I suppose it is the Mennonite in me, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the car. Some week soon I want to add up the hours I, and my wife and my children spend in our cars and gather a family meeting and ponder and wonder together what life might be like if we spent the amount of time in our cars at home with one another.
The first question on the agenda would be why we are rushing about in our cars. Where are we going? We are going to work or going to play, but wouldn’t it be grand if we all developed ways to work and play at home? What if we were completely impractical and moved to a farm in the country and grew our own food and had a cow? There would be plenty of work there and plenty of play.
The second question would be what we would do if we stayed at home. I have an anarchic dream that we might turn our suburban home into a farmhouse, build a barn for the cow and a pen for the pigs and a home for the chickens. What would the neighbors (who we do not know) do with the crowing of the rooster each morning? How would the adjust to the squeal and the smell of the pigs and the nightly attacks of the coyotes on the chicken pen? What would be do at home? We would work in the garden and look after the animals and sit by the fire at night and play Chinese checkers.
Instead in the morning we and our neighbors climb into our metal four wheeled air conditioned boxes and drive to the workplace to sit in a chair and stare at a screen. None of this would be possible without the car.
Then, I wonder, has anyone else noticed that the car has had the effect that it doesn’t take us anywhere? The idea of travel is that you go someplace different. But in America there is no place different. Everything is the same. An interstate highway in Kansas is the same as an interstate highway in Arkansas. The suburbs are identical in every town. America is one vast theme park where commercial avenues are thronged with identical restaurants mass produced by gigantic corporations that populate our towns with cookie cutter artificial emporia.
On every commercial avenue you must have a snazzy Burger King, a fake 1950s diner, a pretend Tuscan villa Italian restaurant, a faux French bistro, a make believe Mexican eatery and a knock up Bavarian knockwurst serving beer house. All of them are surrounded by acres of macadam because none of this would be possible without the car. The car has produced the modern wonder that we travel for hours to go somewhere which is the same as the place we left. It is as if we have set out to go somewhere and wind up being anywhere and nowhere at the same time.
I blame the car, and do not know what to do about it because I cannot effect such a revolution in my own life without endangering the income on which my family relies. If I were alone in the world I think I would retire to that hermit’s cabin I long for and get a horse and carriage and wear a cowboy hat.
Perhaps the Mennonites have the solution. When I was a boy growing up in Pennsuylvania there was a sect within the sect of Mennonites who were called “Black bumper Mennonites”. I don’t know if they still exist, but in that day these Mennonites were not so strict as to use only horse and buggies. They allowed themselves a car. But the car had to be the simplest of models, and it had to be painted black. Furthermore, as their name indicated, they removed the chrome hubcaps and painted the bumpers and all other chrome items with flat black paint.
The car then became an expression of their unworldliness. It was almost an act of penance to drive that car. It was a public witness–a sign of contradiction and a somber meditation on the folly of a world whose dimensions have been produced by a practical, greedy idiot named Henry Ford.
The only other option would be to do what my brother once did. He bought an ancient station wagon because it was practical and he and his artist wife painted it plaid. This riotous checkerboard old Plymouth became something of a celebrity around town. People would roll down their windows to compliment them on their anarchical paint job.
This is really the only other solution: if one cannot turn the car into an act of penance, why then ridicule it as one might a banker or a politician.