter, it's really a dollar."
But where does one get Susan B. Anthony bucks, which, to be kind, did not exactly take the world by storm when they were first issued in 1979?
Answer: the U.S. Mint catalogue or online via www.usmint.gov, reports my researcher, Lynn Ryzewicz.
But Anthonyists had better hurry. The government's supply of Susans is running low, and the coin will be discontinued in any event early in 2000. That's when a new dollar coin (with Sacajawea's likeness on it) will be offered instead. The Sacajawea will be the same size as a Susan, but it will be gold-colored instead of silver.