Here's a little game for your still sleepy mind on a Sunday morning: Describe your first car. All of it. Right down to the last detail -- year, color, model and interior. Not just the things you loved about it but the things that never seemed to work out right, too.
You'll be amazed at how easy it is.
A blue '72 Duster, two-door, with blue vinyl interior. Three-speed on the shaft and an AM radio that on nighttime cruises could pick up stations from all over the country -- WKYW out of Philly and WJR out of Detroit. From Boston, WBZ and from Chicago, WLS. And always WKBW, the audio tractor-beam back to Buffalo.
The engine was a purring slant six you couldn't kill with a gun, but the low chassis was murder on mufflers. The body rusted too easily, and during the February freezes, sometimes third gear took longer to warm up than the rest of the car.
Now describe your first girlfriend or boyfriend. In the same detail. With the same rush of nostalgia, the same wistful clarity.
Couldn't even come up with the name, huh?
Don't worry about it. That just means you're a true-blue American, for better or worse.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the machine that transformed not only a nation, but much of the world. In 1896, commercial production of autmobiles began in the U.S., and soon led to Henry Ford's famous assembly line in Detroit.
Since those first primitive carriages were produced, it's been a long-blooming relationship, beginning as a dalliance, then becoming a hobby before growing into a necessity.
Now it's pure willful addiction.
In 1900, when the automobile was a toddling 4-year-old, Americans bought 4,192 of the new conversation pieces. In all, there were some 8,000 motor vehicles -- cars, trucks and farm machinery -- legally registered to drive on 2.4 million miles of predominantly dirt roads.
Today, a single dealership can sell more cars than that in a year. In 1990, we Americans bought 5.4 million cars and 3.4 million trucks and buses, with the total number of registered vehicles topping 190 million in a nation of some 95.7 million households. (Worldwide there were 126.5 million registered motor vehicles in 1960. By 1990, the total topped 583 million). And our roads increased by half, to more than 3.8 million miles, nearly all of it paved.
We use our passion. Transportation experts estimate that in 1990, Americans drove 2.5 trillion miles in cars, motorcycles or taxis -- from the earth to the sun and back and then nearly all the way to the sun again (and you still forgot the milk on the way home, didn't you?). Trucks and other vehicles logged another 1.2 trillion miles.
To say that the car has come to dominate our lives just doesn't do it. The car has become our lives, for all intents and purposes. We build little houses next to our own houses to keep them in. We pamper them with elaborate car washes and wax jobs and stem-to-stern vacuuming. Some of us even name them. And when they're sick, we're stranded: "Sorry, boss, I won't be in today, the car won't start."
Car culture even figures in our art. For some people, the '56 Chevy Bel Air stands as the epitome of the balance between artistic form and function. "She's so fine, my horse-and-buggy" doesn't touch the same nerves as The Beach Boys singing "She's so fine, my 409."
The Joads didn't walk from Oklahoma to California, and Jack Kerouac wouldn't have revolutionized 1950s literature without Dean Moriarty behind the wheel of a '49 Hudson.
Movies, too: Did Thelma and Louise take a bus? Would "American Graffiti" have been the same if it was based on bicycle culture? And how would generations of teen-agers have developed their, shall we say, "courting skills," without the benefits of a drive-in theater and the cushioned bench of a back seat?
No, we are inseparable, we and our cars. Usually pleasantly, sometimes tragically, inseparable.
A generation ago, kids weren't killed in the streets by other kids during meaningless confrontations. When a teen died, it was usually in a car accident -- deadly mixes of youthful abandon, illegal alcohol and a slight curve.
In my high school, our class of some 200 students was remarkable for staving off such tragedy. For the first time in memory, no members of our class died in crashes, making us feel blessed somehow, anointed even, until the odds finally caught up to us and we were all introduced to our first display of mass grief in college.
Yet for all of the vast improvements the car has brought to American society, it also has brought us some social agonies.
Urban experts from Lewis Mumford to Jane Jacobs tried to warn us that the automobile would make our cities larger, more unwieldy and less livable. We get from place to place by traveling scars on the landscape, and have trained ourselves to overlook their unsightly lines. As convenient as it is, the Scajaquada Expressway maimed a world-class park. That nest of elevated freeways outside NorthAmericare Park is more a barrier within downtown than an artery from the outside.
A couple of years back, there was a lot of national hoopla surrounding the completion of the federal highway system, which brought us I-90, among other expressways. Some 40 years in the making, the system has cut days off long-distance trips, improving everything from the time it takes to get to Grandma's house to the freshness of tomatoes in the grocery store. But as Charles Kuralt once pointed out, "Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything."
Consequently a reverse culture popped up, a slow-moving, scenery-addicted movement that helped make "On The Road with Charles Kuralt" such a popular series of television specials. And in the '80s, author William Least Heat Moon became a celebrated anti-hero for his "Blue Highways," a book about traveling the country following the blue lines -- two-lane back roads -- on maps.
Still, there's a hint of the Luddite in such attitudes. Our nation's standard of living was built along with the automobile. Despite convulsions in the industry, one in seven American jobs still is involved somehow with the auto industry, which helped set the pace for the post-war explosion of the middle class.
Strong unions and the world's growing reliance on cars moved millions of hourly workers from the lower edges of the economy to the heart of the middle class. And then that middle class rode their cars out to the suburbs, a massive shift of population that is still defining our nation.
With an average of two cars per household, we have become a nation of suburbanites, a development that has even changed the way we view community. Outside of family and co-workers, few of us interact with people in any sort of meaningful way. We rarely entertain ourselves by sitting on the porch with a couple of neighbors. It's an odd turnabout, but the abundance of cars has made it easier for us to lead lives of isolation. You get bored, you drive down to the video store, then hole up behind curtained windows to watch a movie that, in all likelihood, contains a car crash or two.
But damn, that car looks nice all waxed and buffed in the driveway. And it isn't particularly demanding. A dog is more trouble. Just keep some gas in the tank, get the regular maintenance stuff done, avoid running into things and a car can be the perfect pet.
Is that what draws us to them? A low-maintenance addiction with seductive fenders?
Probably not. The lure lies deeper. Our love affair with the car fulfills desires that other relationships -- families, lovers, children -- can't. For all their wonderful points, those relationships bind us to place, blunting the nomadic impulse. Our families expect us to be certain places at certain times. God help the spouse who gets home two hours late "without so much as a phone call, thank you very much." And we often are servants more than parents to our children, required to provide at their call a host of instant services.
Thus we are tied, willfully one hopes, to place, through bonds with those we love.
But the car unties us, at least momentarily. When Kris Kristofferson wrote that "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," he didn't quite get it right.
These days, freedom, as illusionary as it might be, can be as simple as a good car and an open road, with no place to go and no deadline for being there.
Scott Martelle, who lives in the Motor City, is a frequent contributor to BUFFALO. He grew up in Western New York.