No Place Like Chrome

My observations tell me that people feel more at home in their cars than they do in their homes – probably because the amount of time spent in cars far exceeds the time spent at home. I have noted, too, that the younger set in our neighborhood – granted many are renters – dwell in their cars: they talk on the phone and text; stow clothing and books and computers in the trunks; apparently, their best music systems are in their cars; they have fights with exes inside their autos; eat while driving, and even drink. And in the newest models, movies and games are part of the deal, keeping the boredom of long commutes at bay while being transported by a mobile entertainment unit. Outfitted inside.

A car is a peculiar space, a kind of capsule that seems protective and insular, but it isn’t really. We all know that it can be a death chamber, too. Many of us feel as if it is a military tank that is armored, allowing us to muscle through any annoyance that we deem an obstacle. With the addition of four-wheel drive, although largely unnecessary, the attitude of conquest and invincibility is fueled by the belief that roads or no roads, we can forge ahead. In vehicles outfitted with air conditioning, sound systems and tinted windows, we can fool ourselves into believing that we are special or above the fray, despite being one of hundreds stuck in an unmoving line, all identical in our sense of uber-individuality. We are such ridiculous creatures, we believe that our choice of style in a car can create a persona for us, one that can even change our lives.

Maybe I am old school, but to me a car is a mechanical device, a tool, not an identity, and not a home. Even as a renter, home was home. I have owned the same car for 26 years: a 1984 Toyota Van Wagon. To me it is close to perfection in its function. This was a car with a soul, a member of the family. Albeit its exterior looked strange and futuristic in the mid-1980s, and does still today, it was reminiscent in color and shape to a potato on wheels, hence its name, Spud. The interior was basic: manual transmission, not a single cup-holder (these say a lot about living in cars), manual roll-up windows in front and sliders in back, it seated seven, or you could remove the seats and fit 4’x8’ sheets of plywood or drywall and still close the back hatch. Part of its charm was its flexibility, that it could be either a cargo van or a passenger vehicle – even a camper: the seats reclined and grouped together to form an amazingly comfortable full-size bed. To me, it was a three-in-one combo, and it was so much more (I can’t imagine most people using their cars for these purposes): we moved furniture in it, even tall stuff; we took demolition debris to the dump; I moved my sculptures to and fro, no matter how large; and when we would prune trees of huge limbs, they could easily be accommodated by Spud – as could anything we asked it to do. This was the miracle machine, the all-in-one genie.

I enjoyed the benefits offered by this incredible automobile, Spud – that is why we still have it and all its age-related problems. Affection, yes. Usefulness, yes. But not a sense of self. I guess what I am getting at is that no matter how much I loved or valued our car as an object, I didn’t desire to spend a lot of time in it because, to me, a car lacks placeness. And I fear that this society of ours has somehow deluded itself into thinking that there is a sense of place in a car: that our otherwise general lack of placeness, created in large part by the predominance of cars, has made people think that now the place is in the car. Au contraire.

Whether it be our need for escape, or our sense of finding a destination (and with GPS, what’s not to find?) or, perhaps, just our roving and circling – a migration of animals, all thinking that they need to be somewhere else other than where they are (like remote-control flipping or internet surfing) – the urge is to get in the car. The car somehow substitutes for real placeness. And I think that that is because we have lost our sense of place elsewhere, transferring our need for that into a moving object that nurtures our imagined sense of self and keeps us in motion, but ultimately provides us with nothing but conveyance. A car is like a pacifier for our loss of placeness, shuttling us about on our daily rounds so constantly that we have come to believe that the motion is the place, that the delivery system is the reality, that by keeping moving we are there. We are not there. When you find placeness, you will rarely want to be in a car. Maybe the car brought you there, and it can also take you away, but it is not in and of itself placeness.

 

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