Car (Ac)culture

To adjust to life in a new country, I had to kill my American dream.

Photo by Eric Michael on Unsplash

When my grandfather died, I was a very tiny baby. In the last picture ever taken of him, he is pale and thin, sitting in a stuffed armchair, holding the two-week-old me. No one was aware of it at the time, but the vehicle that would one day become my first car was in the garage outside.

When her husband first became ill, my grandmother didn’t know how to drive. My grandfather persuaded her to take lessons so that she could get herself around after he was gone. In the same year that I was born and he died, he bought his soon-to-be widow the biggest, safest car that he could find, the landlubber’s answer to a battlecruiser: the 1970 Plymouth Fury III. It was 18 feet long, with a 10-foot wheelbase, and avocado green inside and out.

The 1970 Plymouth sales brochure shows a man standing alongside this car in a ridiculously tall hat. Forget a 10-gallon hat; this is a 20- or 30-gallon hat. The text underneath the picture says,

Having a big car just to have a big car is ridiculous. But when a big car means more comfort and convenience, then you’ve got something — like Plymouth’s Fury III…Without a doubt, our Fury III is a big car. But more importantly –in the right places, for the right reasons…

In this case, the right reasons were to keep my grandmother from dying on the highway on the three-hour drive between her house and my parents’ place. This automobile was huge and strong. It would have taken a truly massive blow to the Fury’s chassis for any twisted metal to reach my grandmother’s delicate frame. When she was behind the wheel, she had about as much elbow and leg room as she enjoyed in her own sitting room, and that feature made my grandfather feel a whole lot better about having to die and leave her.

So when I was young, the Fury was her car, and I associated it with fun stuff like excursions to the McDonald’s that was in a train boxcar, and the greenhouses where they grew the roses pictured on the ‘Welcome to Richmond!’ signs, and the public park where two mangy captive buffalo lived. I also associated it with visits to our house from my grandmother, who bought us sweetened cereal and fixed us liverwurst sandwiches — she called it ‘Braunschweiger’ — that she cut triangularly and slathered with Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

I have a photo of myself from 1976. I’m standing on a driveway in a white sparkly tutu with an attached bodysuit that has a pattern of red, white, and blue sequins on it honouring America’s bicentennial. In the photo I’m smiling proudly, imagining that I am a graceful swan, but from this vantage point, I am aware that the inward rotation of my outstretched leg is foreign to ballet and prompted despair in my teacher. I wasn’t allowed to wear my ballet slippers outside, so over my white tights, I am sporting clunky brown Stride Rite sandals. I know that my grandmother was visiting at the time, because in the background of the picture I can just spot the tail fins of the Plymouth Fury III, looking as new and as shiny in 1976 as it must have when my grandfather drove it away from the car dealership six years earlier.

The driveway I was standing on in that photo was at my parents’ house, which was in Jeffersonville, Indiana, part of the Greater Louisville conurbation. My neighbourhood was hemmed in on all sides by roads on which my parents would not allow me to ride my bike. It’s no wonder that Americans are so attached to their cars. Because of the way that the country is laid out, the lack of public transportation in most of it, and the sheer hugeness and sprawl, cars are inextricably linked with a lot of what matters in life: freedom, autonomy, power. Your own car is your escape from boredom, your personal passport to more exciting things, and your chance to meet and hang out with more interesting people than the ones you’ve got at home.

I can remember it all. At 14, I was already restless, pacing, eager to get out. By the time I was 15, at which point I considered myself altogether too cool to be riding my Schwinn three-speed around, I was flirting with boys that had their own cars and, when I wasn’t doing that, I was insisting that my parents just quickly drop me off some yards away from the entrance to the mall or the cinema. In the absence of a car, I needed to just materialise, to create the illusion of having arrived under my own power. ‘Just drop me here and then drive off, please,’ I would beg my mother, fixing my hair in the rearview mirror and checking around nervously for potential witnesses. ‘Can you pick me up at nine? But not here, okay? Over there, on the other side of the parking lot.’ At 16, I was permitted to borrow my mother’s sensible white Volvo station wagon, and my friends started driving too. Real life had begun. With a car, there was no limit to the excitement one teenager could have in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky — at least, that’s how it felt at the time.

I can still access it sometimes, like a sensation from a phantom limb, a bodily memory of what this newfound freedom was like. A few years ago, I was in the early days of a visit to my parents and in the midst of my usual adjustment process. At the beginning of The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster, Robert Colville talks about the concept of entrainment. There are various types, but social entrainment refers to the way we fall into lockstep with the people around us. We come to match others’ rhythms and speed as we move, in unwitting synchrony, through the environments that we share with them. After two decades in the UK, I am now thoroughly socially entrained with the inhabitants of London. It’s a world city, a crazy, fast, high-pressure environment. It’s simply not possible for Delta Airlines to just drop me into comparatively small and dozy Louisville without the risk of decompression sickness. I have to warm up to my environment slowly, like a diver doing her best to avoid the bends, so for a few days I keep myself quiet and socially scarce as my five senses gradually recalibrate to all the now-unfamiliar familiar things around me.

Newly arrived, I was still coming up for air, but then my oldest friend, Schipper, rang the doorbell on speculation that I might be there. We passed an evening that was a carbon copy of one of our nights in high school. It was incredibly hot, a real Kentucky summer evening of the kind that never happens in London, with hot moist air and insects singing and stinging. Schipper’s Jeep didn’t have air conditioning, so we kept the windows down to allow the humid, sweet-smelling breeze to stream through the car. We drove to Wick’s Pizza on Bardstown Road, drove around the Highlands, drove to Cherokee Park to lie in the grass and watch the heat lightning in the distance.

Then we kept driving. We drove, and drove, and drove some more. Not as much as we did in high school, of course, when we used to go at speed down a particular country back road that’s now lousy with endless cookie-cutter housing developments. In the 1980s, it was a dark, winding lane, so isolated that there wasn’t anybody back there, not even cops trying to catch speeding teenagers like us. Back then, at 80 miles an hour, we would lift off like the Dukes of Hazzard at the crest of every hill, which of course was the aim. Schipper told me that once he got into trouble with his parents for putting 300 miles on the car in one night, without even leaving the city limits.

By the time I was 17 and getting ready to go to college, my grandmother had developed Parkinson’s disease and couldn’t drive anymore. Quite unexpectedly, the Fury belonged to me. My first car. I cannot express to you the thrill of it. I was by then anti-cool enough to revel in owning the ultimate anti-cool car. It was everything I needed. In the trunk — 21.5 cubic feet. That’s enough for many suitcases and a golf bag says the 1970 sales brochure. Many suitcases and a golf bag? That doesn’t even begin to cover the Fury’s capacity. For four years running, until I graduated university and began acquiring more substantial stuff than books, and records, and T-shirts with skulls on them, the Fury could hold everything I owned, everything, and it often did, whenever I moved house or came home from college for the summer. My existence and all the possessions associated with and attesting to that existence could be contained in one portable space that was all mine.

The sumptuous cloth-and-vinyl standard seat certainly helps in the comfort department, says the sales catalog, and I can attest to that too. I slept in it a couple of nights one summer. The seats went all the way across, uninterrupted by a gearbox or armrests, and it would have been a tall person who couldn’t have stretched out full length. I could sleep on one seat, and if the need arose, there was an identical guest room in the back. Driving in that car was like piloting two sofas down the highway.

When my parents gave me this car, they just handed me the keys and let me get on with it. I knew nothing about the care and feeding of automobiles, beyond being aware of the need for occasional infusions of gasoline to fuel nocturnal drive-a-thons with friends. I was utterly ignorant of routine maintenance activities that had to be performed, like changing the oil and checking the radiator fluid. I will never forget the horror I felt when, driving to work in Bloomington, Indiana, I turned a corner and there was traffic coming at me from the side, and that gargantuan beast of a car shut itself off and came to a halt. And I can remember as though it were yesterday the despair of overheating on I-65, near Seymour, pulling over with smoke billowing from underneath this massive hood, being helped by a nice young couple, and sitting on the curb near a gas station crying my eyes out. If I didn’t have a car that worked, I thought, whatever should I do? Wherever could I go?

The answer to that was Europe, where I didn’t need a car, and where I traveled for two months after graduation from university. I got my first taste of what it might be like to live abroad — my travel journals from that journey go into raptures over England, the place that would eventually become my adopted home. In my absence, I gave a friend power of attorney so that she could get rid of my car for me. I didn’t think I could bear to do it myself. I was in Munich when I picked up a letter from her at the American Express office that said that the Fury was gone. She’d sold it for $150.

I dream about the Fury a lot. I dream that it’s in London, an image so incongruous that my waking brain almost won’t allow me to conjure it. In a recurring theme, there’s something wrong with the brakes. For instance, I’ll be driving it down the Kings Road in Chelsea, and I make a turn like I made that turn 30 years ago in Bloomington, and it shudders and dies in the middle of London traffic. Another running theme is not having the legalities sorted — the car is untaxed, or I’ve forgotten to secure a parking permit. I keep waking up from these dreams thinking that the car’s out on the street, and in my half-asleep state all I can think about is that I have to get up early to get the car down to Peter’s garage to get the brakes fixed. Confused, lying in the dark at 4 a.m., I’ll hatch a plan — I’ll ask Peter to conceal the Fury in his car park until I make it legal to drive in the UK, or I’ll ask some friend out in the country to hide it in their barn. In the dream, although I’m really worried about it, I also feel intensely happy and even relieved to have the Fury in London — but I also feel a little guilty because it’s not really necessary to have one car here, much less two.

A long time ago, just a few years after I first arrived in London, I was gripped with anxiety in the wake of one such dream. Fully aware that I was being utterly irrational, I nevertheless seized a tape measure and went to measure the parking spaces outside on the street. In American measurements — measurements which, if I’m completely honest, I still operate in, at least where length and distance are concerned — the available spaces were only 14 feet long and 7 feet wide. There are plenty of streets in this city, much less parking spaces, that would not be wide enough to facilitate safe passage of a Plymouth Fury III. This is not the Fury’s territory. It’s not its natural home.

When I was 24, post-Fury and living in Louisville, my silver 1988 Toyota Camry broke down and needed a repair that Toyota’s service department said would cost $900. I cried in the service department, cried in my rental car outside, and cried in my flat on Glenmary Avenue. Finally, though, I pulled myself together and I took action.

I already had a job, but not a job that would cover an unexpected expense of $900. I scoured the want ads for a way to make money fast, and I discovered that the Kitty Kat Lounge was hiring dancers. I’d driven past it and knew that the Kitty Kat Lounge was a dive, such an absolute hole in the wall that I couldn’t imagine anyone I knew going there. I figured that guys like my boss or my friends’ dads or various buddies from high school, if they went at all, probably went to classier joints like Déjà Vu and PT’s. I deduced from the location and from the cars in the parking lot that the Kitty Kat Lounge would be full of truckers and good ol’ boys with potbellies, beards, and trucker hats, downing Budweiser and yelling, “Wooooo-hoooo!” and “Yeeee-haw, sugar!” I didn’t know anyone like that, and they wouldn’t know me. I reckoned that made it a reasonably safe place to seek a fast buck that would get my car back on the road.

So I dried my tears and put on a short dress, and I drove the rental car down to the Kitty Kat Lounge, where I sat at a sticky bar talking to the proprietress, a haggard woman chain-smoking cigarettes who looked 60 but probably hadn’t seen 40. She explained to me about drink-hustling, which I’d never heard of before and had no idea would be part of the job, and pointed across the dirty floor to a tiny triangular platform in the corner. It didn’t stick out much further than the corner cupboard in which my grandmother displayed her best china. Beside it was a boom box, covered in sawdust. There wasn’t a pole, which I wouldn’t have known what to do with anyhow, but apparently, this is the area where I would be required to writhe.

‘Well, honey, we’d be glad to have you. Just bring your own music and come on along this Thursday evening,’ she said.

‘CD or tape?’ I asked, squinting at the boombox.

‘Oh, whichever. We got both!’ she said proudly.

In the end, I didn’t show up on Thursday at the Kitty Kat Lounge. It didn’t sit right, and I decided that, paradoxically, the not-so-autonomous route of crying to my parents was a better way of getting my wheels back and preserving my independence. I came close, though. It shows what I was willing to do. Desperate times require desperate measures, and being without a car in America constituted, without question, desperate times.

Have you ever noticed how Americans talk about their memories in the context of the cars that they’ve owned, how they often work out when a particular event happened by associating it with the car that they were driving at the time? Americans measure out their lives in automobiles. My life from age 16 to point emigration was about this long: one white Volvo station wagon, one Plymouth Fury III, one silver Toyota Camry, one forest green Mazda 626, one black Volkswagen Jetta, and one red Subaru Outback. Acculturation to marriage and the UK was a huge shock, about as alien as the hunter-green TVR Chimaera that I was initially lumbered with against my will, a vehicle I struggled to drive the short distance to the grocery store. I was as awkward in this desperately English car as I had been at ease in my all-American Fury — I hated the tight gearbox that I had to operate with the wrong hand, the way my left leg grew hot from the stupidly powerful sports-car engine growling under the bonnet, and the way I had to sit about two inches from the ground with my legs stuck out in front of me. I got a lot of strange looks, and no wonder — I wasn’t fooling anyone. Nothing symbolised my being a fish out of water, those first years, as much as me behind the wheel of a TVR Chimaera.

In due course, my then-husband relented and purchased a car with an automatic transmission, a matronly dark-blue BMW touring estate. It reminded me a lot of my mother’s white Volvo station wagon, the first car I’d ever driven on a regular basis, and it helped. I was more comfortable. But some time after my husband and I separated, the Beamer began to break down on a regular basis. In fact, I remember that it happened the very same week that I filed my application for British citizenship. When I called Peter at the garage to come and pick it up, I said, ‘Whatever I say, do not give this car back to me. Find out what’s wrong with it, and then we’ll either scrap it or I’ll sell it to you. But do not give me back this car.’

‘Are you crying?’ he asked.

‘Of course I’m crying,’ I said.

Two days later, it was fixed, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I made him give it back to me. It wasn’t that hard to persuade him — I don’t think he really wanted to see me cry. Years later, happy in my new relationship and a new mother, I was installing my baby in the back seat and another car came along and knocked the right-hand back-seat door clean off. I didn’t realise that the garage would just send it for scrap without asking me when they assessed the extent of the damage, and I was gutted. The garage rang me to come and collect what they’d cleaned out of the glovebox. Amongst the contents was a copy of the sonogram, capturing the moment we learned we were going to have a little British daughter.

We have a tiny, practical city car now, a car for London, a car that we can’t care much about because it’s parked on the street and subjected to all manner of depredations. In no way do we need this car. It doesn’t fit in with our life at all. We live in a city where we can walk to the butchers and fishmongers and greengrocers. We get a box of organic vegetables delivered weekly to our door. We can take the bus or the Tube to work. We can take a train to Paris. We can walk to cinemas, cinemas like the one where I saw the Pixar film Cars about 12 years ago — I can’t think why, as I didn’t have a kid at the time. I remember leaning over to my friend and saying, ‘This film is just propaganda! It’s romanticising car use to a generation of kids! It’s completely environmentally irresponsible!’

I talk like that a lot. The reason that my old BMW broke down a lot was that the battery kept dying. The same thing happens with our ugly red-orange Ford Fusion now. Why? Because we might not drive it for weeks. Sometimes we forget where it is and have to walk around the neighbourhood looking for it, not because we need it for anything, but because we figure that as it’s our possession, we really ought to keep track of where it is.

So why don’t we sell this car? The environment is going to hell in a handbasket, and dependence on petrol-powered vehicles bothers me. Before both of my siblings lived near my parents, when all of us would fly in to visit them at the same time, we’d sit around the breakfast table every morning trying to figure out how six people were going to get everywhere they needed to go that day with only two cars. If Dad is at the office with the Mini and my brother and sister are at Churchill Downs in the Subaru, how’s Mom going to get to the hair salon at 3 o’clock? This dilemma could take an hour to solve and require diagrams, flipcharts, and the occasional Excel spreadsheet. So I would sit there and drive people crazy with sanctimonious speeches about how shocking it is that Americans are so reliant on their cars, and how in London this isn’t a problem and how in London we wouldn’t be wasting valuable time on this discussion.

But I’m a hypocrite. My big shameful secret, hidden beneath my preachy eco-warrior exterior, is that even now, driving around for hours with the windows open and my music playing loud is what being back home in America is all about, something that feels as good or better than most other things in life. I even have different soundtracks for different places. At this moment, as I write this, I am at my parents’ winter place in Florida, up early with killer jet lag, gazing over the Manatee River as the sun rises. Later today, we’ll be driving over the causeway from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island, on which occasion I will probably play Tom Petty, likely ‘Free Fallin’. When I’m driving in Kentucky, I might play Johnny Cash, but only during the daytime, and if I’m driving in the hills in Tennessee I like to play Jeff Buckley, but only at night. I like the same music when I’m a passenger, and if I’m being driven somewhere in summer, I’ll listen to the music with my bare feet on the sun-heated dashboard, sticking my hand out the window to feel the breeze. I never developed a preferred soundtrack for anywhere in England. Nothing about the landscape, the motorways, the whole driving experience, seemed to inspire one.

If we were to sell our crappy little Ford Fusion, for the first time in my life I wouldn’t have access to an automobile of my own. Even after two decades in London, the fact that I don’t actually require a car is still difficult to comprehend. I can accept that I don’t need one on a practical level, but there are all kinds of needs, and I kick up resistance to the idea of not having a car from the very depths of my fundamentally American soul. Without a car, can I really be grown up? Can I really be free? Can I really get where I need to go? Can I avoid that old feeling of desperation?

The day will have to come, though. I know it. One day, too genuinely concerned for the fate of the planet to warrant continued car ownership, I will have to say goodbye. Goodbye, Ford. Goodbye, Fury. Goodbye, youth. Goodbye, Kitty Kat Lounge. Goodbye, America.