Life is a Highway...
With the gig at Millennium Park this summer, I’ve found myself less in my car and more on mass transit. I’m on the train so often these days that getting into my car and driving, say, to the Home Depot or a meeting in DesPlaines, is strange and new. I mean, not completely new. I remember how to drive, fer crissakes. Just new-ish.
I like to drive. I like the freedom that hopping in the car and just heading out somewhere allows. My parents are currently on a random road trip through the western United States and the trip is classic in that they have no clue where they’re headed until the date before. Driving for hours to land at a hastily booked motel and seeing America. I love that.
Dana and I frequently take weekend sojourns in the Prius. To Ann Arbor, to Green Bay, to anywhere around a five-hour drive from Chicago. When we became engaged, our first trip was to Kansas then to Red Rive, New Mexico with my family. Thirty-six hours in the car. Roadside gas stations and crappy snacks along the way. Random picnics inside the vehicle on a stretch of highway that goes forever. Bliss.
My first car was a Canary Yellow 1951 Chevy Deluxe. I was 14 years old and my mom cosigned so I could own it. This was in the early 1980s when all my friends (the ones who had graduated from the rural school bus in Out in the Middle of Fucking Nowhere, KS) had Camero's and Trans Am's, so my choice of chariot fit with my decidedly nonconformist stance as a kid. It was also a ride I could afford to buy. I painted it Candy Apple Red and my mom arranged a vanity license plate — "BOPPER" — and I drove the shit out of that tank.
It really was a tank. Automobiles built in the '50s were all metal and chrome and monstrous. I drove it in Homecoming Parades and loved that car like I cherished my testicles.
My senior year, while I was in the South Pacific for an orchestra gig with a Christian Missionary Performance Troupe, my mother took the opportunity to sell the BOPPER and "gift" me her used AMC Concord so she could get a Ford Bronco. It was not my choice of switches but the Concord got me through my first coupla years in college and was the site of an awful lot of sweaty, clumsy sex, and lots of miles on road trips from Arkansas to Kansas and back again. At one point, the passenger seat broke and I had to prop it up with a sawed off pool cue (... yeah... classy...) and I was sad to see it bite the dust when I was hit in an intersection in Fayetteville just after seeing Star Trek V.
Mom decided to help her vehicle-challenged, dirt poor college student son, and sprang $600 for a white 1972 Mercury Grand Marquis — a car so fucking big it was dubbed the Road Hog. Blue leather seats, electric windows, and a front hood so vast three people could lay fully reclined on it and smoke weed. Like a king-sized bed with shells. A Hummer but squashed flat.
It lasted a year and died a depressing, abandoned death after driving through one of the biggest blizzards in Arkansas history, to be parked in front of a dorm and eventually towed away for scrap.
Mom had grown tired of the Bronco and so it was bequeathed to me the following spring just as I graduated college and, in an impulsive and poorly planned decision, became my home for the first four months of my living in Chicago. Everything I owned fit in that truck and I slept there every night, occasionally watching a 2-inch screen television powered by the cigarette lighter as I got to know my new city.
The Bronco was carted away to the scrap yard after I slid into a viaduct at 35 miles an hour a few years later — fog, slippery corners, an access road from I-94 to I-55, and thank god I was wearing my seat belt because my glasses bounced off the windshield and back onto my face upon impact.
Once I was a married guy, I finally bought a car of my own — a 1991 Aqua Geo Metro. I bought it new and got a standard transmission (I had only driven tractors with standard transmission up to that point) and learned to drive it by pulling it out of the dealership and onto the street. It was a pretty good little car for the city and I put thousands of miles on that little shitbox. Small enough to park anywhere but hearty enough to drive Bill Leff, Joe Janes, my (first) wife and me through a terrible snowstorm to a tiny comedy club in Wisconsin to watch Joe and Bill do stand up for a bunch of guys in trucker caps and red flannel shirts.
When we bought the Metro, my new wife at the time had no credit to speak of so we put the car and title in her name. That way she got the credit for the monthly payments. When we got divorced in 1998, she agreed to sell it back to me for one dollar and I felt I had gotten off cheap to keep it.
Shortly thereafter, the Geo got booted for what turned out to be about $1,500 in my ex-wife's parking tickets. By that time, it wasn't worth a quarter of that so I let the city impound it and suspend my driver's license. And I was without a ride for the first time since I was 14 years old.
The part of myself that justifies my bad luck as actually good luck (which inadvertently exposes me to be a bit of an optimist or a Disney character) painted a portrait of a man released from the responsibility entailed with automobile ownership. I lived in a city with excellent mass transit and would be minimizing my carbon footprint by burning considerably fewer fossil fuels! And so I adapted. I learned the bus routes and took the El. I walked a lot more and eventually became an urban pedestrian. I even bought a bike (although riding far distances was simply not an option — I was a fat smoker, OK?)
I lived this non-automotive life for 12 years. Yes, it was inconvenient not having a driver's license but it was the principle of the thing, you see? Sure, when we needed a rental car we had to use Jen's (my second wife) license and she had to drive. I always felt like I was going to be stopped at airports because my Illinois State ID was not, after all, a license. But I got used to it; even proud of it.
A second divorce came and went and once I moved in with Alice, one of her methods of control was that I had no license nor a vehicle but she had both. We lived out in Portage Park, in her home, and the transit to get to Navy Pier (home of $9.00 churros, fat Iowan tourists, and WBEZ) was arduous.
I broke down and paid nearly $3,000 to get my license back. I was so disgusted with the process I didn't even have them change my address or my weight on the new license. I got it because I decided, in my mid-life crisis mentality, that I wanted to get a motorcycle. And to get an M class license, you first have to have a license to drive a car.
I received my M class and promptly bought a used 2008 Honda Rebel from a friend. The bike was fun but impractical given that often I had to figure out how to transport sound systems from the Pier to events and back. Your WBEZ dollars paid for a lot of van rentals during that time all to support a habit of the Events Guy tooling around on a street bike feeling like a badass.
Alice had a second car (a Toyota) and reluctantly let me drive that when I needed four wheels and a trunk but she wielded that car like a punishment each and every time.
So, in the summer of 2012, I sold the motorcycle to a guy who ended up pulling the same thing my first ex-wife did, leaving me years later with tickets on the license I let him use to get it home to Barrington, which he never removed or replaced and stuck me with a mass of “abandoned vehicle” charges that I’m still trying to get dismissed. I then bought a 2008 Silver Prius.
The Prius fit the public radio image, gets amazing gas mileage, which allows me to drive to my folks’ place in Kansas and back for less than $100 as well as traveling to and back visiting my third wife’s family in Pennsyltucky.
And, to be frank, I love it. I love driving. As long as I don't become the Road Rage Dick Asshole I became in the '90s, I'm a rambling guy, baby. I love hanging my arm out the window and listening to the Rolling Stones. I love cruising from place to place with at least a modicum of control (or at least the illusion of control). I still take transit — just to keep me appreciating the road and because parking anywhere remotely near Millennium Park requires a mortgage and a few black market baby sales (I’m trying to get Himmel to let me sell Prince Harry but I think he’s saving him for child labor...)
Editor's Note: I am. — DH
As I look over this list of completely functional but unremarkable vehicles I have owned (the sole exception being the BOPPER, which was as cool and hip as I thought I was in high school) the understanding that I am not necessarily a fan of car culture but I am a fan of what a car can do for me sinks in. Not so much into the design or form factor, I’ll likely never own a Tesla or a high-end ride but I’ll always own a car.
There is a romanticism, separate from the many downsides to American culture, to the idea of driving across this country. It may seem like a collision of paradigms to recognize that this country was built in many ways on the backs of people not benefitting from white supremacy or the patriarchal model yet still see a certain nobility in the trek across such a beautiful land and witnessing such interesting pockets of humanity you find along the highway. Yes, America needs to be a better place but the only way you can understand how it can be better is to recognize why it is worth saving.
A Great American Road Trip in a car of your own is a grand reminder that this country is a remarkable place to live.