At least the 2020 pandemic has provided an inkling of what it takes to convince people to drive less and reduce their carbon footprint: just threaten anyone who leaves their home with impending sickness or death. A simple, albeit strong, solution, but that is what we needed to put a dent in our collective driving habits, our driving addictions, which includes for some, like myself, a deeply embedded nostalgia for the automobile.
In the Summer of 2019, when I watched my two year old grandson play contentedly with the same metal Tootsie toy cars that I played with as a child (to the point where I wore most of the presumably leaded paint off), I was reminded one cannot underestimate the power of the automobile. As he lined up the cars by color and added a zoom-zoom soundtrack that included crashes, it brought back the memories of how much I had enjoyed them; that I have kept these childhood toys for over 50 years bears witness to that sentiment. As he continues to play with the cars for hours on end, I reflected on all things automobile past, present and future.
Of course, many cohorts of my boomer generation remember their first real car. Our financial institutions assist in this task, escorting us down memory lane by requiring that we identify its make and model to access our bank accounts. In the rural Illinois town where I grew up, driving was the gateway to freedom, and I can still remember which classmates drove Plymouths, Volkswagens, Mustangs, and muscle cars. My first car was a black 1961 Buick Electra with rusted back fenders that got about a dozen miles per gallon of gasoline. Some of my classmates relished in the adrenaline of driving fast down the single slab county roads, but I lagged behind—never getting a speeding ticket until I returned to those same roads for my mother’s funeral forty years later.
When my older brother was a junior in high school, he was in the back seat of a muscle car when the driver of the car he was in hit the stony wall of a one-lane bridge, knocking my brother unconscious. Another passenger pulled him from the wreckage before it was engulfed in flames. The town’s Boy Scout leader came to the house in the early evening to inform my parents but they were out, so later I had to tell them to go the county hospital, without knowing why. My brother spent only one day in the hospital, but I have wondered if that near-death experience altered him; he became a heavy drinker in college, and continued for decades before he died in his 60s of “unknown causes”—I simply labelled it “alcoholism”. (He admitted to me once that the accident changed him, but I cannot recall any details. )
Ironically, the father of the driver of the car in the collision later took all the boys to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs and bought them beers, even though they were all underage. This is not a surprising “apology” since it was a town known for having a large tavern at its only traffic light, one with a drive-up window where not only could you buy packaged goods, but you could get a mixed drink in a Styrofoam cup to go.
With traffic fatalities hovering now at ~36,000 annually, a statistic that includes 6000+ pedestrian deaths, I have always wondered if, at some point, future generations will look back at this Age of the Automobile and muse, “Can you imagine the mindset required to risk your life every day in an automobile?” or “Didn’t they realize they were poisoning the planet’s air and contributing to shortening the life of billions of people through various lung-related ailments ?”
When I moved to Atlanta, a city renowned for its traffic, over a decade ago, I used commuter trains even though it took longer. Driving in the big city was stressful, and I preferred getting some walking and reading in before and after work. Being a pedestrian in Atlanta, however, is also fraught with danger, as I learned first-hand when I was hit by an automobile in a midtown crosswalk, sustaining injuries that eventually required minor shoulder surgery. (Despite what you see in action movies and cartoons, nobody who has been struck bounces back off the street.)
Afterward, I was even more nervous crossing the street, especially seeing the number of people who mess with their phones while driving. Many people do not seem to like to drive, nor do they value the ability to drive well. The car manufacturers certainly recognize this and build vehicles with cars that automatically slow down, in an attempt to avoid hitting pedestrians many of whom are distracted on their cell phones also.
Despite the inescapable conclusions that automobiles are not good for us or the planet, my toes still tap when I hear songs, like the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” (‘until her daddy takes her T-bird away’), and Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” or feel the sense of longing for freedom in Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” And I never turn down an opportunity to visit a car museum, such as the Antique Car Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, the Art Car Museum in Houston, the Dream Cars exhibit at High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Seal Cove Auto Museum near Bar Harbor, Maine, to name but a few. I always have time to admire a sweet Pontiac Trans AM and snap photos of vintage Karmann Ghias; I also think that Ford Vs. Ferrari should have won the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture instead of Parasite.
More interested in the quirky than the expensive, I even drove a PT Cruiser for fifteen years, a poor man’s version of a funky car, although I never went so far as to add faux woodie side panels or flame decals to the front fenders. Once while driving on the interstate, I saw a PT with plastic toy dinosaurs glued to the roof. It was the kind of car that you could do that with.
But I am a lightweight car aficionado compared to some of my male neighbors. Despite previous droughts and local recommendations discouraging wastewater runoff draining into the sewer system, there have been guys who have hand washed their BMWs every week while frowning at my dusty tan 2006 Nissan Altima. In high school I used to wash and wax my Buick before going on a date, with a teenage mindset that the girls would then find me and it irresistible, but I outgrew this fantasy pretty fast.
Not surprisingly, my grandson enjoys washing his toy cars. He submerges each in a tub filled with soap and water and lines them up with military precision for drying. While this activity may be a precursor a car obsession to his love of the automobile, I am not sure whether the circle will be broken or not.
Oil prices have plummeted. Fossil fuel consumption, which may have peaked in 2019, is predicted never to reach such levels again. People are expected to telework more and local traffic reporters on the morning news have been replaced with computer screenshots of road maps with green veins of flowing traffic with fewer red blockages.
Who knows if this situation is part of the New Normal? The worldwide pandemic may have broken the entrenched cycle of automobile use, suggested that something new is possible—something we should not forget—as long as we draw breath.