Car and Driver

What does it mean to own a car these days?


Photo courtesy of Bjørn Giesenbauer

BMWs to left of me, BMWs to right of me. Western Washington is supposed to be the land of Subaru, the kind of vehicle used to deliver the flannel-clad hikerati to their outdoor activity of choice. But in the techiest parts of the state — Microsoft’s Bellevue, Amazon’s South Lake Union in Seattle, Nintendo’s Redmond — you’re more likely to see three luxury cars for every Subaru Forester. If you got disoriented enough, you might think you’d been teleported to Dallas or even the nicer parts of Los Angeles. Assuming, of course, that it wasn’t fifty degrees and raining.

Conversely, I live in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, one of the most densely populated areas on the West Coast and one of the poorest areas in Seattle. This is the city’s hub for Car2Go and Zipcar rentals, where street parking costs the same as it does in Lower Manhattan. It’s also the place where, allegedly, Soundgarden used to have their rehearsal space, before they made it big. But venture two blocks east, and you can buy Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and Maseratis, to the tune of a cool half a million bucks. (This was the only price tag I could see from the window — and it was for a used one).

I am trying to piece together exactly What It Means to Own a Car, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to do that. It all seems so counter-intuitive, if not downright irrational. Empirically, it is true that people who spend $30,000 on a Mercedes-Benz are more smug about it than people who spent $30,000 on a Honda. But why? (Other than knowing that you are indirectly putting money into Jon Hamm’s pocket, which I guess I can get behind.)

I’ve spent most of my life on the sidelines of car culture. My family had only a minivan by the time I was old enough to get a permit, and there was no way I was going to be seen driving around town in one of those things; getting a car for myself was out of the question. But my best friend in high school had a little Honda CR-X and gave me rides everywhere. So as far as I was concerned, sitting in the passenger’s seat was status symbol enough for me.

I relied on my feet and public transit to get around when I was in school. This was relatively easy, since I lived in Boston. And I learned to love how people dealt with car-on-passenger altercations. In New York, aggrieved pedestrians will generally swear or flip someone off. I discovered, however, that the local custom in Boston (or Cambridge, anyway) is to talk at a relatively normal tone of voice and in complete sentences at the tail-lights of the guy who nearly ran you down. For instance, “I have the right of way,” or “You just ran a red light.” After four years, I got so used to that sort of passive-aggressiveness that when a guy bumped his old Chevy Van into my knees while I was in the middle of the crosswalk, I just shook my head and said, more exasperated than upset, “Please pay attention.”

In any case, I brought that same level of oblivious nonchalance to the table when I bought my first car when I was 24 (it was a Ford Focus). When I bought it, though, five separate people went out of their way to tell me that Ford was an acronym for “Found On the Road, Dead.” Very clever: but none of them worked for the marketing department for Honda, so where did they learn that and, more importantly, why did they feel like sharing that little nugget of information with me? I get it, I was late getting to the adult world — but why insult my car instead of my putative manhood?

I get that cars are supposed to represent things, and maybe in the beginning, when my car was new and begged for meaning, I could have driven around a four-wheeled metaphor. Car-as-paycheck. Car-as-lady. Finally, something beautiful I can truly own, as Mad Men would have me think of it.

But I’ve had the Focus for nearly five years now, and I find myself — you’ll excuse the pun — at a crossroads. Recently the car’s alternator gave out, which made for an embarrassing stall in the middle of the road. I had to enlist random passers-by to help me push it the quarter-mile back to the garage. With towing fees, that fix cost me $900 Before that, it was the brakes. Another $800 down the tube.

Nowadays, the more I see of my car the more I wish I could still hold on to that ignorant bliss about what it means to have a car. All I can think about are maintenance fees, traffic problems, and accidents waiting to happen. It represents nothing except a giant hole in the road into which I throw money, and lots of it. I have no more good feelings for my car, except to look forward to the day when it will be a distant memory.

Granted, the Focus doesn’t have the automatic massagers and ventilated seats of, say, a BMW 6 Series. But still, would that make up for the angst of the BMW owner, when he or she discovers yet another scratch in the car’s $5,000 finish? Maybe that’s why people work so hard to impose meanings on their vehicles. It keeps you from thinking about the aneurysm-inducing parts of driving, of which there are several.

Every day I walk to work. Very soon, I will have no other option but to do so, since I’ll be putting the car up for sale on Craigslist. I will miss the Focus in an abstract sense, but I certainly don’t harbor any illusion that once I pass on the title, I’ll also be giving up a small piece of my manhood or self-sufficiency. George Washington might defend freedom in his Dodge Challenger, but for the foreseeable future, I’ll consider my foot commute one of my job’s perks rather than its burdens.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.