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2006 01 23
Love Cars
By Peter Behrens

I could tell you I'm interested in cars, but that sounds all wrong in terms of their place in my life. I'm interested in a lot of things: Irish history, lesbian novels, roses, the geography of Canada, airfares to New York, how my mutual funds are doing. Cars an interest? No. Cars a drive, like sex: subterranean in some phases, idling in neutral, at other times popping the clutch and squealing right out of control down a lost highway where advertising meets wanderlust meets fetish object.

I used to tell people that literature & love were what kept me going, but it is the car obsession--cars of the mid Fifties to late Sixties, the cars I grew up with--that has been steering me as long as I remember. Now that I have turned forty I seem helpless before it, haunting auctions and swap meets with the same anxiety and despair I remember feeling when I was fifteen and nauseated, trying to work up the nerve to ask a girl from one of the private schools in Montreal--Miss Edgar's School, say, or Trafalgar, or The Study--for a dance, one lousy dance, at the tense revels my own school sponsored.

A passion for cars seems banal and shameful and I recoil at the image of myself newly arrived at middle age, on the starting line of the white guy's slow decline, which begins with a hobby and prostate problems, and ends in exhaustion and death in a room with the air conditioning turned up too high, in a medical center run by a health conglomerate, near some freeway interchange in Florida.

Cars go deep. Cars, I tell you, cars are the bones of everything, the runes of my life.

The first car I remember is the 1956 Buick Special my father bought when I was two. It was gunmetal grey, the interior red with black seat inlays. Most clearly, I remember the steering wheel. It had a special iconic fizz. Steering wheels are the center of the car, the point where car, man and road really connect, and they're all about power and who's in charge. The Buick's wheel was dense, shiny black plastic with three spokes. It had a plastic marque badge at the center, knife-edge strips of chrome that sounded the horn, and an aggressive masculine feel, the most masculine object you can imagine. My parents bought a canvas car seat that hung over the Buick's front seat on a couple of metal brackets and allowed me to sit eye-level with the windshield and actually scan the road up ahead: the same view my father had. Attached to this rig was a dummy steering wheel of my own, so I could kid myself I was driving the car, a delusion I don't recall ever buying into. It was obvious who was in charge, and until I could get my hands on his wheel I wasn't going to count for much, or have much say in where I was headed.

I was five when we traded in the Buick. My father brought me along when he picked up the new car at Midtown Motors on Dorchester Boulevard (now Boul. René-Levesque) in Montreal. We kept it for the customary three years, trading it in 1962 when I was eight, but somehow it became the car of my dreams, the one I've always wanted to recapture. It was a 1959 two-door Pontiac Catalina, white, with a grey vinyl interior.

A '59 Pontiac is a strange, unlovely car, though certainly an improvement over the swollen, bulbous '58. 1959 was the first year of the famous Wide Track Pontiacs, with their huge flat bodies that looked disappointing at first, like bread that hadn't risen. You could sit four people in the front seat, and Motor Trend declared Pontiac Car of the Year, but a lot of citizens had to rebuild their garages to fit them in.

It is possible I want this car because it symbolizes an era when my father was in his prime--in 1959-62 he seemed to me wise and all-powerful, a lot like God. An era when I as a born member of the North American middle class felt secure and protected, reasonably certain of what the future would bring. In the Catalina I knew intimately my place in the world, which was right behind my father. I learned to lean forward from the backseat, my forearm strung across the angle between the back of his driver's seat and my window frame. My chin rested on my arm, so that I was as close to him as possible. Close enough to know the individual bristles of hairs on the back of his neck, and the whorls and seams of his skin. Able to look ahead through the windshield, instead of to the side, so that I could see what he saw, the road unfolding, and not the passively passing scenery, the streaming houses and boulevards and countryside, the effluvia of sprawled towns. I didn't want scenery. I wanted control, and I liked sitting with my head up near his because I could pretend that it was me, not him, guiding the car.

Men study their fathers to surpass them, and though they might build temples of tribute later, out in the garage--might spend months scouring the sunny junkyards of Arizona for just the right chunk of trim--in their hearts they are satisfied that the old men are gone, exhausted, over. We want these cars to memorialize our fathers but also our victory over them.

My father had the only 1959 Catalina in Montreal. The Canadian Pontiac models--the Strato Chief, Laurentian, and Parisienne--were a flatfooted step behind in the Pontiac revolution: they had the vast new bodies bolted onto a narrow Chevrolet chassis. The wheels were five inches inboard and the cars looked teetering and clumsy, like boxcars.

Somehow my father managed to avoid the Canadian lemon and acquire the genuine US article. This added to the car's glamour for me, since everything powerful, complicated and alluring seemed to drift up from the American border.

Cars used to have moods; you could read their temperament from the configuration of headlights--eyes--and grille & front bumper--mouth, teeth, nose. Sometimes the rake of a windshield combined with protruding eyes and a thin, cold, chrome snout gave a car an arrogant, supercilious expression, like the '49-'51 Chevys, which always looked angry to me. '58 Buicks with double headlights and massive, goofy bumpers looked like kids in the schoolyard who thought they were tough but were really kind of slow, easy to trick in a fight. '59 Chevys have a 'fuck you' expression that's archly feline, feminine and sexy; even the ludicrous cat's eye configuration of the taillights has a kind of daring, damning trash style that is moving and reckless. '57 Chevys look companionable and eager to please. '60 Pontiacs are bemused, but willing. '59 Pontiacs are forceful, prepared to pounce, eager to win at any cost, whereas the '62s seem clean, earnest, and dull.

The closest thing to a sex life I had from 1962 to 1965 was my yearning quest for 1959 Catalinas. We had traded in the car of my dreams for a khaki 1962 Pontiac Laurentian. Bereft, I scanned the streets for Catalinas, knowing there weren't any others in Canada. To pursue my fetish I had to become preoccupied with crossing the American border

Riding north, the Plains Indians had noticed the radiant power of that US/Canada boundary. A few stone cairns set out on the prairie could jerk the bluecoat cavalry to an abrupt stop; medicine line the Bloods and Peigans called it. The Quebec/New England border had a power likewise tangible. Across that line everyone spoke English. The chronic disorientation we felt in our own country could be cast off. Striking into foreign territory, we finally felt at home.
To Be Continued...

"Love Cars" originally appeared in Matrix (Montreal) no. 48, 1998, edited by R.E.N. Allen & Terence Byrnes.
[email this story] Posted by Rebecca Duclos on 01/23 at 02:12 AM

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