“The car has become an article of dress without which we
feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound.”
We are a nation of cars. To a lesser extent, so is most of the world. There is a great deal of truth in the saying that whatever is good for General Motors is good for this country. We bailed out GM in 2008, but not Bear Stearns. France is handing out money to Renault, and Germany is deciding how much its automakers will get during our covid-19 crisis. Wheels move us.
The average American household owns 1.88 cars. Thirty-five percent of households have three or more. This is almost twice the rate of ownership in Sweden. The average mileage per vehicle per year is 13,500; of course, New York is much less and Wyoming much more. A significant percentage of this use is a result of government policy and deep psychological factors.
Our legislatures long ago decided that building highways and extending infrastructure (water and electricity) to faraway suburbs was more important than making sure that every baby was fed, educated, and had adequate shelter and health care. They were able to sell these priorities to us because, through a combination of advertising and lobbying, our cars are much more to us than a way of getting from Point A to Point B.
Let us go through what wiser sages than me have said about autos this past century:
“Nothing ages your car as much as the sight of your neighbor’s new one.” A few years ago, I attended a lecture given by a Harvard psychology professor. She spoke of what it is that makes us happy. Extensive research shows that the best thing that you can do to promote your feeling of well-being is to stop looking at what other people own and do. Auto manufacturers have known this for decades. This is why models change almost every year; why so many gadgets that you have at home are now features in your car. From Wi-Fi to wall-banging music. Just so you can get from here to there. They call it “comfort.” It costs thousands of dollars a year, but the neighbors have one.
“Climbing into a hot car is like buckling on a pistol. It is the great equalizer.” Right. You may be sixty, overweight, and have ugly hairs that protrude from your nose. But man, you get into your $85,000 super sedan and all is forgiven and forgotten. You are hot; you feel hot. For sure lots of people will look at you and think the same. Dream on.
“The automobile changed our dress, manners, the shape of our cities…, common tastes and positions in intercourse.” Freedom. Ask any teenager; her or his first car provided freedom from having to ask and wait for a ride. Freedom is one of the entry drugs to the car culture.
“The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self…” Also true. Most car owners believe that this inanimate piece of (artificial) leather and metal truly represents who they are to the world. A very visible autograph.
I write this long introduction in order to announce to the world that yesterday, 6 June 2020; D-Day plus 76, I sold my car. We live downtown. We are retired. We walk to the ballpark (in happier days) and most of the restaurants that we like. For the past six months, if you had stolen my car, it may have taken me three days to know that it was missing. My wife has a car, that she will not give up because the “freedom” thing is big with her. We will not be stranded.
I got a nice chunk of cash; about two thirds of what I paid for it. No more property tax or oil changes (synthetic oil only; the expensive one). Less pollution. More business for Uber drivers, who need the money.
It feels incredibly odd. A few days ago, one of my dear granddaughters explained to me about going commando. No one is sure of the origins of the expression. A commando is a soldier under command; this expression may have started during the Boer wars. It is unclear how this got turned into a conversation about underwear. Most “experts” believe that commandos had to be ready for action at the drop of a hat. It is supposed to be a sexy “thing.” There is a much cruder term for males; we will not go into it now.
I cannot conceive of going without underwear. It sounds as if it would be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Yet by selling my car I have pushed my boundaries. What the fighter pilots call “Bending the envelope.” I will see how it goes. If I do not buy a car in sixty days, I will have to pay full sales tax on any car purchase that I make beyond that time span.
Two months of going commando. My granddaughters will be proud of their unconventional grandpa. Game is on.