Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pink Cadillac

After reading Tuesday's post on the tailgater in the Caddy who tried to run me off the road---or maybe it was just that his car was hungry and wanted to snack on mine---a regular reader of these pages wrote me a confidential email embarrassedly admitting to being a driver of a Cadillac.

That reader thought I was equating driving a Cadillac with being a jerk. I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I have no prejudices regarding Caddies or their owners. There was a study done by a car company a few years ago that showed that drivers of SUVs were on the whole more likely to be selfish morons than drivers of mini-vans, status-seeking showoffs and bullies with little or no social conscience, but I haven't heard of any similar studies about drivers of DeVilles, LaSalles, El Dorados, and Grand Europeans.

Personally, I make no moral judgments about owners of SUVs, although I do believe that driving an SUV marks you as a bad driver until you prove otherwise. Other studies confirm this---asked why they drive gas guzzling tanks around, SUV owners are likely to reply it's because they are scared out of their wits by other cars on the road. Frightened drivers are bad drivers, almost as bad as drivers who don't know the meaning of the word fear---who also tend not to know the meanings of the words Speed Limit, School Crossing, Children Playing, Dangerous Curves Ahead, and Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface.

Drivers of Hummers, I think we can all agree, have no souls.

But when I see a Cadillac on the road the only thing I'm likely to think is that the driver is probably retired and spends the winter in Boca Raton.

Once, down in Florida, I was somewhat perplexed to see approaching, coming the wrong way on a one way street, a Cadillac driving itself. When the Caddy finally reacted to my insistent horn-blowing and stopped bumper to bumper with my car I saw that it wasn't a runaway on auto-pilot. I saw a tiny pair of liver-spotted hands gripping the steering wheel and some curls of blue-tinted hair just visible over the dashboard.

My Cadillac-driving reader is in the prime of life and, I'm pretty sure, tall enough to see out the windshield. The Caddy was inherited from a little old relative who drove it only on Sundays to church.

Once upon a time, though, Cadillacs meant something.

They meant money. Not a lot of money, necessarily, but enough money. They meant prosperity. Earned wealth. Coupon clippers rode around in Lincolns, Rolls Royces, and Mercedes or they drove flashy Italian sports cars. You bought a Caddy because you had worked for it. You could afford it, finally, because the business you had spent the last twenty years breaking your back to build was paying off. You'd made it, at last.

Or, as Joe Dowd writes in a column for the Times-Herald Record about the day his father drove home in a shiny new Caddy, it meant victory. the early ' father became a chief in the FDNY. One day, he rolled home in a brand-new Cadillac Sedan DeVille the size of our living room. It came complete with tape deck and CB radio; its trunk was big enough to host New Year's Eve parties.

The boys in the neighborhood named it "The White Cloud," and with good reason:

From time to time, dad would let me drive his great white beast with its tapered fins, and it felt like I was steering an airplane along the back streets of Long Island. This Caddy sent a message that we had made it, that there's a payoff at the end of 20 years of eating smoke and studying for Civil Service exams.

And looking out that windshield, it wasn't just a hood ornament cutting through the wind. It was a family trophy.

It said: "We win."

Back then, before Reagonomics and Zero Sum Games and Greed is Good and "He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins" bumper stickers, victory didn't necessarily mean defeat for the other guy. Neighbors could be excited for you when you pulled up with motor purring and chrome flashing and not moved to envy, resentment, and self-loathing, because the symbol of your success was a flag rallying them to hope for their own. If one of us can make it, people thought, maybe the rest of us can too.

Making it meant surviving the wolf at the door and the forces that would pull you down into poverty, debt, defeat, misery. Making it meant that a hostile Universe had to work a whole lot harder to take away your comfort and dignity.

I'm not contradicting myself here. I'm not suggesting people were more generous, bigger-hearted, or in any way better than people are now. They could be just as covetous and mean-spirited. It just took a different make of car to inspire their mean-spiritedness and incite them to covet their neighbor's wheels, a different kind of showing-off.

Seeing your neighbors in their new Cadillac told you what you already knew about them, that they were decent, hard-working, honest people who'd earned and deserved to have a nice car finally after years of driving that old clunker held together with duct tape and baling wire.

At least that's the way it was in my neighborhood. I'm guessing it was that way in Dowd's too.

But Dowd's column wasn't just about the joys of material success as symbolized by owning a Cadillac.

It was about the joys of owning one of the best built and most handsome cars on the road. You knew the car was the best because it was MADE IN THE USA by General Motors.

And that equation doesn't work anymore.

Dowd's column was inspired by the news that Toyota is about to overtake GM as the number one auto-maker in the world.

This news is depressing for a lot of reasons, and one of the reasons it depresses Dowd is that Toyotas are boring---"mundane, reliable, boxy little road rats."

Dowd owns an Olds 88 these days. He's proud of it. He plans on driving it into the ground. He longs for the return of the days when everybody drove big, beautiful American-made showboats, when a Cadillac meant victory, when it meant "We win."

Dowd doesn't say it, he refuses to admit it, but I suspect he knows.

Nowdays driving an American-made car, even an SUV or a Hummer, doesn't say "We win."

It says "Sucker."

Americans don't build the best cars anymore.

Pardon me.

I shouldn't say that Americans don't build the best cars.

Americans build great cars.

They just build them for Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai.

What I should say is that American corporations don't build great cars anymore. American corporations don't build the best anything anymore. In fact, we hardly build anything at all, but what we do build is second and third-rate.

The Europeans and the up and coming Asian countries laugh at our engineering and technology the way we used to laugh at the Russians.

Which makes sense. I don't know if one caused the other or if both represent the same corruption, but it seems fitting that while we have a national leadership that would have been at home operating out of offices in the Kremlin our machines, devices, and products are as innovative, efficient, and adaptive as those of the old Soviet Union.

Anybody want to buy a nice used Lada?

Great condition.

Vas owned by leettle old lady comrade from Leningrad who drove it only vonce a veek on Mondays to commune.


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