21st: Caught in the headlights

What if we were as paranoid about cars as we are of the Net?


Aaron Weiss
February 20, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

I suppose I was extra vulnerable: I'd just returned home slightly fatigued from my walk to the corner store -- an old "Mom and Pop" joint with cozy aisles and rolls of toilet tissue conveniently bundled in twos.

"You really should come in the car with us next time," my friends urged, yet again.

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Historically, the peers have been a respectful bunch, but ever since they all began riding in these "cars," I've been hearing no end of it. Maybe I'm just not as "hip" as them. Or perhaps my resistance is more ancestrally grounded -- I come from a family that has survived on a policy of well-executed caution. Regardless, the hype about cars these days has reached deafening proportions, and it was only a matter of time until I gave in and tried one for myself.

Still, I had my hesitations. First of all, these cars seem fundamentally poorly designed; after all, where's the logic in creating a mobile object that weighs two tons? My body, on the other hand, weighs a dozen stone, at most. Secondly, cars certainly require a lot of fussing and attention -- simply pushing on one does nothing. You've got to read a book of laws, practice day after day and take a government exam before even making it to the corner store -- the same store, I remind you, that I can freely skip along to any hour I feel like (until closing time at 5 p.m.). What's more, cars frequently break and require expensive specialists to restore them to working order, a common complaint among my car-savvy friends.

And the news stories I read! People being mangled in grotesque "accidents," carjackings, break-ins ... they're just inviting trouble. Why, and I wouldn't normally be so crude, but I've even read about young people lured into and violated inside of cars! It's all so complicated and scary.

The car itself isn't all I worry about. People have had their "identities" stolen from the information on licenses, or maybe even registration stickers -- I don't recall exactly what the article said. Nonetheless, I wouldn't feel safe driving around with all that personal information readily available to people, not to mention my credit cards, checkbook, blood donor card ...

I do listen to my friends' conversations, and their troubles seem endless. Even when the car itself is working, they have constant problems with the "high-way" on which the cars ride. These high-ways are supposedly an integral part of our nation's infrastructure -- but how can we rely on a system that breaks down every time it snows? Supposedly, the signs are no good, and nobody really knows how to get where they want to go. Many people get lost and slide right off the side of the road. They end up as "road kill," which I've been told happens all the time.

Still, my friends have grown impatient with my stalling tactics, and I finally agreed to take "a ride" down to my preferred grocer.

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My first sensation was of the stale air inside the vehicle, without a trace of nature's perfumes, the grasses and the leaves and the soil. Then Mark, who had volunteered to control the car, "kicked it into gear" (as he taught me to say). I was so lost in my attempts to catch a steady glimpse of the blurry world outside that it seemed like only seconds until we neared the corner store. Shortly before reaching the corner, though, we had to stop and wait, because the Orwellian red light demanded it. Several other cars were out today, and they were waiting in line ahead of us. Suddenly a green light replaced the red, and there was a palpable moment of tension among us as we awaited regaining momentum.

But nothing happened. We just sat there. The bubble of silence was burst by chanting loud buzzers. Mark was agitated. My pulse quickened in this moment of chaos -- then suddenly we lurched forward with the sound of a faint screech. Calming down, I realized that this must have been one of the "traffic jams" that are so often spoken about.

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Mark didn't stop at the grocer's -- in fact, we whizzed right past it. I began to object, but was cut off by the radio that Mark had switched on. I guess you can play the music and ride the car at the same time, which I kind of liked. After a few minutes Mark pointed out the left window and I saw a long, flat building. "The mall," he said.

I did enjoy the mall, after we finally got there. It seemed so close when he pointed at it, but there were more red lights and traffic jams along the way. I picked up a few nifty clay pots for my herbs and had a tasty soft pretzel; still, the day was tiring.

My first time in a car was very different than what I had expected. There were delays, but nobody was hurt, and I don't think that anyone stole my identity.

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Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss writes for food, if that's what it takes. Frequently, it does.

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