Look, it’s like a United Nations of hockey:
Saturday night in Detroit, before the game. (The Wings won. You knew that.) Walking around this particular neighborhood with friends — our zombie flick was part of a short-films festival in the same block — I marveled at how often you still hear the ghost-town claim about downtown, always from people who don’t live anywhere nearby and haven’t visited since 1974. You should have been there. It’s not Chicago, but it’s a hell of a lot more than you might think.
I cannot deny it: I look forward to P.J. O’Rourke’s byline. Mostly I am disappointed by what I find under it these days, but he still can find the mark once in a while, and he’s always good for a guffaw here and there. But I smelled something when I read his Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal pegged to the GM bankruptcy, The End of the Affair: Old-man smell. And it started so promisingly:
Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses.
Foremost are the horses. Cars can’t be comprehended without them. A hundred and some years ago Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Ballad of the King’s Jest,” in which an Afghan tribesman avers: Four things greater than all things are,—Women and Horses and Power and War.
Insert another “power” after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it was in the Khyber Pass.
This touches on something I’ve been thinking for a while: I’m worried about a government-imposed plan for the domestic auto industry, because I think cars are one of those things like newspapers, magazines and anything else with even a soupçon of creativity at its heart — they just can’t be made by a focus group. And the public is fickle. They wanted fuel economy last summer, when gas was $4 a gallon, but a few months later it was down to $1.50 and Priuses were sitting unsold in California lots near where they’d been unloaded from the freighters. The Obama administration is absolutely justified in imposing some harsh restrictions on a company so badly managed it’s taking on staggering cash infusions and bleeding them out nearly as fast, but…still. O’Rourke is right. The automobile is a powerful tool of personal freedom, and all the bike trails in the world won’t change that.
He loses me, however, when he lapses into his you-kids-get-off-my-lawn act. “In the name of safety, emissions control and fuel economy, the simple mechanical elegance of the automobile has been rendered ponderous, cumbersome and incomprehensible,” he writes, and in an underhanded way “to make me hate my car.” He adds:
How proud and handsome would Bucephalas look, or Traveler or Rachel Alexandra, with seat and shoulder belts, air bags, 5-mph bumpers and a maze of pollution-control equipment under the tail?
Oh, for God’s sake. Let me see the hands of all those who want to return to the golden era of bare-metal dashboards, leaded gasoline and seats free of safety belts. Thought so. There’s a great deal to be said for automotive design of a bygone era, but complaining that cars pollute less seems like a spectacular case of missing the point. To me, what makes cars dull and boring today is their slow transition from conveyance to living room, a sea change driven entirely by what a good libertarian like O’Rourke would recognize as the holy of holys, the Market. At least once a week, I pull up in the carpool lane at Kate’s school behind an SUV or minivan with a backseat entertainment system, and even though the kids are just going to school, it’s on and playing Sponge Bob for the backseat occupants. Modern cars are big and comfortable and climate-controlled and some of them make me yearn to stretch out on the third seat and take a little nap. That’s sort of the opposite of sex appeal.
My six-year-old VW has pollution control and 5 mph bumpers and cupholders and air bags, and it’s a blast to drive, a little Audi wearing dress-down clothes. It’s even a station wagon. The modern driver appreciates tight handling in the corners as much as an early XY-chromosome boomer like O’Rourke appreciates speed off the line. I’ve driven John and Sam’s Prius, and it’s a blast, too. Al Gore’s kid was clocked doing 100 in his. So the modern “shade-tree mechanic” can’t work on them anymore — so what? The best mechanic I knew in Fort Wayne, a guy whose customer base was so devoted they followed him from a Mercedes dealership to his own driveway after he got forced out, told me once he couldn’t work on modern cars anymore, they were so technically advanced beyond his tool chest, but he didn’t care. They’re better now, foreign and domestic. Keep the oil changed and even a cheap one should last 100,000 miles at the very least, a milestone that used to be remarkable. One of Alan’s colleagues drove an Acura with 260,000 miles on it, until it got stolen. (In Detroit. Only in Detroit.)
My proudest moment with a car came on M-129, a road as straight as a plumb line, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Four of us had borrowed my friend’s bad-ass ’69 Camaro, and decided to see how bad-ass it could be off the line. I forget who was driving. He dumped the clutch, laid rubber in first gear, chirped the tires again going into second, and then, blurp — it wouldn’t go into third gear. We pulled over and for the first and maybe only time in my life I said, “I can fix it. Got a wrench?”
This had happened before, the first week Mark had the car, and I was riding with him. It had happened in Columbus, back when every gas station was a service station, and Mark had limped it into one, where they put it on the lift. I watched the mechanic find the problem — jammed transmission linkage — and fix it with a smart whack of a rubber mallet. So I took a hefty wrench, wiggled under, found the linkage, gave it a similar whack and lo, it was healed.
While I think it’s fine that the problem could be so simple that a dumb ol’ girl could fix it with a blunt object, honestly, can you imagine that happening to a modern car today? I’ve had my transmission problems, but you could speed-shift my Passat every day of its life and not have the linkage jam. And my car is about as old now as the Camaro was then.
(On the other hand, that Camaro was promptly christened the Coolmobile. I can’t imagine anyone bestowing such a name on my car.)
It’s sad to grow old and have more of your life behind you than ahead. But yearning for your lost virility shouldn’t get you the cover of the Weekend Journal. Just sayin’.
OK, then. I suppose everyone will want to talk today about Dr. Tiller. I don’t have much fresh to add except to note that I’ve only known one woman who had a second-trimester abortion, and I don’t know where she got it, but she had her reasons: She needed chemotherapy for a devastating cancer diagnosis that came at the worst possible time. I don’t judge people who sometimes need an unpleasant and unpopular medical procedure. I’m just glad there are at least a few doctors willing to provide it. One less, today. Sigh.
Busy week ahead. Enjoy yours.