Several years ago, I worked at a place where we had a whiteboard on which people would post questions or challenges. Anyone could answer in response. The prompts ranged from the mundane (what song makes you happiest?) to the practical (what are you bringing to the potluck?) to the philosophical (how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?). By far the question that prompted the most answers in my time was one of my own: What was your most memorable car and why?
I had been reminiscing about the many colorful vehicles of my past and wondering if other people had similar stories. The answers covered the board, after which enterprising souls answered on paper and taped the answers on the wall. The final result went from as high as most could reach right down to the floor and filled the sides of the wall panel.If ever anyone wanted a topic for a book, this appears to be a strong contender. Everyone seems to have a story they would like to tell on this topic.
Cars have characters all their own to be sure. They do not have to be as active as Christine or the Love Bug to be prominent in our life stories and in our fiction. They can just be as temperamental as the cars in James Thurber’s short stories or as talented as the ones in the Harry Potter and James Bond serials. Or they can just be there as catalysts (the car crash that led to…etc.).
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a related matter lately, namely what your car says about you (and, accordingly, what car your character should drive). Cars played a key role in my mystery work Soleville, mainly as a marker for the changing lifestyle of the hero, whose sudden promotion obliges him to step up in the automobile world and into unfamiliar territory. For me, the necessary research was an engaging foray into an imaginary world where my car-buying budget was well beyond my real-life means. It was fun and slightly addictive.
Back in the real world and limited by a middle class bank account, my spouse and I just purchased two new-to-us used cars after similar (but far more constrained) research. Most of the people I know clucked approvingly at the choices we made but the response I received from one person who’s known me for years surprised me: “You never struck me as THOSE kind of people.” Since then, a couple of my husband’s male acquaintances greeted his arrival in one of the cars with the remark “Now THAT is a car.” It might interest them to know, both cars were love at first drive for my husband, though not necessarily at first sight. One he dismissed at first with the remark, “Looks like a hearse.” The other he seemed too disengaged from for a comment. The same man dismissed one of the cars we test drove with a curt, “This just isn’t me.”
We didn’t intend to make any kind of statement with our purchases but car choices do say something, even if it’s only “I was in a hurry and didn’t have a lot of money” (exhibit A: the Geo Metro we once owned). You might ask what kind of person drives a jacked-up red pickup that hangs on your bumper and peels off indignantly when in fact you are going the speed limit (no, really, I want this guys’ plate number so I can turn him in)? Or who drives a blue Buick sedan about 10 MPH below the limit (All right, that would have been my mother)? Or who is that in the black van with the tinted windows (Truly, we don’t want to know)? Or who buys a car that matches their wild pantsuit (see Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety)?
Our expectations can be so raised by vehicles that there is a comic effect when the driver pops out and is a different person than we’d come to believe was behind the wheel. Maybe the jacked-up red truck is driven by a wizened old priest? Could it be the Buick is driven by a 7-foot professional wrestler? The black van, for that matter, might just be operated by a kindergarten teacher. Seeing my husband hop out of our black Volvo Cross Country had, I guess, a different effect than seeing him rise out of the white Prius (to those who knew the beat up old Subaru Forester he used to drag down the logging roads). Perhaps that was all my commentator meant: two people who drove the same old shabby colorful cars for so long do look out of place in newer vehicles. Still, can’t the padre drive a little slower?