(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth recently drove out into the Champlain Islands to buy a used car. Unexpectedly, the trip became a moral, ethical, and existential crisis.
(Baruth) Like a lot of kids who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, I started out driving American cars and then switched pretty quickly to imports. My first car was a ’76 Chevy Nova, followed by Volkswagen Rabbits, Beetles, Super-Beetles, a Type IV, and then finally – when I was 23 – the Mother of all Volkswagens: an orange-and-white bus, which eventually exploded in flames in a parking lot outside a software company in Palo Alto. The bus was only one of two of my Volkswagens to explode in flames; older VW’s used a fuel line that had a tendency to crack and fray.
Now, I never held these incidents against Volkswagen. But eventually I stumbled onto a Mazda truck, and it was like stumbling onto that mountain community in Soviet Georgia where everyone lives to be 115 or so – I realized that Japanese cars had no top end to their life span. And they could run forever on a soupspoon full of gas.
So when I needed a new used car, I was thinking of a Toyota like the one that finally quit on me last year. But that was before my stepfather Denny came to visit and offered to help me shop. Denny has always driven Lincoln Continentals, railroad-car-sized automobiles. And when I got back from taking my daughter to daycare, he had only one car in the paper triple-circled: a white-on-white mint-condition 1988 Lincoln Town Car. The seller was asking less than what you’d pay for a Toyota Tercel with no engine.
So we drove out the next day, all the way out into the Champlain Islands, over the causeways to Grand Isle. Within minutes, Denny and the seller were jabbering together in the nearly dead language of huge American sedans. Inside myself I was saying, This is crazy; this is the car my Dad used to pick me up from high school dances; this is a car as big as a Beluga. But Denny and the other Lincoln loyalist were already talking price. It was like Al Pacino in Godfather III – just when I thought I was out of American cars forever, they pulled me back in.
I got in the car. It was huge and faintly obscene – but there was also no denying that in some way it was in my blood, in my genes. It’s weird how a used car can change everything. Retracing my way through the Islands behind the oversized snout of this strange new maximum ride, I felt like my father, or my step-father, or any one of a million men of their generation. I saw the world the way they once saw it: sun-drenched, set off by chrome highlights, the American Dream hanging somewhere just beyond the hood ornament, a dream easily within the reach of eight cylinders and disc brakes and one-finger power steering.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His new book with Joe Citro is “Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries.”