Pop Culture

Ode to a car: Love among the sparkplugs

“Drive. Drive,” my father said as I paused behind the wheel of my new-used car. Next to us in the parking lot, the salesman who bought my old car was scrawling with a yellow marker on the windshield of my reliable friend.

My friend often peed on me and smelled as if someone had forgotten a pound of ground beef underneath the driver’s seat for a week, which … I kind of had. The sunroof leaked, an excellent trait for a car in Florida at the beginning of hurricane season, and the CD player had quit in the previous century, on the way home from the used car lot. Still, I sniffled as I drove off. I’m pushing 30 and I own stock and I cried over a collection of pistons and plastic bumpers. 

There are two types of people: Those who name their cars and those who do not. I’m a namer. The Millennium Bellemobile and I greet you, from wherever she may be.

The Bellemobile carried me from Ohio to Florida, sat patiently in traffic while I pounded her steering wheel in my furor over having the idiocy to graduate college and enter the workforce, and threw her airbags between my body and her windshield when I skidded off the road one rainy night. The undercarriage was completely shredded, and yet Toby Keith sang on through the tinny speakers as I futilely attempted to unbend the door enough to get it open. That Bellemobile, she knew her priorities.

Most of us maintain this type of affection for our first cars, those which gave us the unfettered ability to … drive back and forth to school and grease-intensive, soul-sucking hourly wage jobs. When do we lose the age-16 excitement about car access?  About the same time the first insurance bill rolls in, I imagine, and the slow realization that the backseat of a Civic is not the romantic wonderland we may have originally thought. 

Meaningful conversationsPixar’s pending blockbuster, “Cars,” trades on our personification of our automobiles. They’re male, they’re female, they’re divas or they’re troopers. A recent study by the International Carwash Association (oh please, it’s America — of course there’s an International Carwash Association, and it probably has its own lobbyists in Washington and a lawsuit pending with the ACLU) shows that 60 percent of us hold conversations with our cars.

I hope yours doesn’t talk, as a tow truck in the film does, like Larry the Cable Guy. My new used car and I are still on introductory terms. From the conversations we have had, however, I hear a bit of Katharine Hepburn. 

David Hasselhoff, of course, heard Mr. Feeny. (“Michael, perhaps you ought to reconsider the mullet.”) I don’t know that I could take advice from my car. It has a vastly uneventful love life, and eats too much.

Far from K.I.T.T. but not so far from Herbie, “Cars” takes a NASCAR turn, an aspect of automobiledom with which I can’t fully identify. The drivers change cars on a weekly basis. They cast off cars like underwear. The suspension doesn’t work properly? Well! So much for that! You’re a smoking heap against the wall as Darrell Waltrip shouts semi-words such as “boogity” in the background, and next week another conveyance fashionably plastered with Viagra and Pringles ads will be available for you to sweat upon.

I can’t work like that. I need a relationship with my car. While on vacation or on a business trip, I might have flings with a rental or two — those whores — but if I can’t think affectionately back on vacuuming Oreo bits out of the driver’s seat and gritting through getting close enough to the drive-up window at the bank so that I don’t have to open the door, we’re not going anywhere.

Fear-fueled relationshipI say this largely because I have no idea how my, or any, car works. As long as I can flip open the adorable little compartments below the dashboard and roaring things happen when I turn the key, I’m happy. This is probably why I treat whatever I drive with a sense of fear-fueled respect; I figure that as long as I pet the dashboard and murmur apologies when I drive full-bore over a parking lot curb, all is forgiven and the tires shall remain inflated until evil interlopers dictate otherwise.

Many of us feel this way, perhaps, because as long as we are in our cars, we’re in our own portable kingdoms. You are Lord of the Passat! You shall pick your nose and sing along with Wayne Newton! Alone on the highway, we are our fullest selves, and as long as we clean out the glove compartment at the end of the night, our cars keep our secrets. Offending serfs are honked at, here within your fiefdom, and if you want to — not that you’re going to, the point is that you can if you want — you and your trusty four-banger steed can drive directly past the office, over your boss and off to Colorado to open a combination ski resort and “ALF” memorabilia museum.

That same International Carwash Association study tells us that 25 percent of us got our first “I love you” in a car, and, perhaps not unrelated, four percent of us were born in a car, with another four percent named after a car, which… might be taking it a bit far. I image that a child named Dodge Ram would have an ironically difficult time finding a personalized bike license plate.

Intertwined in our lives as they are, they’re rather on the out list right now, our cars, with their gas guzzling and their highway-clogging. Al Gore would like you to chuck yours. Would you? Toss over your friend, your fortress, your wallet drag, in exchange for a presumably cleaner planet for generations to come?

Naaaaaaaah. You just got the radio settings where you want them.

Teacher and freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis runs BlondeChampagne.com.  She and her watertight Toyota Corolla live happily in central Florida. Her contribution to Random House’s “Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Authors: The Best New Voices of 2006” will appear in a pretentious bookstore near you in late August.