". . . and all that road, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it . . ."
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Visiting a friend one Saturday afternoon, I happened upon his fifteen-year-old son, Ron, who was sitting in his father's parked car. Squeezing the wheel at ten and two o'clock, he seemed to be gazing wistfully at the headliner, as if mesmerized by the pattern of perforated stars. Certainly he was too preoccupied to notice me until I rapped on the window to ask what he was up to. He did not shift position at all, except for the slightest sorrowful shake of his head. "I'm waiting for my life to begin," he answered.
Your high school civics class to the contrary, America is an autocracy. Take the term literally: ours is a country ruled by cars. "These dreaming vehicles of our ideal and onrushing manhood," John Updike calls them in one of his stories, and the epithet holds true outside of fiction. If you buy into the commercials—and the sales figures prove that most of us, our sophistication about the deceptions of advertising notwithstanding, still do—cars are at once the means to freedom and the embodiment of that freedom. This may be the only thing that for all their whiny promotion of sun and sand the Beach Boys got right. Surfing takes us only so far, then we run aground, our bodies grown brittle and our aspirations grown up. On the other hand, as the band attests in at least half a dozen songs, an open stretch of road remains unassailably sublime.
The way Ron idles inside his dad's Accord is the way millions of American boys imagine their manhood: the seduction of uninterrupted fifth gear on an impossibly untrammeled expressway. Sex may be the essential mystery separating youth from adulthood, but driving is the indispensable means of transportation between them. (Even in the event one does find a young woman with a low threshold of amenability to the ragtag charms of a teenage boy, it still takes a car to carry the seduction off.) Once I got my own license, I no longer cursed and cooed at pinball games or contented myself with all-night poker, my companions as stationary and predictable as the machines at the arcade. Although pinball is passé and, by his account, no one under thirty plays poker anymore, I predict that Ron will discover that his pastimes are rendered just as paltry and just as outmoded as mine were by the sensation of starting up his first car. He'll put away childish things, whether experimenting with pot or gliding through cyberspace, in favor of cravings more appropriately hormonal, such as throaty V-8s and virile torques. Instead of World Series-winning home runs, he'll fantasize about spine-jarring overdrives; instead of touchdowns, turbo-chargers will fill his visions and define his dreams.
"Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," insists Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes, whose own rat-colored, rattletrap Essex would seem to belie his confidence. But if Motes, the itinerant anti-preacher, claims to be clear-sighted about Christianity, he still succumbs to worship of the automobile, which represents a religion that, in America at least, is no less pervasive. Some psychologists and school principals—those who aren't making payments on pricey throwback Thunderbirds of their own, that is—say that an obsession with cars unnaturally protracts adolescence when, according to the obsessed adolescents themselves, they seek only to give it a classy ride.
In his poem "I Know a Man," Robert Creeley's speaker stammers to his friend, "the darkness sur- / rounds us, what // can we do against / it, or else," to which his friend offers this brusque reply: "drive, he sd, for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going." The metaphysical implications of this interchange merit considerable class discussion, but let us not neglect the sage advice that lies on the surface: a working automobile rather than an overwrought consciousness may be better equipped to convey us out of malaise. In short, don't philosophize, floor it!
Now, far be it from me to want to deflate this essential American mythos, but as a man in my fifties I must report, not without shame, that the mystique of cars still persists for precious few of my peers. "Just get me there" is hardly the sort of motto to inspire a multi-million-dollar ad campaign, but it's basically what our vehicular desires have come down to nowadays. Buyer surveys reveal that men in my age and economic bracket name "reliability" as the primary feature they are looking for when buying a car. Reliable: it's a pretty dismal adjective, I admit, befitting dime store clerks who give correct change or mail carriers chugging ten feet at a time in their shapeless vans. Reliability is about as stimulating to a teenaged driver as Saturday morning cartoons; reliability doesn't rev the senses or flutter the blood. Yet apart from the occasional mid-life crisis, which is conventionally appointed by a sports car whose bucket seats fit a bit too snugly below the belt, yearnings tend to shift down into a less adventurous gear. When did driving our cars become extensions of the work we did to pay for them? When did travel become just one more way to spell travail? Remember the time you asked about what the warranty covered before you wondered about horsepower? Those priorities switched places at least a few miles back.
And so I am reduced to a commuter, a runner of errands. The sensible cars I consider today are as indistinguishable from one another as so many sofa cushions. The contrast to the richly individuated, uniquely truculent cars I lusted after during the Sixties is startling—humiliating, really—and a fatal mitigation of my Walter Mitty-ish reveries, now decades out of date. Back then, we boys believed our irrepressible prospects (no matter the fact that we were socio-economically swaddled in the suburbs) would soon be conducted in undomesticatable cars. None of us could concentrate on studies, not with the high school less than fifty yards from the street. A whiff of gasoline, its honest, unmistakable stink on someone's jeans, soon rerouted any conversation; needless to say, the French Revolution and binomial equations could not withstand it. Was it gears under duress that made us so digress?
There was a dealership on the way to the ballpark where we played, and models we ran our hands over whenever we passed it provided all of the longing and all of the poetry we thought we'd ever need. There was the Charger, named for a horse but looking more like a wicked fish, whose grillwork extended the sense of predatory menace. There was the Challenger, sleek and mean and aggressive and spoiling for a race. There was the Corvette, that embodiment of aerodynamic urgency, whose retractable headlights were like the seeled eyes of falcons, and whose hyper-pronounced front end represented an evolutionary leap on the order of the enlarged brains of Homo sapiens (enlarged, we might have assumed back then, to contain the images and statistics of cars). Charger, Challenger, Corvette: bodies and power trains to salivate over, and these were only the C's! There were dozens of other "high-performance cars" (a transparent euphemism for zoom, possibly designed to allay parental concerns) whose résumés we argued over, all of which sported curves like expensive courtesans and seemed eager to be had. It wasn't Playboy but Motor Trend whose hot new models aroused us and adorned our walls.
This all sounds pretty lascivious—a textbook case of displacement it doesn't take Freud to detect. But I submit that there was a spiritual commitment to our hopes as well. If sex was the overt lure—the "Buy a Sports Car, Get a Girl" causal logic of almost every advertisement—transcendence was the subtle one. There was the promise of going from zero to sixty in mere seconds: that sort of escape velocity could snap a Sufi into a higher state of being faster than any stay-put ritual he might practice. There was the vision of breaking from the jammed pack of traffic to experience a form of liberation no Founding Father (and, for that matter, no driver who had to hazard the glacial progress of the Dan Ryan at rush hour) had ever known. And there was the totemic sight of the motorist sent from the skies in the Hertz commercial, who inexplicably eased directly from heaven into the driver's seat as the car cruised at highway speed. Admittedly, he did not captivate my friends because he wore a suit and tie and wasted his magic on a rental. But for me he was nevertheless the avatar of driving, the supernatural validation of the amalgamation of human and vehicle. The wildest hybrids out of Greek mythology could not compete with him and never commanded so fierce a faith.
The Camaro, by the way, should have qualified for esteem, seeing as it was as sporty a C-car as the aforementioned aims of my affection. But since my mother drove one, it was disqualified. True, my friends thought it cool. While their moms shopped in station wagons or in mid-sized family vehicles whose safety features and unambitious engines left them no more attractively rabid than a housebroken cat, mine tooled around town in a zippy red Camaro, a car renowned for how very close to the asphalt you sat your ass to operate it. Bad enough that such intimate anatomical considerations might be visited on my mother instead of on some fleeting, anonymous blond—worse that my mother had contaminated a perfectly good car for me—and I had to scratch the Camaro from my wish list. Let's suppose that instead of trading hers in on a new car she bequeathed it to me. No matter how pristine she'd kept the jet interior, no matter how provocative the exploits I might plan for it, I'd always feel as though I were bringing home groceries or picking up my kid brother from school. Better to take the bus or to double with a buddy with a junker whose soul was wholly his than to be seen idling at a stop sign in a car once owned and lately spurned by a housewife.
Strangely, no one I knew had his dreams of speed slowed by the splatter films we were required to watch in Driver's Ed. Designed as cautionary tales, films like Signal 40 and Wheels of Tragedy were bloodier than revenge tragedies and, because of their documentary explicitness, potentially more traumatic. In fact, thanks to the intervention of kinder, gentler PTA's, mine was the last generation of rising drivers to be exposed to them. The stronger indictment, however, was not that these films made us afraid but that they made us arrogant. The same clownish bravado that caused some of us specifically to target in our simulators the blind guy with the cane or the kids who always ran out into the virtual street after the soccer ball carried over into these screenings. Interjections of "That's gotta hurt!" and "That'll get your license revoked!" were as predictable as the catastrophes that inspired them. In other words, blood didn't deter us; cautionary tales were lost on us. They might as well have tried to sell a school of sharks on vegetarian fare as hoped to instill an instinct to hesitate in a bunch of sophomores crying out for ignition.
Actually, I felt a little sorry for our poor Driver's Ed instructor, a gym teacher who must have committed some unspeakable crime against pedagogy to have had this extra task inflicted upon him. Indeed, Mr. Byrum was a man whom no one remembered ever having cracked a smile, much less hazarded a joke, in his whole career; the guy permanently resided ten degrees south of dour. But the reason I sympathized with him was not that he suffered us, which every high school teacher had to do anyway. (At least we were hungry for the subject. Special dispensations should have been reserved for those saddled with grammar and remedial math.) No, I felt sorry for Mr. Byrum because the thrill of driving had been ruined for him. To adapt Wallace Stevens's phrase, instead of bringing requital to desire, driving was a part of labor and a part of pain. In short, it was a job like any other—worse, really, when you consider the writhing, raucous, incorrigible fifteen-year-olds in whose daily presence he had to perform it. The professional golfer who sighs about having to haul himself over another eighteen holes at Pebble Beach and the movie actor who must kiss his gorgeous co-star in take after take might have some notion of the exasperating conditions Mr. Byrum faced, with one of life's profoundest delights distorted into a chore.
For weren't we born to cherish our cars? We may complain when the toaster gives out or the air conditioner goes down. We may derogate our refrigerators and telephones when they suddenly implode into useless hums, then contrast their treacheries to the quality of their ancestors, which we somehow remember as superior. We may contend that the appliances of the past accommodated us better than the supposed advances of the current generation, in which a congenital obsolescence manifests like hemophilia. Yes, we may recollect all of the other machines of our past and even, when the dishwasher dies or the computer crashes, maintain that we prefer them. But it is only our lost cars we truly eulogize.
And as I say, it is not only the cars we lose but the means of loving them as well. It is a secret even to us just how we turn into the people who rail against those rotten kids who race down the blocks we're trying to manicure or even, like John Irving's Garp, chase them through the neighborhood to avenge the assault on our safety and equanimity. This, when we were once the would-be racers; this, although we then became the racers ourselves. Somewhere along the impacted highway leading to maturity—the road that knows no turning—the Indianapolis 500 became nothing but loud and NASCAR baffling, a worthless purgatory of left turns. At some point our passion for acceleration subsided, and instead of breathing heat behind the wheels of Porsches and Ferraris we became the parents who shake our fists at whoever did.
Age brings no more vicious predicament than this. People who once vowed to drive nothing Mario Andretti wouldn't approve of find themselves stuck with the Fords they can afford. Deny it all they want, they now have Volvo souls, which, tragically, are almost never convertible.
There was a time when the trappings of romance included a willingness to be trapped on the interstate for the sake of one's beloved and, literally, to go the extra mile. I was a Chicago teenager, which meant that meeting a girl at a club or a concert might have required a commitment of many hours and many miles just to keep a relationship alive. I was from the north suburbs, but she could have been from the hinterlands of Schiller Park or Berwyn. The course of true love never did run smoothly past the Stevenson interchange. Yet that would be no obstacle to conscientious affections. Romeo and Juliet had but family prejudice and half a stage to cross to earn their embrace; we might have downtown traffic and half a dozen toll plazas to traverse. But couples who could construct an entire night's entertainment out of cruising up and down Sheridan Road would have welcomed the chance to be confined together and would have been grateful for the privacy. (Considering what alternative settings were available for teenagers to ply their troths, or at least practice their techniques—a friend's cellar, a hedge next to the elementary school, a bedraggled patch of lawn behind a local factory—the interior of a four-door sedan seemed as luxurious as Hefner's penthouse.) Love of one another and love of driving would combine to sustain us . . . for a while. Then, suddenly, unaccountably, distance turned from an opportunity into an aggravation. Prospective relationships were sunk at the outset because they were NGF: Not Geographically Feasible. Then Tinley Park might as well have been Thailand or Addison above the Arctic Circle for all the intention I could muster to undertake the trip. What? You're from Elgin? But you speak our language so well! Wheaton? Wouldn't I need to update my inoculations to go there? Dolton? Dolton? Does Dolton even make the freakin' map?
Maybe my disenchantment has to do with the way I currently have to insert and extract myself from my car in stages. I used to slide cleanly into the front seat like a bullet into its chamber and ease out without contortion or complaint, or so I continue to tell myself. Now I cannot get in within grunting; now astronauts strapped into their capsules and anchovies tamped tight in their cans come out with less effort than I depart my compact car. Then there is the car itself that, by virtue of my teacher's budget, I've settled for and settle into every day. Try just once peeling out in a bottom-line Honda, and you'll see how ridiculous a drag racer's impulses become. Not even squirrels scurry for the curb when a Civic approaches; no pedestrian respects my impending behind one hundred and six horsepower, much less is struck with fear and awe. And not even the dealer can say, "Chicks dig Civics" with a straight face.
Once, having the reflex if not the means, I must have stopped at the magazine rack to pore over the latest issue of Car and Driver. I must have responded to the gleaming cross-section of a cam assembly the way I would to a glimpse of breast or a flash of thigh. But if ever I lusted and lingered, I no longer do; dutiful as any husband filling a take-out order for his family, I pass the new Jag like the nubile cashier, undistracted, undeterred. "I am perhaps the first American ever to give up automobiling, formally and honestly. I sold my car so long ago as 1919, and have never regretted it," wrote that formidable curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Is it only the absence of sufficient public transportation in my town that has kept me from getting as old as that?
But growing old cannot explain that revision alone. Cliches about the aged are insufficient. Maybe in our imaginations, instead of blazing off like James Dean, the old are going out like odors, rusting out like hulks of abandoned cars. Their mobility, or such pitifully delineated movements as remain to them, is strictly observed, cautious and muffled as Sunday meals. Yet among these senior citizens, barely able to produce enough saliva for a decent spit, there are some nonetheless able to savor the details of bygone automobiles. Those happy few fill their shelves in the nursing home with more samples from their vintage Hot Wheels collections than they do pictures of the grandchildren, and memories of uninhibited motors fashion their sleep and discharge their snores. Not every retiree succumbs to Florida just to toddle out on the patio for his few final afternoons or to bake away to sand on the sand. Florida is the home of Daytona, the Holy Grail of Winston Cup racing, and a dozen other speedways as well, where, cheering on the supercharged, old men might leverage their own absent dash.
And rumor has it that half of the members of Congress were model car enthusiasts, and a good many of them secretly continue to be. Perhaps a high a percentage of Supreme Court justices take breaks from legislative sessions to debate the alleged upgrades in the Subaru Impreza WRX STi. And what about the rabbi who hurries home from Sabbath services to take his rest beneath the chassis of his '69 Firebird, with his wrenches laid lovingly beside him like a second set of tefillin? And what about the minister on his knees before his '66 Mustang, who emerges from his labors with a sheen of grease like the requisite aura of rose and gold worn by saints in Renaissance paintings? (Woe to the man who takes his car to Jiffy Lube instead of proving his virtue himself. Redemption must be especially elusive to the driver who cannot diagnosis the sounds beneath his own hood or perform the catechism of the overhead cam engine.) And what about the billionaire who willed that he be buried in his 1970 Challenger, plutonic purple and slick as a cigarette case? No pharaoh can be traveling through eternity so lavishly as that; no mythological hero ever arrived in paradise in such style.
As I write, this nation is in the midst of war in the Middle East. In a rush of patriotic support, trees in my town wear bright yellow sashes around their middles, as though the maples were winning advanced degrees in judo and samurai oaks were readying themselves for a last stand. Kentucky Fried Chicken announces "Back Our Troops—8-Piece Dinner Only $8.99," as if to sustain our soldiers overseas with the knowledge that, in their absence, their families were being fortified by the most celebrated chicken the world has ever known, complete with two sides at reasonable prices. Pride swells in every breast. A local motel proclaims, "God Bless America! We're Pet Friendly!" The sentiment is too substantial for anyone to bother with the non sequitur. Suffice to say that God is exhorted to love our country and our kittens together and with equal zeal. And above a set of ATM lanes is a banner that reads, "Pray for America Drive Thru." W. H. Auden called poetry the clear expression of mixed feelings, but there is as much sincerity to be found in the mixed expression of clear ones. Better yet, here is a core myth made overt: America is a massive drive-thru, and religious worship in this country is best demonstrated by a road trip.
An aged Yeats wrote off his native land by complaining, "That is no country for old men." Would that he had a muscle car to counter that mood—a car souped up enough to outstrip affliction, a car as eloquent as any canto could ever be. No one in a classic GTO remains forlorn for long. Would that he had not just an anthology to mark his departure but a bad-ass Barracuda to floor. Because, as Ron might remind us when we feel impeded, predictable, or just plain bourgeois, real achievers have drive.
Copyright © Arthur Saltzman 2005. Title graphic: "Missing Muscles" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.