There is pervasive form of Americana that is a pubescent rite of passage for so many: car culture. But having been born and raised in the Bronx, I never acclimated it.
I walked to P.S. 24. I walked to J.H.S. 141. I walked or took a city bus to John F. Kennedy High School. I rode the subway to Manhattan. When it came time for my first big trip, off to college in Michigan at age seventeen, I boarded an airplane. And when I arrived there, I discovered a dormitory hall-full of young men who loved to talk about cars: their cars, their parents’ cars, cars they’d worked on, cars they pined for, cars they’d stared at longingly in the glossy pages of magazines, and cars that whizzed by on the street as they stood there, talking about cars.
It was mysterious babel to me. Baseball and football I could talk about. Music? Sure. I could even gab about history a little bit if you pressed me. But the infatuation with cars was completely foreign. And it is a language I would never learn with any real fluency. To this day, when I enter that world, all I can manage to do is smile, order the first thing on the menu, and ask where the bathroom is. And even at that, half the time I end up pissing in the alley.
It’s not that we were a carless NYC family. In fact, my father had always owned a car. But that did not spring out of any desire. It was a necessity. He was a general contractor, so he needed something to haul his tools, materials, and workers in; something he could sling a 40-foot ladder onto. I grew up riding in work vehicles that stunk of cigarettes and were oft grumbled about.
There was the new Chrysler van that he installed rumble seats into for us kids. He was going to take us to an amusement park in it one Saturday when he realized it’d be stolen. There was the dirty white Ford station wagon with wood paneling that someone set fire to one Halloween. Of course, that didn’t stop my dad. It simply had no interior upholstery on the frame and smelled like rotten fish for the next several years. There was the van of unknown origin, dark brown with short, bright orange/pink stripes running the length of both sides, counterposed against each other like a succession of arrows, but kept apart by long strip of the same color running between them.
My friends referred to it as the Vancouver Canucks team van, since the garish color scheme and bizarre pattern was reminiscent of that hockey team’s inexplicably horrid early 80s uniform. We also called it the Island Hopper because it matched the motif of T.C.’s helicopter of the same name on Magnum P.I.
To me then, cars were draft animals, not thoroughbreds. I didn’t associate them with freedom, status, or genitalia. I associated them with something cold and smelly that you had to sit in while it warmed up on a winter’s morning on the way to work; with constant frustration over parking; with endless worries about theft and vandalism; with complaints about break downs and mechanics’ bills.
If I had remained in NYC I certainly never would have owned one. But my exodus began with college. My choice was between SUNY Binghampton and the University of Michigan, the latter being more expensive. So my parents made the following offer: the choice was up to me of course, but if I went to Binghampton, they’d give me the `69 Buick LeSabre. I chose Michigan and left town without even earning a driver’s license.
I managed to spend a decade in the Midwest without owning a car. And why should I? I could walk in Ann Arbor. In Lincoln, Nebraska where I attended graduate school, I walked or biked, and on one drug-addled occasion hitch-hiked. Of course I wasn't pure. In Michigan, there had been a brief flirtation with an ill-fated Dodge. And before that, there was my friend Brad’s 1974 Toyota Corona that we circled the country in. Even got my license and learned to drive a clutch for that epic adventure. In San Francisco Brad caught a plane to Bejing, while I kept criss-crossing America until the thing burned out and broke down. But I’d never paid for a car, and for all practical purposes, never really owned one. I kept them out of my life, more or less altogether, until I was 31.
And then came the research for my Ph.D. dissertation. There weren’t any planes, trains, or buses to Pine Ridge Reservation. Nestled in the southwest corner of South Dakota, it was almost 500 miles exactly from my apartment in Lincoln. I had to make that trip repeatedly. But if I'm being honest, in the end I must admit that that was merely an excuse to give in to temptation. I was weaker than I knew.
A week shy of my 31st birthday, my mother offered to give me her rickety, red `95 Ford Escort wagon. I thought I could enter Sodom and not sin. It was hubris.
The Ford got me to Pine Ridge and back. It also got me to far flung places around Lincoln, such as the vet, the food co-op, and the softball fields I played on. But a funny thing happened. Pretty soon it started getting me places I could have biked to. A few times it even got me places I could walk to. I was in denial
In 2000, I took a job in Tempe, Arizona. When I arrived, I was determined to put the car in its place, even if the greater Phoenix metropolitan area is a wide suburban sprawl with no sympathy for the carless. So I got an apartment just a few miles from campus and I biked to work.
Then my bike was stolen. It was a moral defeat from which I’ve never recovered.
A year later I took a job in Towson, Maryland, north of the Baltimore. Way back when, Towson was a little town all its own. However, by the time I showed up, it had long since become a fiber in the carpet of suburban sprawl. I know I can live in a city. I think I can live in the country, or at least I’d be willing to try. But I’ll swallow my great-granddaddy’s shotgun before I end up in a suburb.
So I got a place in the city down by the water. And although it was dented, scratched, and had an alarmingly strong hint of cat urine, I simply kept whipping the Escort onward, making the twenty-five minute commute each way, and parking it betwixt Volvos and Audis. I had no emotional connection whatsoever to that functional hunk of metal and probably would’ve driven it forever, but the automatic transmission eventually started to go. I donated the thing to a no-kill animal shelter just across the Pennsylvania line. Good people.
How surreal it felt to find myself shopping for a car for the first time at the age of thirty-four. What to do? Considering how little I know about cars, and given my natural suspicion of commercial transactions with strangers, I was reluctant to buy a used car. It took some doing, but I crunched the numbers, spent days meditating in the shower, and made the commitment to layout way too much money for a new car.
Of course buying a new car is the worst financial investment many Americans will make in their lives, some of them repeatedly. Fifteen-, twenty-, thirty-, fifty-thousand dollars or more for a piece of property that begins to irreversibly depreciate the minute you buy it. Yet I convinced myself a new car was worth it just to avoid the risk of getting screwed.
My mother and her husband were good enough to come down one weekend and lend their experience. But sitting in the backseat while I test drove a Toyota Matrix was enough for her. She had no inclination to strap herself into a Jetta wagon while I attempted to get reacquainted with a clutch. It didn’t go well. The decision would wait.
It was Summer, so I pissed around for a few more weeks and re-discovered walking, mass transit, and bumming rides off of friends. In the end I settled on a 2003 Volkswagen Golf. What sold me on it was the hatch back, which coupled with the fold-down rear seats, made it easier to lug stuff around. I will forever look at them as draft animals.
I brought my then-girlfriend down with me for moral support, and wrote the biggest check of my life up until that point: a $7,000 down payment on a $17,000. The notion of car debt disgusted me though, so I taught a Summer course and paid the thing off in eleven months.
The car came with a CD player AND a tape deck. Its official color was Mojave Beige. When I told my mother this on the phone, she said, “Oh yeah, sure I know that color. We’ve got a different name for it though in the Bronx.”
The Golf definitely had more charisma than the Escort. It was also a much better car. It was heavy and hugged the road. The doors gave a warm and confident thud when you slammed them shut. It had great acceleration. And it was built with a reinforced steel cage and six airbags, all of which came in handy when I got T-boned leaving campus on my way to catch a flight to Paris so I could attend a good friend’s 40th birthday party.
The other car hit me square behind the driver’s seat, so hard that it spun me around 180 and sent me skidding thirty yards down the street. The accident was completely my fault. But fuck it. Everyone walked away without a scratch and a car’s just a goddamn car. Another dead mule in the dust. Besides, it afforded me the opportunity to make a really great toast at the little restaurant in the 13th arrondissement of Paris that my friend had booked for all of us. You better believe I still made my flight. And the $10,000 check from GEICO made it all go down easier.
That was also a Summer, so once again I was afforded the opportunity to not do much about the car thing. Eventually I bought a green `97 Mercury Tracer wagon from my friend Brad. With that, it seemed, the existential hellishness of car ownership was coming full circle. This was the same Brad with whom I’d driven around the country twenty years earlier, and from whom I’d briefly inherited the Corona. He too, coincidentally, had moved to Baltimore a few years earlier. And a Tracer? That’s just Mercury’s version of an Escort, upscaled to include power windows and locks. This one had a tape deck, no CD player.
In the end, however, it wasn’t me that I killed. It was the Tracer.
A couple of years later, I needed to go to Minnesota for work, and I made the decision to drive out there, then spend a couple of weeks moseying back and visiting friends in places like Chicago and West Virginia. For as much as I hate cars and detest driving for the most part, I do love my far flung friends, and I find the occasional cross-country jaunt to be good for the soul, especially when going solo. Turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and just clear your mind. I was ready for a little bit of that.
I burned out the motor on the backside of the Appalachians a mere six hours out of Baltimore. Again, completely my fault. The transmission had been slipping going up those mighty mountains because, you know, it was a piece of shit Tracer four-speed automatic. So I dropped it down into third gear. And forgot to take it out. I drove it for about an hour at 80 MPH in third gear. The rings melted, the engine seized, and I coasted downhill to the next exit on I-70, about a half mile away.
I lifted the hood, as if I had any clue what the fuck goes on in there. After a few minutes, a kindly lady stopped to see what was going on. She called me a tow truck, which brought me to a shop where it was diagnosed as terminal. I ended up selling it to the tow truck driver for a $100, and then got dropped off at the Zanesville, Ohio Super 8 motel. When I ate dinner alone at a bar and grille in the strip mall across the street, the manager asked me how I was doing. I told him. He gave me a free beer. The next morning I rented a car and drove home.
It was Summer again. Another couple of months of avoidance. By now I was in my early forties, so this time all that walking provided the opportunity to do something I’d never needed to do before: get in shape. I also owned a house at this point, and lived half-way closer to work. But it was still too far for a reliable bike ride year round, and I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t willing to commit to an hour-long commute by bus. What about some combination of zip cars and rentals? No, you have to drop the zip car off where you got it, so it’s not practical for commuting. God, I wanted out, but I didn’t see a way that worked for me. What to do?
Timing was on my side. My mother’s husband was buying a new car. He’d give me his black `98 Accord with 125,000 miles on it. But now my kid sister, who was no longer by any means a kid, was asking where her free car was. She’d never owned one at all. After a couple of stints in San Francisco, she was living on the upper westside of Manhattan, so a car, much less a large sedan, was impractical. But I couldn’t deny that this one was by rights hers if she wanted it. After a few weeks she finally relented, with the standing agreement is that I owe her one. Not the proverbial “one,” some unnamed favor, some metaphor for gratitude. No, I owed her an actual car. When? Who knows. I’ll deal with it then, but for the meantime, I could add family dissension to the list of all the joys cars had brought me in the decade since I’d started owning them.
I hate the Accord. To me, it’s an absolutely ridiculous car for a single person to have. What on earth am I doing with a full sized sedan? The lousy mileage of a big car with none of the great hauling capacity that comes with a fifth door. It’s like a draft horse that won’t take a yoke. What’s more, I know it senses my frustration, and it resents me for it. And it’s going to get its revenge by living forever. Like some spiteful, aging relative who lives just to make everyone else miserable. I swear it started smirking at me once gas hit $4.00/gallon.
Did you see the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit last year? Do you remember that scene near the end [SPOILER ALERT] where Jeff Bridges stabs that beautiful, overworked, doomed horse with his buck knife so he can get another couple of miles out of it and save the girl’s life? I cried at the scene. But I’ll have a fiendish grin on my face when, if, I ever get to knife the Honda on its last journey.
Indeed, Hell can be eternal, and it is a place of our own making.