Dear friends and readers,
The variety and vexed nature of the responses I’ve had to my previous blog prompts me to write about an aspect of American culture not much talked about in the vein I’m going to discuss it, but certainly part of the backdrop that allows the DMV to get away with mistreating those who come under their jurisdiction: that’s almost everyone as most US people either drive or have a license to drive (why it is used as a de facto identification card) and that it is used as a visible symbol of status.
US culture and the lack of a decent public transportation system in so many areas fosters a car worshipping stance where many people equate their visible status with the car they have on the streets. Trading your car in every three years for a new one was once upon a time common among the now declining middle class. It is still uncommon to keep a car for many years. I owned my Chevy Cavalier (1993) for nearly 20 years, and when I’d tell people I had such an old car I even experienced open jeers – from students. When I challenged the student on his shameless behavior, he refused to back down. (I should emphasize how rarely I challenged students on this kind of thing.) He insisted I was not supposed to give away I had such an old car. People treated my car like a freak. But it worked and beautifully until the last year or so when it did begin to fall apart. It need not have if it had been better built. I’ve heard again and again people say, What do they work such a hard job for unless they can have this super-duper expensive car with all its gadgets (the cockpit with all its fancy radios, GPS, and other playthings)?
People lease cars and get into absurd debt arrangements so they may be seen in a fancy car with all the gadgets.
Buying a car is not fun even now when there is less dealing and negotiation than there once was because the presence of the Internet makes available to prospective buyers a plethora of choices and prices. I remember horrendous episodes of car buying. Once when Yvette was 6 and Caroline around 11, we had such a hectic absurd time — the Admiral wanted this (to me) ridiculous red convertible at a sale price — that Yvette began to run a temperature from the stress and the next day could not go to school. Caroline couldn’t get over it and took Yvette’s temperature. Sure enough. It was elevated to 103. In later years he learned the trick was to walk out and not care if you got that car. Now one can comparison shop before one shows up to the car store.
Still once there these status necessary toys cost a lot — $40,000 for a new sedan is no joke. And thus the soreness comes in. Someone nicks this beauty of yours; you nick it. Monthly high bills. You have to pay insurance, upkeep, and deal with mechanics and their exorbitant prices. Insurance is high. And then there are frequent accidents — with all the bother and harassment and forms and misery this brings even when you are not declared at fault. When people consider all this instead of identifying with others who share these troubles, a common human impulse is to resent complaints. See what I suffer. Your suffering are nothing in comparison to this.
It reminds me of the way women who are working to lower middle class used to resent women in welfare — instead of seeing themselves in the same boat but a different seat, they loathe the person supposedly getting this wonderful free ride. They don’t think of those who are wealthy paying such small taxes that there are no job programs and consequent unemployment without unions puts everyone in a bad position.
Is being in a car fun? The car you get reflects your ideal self-image or character. A car is liberty, freedom, independence — and I did like the sense of controlling the space in my car so I could say listen to a novel I loved or what music I wanted. But I’m not sure this is not a compensatory enjoyment rather than a satisfaction one seeks in and of itself. But you’ve got to get into it each morning and night, traffic jams, sometimes driving such distances, the drive is a job in itself. And you have to pay large sums each month to park it where you work. This is like the 19th century world where you had to buy food in your employer’s food store and he jacked up the price. The last time I looked it was over $300 a year to park at GMU — you can’t take a class unless you can get there and it’s not near a Metro stop. Buses are few.
The lack of public transportation and the way things are situated so it is difficult to get from one thing to another on foot makes it hard not to have a car at all unless you live in an old style city where things are apart foot distances. The admiral and I did so live in such cities: we had no car and I did not learn to drive until I was 29 and got my first job where public transportation took me an hour and a half and by car I could get to Queens College (CUNY, NYC) inside 25 minutes and there was free ample parking there (1974). When we lived in England, the buses ran continually throughout Yorkshire and trains were cheap. I remember getting from one end of the West Riding to another in no time. I first taught Jim to drive when I was 30 and he 28 — and we did take our first vacation trip into Canada with both of us able to drive.
But even after that when we ran out of money, for a 2 year period we went back to no car at all. We moved to Virginia and quickly saw what an ordeal life was without car and six months later my father gave us one. We moved to Virginia because the Pentagon where he got his first job was in Virginia and there was a bus line from Old Town to the Pentagon.
As with the TV, occasionally we’d have periods where we had no car again. (We were without a working TV on and off all our married lives. Most of the time we did have a TV, but often it didn’t work and then there were periods when we had none at all.) When he first retired altogether (no working for money at all), he decided not to replace or fix the used jaguar he was running (the sums involved were large) and get along using my old Chevy when I wasn’t using it, public transportation or a zip-car. A zip-car is one you rent when you really need a car: you pay so much a month and then a fee for the time rented. They are placed in groups around a given area. But finally he decided it was costing him more to rent cars than to fix his old Jaguar so he fixed it. That was the car he was running just before he died — which we gave to NPR. Both of us kept the cars we had as long as we could after we bought them to get our money’s worth from the price we had paid. Un-American as I say.
I get nagging harassing notices warning me if I don’t pay hundreds for a warranty I’ll lose my investment. $17,000. After a house, the most money people usually spend for a single object is their car.
You don’t have a car. What is wrong with you? It is almost socially unacceptable to admit you don’t drive. What is wrong with you that you don’t drive? nervous? disabled in some way?
The status element, the use of the car for private space activities is a way of turning a necessity into a virtue or half-luxury. But people do worry about the use of the cell phone in the car, listening to novels in cars — all the many things people do in car where they spend so many hours of their lives.
So rightly people fear accidents from these huge machines. The strong movement against alcoholism today is a direct result of fear of drunken drivers. Jim and I were almost killed in one accident where we were pedestrians and woman clearly on some kind of drug for depression pressed on the gas instead of her brake and couldn’t gain self-possession to reverse her feet and stop her car. He rode the bonnet as he said and I didn’t make it in time so my leg bones are permanently damaged.
When I was in first grade a teacher told us a car is like a sleeping lion. Children as you walk home from school and find yourself between two parked cars, you are between two sleeping lions. They weigh a lot, move ultra fast unnaturally, and thus can kill you easily.
This past Sunday Caroline drove Yvette and I to the bank, to a container store for some needed supplies and then Whole Foods for grocery shopping. The parking garage a madhouse it was so crowded – this was an Arlington shopping center where there are sidewalks and no parking lots. It was very stressful and people joked on-lines in the stores. Caroline, as Yvette wrote, “compared the crowded aisles to a jammed highway; the woman in front of us told her to turn our cart’s blinkers on.” We had parked in a garage further off or we’d had have had a half hour wait to get out of the garage too. This was a pre-snow storm social scene.
And yet the human race is beginning to run out of these fossil fuels and the coal that allows for electricity and gas, and that leads to poisoning what environment we have — fracking — it’s unspeakable to describe what such places become, not to mention the high and higher rates of the rightly dreaded horrific cancers. The unscrupulous making huge sums — or hoping to.
The car (as we all know) a major polluter too. You think people are pro-bicycle, all for protecting the environment. Think again. A friend commented on my previous blog that in Iowa “the penalty for a driver who runs over a bicyclist and kills him/her? $400.” I was probably near killed walking to the HD-opera on Saturday morning; the light turned green and we began to cross a real cross-walk (not many in our area) but the car driver wasn’t expecting walkers and didn’t look and had to stop his machine screeching short. The wife had her hands up in nervous horror. The husband indignant. How dare we be there?
What people are. What is there to be done when you live in an area like mine where except during rush hours on weekdays one bus comes through once an hour? Not just Republicans repeatedly vote against extending public transportation. No high speed railways as in Europe.
So no wonder the DMV gets away with what they do.
Nonetheless nothing more irritating, needling, frustrating to me when people insist at me I’m going to get my driving rights back in later May. Actually it’ll be June before the “decision” is made when I have turned in precisely the same kind of medical reports and forms I turned in twice already. They can give no reason for their assurance when I point out there will be no difference in the documents handed in and the letter I have is as cold, mean, indifferent and ambiguous with boiler-plate as the first. It’s irritating because I long to drive so strongly and don’t believe they have any right to any certainty or even probability. They are dismissing me and my agon as unimportant, trivial because forsooth it will end.
Kerry Kennedy’s case — she went to court and risked a jury trial — shows me I’m right to be worried sick over the loss of my investment (not to omit the cost of car insurance which I’m paying). How to get rid of this car now if I can’t drive it.
Imagine your self a blind person or forced to walk around with blinders (or you’ll go to jail) and then being told you’re going to be allowed see in just a few months (!) when there are no solid grounds to be sure this will be allowed. That’s my situation.