MY FIRST CAR was a 1970 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. I bought it in 1974. The intervening years had not been kind to the vehicle, whose single previous owner was a schoolteacher in the small, angry city of Waterbury, Connecticut, and who had dented the length of the car’s right side by sideswiping a tree, and who found the vehicle perforated by three large-caliber bullet holes after leaving it parked on a downtown street while attending a performance event.
this essay. There also was an aesthetic relationship built on the sense of freedom I achieved though the ability to travel many more miles in a reasonable period of time than I could on foot – or at the mercy of public transportation. It wasn’t simply traversing the distance that was important. It was the freedom. The sense of freedom. The illusory sense of freedom.
It’s been characterized by literary critic Leslie Fiedler as the “home as hell” phenomenon that informs classic male-oriented fiction and sent Huck Finn and Dean Moriarty, among many others, on their quests. It’s what drives so many blues-song subjects to “catch a freight train and ride.” It’s the need to achieve identity through rebellion.
Or so I’m guessing. At the time, it tasted like many flavors of grown-up, allowing me to fully exist in a society that assumes quick transport. And this freedom was achieved the autumn after I graduated from high school, during a school-free year I awarded myself as my friends went off to college and insisted I visit.
I was free, living in a room in a friend’s house, tied only to a part-time job, unencumbered by romance – although I desperately wished to surrender that particular freedom. I had been taught how I should behave whilst driving in order to appear cool and in control. The only thing working against me, I reasoned, was my goofy choice of car, but even that could (and should) be seen as aggressively iconoclastic.
Every place I wished to visit seemed to be ninety minutes away, with the universities at Storrs and Middletown to the east and Manhattan to the southwest. I was the first among my friends to mount a cassette deck in my car, and ninety minutes was the length of my mix tapes.
My travel soundtrack was music by performed by Jascha Heifetz, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Toscanini. The two-and-a-half hours of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” was good for most of a round-trip, with his Piano Concerto No. 3 to finish the journey.
But I remained a person apart. I strolled the handsome campuses where my friends now resided and slept on a couch and snuck in the dining hall – but I left when classes kicked in on Monday. Driving into and around Manhattan put me in touch with my aggressions, but I still had that face-against-the-glass feeling as others found ways to live and thrive there. And when I went home, it was to someone else’s house.
Eighteen can overlook such things. Eighteen turns loneliness into a virtue. My car, with its balding tires and noisy valves, was my most comfortable and comforting residence. I fantasized that I’d meet a girl who was similarly rootless, similarly rebellious, who would travel with me, snuggling as a close as a manual transmission allows, sharing my love for Prokofiev and drive-through windows. For the price of a few gallons of gas, we could go anywhere together.
Perhaps I’d find her at the college I entered the following fall. NY’s State University at Purchase was intended to be an arts school, but boasted its share of Westchester County residents who wanted to attend what was closest. They had cars. Most of the artistic types didn’t. I discovered that I could raise the ever-elusive gas money by chauffeuring fellow students. I dreamed that, confined with me on a lengthy journey, a desirable young woman would succumb to my loveability.
I drove Laura and her boyfriend to Northport for an overnight, and ended up listening to Artie Shaw records with her dad. I drove Renata and he boyfriend to Boston. I drove Amy and her boyfriend to Providence. I drove a comely dancer named Jackie to Buffalo, alone, but still the spark refused to ignite.
I dropped out after two frustrating semesters, too emotionally immature to apply myself to schoolwork, and once again nested in my car. Only this time, I had a girlfriend, a romance that erupted with an across-the-dorm-hall neighbor in the final moments of my higher education. She stayed to finish her degree, and thus I was doomed to three more years of visiting the college I’d abandoned, even as I struggled to coordinate the details of apartment and employment with enough money left over for a few gallons of gas.
Because I elected to do my own work on the vehicle, I blew out the VW’s engine on a highway outside of Hartford in the wee hours of an inconvenient morning. I rebuilt the thing on a prolonged schedule based on when I could afford each needed part, so the car didn’t truly meet its end until it met the end of a Buick, leaving the larger car unscathed.
I’ve since driven other VWs – Beetles and buses – a Subaru, Honda, Chrysler and a couple of Fords, and I’m now behind the wheel of my third Volvo, dismayed to see that particular car go from hippie-mobile to luxury sedan. As comfortable and responsive as my present model is however, I suspect I’ll never regain the sense of sheer freedom that came with the old Karmann Ghia.