by Troy Headrick
(Swans - November 20, 2006) It's July and I'm "home" for my annual two-month-long summer vacation. I arrived in Texas a few days ago and will stay here through the twenty-fourth of August. On the twenty-fifth, I'll repack my bags and return to Ankara, Turkey, my real home, the place where I live and work.
Whenever I'm back in Texas, I always say things that shock my friends and family. So far, this summer, I've already made the comment to a couple of people that I'm so thankful to be living in Turkey, a country where I can get by very nicely without having to own an automobile. This left my hearers speechless. On both occasions I could see that what I'd said hadn't computed, so I repeated it. "I'm so pleased to be living in a country where it is not an absolute necessity to own a car," I explained. They still seemed dumfounded. It was as if I'd suddenly started speaking Chinese or something. Americans are basically car worshippers, so it is no surprise to me that they don't understand when someone says something like I had. Raising questions about the almighty automobile is just like speaking evil against the flag, which has become a sacred object. Actually, that's true about cars as well; they have become America's prized possessions, its sacred cows.
I used to worship cars, too. In my younger years, before I'd ever left the United States, I had been a car owner for years and years and was a card-carrying member of the cult of the automobile. There were times when I even thought of the vehicle I drove as an extension of my personality, as a way of self-expressing. It was far more than a mere conveyance. It was the vehicle I used to project myself forward in space and time. In a very real sense, I truly did "have wheels" in those days. I have an American friend who owns an enormous Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). Shortly after I arrived for this latest visit to Texas, he invited me over to show it to me. He took me to the door leading from his house out to his garage. I couldn't help feeling that we were stepping into a kind of shrine when he opened the door.
There it was. It was huge and black and very shiny, as imposing as a sleeping elephant. We circled the thing very slowly, and he told me about its features, which were numerous and, I suppose, impressive to some. I had a sense that he was glowing with pride as he spoke. It seemed that he was becoming more self-confident as he told me the story of its purchase. The behemoth was very tangible evidence that he was succeeding in this world and had achieved real purchasing power. After all, the thing had cost him a pretty penny. Anyone who could afford such a vehicle surely had to be SOMEBODY.
He asked me if I wanted to go for a spin. Of course, I said yes -- he was my friend and I didn't want to give him the impression that I wasn't bowled over by what he called his "new baby." He hit a button on his key chain and the doors unlocked. He then hit a second, which raised the garage door. He started the monster's engine and we backed out. We drove around for half an hour or more. He grew animated as he showed me what it was capable of doing on the road. On one or two occasions he even maneuvered aggressively to make his point. My friend was middle-aged, balding, and fat, but his vehicle was shiny, powerful, and sleek.
A person simply needs to cruise through any large parking lot full of automobiles to understand how popular these kinds of vehicles have become in the States in recent years. I've often heard it said that their popularity is due, in large part, to their size, which seems to provide their owners with a sense of security. All this makes me wonder. What is it with this need that American's have to buy cars that help them "feel safe"? Is the world really so terrifyingly dangerous that they feel they have to encase themselves and their loved ones in mobile fortresses? And why does car size seem to matter so much to so many drivers? Is it possible that Americans are feeling terribly small (and therefore vulnerable) and are looking for vehicles that will help them overcome this sense of vulnerability? Perhaps this whole SUV craze is a manifestation of the fact that Americans are having a crisis of confidence. I hate to read too much into all this, but it certainly seems worth pondering.
The last time I actually lived in the United States was 2003. I had to return to America quite suddenly -- I was residing in Poland at the time -- for personal reasons. One of the first things I had to do upon returning was buy an automobile. I resisted doing so as long as I could, but my resistance was futile. In most parts of the States there's no way a person call really carry on a normal life (which includes having a job) without driving.
As I started looking around for a car one of the first things I noticed was how difficult it was to find a really small one. Several dealers explained to me that manufacturers were no longer producing models as small as they once had for the American market. I had owned a small, economical Nissan pickup in the past, so I looked for something similar at the local Nissan showroom only to discover that their "small" model was huge in comparison to the one I'd owned just a few years earlier. I felt similarly dismayed at all the dealerships I visited. It began to dawn on me that I was going to have only two choices: choosing between something big or something ENORMOUS. I suppose most Americans don't realize how large their cars have gotten, but for someone like me who has spent a lot of time living in Eastern Europe, I'm always flabbergasted when I get back home and see the tanks that my compatriots drive around in. Again, I have to ask myself why this fascination with grotesquely large cars? It seems to be some form of what the psychologists call "compensation."
After spending several days looking around, I finally settled on a Mazda pickup, the B-2300 model, which was the smallest and simplest vehicle they had on their lot. I immediately drove my new purchase to my father and stepmother's house and parked my truck right next to my dad's older B-2300. I was amazed to see how much larger my truck was than his. This comparison was as clear an illustration as one could want that car companies seem to be going in the wrong direction when it comes to being responsible global citizens.
Of course as soon as I bought my new truck, I had to begin looking around for a place where I could get some insurance for it. I've already alluded to the fact that I was living near my father and stepmother's place at that time, so I consulted with them about a good insurance company. They suggested Allstate because of its reputation. Additionally, the local agent had been a long-time friend of the family. The two of them spoke very persuasively, so I drove on over to the Allstate office without delay, gave them all my personal information so that the company could check me out, signed up for full coverage (writing out a check for a healthy sum to fully protect my "investment"), and drove away feeling like I was in good hands.
A day or so later I received a telephone call from Bob Adminston, the Allstate agent and family friend. I couldn't help but notice that Bob seemed to be hemming and hawing as he asked me how I was adjusting to life back in America. I had this weird feeling there was something he wanted to tell me but was having a hard time working up the courage to do so. He eventually took a deep breath and then informed me that my policy had been rejected by the Good Hands Company because I had been deemed "uninsurable." When I asked him why, he told me that the company thought I was too great a risk. When I reminded him that I had driven every summer I'd come home and hadn't had a ticket or an accident for years and years, he told me that all that really didn't matter. It spooked the company that I hadn't owned an automobile or insurance for quite some time. Because of those facts, I was automatically put into a category with other ne'er-do-wells, like those that had been convicted of drunk driving and the like. It was weird to hear that I was being treated like a criminal only because I hadn't played by what the insurance industry thought of as "the rules of the game." To Allstate, I was a consumer who hadn't consumed (whatever the hell that is) and that made me a marginal character, an outlier, an anomaly, a freak of nature. I tried once more to see if anything could be done to reverse the company's decision. I even told Bob that I would be more than willing to pay a little extra for my insurance if that's what it took. It was at that point that he told me Allstate wouldn't handle my policy for any amount of money. They had basically black-balled me even though he didn't use those exact words. Before hanging up, he advised me to look for an agency that handled SR-22s and/or specialized in writing policies for high-risk clients.
That same day I very carefully drove my uninsured pickup over to part of town that was located on the other side of the railroad tracks. I was looking for Progressive Insurance. I eventually found the place, in a strip mall, nestled in between La Posada Mexican Restaurant and Dooley's Barber Shoppe. I had selected the company because it advertised itself as handling difficult cases, just like mine. Plus, I had called them, told the ear on the other end of the line my whole unusual tale, and was assured, by a woman who called herself Josie Rodriquez, that Progressive would cover me "no matter what." Finally, it seemed, I had found the good hands I was looking for.
When I entered the insurance office, I had to take a number and wait my turn to talk to an agent. I was surprised at how many people were sitting there in the waiting room. I looked very carefully at all my comrades. They certainly didn't seem like lost causes, but as the old saying goes, a book can never be judged by its cover. Finally, it was my turn to talk to a real human being. I was called into a cubicle and told the man on the other side of the desk my whole strange story. I then gave him my driver's license number and all the other personal information he requested. Once again, I assured the agent that he would find that I had a spotless driving record. At the end of my spiel, the fellow told me that my situation wasn't as bad as it could have been. At least I hadn't ever let my license expire. If I had done that, I would have been in an even tighter spot than I currently was. He then went on to say that I should expect to pay steep rates at least until I could "establish myself." At that point, he quoted me a price (which nearly made me swoon) for a full year's worth of coverage. Once I had regained my composure, I took a deep breath, got out my checkbook, and wrote out a very big one to Progressive. What else could I do? I suppose I had the option of shopping around a bit more, but the industry knew all about me, it seemed, and had formed its opinion. Meanwhile, I was currently driving around in a brand new, twelve-thousand-dollar automobile that was completely uninsured, which made me both very nervous and an outlaw. It was clear as crystal that the insurance industry had me right where they wanted me -- in their sights.
The last few years have been a time of real learning for me. Back when I was American through and through and had never had the opportunity to examine my own culture with any sort of well-earned objectivity, I had no idea how important cars were in the whole grand scheme of things. Now, though, I can see that they play a very large role in shaping American culture and mindset. I'm convinced that the ever-increasing (pun intended) obesity rate of Americans is at least partly due to the fact that most citizens drive everywhere (even when they have to go very short distances). It is sad to note that in a country like the States, which was founded by hardy adventurers, people have virtually forgotten what it means to rely on their own legs as a mode of transportation. Thus, even the human body is being physiologically transformed by car culture.
I also have a clearer idea about how much our identity is shaped by the choices we make as consumers. I suppose there was a time in American history when people were known primarily through the interpersonal relationships they had with their friends, families, and neighbors. Today, though, I think we are in large part defined by corporate entities. We have given them the power to put us in categories, designate us as either risky or trustworthy, and even shape how others see us. If those multinationals find that we don't fit the mold of what it means to be "normal" and have engaged in unacceptable consumer behavior, they have very effective ways of punishing us until we get back in line. In a sense, they have become judge and jury and mete out all sorts of penalties to those who have strayed from the straight and narrow.
Of course, I find this quite disturbing and terribly depressing. But what can I do about it except continue to choose to live in a place where I feel I have a bit more freedom of self-determination. Ironic, isn't it?
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