A central fact of my existence has been defined by driving. Stepping on a pedal, feeding gas to a set of pistons, moving through space and time in a shell of glass and steel, hands on a steering wheel, eyes forward, occasionally checking the rear view mirror, changing lanes, passing other cars, going places in what amounts to a stupor most of the time, devoting just enough attention to the vagaries of the external world to prevent collision and death.
My first car was a blue Ford ’55 station wagon. The paint had worn and the outer shell had a somewhat mottled, calico look, that I very much enjoyed. It looked funky and strangely welcoming. I can’t remember what became of that car. I was 18, fresh out of high school, my highest ambition in life was to become perpetually drunk, party, chase girls, and welcome whatever life and adventure happened to plop on my adolescent plate. I remember taking a trip to the ocean with a group of friends, four men and four women, caravanning in two cars. Since I had a station wagon, my car was loaded with cases of beer. We went to Oceanshores, a little resort town on the Washington coast with a long broad sandy beach, built a bonfire, swilled beer, got drunk, laughed and frolicked until it was time to return home. One of the cars returned without a member, a tall, affable, though highly volatile young man from North Dakota, who had chosen to wear a wet suit and flippers, got into an argument with the members of the other car, insisted on stopping and getting out, and hitchhiked back to Seattle in his wet suit and flippers.
I went a long stretch without owning a car, or driving, in my late teens and early 20s. I moved to San José, California, and lived very simply while attending San José City College. This was 1966 and the Zeitgeist was very much on my side. It was considered cool to be poor, avoid commodities, cars and houses in particular, and commune intimately with the planet. Much better to walk barefoot and feel the grass and asphalt beneath one’s feet than the rubber and plasticity and linoleum and tile of a world grown severely Cartesian and detached from the natural world. It was high virtue to shun the world of commerce and industry, vigorously protest the war in Vietnam which was an immoral, sinister extension of capitalist predation, tune in, drop out, and absorb the wisdom of the east. Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism. The Beatles incorporated the sitar into rock ‘n roll and incense burned and hair grew long and clothing got colorful and zany. It was a good time. The Volkswagen bus was hugely popular. It was low key, funky, and easy to work on.
I got married in 1970 and we bought a Volvo. I don’t remember much about it, except that one morning it wouldn’t start, which put me into a towering rage, and made me late for school. San José did not have a viable public transit system. I waited an hour for a bus to come, which never did come. The marriage didn’t work out, and a few years later, I found myself back in Seattle.
From 1975 to 1978 or so I drove a four-door Dodge Dart. This was a good car, reliable and easy to drive, but at the time I did not really want or need a car. The Dart had belonged to my stepmother. My parents insisted that I take it. I told them I did not make enough money to properly take care of it. I can’t remember what made me finally give in to their insistence, but the results were sad. Unable to maintain it, or buy insurance, the car eventually decayed into immobility. For a time, I played a game with the meter maid. It was parked on a city street. The apartment building in which I lived did not have a garage or driveway. In Seattle, you can keep a car parked on the street for a maximum of three days. On the fourth day, I checked the tires. There was a chalk mark on the rear right tire. I removed it with a rag. This continued for about a week. The meter maid decided to get tricky and left a tire mark on the left side, on the side opposite from the curb. But I got it. This went on until I sold the car, which wasn’t even running. I think I sold it for $50 dollars. The people that bought it were extremely happy. To this day I wonder why. What is it about a ’65 Dodge Dart that made them so happy? Their happiness made my dereliction seem all the worse.
My next car was a Toyota two-door sedan and appeared during my second unfortunate marriage. I have few memories of it. I do remember waking up one morning to discover that some malefactor had systematically gone down 19th Street on Capitol Hill and shot out the windows of each car, ours included. We had to pay to have the windows replaced. After our divorce, I resorted once again to Seattle’s public transit system, and rode the 43, 14, and 7 to and fro from the University District, a ride of about 10 minutes, enough to read a paragraph or two, or gaze out the window dreamily on way to work, or even more dreamily on my way home from work.
The car my wife and I now own is a red ’94 Subaru which continues to run quite well (knock on wood) although a few mufflers have rusted through and fallen off. This is because our drives tend to be very short, little errands we run to Costco and the grocery store, so that condensation builds without being fully evaporated. The furthest we have driven the car was Denver, Colorado, in 1995. We went to visit a friend of my wife’s who was attending Naropa, in Boulder. I remember how the brake linings smoked and burned on our way down the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, on Interstate 70.
Roberta and I dream of one day not owning a car at all. No more expenses paid for oil changes and check-ups, car insurance, gasoline. During the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico we did not have the heart to drive at all. We stopped driving. It wasn’t a protest staged to effect change, because such a minor alteration of our behavior would be futile as far as bringing the nefarious oil industry to its knees. We just sickened each time we got behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. It felt like slapping mother earth full in the face. I bought some gear at REI, a little backpack and carrier for my wallet, and incorporated errands into my daily run. It felt good. When the ultimate mode of transport becomes your own body, you feel in harmony with the air, the birds, the trees, and everything else sweet and good on the surface of his old spinning planet.
Drums Along the Potomac
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