There’s an interesting piece in The Atlantic on one of the more compelling aspects of our time, ambivalence about cars. My wife and I own a Prius C, which is about as size- and fuel-conscious as we’re likely to be in our current circumstances here in New York City with no ready, secure access to charging and no desire to drive a newer, bigger car. We use our car mostly for utility and sometimes for convenience. It is, however, not something we think about very much. We have, we use it. We worry about replacing it sometimes and then forget to worry.

But there is no doubt that I bought into the American myth of automobile-derived freedom from an early age, and by the time I had my own car at 17,1 it was a haven from all manner of perceived and real threat, hassle, and infringement, a site of recklessness, retreat, intimacy, and independence. From ages 15–21 or so, my entire worldview was shaped while leaning against, sitting on, and hanging around in cars of all different makes, models, sizes, and shapes and in all states of repair. Much of the time, it didn’t matter what kind of car we were in as long as the following criteria were met:

  1. We had plenty of gas. And money for more.
  2. We had an ample (effectively endless) supply of cigarettes.
  3. We had an ample (effectively endless) supply of caffeine, initially Coke or Mountain Dew mostly, and as we got a little older, coffee.
  4. We had a functioning stereo in the vehicle, preferably with a tape deck but working radio was fine as long as it was loud enough. I think I knew one person with a CD player in their car, and that was near the end of the era I’m describing, roughly 1984–1990.
  5. Someone in the car had to have a legal driver’s license but it didn’t have to be the driver.
  6. The car had to be nominally legal and safe. Expired registrations, inspections, or insurance were tolerable as long as they weren’t too expired. Forgiveness of such violations was in direct proportion to whether or not a more legal car was available. Desperate times, etc.

Additionally, the etiquette of these rides was fluid but firm:

  1. There were no non-smoking cars. Cars were, from a certain adolescent standpoint, machines made for the purpose of smoking in.
  2. Music, always referred to as tunes, was played according to the preference and discretion of the driver, unless they were driving someone else’s car and the owner of the car was present in the vehicle. In this uncommon but not impossible situation, the owner’s choice would prevail.
  3. If the driver of the car was on or held even the slightest prospect of being on a date, all passengers had to either be cool and occupy themselves outside of the date-parked vehicle until such time as the driver and date once again made the vehicle available to all; or, if it was a real date, like going somewhere on a date, all passengers had to find a different ride altogether. This subject was frequently euphemised at the time, so I continue that practice here.
  4. Some, but not all, cars had given names or nicknames. These monikers were to be respected by all passengers, past and present, if the car was referred to without the owner’s possessive (e.g. “The Chicken” and “Philly’s car” described the same vehicle.).
  5. If one was dismissed from the vehicle, that was not a warning: it was a dismissal. Among my cohort, this was unusual but not unheard of.

  1. Or more likely when my older friends gained steady access to their own or their parent’s cars, which preceded my own by a couple of years.