2006.01.18 A car by any name is still just A Thing That Moves

Written by David Green.

By COLLEEN LEDDY

On the way home from New York City earlier this month, we spent some time discussing new vehicles. As in, if we were to buy a new vehicle, what kind should we buy? Of course, given our income and sensibilities, we were talking about new-to-us vehicles. Our NPR “Car Talk” buddies Ray and Tom Magliozzi have sold us on the idea that used vehicles are a good buy.

Our two mini-vans, a ’94 Chevy Astro and a ’98 Chevy Venture, are getting on in years and miles and it won’t be long before one of them bites the dust. Also, our family is moving up and moving out. With only one child at home full-time, one about to graduate college and another who will still be in college in Kentucky for another two and a half years, maybe we don’t need a vehicle to cart around a lot of people and all their junk. Then again, if we had known sooner that we were going to New York, Ben and his girlfriend would have come along with us. If that situation arises again, we’d want to have a vehicle to accommodate everybody.

From the point of view of a woman who barely recognizes her own van—(Just how many tan Chevy Ventures did GM make, anyway? Surely, you’ve noticed the overabundance, too? It’s not just a case of I’ve-got-one-so-I-notice-every-single-one-I-see, is it?)—this was one of the most enlightening discussions of modern-day motherhood. My daughters and niece dazzled me with their fluency in the language of vehicles.

Now, I am not the same non-driver who arrived on the flatlands of East Lansing 30 years ago, the city bumpkin bus and subway traveler who didn’t know a sedan from a son of a seacook. These days, I can distinguish between a mini-van and a car, and pickup trucks are pretty easy to identify compared to full-size vans. I’m aware of a species known as the sport utility vehicle, but I don’t really know what they are. Big and expensive things?

I think I am at a genetic disadvantage here. The problem looms like my inherent inability to distinguish among all those biology-related categories. Family and class and genus and species: It’s all just one big lump of stuff to me, kind of like my conundrum with organizing my clutter. I view the world and it’s one big mass of materials. I’m doing well to recognize vehicles as Things That Move.

I just don’t know the makes and models of vehicles. When my husband and I are out walking and somebody waves from a vehicle, I usually don’t have a clue who it is. I don’t recognize people by their cars. I suspect David doesn’t either. It happens so frequently that if I just turn my head toward him and begin to open my mouth, he’ll say, “Don’t know,” anticipating my question of, “Who was that?”

I need to walk the streets with my daughters. They have no trouble identifying vehicles. They look out at those Things That Move passing us by and say things like, “How about a Chrysler Pacifica? That’s what Doug and Kathy have.”

Geez, why do they know what a Chrysler Pacifica is? And how often do they see Doug and Kathy driving to know that they have one?

They name cars as we travel through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Mercury Mariner (“It’s what Sarah’s mom drives,” says Rozee), Chevy Malibu (“They make a new one with an open trunk. It’s like a hatchback,” she says.), Nissan Murano, Hyundai Sante Fe, Toyota Highlander.…When they name the foreign cars, I am hesitant.

“I don’t know. That seems so un-American,” I say.

“There’s a Toyota plant in Kentucky so lots of people drive foreign cars there,” says Rozee. She points out that we’d be helping Kentucky people keep their jobs if we bought a Toyota.

Is that how the global economy works?

“Do you like Mrs. Ries’s new car?” asks Rozee.

“Do you think I know what her car is?” I ask.

“It looks sort of like an Aztec. Ali drives it to our house all the time,” she says.

She’s away at college. How has she gleaned this information?

“You mean in the morning when she comes to pick up Maddie for school?” I wonder.

I am not alive in the morning and if school officials read the article I just did about how teenagers shouldn’t be waking up so early to go to school since they are biologically not able to go to sleep early enough at night in order to wake up fully rested and go to school at unGodly hours, then I would see the Ries-mobile before going to work and could determine if I like it. Although the possibility is great that I have actually been a passenger in the Ries’s new car.

What kind of car, you wonder?

“Maddie, what is the Ries’s new car?”

“Rendezvous,” she says, without hesitating.

“Who makes it?” I ask.

“Buick,” she responds, just as quickly.

I don’t think I’ll ever master this. Now, which one of these tan Chevy Ventures is mine?

Ah, the dirty one with all that clutter inside.

– Jan. 18, 2006
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