Tuesday, July 27, 2010

California Grievin'

aaa“You gotta car?”

aaaI shook my head, trying to be cool despite the fact that, in SoCal terms, she’d just asked, You gotta penis? and forced me to admit, Nope, ain’t got one.

That's a short exchange out of a novel of mine, written from the POV of a 15-year-old boy in 1960s California.

It goes without saying that we're a car culture here; even in car-mad America, California stands out as obsessive. In California, especially in Southern California, cars are nearly a necessity. For many (though I am not one of that number), they are also a deep source of pride and identity. Particularly in Hispanic Cruiser Culture (okay, amongst Pachucos), cars are decorated like shrines. (The word is chosen with deliberation. Sure, there may be fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, but you are also likely to find a St Christopher medallion dangling beside them, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the dash.)

The custom of having the name of the boyfriend calligraphed on the driver's-side door, and the girlfriend's name on the passenger-side door even spread as far as Hawaii. (One car I saw in Honolulu had its doors labeled "Driver" and "Passenger," which I thought was pretty amusing.) That's one of the reasons that the song says Breakin' Up is Hard to Do; you need to have names scraped off, and that isn't cheap to accomplish without ruining the paint job.

Black American culture may be the source of the phrase "pimping your ride," but they are late in coming to the game. From flames on the side to faux-fur seats to hydraulic-lift struts to spoilers on the trunk, the Mexican Americans were there first.

And, of course, they were also the first to adopt custom rear window decals. These are large affairs, two to five feet wide, white lettering and designs on a clear backing. They might say any number of things--the name of the owner, the name of the owner's car club, the name of the car; the usual stuff.

But for the last decade, it has been common for rear-window decals to say things like

Grace Yglesias 1957 - 2009
Gone but not forgotten

embellished, of course, with a few angels and rays of light. And the practice seems to be spreading out of the Mexican-American community and onto the rear windows of all manner of other Californians.

At first, this seemed weird, and not just because it's odd to drive around in a cenotaph. (I've been waiting decades to use that word.) I mean, cars don't last forever. Are there tearful scenes when it's time to trade them in? ("But--but the Chevy is all we have left of Grandma!") Is there a scraping-of-the-decals ceremony? Do the cars have lower resale value because they seem haunted?

But then I understood. On average, most people keep their cars four or five years. That's a suitable, perhaps even excessive, period of mourning. But it's a way to get, as the psychobabble people have it, closure.

Trade in the car and close that chapter. One can't grieve forever.

Of course, this raises other issues.

"I can't believe he already sold the Jag--she's hardly cold yet!"

"I say she's still not over him. She's driving the Volvo around town, but I saw the Beemer is still parked in her garage."

As attractive as closure through trade-in might be, I think we ought to take a tip from the Vikings; when someone dies, we put them in their own car, set the thing on fire, and send it rolling down a symbolic stretch of freeway. More impressive by far, and a move that would certainly be supported by the automakers.

Of course, the California Air Resources Board isn't going to be too happy with this idea...


Frances Garrood said...

Interesting post, David. I think cars very much reflect the way a society conducts itself. For example, I believe that the Swiss fine you if you don't clean your car (they also sseem to polish their cows, their piles of logs, their tractors, and probably their cuckoo clocks as well). Over here (and probably in most places) there's a kind of person who alwasy polishes his car on a Sunday. We had some horrible - and I mean really horrible - neighbours once, who were very rich. On Sundays, Mr.X would put ona a spanking clean boiler suit and wash his Jaguar and her Range Rover. If I'd been that rich, I'd have paid someone else to do it. But for these people it seemed to be a necesary ritual. Like going to church.

And then there are personalised number plates (what are they FOR?). I read the other day that A1(I thnk it was) sold for £100,000. That's just the number place. The car would be extra.

I have a very old Ford Ka. It is covered with moss and mud, and is full of horsey things; bits of tack and brushes, and straw and old mint wrappers (horses love mints). We do have a slightly smarter car as the Ka can't be trusted on long jouurneys, but I'm afraid we don't look after that, either.

I know nothing about the cenotaph aspect, but it seems a bit morbid. "I'm grieving, OK?'But not as bad as those awful little stickers we have with "baby on board" or even "grandma on boaord". So? You gave a baby? You have a grandma? Get over yourself.

What kind of car do you have, David? And dare I ask what you hang, dangle or stick in it?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

I know what you mean about Switzerland. It's lovely, but always feels like Disneyland.

We have two cars. Our main car is a Prius. Our secondary car--used mainly to get to remote hiking areas in the desert--is an old Jeep Wrangler. Pam also drives the Wrangler to work sometimes just to impress her co-workers.

We bought the Prius in July 2010. So far we haven't washed it, though we have been planning to do so.

David Isaak said...

Ooops. Didn't answer your other question.

We don't have anything dangling or otherwise attached. No signs or bumper stickers, either--although on our previous car we had a modest "Bat Conservation International" decal on the rear window.

Jen said...

I have seen quite a few of those roving cenotaphs out here Texas way, as well. So maybe it's a Mexican-American thing more than a Mexican-Californian thing. (It's a whole nother country, you know.)

I also see quite a few trucks (well, mainly trucks, a few cars) with decals that read variants on, "Un Regalo de Dios." Which makes me wonder about the ones without such decals. Seriously: If your vehicle is not a gift from God, then who exactly is it a gift from?