“Today Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High gas prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters. “They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”
– New York Times, March 22, 2012
Kids these days. They don’t drive. They don’t really care about driving or cars or having wheels to impress a girl. That’s what this New York Times story reports, along with carmakers’ efforts to make four wheels sound cool again. To that end, the story reports, consultants are working to bring the youth back to their cars and “the strategy is to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” breakout hits.”
Maybe some synergy is in order. When a teen girl is thinking of becoming a Teen Mom again, she goes into the backseat of a Regal with her unemployed high-school-droput of a boyfriend and later says – with a knowing giggle, even though producers told her everyone would understand the double entendre even if she didn’t call attention to it – that it was the “ride of a lifetime.” Or perhaps when an overly tanned twentysomething from Staten Island who pretends to be from Jersey gets into a brawl on the Shore, he makes his escape from the police in a Camaro.
Whatever the solution, automakers are anxious about these young people who no longer have an interest in vehicles or being behind the wheel. According to the Times story, “46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998.” Even test drives are under fire, as teenagers think it’s weird to drive around with a stranger in a strange car, a viewpoint that actually sounds sensible.
Cars still dominate in rural areas and suburbs, as the story notes. And that’s one reason it seems so strange to me to read about teenagers who no longer crave getting an automobile.
In Janesville in the early 1990s, turning 16 meant earning your freedom. It meant you could drive yourself to the mall in the big city of Mankato or at least to the Subway in Waseca. It meant you could get a part-time job in those towns – in a grocery store or a vegetable factory or a printing press – so you could have money to pay for gas for the car. It meant you could take a girl to a movie.
But mostly it meant you could drive around with your friends for hours and hours on Friday and Saturday nights. Main Street in Janesville looked like a parade on those nights, as cars filled with teens slowly cruised down the main drag, making a U-turn at the elevator on one end and near the nursing home or fire station on the other. That was it, that was the night. On those U-turns, you’d occasionally briefly stop, roll down a window and chat with another driver or passengers.
“What’re you doing later?”
“Have you seen Amy/Nicole/Dawn/Kara/Katie/Catherine/car filled with girls/?”
Perhaps the oddest thing about this Main Street ritual was that as we slowly made our way from one end of Janesville to the other – a trip you could make in the time it takes to read the next four paragraphs – we’d stare into each car, as if trying to determine who was inside the vehicle.
“Is that the guy we’ve seen every day in school for the last 10 years and every Friday night on this street for the past three? Yes, yes it is. Thought it might be a stranger there for a second. Maybe a celebrity who’s moved to Janesville.”
To shake things up we drove out to the lake and cars drove people to parties at farmhouses too, even if escapes from the police took place on foot.
Kids who had early birthdays and got their licenses in September or October of their sophomore years instantly increased their popularity, thanks to nothing more than a small document issued by the state of Minnesota that gave them permission to drive alone. Farm kids had it even better, they were driving at 13 or 14 and legally by 15. Driver’s tests came with SAT-type pressure. My cousin Matt – December birthday – failed his first one in Mankato. His adventure ended seconds after it started when he failed to signal or failed to properly check a mirror and was told to drive back to the DMV office, where his enraged dad sat and saw Matt returning before he even had time to get through the Table of Contents in the three-year-old magazine he picked up in the waiting room. Matt eventually passed and became one of our go-to drivers, along with our friend Martin, who ferried a large group of us around in a Suburban that, along with the basement in my house, served as one of our social headquarters.
One of the more remarkable things about the driving scene outlined above is that it closely resembles the social life of a small town kid when my parents were teens in the 1960s. The car ruled then and in the early ’90s. We didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have a computer and most of us had cable but not all, so we at least had more stations to watch than our parents had decades earlier. But so much was the same. Compare it to 20 years later, when everything and everyone is online and that’s where social interaction occurs, even if it happens when you’re alone in a darkened bedroom. You don’t need a car to impress a girl and even your part-time job isn’t going to pay for gas, not at these prices. What’s the point of a car? During our youth, it meant everything.
My first car was a Mercury Zephyr and it first stumbled and coughed its way off the assembly line sometime in the early ’80s, likely on a day when the entire quality control department called in sick. Maybe it got its name from Zephyr, the Greek god of wind, even though driving it brought up the types of themes usually seen in Greek tragedies. We got it after my sophomore year for 500 bucks, though its value was probably half that. A temperamental beast, the Zephyr didn’t want to run when it was below 30 or above 70. Still, it was my car for two years, even if it should have been put out of its misery in a junkyard five years before it came into my possession.
Twenty years later, it’s remarkable how many memories of those days are tied up in the vehicles of my friends. I think of Martin and his classic, powerful GTO (“the goat”) and his red Suburban and I remember driving to eat after basketball games or the day he left his lights on while we were watching Misery and he thought of it when James Caan’s car appeared on-screen – with its lights on. Mike had his own memorable car, Ol’ Blue, a ’76 Cutlass Supreme. I think of Brandon’s station wagon and a trip up north. There’s Travis’ Taurus that we drove to Chicago to watch the Cubs and John’s Omni that he abused on the country roads while Led Zeppelin blared. Cousin Matt drove his dad’s old (I think ’66) white Malibu and he drove it with respect and care and we could only get AM on the radio so any ride in that car meant we were listening to Oldies and that was just fine, even if it didn’t have air conditioning. And there was my Zephyr and eventually my Beretta.
The memories from those days are so clear I can still practically smell the inside of each car and hear the laughs and taunts and stereos and visualize the windows we stared into while cruising Main. Today’s teens are making similar memories, if not in similar ways. And they’ll look back on their glory days with as much fondness as our generation. Automakers are the ones who have to reach a new generation and younger drivers. Figuring out the future is their problem.
As for the past? I’m back there now, in the backseat of the Suburban or riding shotgun in the Malibu or driving the Zephyr. We’re on Main Street or out on a gravel road. We’re driving everywhere but to nowhere in particular. We do this for hours and we do it with our friends. Cars weren’t our lives, but our lives were in those cars.
And life was pretty good.