Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V035-05_roadweiller2Back in the Pleistocene, when I was a kid, a favored form of leisure was “the Sunday Drive.”   The whole family would pile into the (only) family car and head out of town for a ride through the (not very faraway) countryside.   We might stop for a lunch somewhere, but mostly it was the slow drive through the local scenery that was the objective. Very often, car advertisements in those years (the later 1940s and early 50s) would show a family, often dressed in their “church-goin’” clothes, out for the Sunday Drive. Pretty lame, huh?   Pretty tame, too.


I often think of those days when I watch today’s car commercials on television.   Cars tear through (almost always totally vacant) city streets and buildings are (computer graphically) blown away, roads literally roll up as muscular sedans roars into the countryside, leaves flying, and all sorts of speed enhancements tell you that you and your car are masters of your domain; city and country are merely tracks for you to give reign to all that horsepower.   Trucks, of course, are portrayed in ways to show their manly durability and power; SUVs and Hummers roar over unpaved mountains, splash through creeks and up mountainsides, and smash through landscapes of rocks and boulders, their 4-wheel drives undaunted by anything that Nature puts in its path.   They all have husky, manly names.


Like so much of merchandize today, the niche is the thing.   That family sedan has given way to the multi-car family, a truck for NASCAR dad, an SUV for soccer mom, a muscle car for Junior or a VW neo-Beetle with the little flower holder for Sis. “You are what you drive” as they say in LA.   And you’re nobody if you don’t have “a ride.” [1]   But even if you do, nobody goes for a family Sunday Drive.   In a society in which the “niche” rules marketing, it is also a reflection that the family is fragmented into its niches.   They don’t eat together, recreate together, why should they ride together.


My family also used to pile into the car and go to the Drive-In for a double feature.   We watched the same movies, parents and children.   Usually it was an Abbot and Costello, or a dean Martin and Jerry Lewis flick, tame stuff, or maybe a formula Western or a Disney animated fairy-tale.   There were genre then, but not niches; everybody watched the same stuff, from the same car.   Later, when kids got their own cars the movies didn’t matter, and the drive-in became “the passion pit.”    But all of it, the family sedan, the movies, the drive-ins are all gone now.   Today, in a narcissistic society, your car is your identity more than anything else


The day I got my driver’s license and my father let me take the family car for a drive I felt like a man must feel when he is released from prison.   The whole city and the countryside were available to me at my whim (and at $.29/gallon).   I eventually got a used 1952 Ford and I was, in neighborhood terms, a “made guy”; girls treated you differently when you had a car.   You thought it was you, but it was probably the car. But I’m drifting off onto the shoulder of the road of reverie.  


I confess to having done a little racing in the streets and at times taken some chances that, even in distant memory, give me a chill.   But that was because I was hanging out with guys for whom souped-up cars were a passion.   99% of the time I was law-abiding and came to a full stop at stop signs and didn’t run red lights.   Most of the time we cruised around showing off our cars and, if we attracted them, the girls riding along.   Favored destinations were a drive-in (like Mel’s Diner) in American Grafitti and, of course, the drive-in movie.


I used to like having a car, and liked driving.   Not any longer. Without exaggeration, I was boxed in on three sides the other day by three SUVs and all three drivers were on cell phones .[2] I couldn’t make this up.   Nor would I repeat what I called them because one of them, a young woman in that Cadillac version of an SUV nearly rammed me into one of the others.   She glared down (I mean DOWN) at me from her Escalade SUV like somebody with an attack dog they could unleash at you at will.   I said something to her and she reflexively gave me one of the fingers she was probably racing to take to a nail salon.


A few minutes later I was reflecting on the incident at the café I frequent, co-incidentally an excellent vantage to observe the uncivil driving habits of drivers passing through its intersection.   There’s a lot of swearing, gesticulation and horn blowing when people don’t make right turns on red fast enough.   I reflected that I just returned from Hong Kong where I almost exclusively use public transit.   People get jostled, their toes stepped on and such, but they would never do or say, or gesticulate on a bus, tram, or subway the way we do in the relatively safe confines of our vehicles.   I think that there ‘s a master’s thesis for some student to study the difference that being up close and personal makes in civility. [3]


Driving today has become scarcely controlled aggression.   What should we expect when we sell radar detectors to allow us to exceed the speed limit, and people became outraged in San Diego when the city installed cameras to catch people who run red lights.   Is there any better way of saying that they don’t care if you happen to be crossing at the time?


Yes, there is. Hey, and while you’re tearing through streets and roads and perilous speeds you can also be not only checking your text messages on your cell phone or chatting up a friend, but also be consulting the screen of your new on-board GPS system, which has a display to get you right to the front door of that nail salon.   


I would be remiss in not adding to my list of complaints about contemporary American driving customs and mores if I did not vent my feelings about the seismic effects of those thunder speakers that have been installed mainly in trucks and various vehicles that seem to be the favorites of hip hop youth and drug dealers.   These would not be quite as offensive if they had not emerged in (maybe because of) the age of rap music.   Now I might not be sounding like the liberal cultural relativist, but rap is to music what tagging was to urban adornment.   This cannot be regarded as racist since there is every likelihood that the booming truck that pulls up beside me emitting decibels that only the people who make hearing aid batteries could love, is being driven by a brain dead suburban white kid who is destined to spend from middle-age on saying “huh?”


It’s a lethal permutation:   monster vehicles, cell phones, and selfish, stupid, arrogant, “Roadweilers.”   Oh, for one of those quiet Sunday drives with my brother and mom and dad.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.18.2006)

[1] “Pimp my ride” is an apparently cool things to say, but I don’t know—or care—what it means; it sounds plain stupid.

[2] California, which accounts 1100 vehicular accidents last year to people on cell phones while driving, will have a “hands free” law in force by 1908.   Two concerns, it’s still 1906; and what will Californians be doing with their free hands.

[3] There recently was an incident that, by its exceptionality, proves this rule.   A man called “bus uncle” made his fame on YouTube when a passenger with a camera-cell phone recorded his upbraiding a young man speaking “too loudly” on a cell phone.   Generally, people just put up with annoying cell phone users.