An Affair To Remember
The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.
In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent. Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel. Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives. Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train. Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.
The American West was now a more mature version its former self. In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual. The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society. With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated. The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.
Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums. As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries. Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work. This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week.
In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile. One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan. Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision. The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car” that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp. Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal. He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers. He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief. Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend.
Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere. We were a society of open spaces and vast distances. The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself. To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail. Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle.
Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies. Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers. My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer. Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car. Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts. We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.
The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them. We drove, drove and drove more. We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes. We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit. We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment. We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline. We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic. Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts. We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence. We walked, took the train and carpooled. It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.
In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away. We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels. We ignored the signs of global warming. We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75. We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves. We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.
But suddenly, the jig was up. The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection. Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75. There’s no avoiding the truth. We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation. We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient. Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.
It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we? It was an affair to remember…..