I still drive my first car, a 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. I bought it at 61,000 miles and it’s only today, two years later, at 72,000 miles. Considering I only paid 2,000 cash for it, the fact that it remains running is a fantastic feat of American engineering, and everytime it starts, I still want to do the Harlem Shuffle around it in celebration of my luck. I had originally saved $5,000 from summer jobs and refunded scholarships to buy a car in my sophomore year of college. However, my gallbladder decided to develop polyps around the time I was surfing Craigslist and creating a large pile of Auto Traders (instead of buying health insurance) in hope of not needing to bum off of friends. Because of this medical need, I dumped my savings so I could drink coffee or eat a hamburger without being in immense pain. The consequence of this was walking approximately eight miles a day to classes, observations, and my job for a rental car company through “The Land of Waking Damnation And Not A Single Good Bar,” otherwise known as Middletown, Pennsylvania.
Six days after I bought my Oldsmobile, I decided to take it out for a pleasure cruise and relish in the actuality that no longer would I need to humble myself to my roommate who drove his parents’ 2000 Toyota Corolla. I drove on country roads and listened to the radio, chain smoking cigarettes and singing along to Journey and REO Speedwagon (fun fact: REO actually stands for Ransom Eli Olds, the namesake for Oldsmobile which actually gained its current name in the 1930’s from the slang term for cars made by the REO Motor Company). It was at this time the car began to drastically overheat. With tears of frustration and disappointment, I rushed the car home to have it towed after the weekend. Turns out, the fine folks at 905 Cars and Trucks in Manheim, PA had decided to cover-up a radiator leak with a temporary stop-leak fluid and didn’t think this an important thing to tell me, yet it was important enough to cause the head gasket to split in three places, nearly destroying the cylinder head which would have rendered the car effectively totalled. I spent three more days walking the streets of Middletown, cursing 905 Cars and Trucks in Manheim, PA. If 905 Cars and Trucks in Manheim, PA had told me about the radiator leak, the fix would have been a mere $100 instead of the $550 to replace the head gasket. And having researched the Cutlass Ciera and discovering it was famous for running for several decades (even getting Car Of The Year when it was put into production), I gladly would have replaced the radiator and still bought the car. Hope you enjoyed the open spot on your lot, 905 Cars and Trucks in Manheim, PA.
Because I remember what it felt like to nearly lose OJ — I named my car after my favorite whisky accompaniment — I have a strong emotional pull towards the car. While an inanimate object made of moving parts and chemicals, OJ kept me off the streets and gave me a freedom most people are given when they borrow their dad’s car in high school. It is not a perfect car: the radio antenna cracked off the base when taking it through a carwash and it makes a hissing noise whenever I go above 60. But it remains my car. When Kurt Vonnegut was asked what he thought of patriotism, he responded “I don’t care much for geography,” meaning he recognized the idea that we love where we are born because we are born there. If you are a patriotic American, you probably would be as likely to be a patriotic Swiss had you been born in Zurich. And it’s roughly for this reason I love OJ. There is nothing in particular to celebrate about him over other cars and most cars owned by my friends in similar steps in their careers have qualities far surpassing his own (like a cassette player instead of just the radio that gets four stations). But this is the car that made moving away from roommates and getting my own apartment possible. This is the car I used to pick up the woman I love for an Occupy meeting and joyfully shudder at the thought of her in the passenger seat, her feet kicking over the empty water bottles and Douglas Adams novels scattered across the floor. This is the car that allowed me to make midnight trips to Wal-Mart because I decided I hated my desk lamp and needed a new one. Freedom isn’t free; it costs about $80 a month in gas.
I love driving. My aforementioned job at the rental car company was driving and delivering the cars themselves. It was an incredibly relaxing job. Most deliveries were to the Harrisburg International Airport (which is not in Harrisburg and has no directly international flights) which had a great straightaway for about half a mile, allowing for maximum stupidity between the gas pedal and myself. The fastest I drove was 101 MPH in an Infiniti G37x, which hits such speeds if a fly sneezes against the accelerator. Every car I drove was nearly brand new and had incredible sound systems, allowing me to scream along to “Tell Her About It” while getting a paycheck. WXPN and their “Funky Friday” two-hour funk music marathon was the highlight of my weeks, because nothing feels better than having your arm out of the window of a Cadillac CTS and nodding your head to “Atomic Dog”. When not driving, I sat shotgun in a minivan and made dirty jokes with the 65-year-old shuttle driver, drinking black coffee with grounds floating on top. And while it was depressing to drive a 2011 Chevy Camaro then return to my Oldsmobile, it felt far better than driving for eight hours then walking my poor ass home.
Despite my love of driving, I am not really a gearhead of any sort. I listen to Car Talk and am more likely to pick up Car & Driver in a doctor’s office than People, but outside of that, I am scared of the day I get a flat tire or need a jump. My experience with OJ has led me to become frightened of even the smallest repairs, confident a curse has overcome my car that will begin small, like a pox, but will spread slowly until one day I’m left walking down the freeway clutching only the dismembered steering wheel and license plate while OJ smolders along the median. I really have no reason to fear this. It’s an older car, but I baby it constantly and put half what the average driver puts on their car in mileage per year. But I cannot get past the feeling that, if I hammer down the gas pedal while on a steep incline, the engine will rupture out of the hood and send heavy metal machinery hurtling into my face. I am scared to death of this car dying, and not merely for financial reasons. If OJ goes, I’m back to my miserable state of walking everywhere. While there is no shame in those who, as I did, walk to get wherever they need, it’s certainly not the proudest moment when you have to leave an hour early to get somewhere three miles away. Unless you live in a city with a healthy public transportation system, you find life is nearly impossible without a vehicle. It’s a massive time suck, humiliating after a certain age, and you must bring a change of clothes everywhere in the summer so you don’t go through class or work with massive sweat stains down your body from the backpack carrying forty pounds of textbooks. I had a great friend in my roommate who drove me wherever I needed to go, once even skipping class to get me to a nuclear medicine treatment for said gallbladder issue. But reliance on someone like that, especially when you can tell they’re doing something even though it greatly annoys them, is emotionally punishing to the ego after long enough.
A car is your fucking life once you have one. It makes life possible. And I celebrate OJ because I realize what this heap of late-age GM structuring means. Learning how to drive is really the last manual thing we all have to learn how to do — and even that has gotten easier with power steering, automatic transmissions, and soon-to-be self-driving cars brought to you by the mad scientists at Google. You don’t need to know how to play piano to hear music and you don’t need to learn how to stitch or run a Singer to have new clothes. Cars are the last vestige of everyday physical machinery that takes skill to operate, and take for proof that nearly every person believes they are a better driver than anyone else At a time when I need my Netflix queue to remind me what TV shows I want to waste time staring at, it’s actually quite incredible I still need to encourage a 4-cylinder engine over highways based on 300-year-old agricultural trade routes, all for the purpose of getting a Crunchwrap Supreme when I damn well please.
My 50-year-old aunt said something pretty incredible when she got her first iPhone last year. “Once I stopped worrying about how it worked, it became so much easier to use.” And this is absolutely true of most technology, including cars. The easier something is to use, the farther removed we are from how it actually works — ask any Ubuntu user. Until more states succumb to Google’s lobbying power genius innovation and self-driving cars become safe and cheap, pushing that pedal to the floor and hearing an engine roar in response is the only mechanical thing we have not automated to our fullest abilities. Even navigation has become a null point, as GPS units and smartphones shrink the world and flip the finger to classic literature. Most of what we do while driving is lost to the skills of the subconscious, but when your transmission slips or someone who definitely needs to be somewhere right this fucking instant cuts you off, it wakes you up to what you’re actually doing: being forced along miles of asphalt by something invented in 1858 with a vinyl strap and your own reflexes protecting you from being a multicolored paint streak on the road. Patterns and movements we do everyday have become automatic, but slight changes can create chaos. It’s why most reactions to the self-driving car have been something like this.
So yes, OJ has a dent above the passenger side rear wheel, he sometimes smells like gasoline after a long drive, and he has a few scrapes from that one time I got lost in a quarry. But to me, he represents the last sanctuary of ingenuity and analytical thought in our culture, and so should your own car. A driver’s license is the only certification of skill–outside of a high school diploma — that is required by modern society and it may not be much longer before even that is tossed aside. You have no need to know how to hunt or fish (something that is now done for fun if at all by the Western world) and you don’t need to pull a tooth with a string, a door, and a jug of homebrew. So don’t be bored by driving; it really is the most exciting and most dangerous work you do.