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Car Vs. Computer

I’ve been ambivalent about cars since the day in middle school when our crunchy-granola computer teacher, Mr. Hatridge, told us about a cross-country bike trip he took. The environmental drawbacks of car culture were more than apparent growing up in the LA area. (Dad tells a story about the year he lived in Southern California: he never knew there were mountains north of Los Angeles, because not once during that year was the air clear enough to see them. Marine layer. yes, it’s all “marine layer.”)

The car really doesn’t feel like it’s mine yet. Its upholstery is fresh-looking; the paint is unmarred. It accelerates smoothly, with an unalarming noise, and doesn’t pull to one side or another. Not only does it not feel like it’s mine, it feels like it doesn’t belong in the family. Like a squeaky-clean brother-in-law about whom everyone is skeptical. Though my family has frequently had nice cars, we’ve rarely had new cars. Dad has the faded, delicate upholstery of the old Packard or Triumph replaced, and then it’s never long before he sells it off. A man who came to buy a ’39 Chevy hot rod off my dad at one point asked my sisters and me if we’d miss it. We shrugged. I imagine Gypsy girls felt the same way about their fathers’ horses.

I’m dealing with a novelty curve that’s totally foreign to me. I am waiting for the day when the daily functions of the car are as familiar to me as they are to my dad. Early in my training in the Orange Bomb (a 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser painted screaming orange with a white racing stripe — has moon roof! seats eight!) Dad called my attention to a barely-perceptible ringing noise that sounded when the car was moving. We’re going to go home and diagnose it, he said. He helped me narrow it down to something wheel-related by the fact that it was a continuous ring… then to the drive shaft… which it turned out was scraping against a misplaced muffler. A thin shaved-silver ring showed where the damage was being done. This is what familiarity means: not just knowing how to fix the problem, but knowing and caring about the noises the beast makes in routine operation well enough to notice a minute change in the first place.

You know how it is with a computer. A new computer takes very little time to break in. I stick an anime graphic on the desktop, set up the menus to display the way I like, configure my text editors and browsers and the thing is mine within a week, purring and clicking to me in ways I quickly come to understand: the timing of loading a Flash animation vs. a site that’s down vs. a system crash — that kind of thing.

Will the car ever be that familiar? It feels like a big metal husk. I’m moving when it moves, and it stops and turns in correspondence with my reflexes, but it’s not like my computer. My thoughts stay in my computer; their contours build up there, like plasticene I have shaped, and they’re there when I come back to them. My computer knows verse and refrain; I think of a question about, say, the vertebral peculiarities of Arabian horses, which I used to know, and know some part of me knows, but my computer knows it better… and the computer sings back the answer. A car like a computer would know how to do some sort of nonlinear dance. It would be awkward, but it would be less like driving and more like dancing, or maybe swimming or flying.

Anyway I am re-developing a kind of consciousness outside my physical person which I used to experience in the early days of having a boyfriend: a feeling that I could sense the surroundings of something important to me which was out of my own sight or earshot, though not well enough to communicate with or protect it. (I just hope I remember to move it on the days when the street-sweeper comes.) Is it going to be like this when I have kids? I want to go check up on that car every five minutes.

A driveway is not something I’ve ever wanted before, but now I do. It’s a slippery goddamn slope, you know? You want health insurance, so you want work, so you need a car, so you have to have a driveway, a carport… which means a house, which means a mortgage, which means regular work, no stopping to write a book. What was that Chief Seattle said about our posessions owning us? Right, right.

coda Yeah, mhmm. wrote that a few weeks ago, and was waiting to post it until I had pictures. enough of this airy fairy bullshit. I suppose any $200 bout with parking tickets will make the novelty wear off real fast…

here’s another shot:


  1. kermix wrote:

    Cars and computers both require some manner of formal or informal training to comprehend when you look under the hood.

    Beyond that, the similarities end.

    The car will become familiar enough in its own time, and in its own ways: the seat will develop your own personal ass groove; the smells of everything you ever keep in it will amalgamate; and let’s not forget that the radio presets will all be yours, baby. I had a similar experience when I got my first job in Los Angeles and, having relied on my dad and rideshares and roommates, needed to find a reliable transportation that could take me 20 miles out without inconveniencing anyone else.

    Now, of course, the bastard thing’s probably been jerked around by half-assed techs who were rushing to get home in time to get to the bars, and as a result, turning on the air inside the car occasionally sounds like starting ANOTHER car inside this one. Sigh.

    Monday, November 25, 2002 at 12:07 am | Permalink
  2. Roger wrote:

    For me it’s not the ass groove in the seat (though the headrest permanently gunked with my grandmother’s hair gel does carry some memories). It’s knowing the story behind each one of the dents and scrapes — that one is from the time I tried to parallel-park on the ferry’s car ramp, this one is from some stupid SUV that backed into me…

    And it doesn’t hurt that you begin to identify saving your own ass with saving the car when you narrowly avoid accidents (as I did this weekend); you begin to feel that just missing, clipping another car with your mirror, is like Indiana Jones raching back under that door to grab his hat. It’s an extension of your body in some sick way.

    Which reminds me of an article about Nazi fighter pilots being trained to identify with the machine, to treat it as an extension of their bodies…

    (You might also like Bernstein’s new song “Lithuania,” on “the Swastika EP,” which begins with a confession that he can’t write a truly American love song to the automobile, because he’s still carrying around these ghosts with him…)

    Monday, November 25, 2002 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  3. gus wrote:

    Roger, hon, when you say “Bernstein,” I think “Leonard.” Are you going with Ezra’s assessment of Jews who change their names?

    Regardless, I gotta get me that EP. Dan Bern writes the best road music. His website is mad crazy out of date, though.

    Monday, November 25, 2002 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Roger wrote:

    (doing a spit-take when he realizes that she doesn’t mean Ezra Pound)

    No, “Bernstein” is his second official name — the back of one of the CDs I have says “Bernstein and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy.”

    (Shop for all your holiday Bern needs… this has the new stuff.)

    Tuesday, November 26, 2002 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Steven wrote:

    Well done! |

    Friday, September 29, 2006 at 3:24 am | Permalink

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