For reasons I can’t recall, I promised that I would share one day soon, if I could ever find it, the very first car column I ever wrote. In part because it shared its name—Gears this Week—with this online column, but also because it is now a piece, albeit decidedly a minor one, of ancient history.
The year was 1978, your reporter was age 20 and the outlet was the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school newspaper of record around New York City’s Morningside Heights and also, as our T-shirts insouciantly proclaimed, “New York’s eighth or ninth largest daily.” Such was the long-lived paper’s utter lack of interest in automobiles, that to the best of my knowledge, I was its only ever car columnist. Also, I am the only one who knows this, cares, or I suspect ever thought about it.
The Spectator would be even higher up the city’s hierarchy of daily newspapers today, what with the demise of so many of them over the last few decades. Except that the Spec itself no longer appears in print—it’s only online now. Curse you, technology-driven change. But one good thing to come of my old school newspaper’s embrace of the new paradigm was that the paper’s now digitized archive miraculously made it possible to find my long-lost debut, when I’d lost track of my only record—a frail, yellowed newspaper copy—two or three house moves ago.
Now that I’ve found the column, however, I wish I could remember what I was thinking when I thought it would be a good idea to share this manifesto of a young motorist with you. Today, it seems shrill, smug, opinionated, and brittle. At least it had that going for it. It also marked my first experience of writing about cars for an audience that theoretically didn’t have much use for them, which is, of course, not this audience, but not unlike some others I’ve been asked to address. No one cared about cars? Well there were a few readers, including my fellow undergraduate and neighbor on W 113th St., Bob Eisenstein. He showed up from Omaha to attend school in the big city with a Stage 1 GS455 Buick Skylark convertible. My, the tires we roasted in the shadow of Grant’s Tomb. I borrowed it once to drive one winter’s day to the big anti-nuke convention at Wyndham College in Vermont, where it made an amusingly distinct counterpoint to the other vehicles in the parking lot.
So here you are, then, the very first Gears this Week, including the original lead image. For me, finding it is akin to a baseball player being reunited with the first ball he ever hit in the majors. Except that the hit wasn’t a home run or extra base drive, but rather a heartfelt pop out to the third baseman. Ah, the memories.
Now without further ado:
It was either G. Lloyd George, British minister of power and fuel speaking during the energy crisis of 1938, or Alice Cooper, the pop star and minor genius of a few years back (the accent on minor, please), who first noted that cars suck. In a big way.
I can’t recall offhand which of these distinguished statesman uttered this inalienable truth but, for our purposes, it is enough to remember that cars, like money, are irrevocably evil.
While the automobile industry, the highway constructors and their mighty lobbies would have us believing otherwise, there are better ways of transporting human beings and their goods from one place to another swiftly, safely and efficiently.
One need not attend an over-priced Ivy League university to understand the profound and disturbing effect which the automobile has had upon our culture and environment. Quite literally, what we see, where we go and what we do when we get there have all been shaped, for the worse, by that sickest of post-Christian artists, the internal-combustion engine.
It’s a safe bet that the idea of having a Burger King, a McDonald’s, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a Hardee’s on the same street never even occurred to the Indians [Oof—JLK]. Our America, however, is the embodiment of the anti-culture, the melting pot in which the cultures of France and America gloriously fuse to create Franco-American spaghetti: bland and non-nutritious to the extreme, devoid of spiritual content.
We have placed no premium on efficiency and we have no use for natural beauty. We have created a purpose for our automobiles beyond their function.
Americans live and die in their cars. Lacking faith in their neighbors and themselves, they often believe in their cars. And, sometimes, they even love them. Which, in my book, is almost as diseased as an economy and culture dedicated to a never ending supply of new cars.
This said, it is somewhat embarrassing to report that I am one of those who is amused by these dangerous and vulgar instruments. I, like many of my fellow Americans, possess a near insatiable feel for the wheel.
I often pause to reflect on what it is about locomoting my Semitic humanoid tissue around in an open steel projectile that turns me, so to speak, on.
A substantial body of literature has already been devoted to the psycho-sexual connotations and functions of the automobile. I do not deny the inherent eroticism of the downshift nor will I quarrel with those who would suggest that the heel is one of the body’s primary erogenous zones. It remains, however, that as a substitute lover an automobile is no better than a prostitute. The relationship is essentially economic and, as such, cannot begin to offer the spiritual rewards that one might find with a member of the opposite sex who is of compatible neurotic disposition.
It has also been thought that it is power or, more precisely, the expression of power which attracts people to motoring. Certainly, the power hungry motorist can kill pedestrians, fellow road users or himself with nary a moment’s notice. Unfortunately our motorist can also fall victim to other plain folks expressing their will to power. If I cared more about power, I think I would go hunting with a gun. As a rule, animals don’t fight back.
Finally, it isn’t a love of raw speed that has driven me to driving. Airplanes, which go much faster, bore me. In fact the only thing I find interesting about America’s crack new jet fighter, the F-15 “Eagle” (maximum speed: Mach 2.5, weapons payload: 15,000 lbs.), is that the Carter people say dealing a bunch of them to the Saudi Arabians will advance the cause of peace in the Mid-East. Who said the White House lost its sense of humor when LBJ left? You should apologize right away and be sure to see Cy Vance when he plays Lake Tahoe.
The Utilitarians, if I remember my philosophers correctly, used to wonder whether a tree falling unwitnessed in the forest made a noise. Similarly, one might ask whether a car rotting in a garage was really a car. Frankly, I don’t care. I am not a philosopher and as for Freud, I think he was a nice man who had a lot of problems. My Marxist friends accuse me of being a tool because I express my class consciousness by driving cars. They think I should be re-educated. But I tell them to leave me alone.
You see, I am an athlete. I motor for sport and for exercise. When I need to go someplace, I take the train. But to keep my physical and psychic tone up, I drive. On a cold morning there’s nothing more invigorating than getting up early, hopping in your car, turning the heater and the tape player way up, and just plain motoring.
I know we live in an unusual age but I can’t help wondering how people managed to stay in shape before there were cars.