A Safe Bet (2000)

Giving women a safety gadget was my ultimate expression of love.  Why didn’t they understand?

originally published February 9, 2004, in The Washington Post's Style section as "The Practical Gift: Some Women Have No Use For It."

a line drawing of a woman about to hug a man who is concealing a fire extinguisher behind his back

a line drawing of a woman about to hug a man who is concealing a fire extinguisher behind his back


Gazing down at the birthday gift I’ve bought my wife, I hear the distant echoes of every sweetheart who wanted to flush my gift—and me—down the sewer of sour memories. And why? Because rather than do what she expected—buy her a romantic bauble—I had bestowed upon her a gewgaw to keep her safe.

“It’s actually rather pretty,” says Lina.

“I remembered that white was your color,” I beam.

This year’s gift is—I dare say—creative. But why must it be? The Talmud teaches, “He who saves a life, it is as though he saves the world.” Does saving the planet somehow make the gift of a 10-B:C fire extinguisher less personal? A gift that says, “Your life is too precious to leave to chance” surely comes from the heart. Why can’t women understand?

My mother understood—or at least, bit her lip—each time my dad proudly presented her another fire extinguisher.

By high school, my dad’s obsession with safety had rubbed off on me. Each year, when my class chose a gift for the teacher, one vote was cast for a subscription to Consumer Reports. Years later, it was no secret which “Secret Santa” had placed in Jenny’s sock a can of carburetor starter spray.

Truth be known, when a woman says, “Don’t buy me something practical,” she means, “unless you also buy me something utterly useless—say, a half-carat solitaire.” If he can’t afford both, the smart man bets on useless. This much I had learned. So had Richard Gere—after superwife Cindy Crawford dumped him.

“You never bring me flowers,” she’d pout. 

“That’s not how I show my love,” he’d sniff.

“Well, it’s how I want you to.” It’s a safe bet I’d have stood little chance with Cindy.

A few sensible women, to be sure, appreciate what a cavalier like me can offer. One winter’s night, while driving on a dirt road to the ferry, I pulled in front of a disabled car. The driver was changing a flat; his girlfriend anxiously stood watch. In minutes, a boatload of SUVs would come barreling down the unlit road.

I offered the damsel one of my orange reflective triangles.

safety triangles

safety triangles

“Thanks,” she said, handing me a twenty.

“For twenty,” I said, “take all three.”

“I know what I’ll be giving out this Christmas,” she exclaimed. But let’s be honest: Any woman in her shoes would choose triangles over Godiva bonbons. Giving the gift of safety was still anything but a safe bet.

I had not yet learned this lesson in 1981, when I met my first wife. Days after announcing our engagement, I  moved South to start a new job. Susan would buy the $80 engagement ring; I would repay her when she drove down to visit. 

When Susan arrived, however, her left front tire was separating at the bead. She simply couldn’t drive home. 

“What would my father do?” I reflected. Across the miles, the answer came to me: “Buy her an $75 steel-belted tire—a Uniroyal Tiger Paw—and call it even.” I did.

"With this tire, I  thee  wed."

"With this tire, I thee wed."

For our first anniversary, I bought my bride a pair of 20-foot, 4-gauge jumper cables from the J.C. Whitney catalog.

jumper cables: 4-gauge thick, 20 feet long

jumper cables: 4-gauge thick, 20 feet long

For our fifth, Susan would have found a tire, wrapped in a two-ply Kevlar bow bearing the note, “This is to say: ‘I’d do it all over again.’” She quit at four.

Single again, I met Rachel. So deep was my love, I didn’t wait for a special occasion to install a photoelectric smoke detector, its dime-store battery replaced with an Energizer.

Next came Judith. For her, a Leatherman all-in-one tool. After six months, Judith cut ties. 

a Leatherman PST all-in-one tool

a Leatherman PST all-in-one tool

Would I ever meet a girl like dear old Dad? One whose taste in art ran to posters of the Heimlich Maneuver? Who, like me, grew misty eyed each time the radio played Ford’s 1982 radio commercial, “People Who Do [Buckle Up!]”?

Yes. Her name was Pat. The day I declared my love, I proved it by presenting her my well-used 20-foot jumper cables. I’d just bought myself some 25-footers from J.C. Whitney, I explained, so I wouldn’t be needing these. Pat was smitten. At last, a woman who understood.

Pat, then, was The One. Lest anyone doubt it, I fitted my Corolla with license plates that read PATNPOL. Guys will immediately understand the sacrifice of this gesture: I’d be kissing goodbye to red-light winks.

When we split four months later, I sought another Pat, to match the plates. Failing that, I hoped Pat Number One would find her way back to me. Under the wedding canopy, I schemed, the rabbi would declare, “I now pronounce you Pat and Paul” and hang the road-beaten plates around our necks.

Perhaps, friends hinted, what my relationships needed was fewer cables and more flowers.

Soon I’d have a chance to find out. In 1994, at Rosh Hashana services, I met my second wife, Lina.

That Hanukkah, UPS delivered to Lina’s office a prodigious brown box. It easily outweighed a bowling ball. The return address: “J.C. Whitney, Chicago.” As jealous wives looked on, Lina opened the box to find4-gauge, 20-foot jumper cables, you say? Please. This time, I’d get it right.

Try 2-gauge, 25-foot welding cables. Whitney, I explained, had exhausted its supply of 2-toned, 12-volt, hood-mounted deer horns. Lina was speechless. Her colleagues were not.

the Deka 2-gauge 20-foot jumper cables that Paul gave Lina for Hannukah

the Deka 2-gauge 20-foot jumper cables that Paul gave Lina for Hannukah

Thus began intensive boot camp in the art of romance. Under Lina’s patient tutelage, my romantic instincts began to flower. On Valentine’s Day, she received a dozen roses, a walk at the lakeand a marriage proposal. Off came the PATNPOL plates; on went PAULINA.

Each Valentine’s Day, I send my wife a dozen roses.

For our fifth anniversary, Lina received sapphire earrings.

True, I also once bought her a heavy-duty snow brush and trucker’s triangles. But they were conferred for no occasion; I just wanted to remind her, in my own way, “I love you.” The Michelin X-One tires and ultrawhite headlights for her minivan? For my peace of mind.

In any event, today’s birthday gift isn’t remotely related to safety. Rumors that I’ve bought her a toilet are poppycock.

I’ve bought her three toilets. Did I say toilets? Make that Crane Economisers, featuring the Sloan FLUSHMATE® Flushometer–Tank System. Inside the tank, compressed air turbocharges each four-second flush. Adieu, double flushing. Adiós, leaky toilets and routine plumber calls. Farewell, $200 water bills—Lina’s bills.

 "Happy birthday,  Dear."  (three Crane toilet tanks atop three toilet bowls) in the author's garage)

"Happy birthday,  Dear."  (three Crane toilet tanks atop three toilet bowls) in the author's garage)

Lina is thrilled. “You’ve outdone yourself, Romantic Man,” she smiles. “You do the honors.”

We clasp hands. Reaching down, I pull the lever.


© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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