Home is where the Beetle is
By Daniel Becerril
The need to find a place and make it your own is sometimes the only way to cope in a life full of surprises, hardship, sorrow and joy. It’s unbelievable how humans are capable of accommodating themselves in any space and under any circumstances.
I first heard of Oscar Almaguer, or Don Oscar, on a local TV program. It was the story of an 83-year-old man who had been living in a battered VW Beetle for the last 10 years. Don Oscar’s story was the perfect one to show life’s full range of social complexities and I thought it would definitively make an interesting picture story.
In these times of economic hardship it’s not that uncommon for people to live in their cars after falling on hard times but Don Oscar’s story is a little bit different. He and his wife got divorced 10 years ago and sold everything in order to split it in equal parts. Instead of leaving Don Oscar with half, she disappeared with everything, or almost everything. What she did leave him was their 1967 VW Beetle, known here by the Mexican nickname “Vocho.”
Devastated, with no money to buy or rent a place, Don Oscar had no alternative but to start living in the Beetle. His monthly pension of 2,000 pesos ($153) was barely enough to buy some food; new clothes or shoes were out of the question and a cell phone was an inconceivable luxury for him.
One of his daughters, with whom he was reunited several years ago, offered him lodging but he decided to take her up on her offer only once in a while. When he does, he parks his car in her garage and enjoys a shower, uses the kitchen, sits in a chair and watches TV. For me, it’s a bit difficult to understand but I guess he has grown so fond of his car as his only private space, that he prefers it to living with someone else.
People have offered to buy the Beetle but he has always refused to sell. One day a man with 10,000 pesos ($765) cash in his hand tried to convince him. People still ask him at times: “Hey, how much for the Vochito?”, but he ignores them.
Thirty years ago he drove a 1976 AMC Gremlin but somebody had told him that it wouldn’t last very long and the car was discontinued. That same year someone offered to switch cars with him and he thought it would be a good deal to exchange the Gremlin for the older Beetle.
The maintenance of the now 46-year-old Beetle has been basic. The uneven color and texture, which now hide the original paint, comes from several layers of common oil-based paint that Don Oscar applied with a brush.
Almost none of the car’s parts are original. The wheels are from another Volkswagen model as are the seats. None of the locks work and instead he installed padlocks or common bolts. To start the engine, he short-circuits two wires located in the front trunk. Even the engine comes from another, more modern, VW Sedan. As a gear shift he uses a plastic bathroom pipe.
Don Oscar keeps all his possessions in the car and stores his blankets in the space where the front passenger’s seat used to be. He turned the backseat into his bedroom and just behind it is his closet. His cutlery and a plastic cup are stored in the frame underneath the roof. He uses the hollow doors to store a saltshaker, a bottle of hot sauce, and a container with coffee.
Don Oscar’s daily routines are that of a very lonely, elderly man. He is not very fond of people and only talks to others when they give him food or money. He lives his life day-by-day and only drives his car between the soup kitchen, the auto shop and the church, all in the same neighborhood.
Some years ago I learned that home is the place where one feels free, where ideas can flow, and where life smiles upon you, even if home happens to be a Vocho.