Q: What’s the difference between a porcupine and a BMW?
A: A porcupine has pricks on the outside.
— a coworker, reacting to an irate caller last night
I was thinking of the mystique of cars today, oddly enough when I was driving to work. Cars have so much mystique that there are even some cars that are named after that particular phenomenon.
While I was driving, a memory surfaced from around the time I had just graduated high school; some friends of mine were all excited about going to the local BMW dealer to check out a new “beamer.” We were all kids; none of us could afford a BMW. I remember two things about that moment. First, my friends had a slightly glazed look in their eyes when they talked about the BMW; this piece of oil-burning machinery produced a sense of awe and wonder not in its inherent ability to burn oil and move from place to place, but rather in its mere existence as a “BMW.” This BMW-ness was almost ineffable to these teenage masculine eyes.
Second, I was almost completely uninterested in going to see these cars. My first job out of high school was as a car stereo/electronics installer; I used to install stereos, alarms, cellphones, and the like (this was back in the day when cellphones had to be installed in cars, or converted to “bag phones”). So even then, some of the romanticism around cars had worn off for me; I was around cars — some of them even nice — every day at work.
But even before that job, I was never as infected with car mystique as so many Americans are. I’m not quite sure why, but it remains the case to this day. My current job entails me talking to people who are just beginning to realize that their car is not functional; so in addition to my basic task of arranging help for people broken down on the side of the road, I almost see myself as a sort of conceptual midwife, bringing forth that realization that they won’t have their vehicle to drive for the time being.
This realization, I believe, is something that increasing numbers of people will have to confront. Oil is becoming more expensive and more scarce; gasoline prices are going up, which in turn will drive up the price of nearly everything else. People will no longer be able to afford to have a car for each driver in the family.
I can’t help but wonder what will happen when using gas-burning vehicles will no longer be a viable option. The reality of adjusting to oil-fuel-less existence will be difficult enough without the fetishization of car mystique in the way.