I drive a well used, solid one-owner, 2001 Honda Civic. If I were selling it on Craigslist, that is how I would describe it. The headliner is loose. The paint is cracked on the front bumper. My bike rack has left clusters of scratches on the trunk. There is some hail damage.
For a few years, when I was commuting to my job at Guilford College by bike full time and the kids rode to school, the car would sit in the driveway for weeks without moving. In the winter, I occasionally had to drive it around the block a few times to keep the battery charged. The car was a utilitarian necessity, and I never really gave much thought to it.
Until this summer. My kids and I (two boys, 11 and 15) drove to Wilmington to paddle down the Black River through the Three Sisters cypress swamp and camp near the beach. The drive home, with the car stuffed with sandy camping gear, dirty clothes, wet shoes, and sweaty, growing boys, showed me how badly we have outgrown the car.
Then, my oldest son informed me he needed to sign up for a driver’s education course. I was struck by many things (Where did the years go?), but among them the need to start thinking about a car for him. Perhaps I could look for a cheap, one-owner, well used, but solid Honda. Wait. I am that one-owner.
And so began my obsession with station wagons, which quickly honed in on a few model years (2001-03) of the Mercedes E-class. I never figured myself a Mercedes person. But these obsessions are funny. They migrate according to their own internal logic. What started as a series of questions about how to solve a particular problem (more car), meandered to something deeper.
This is not the first of these obsessions in my life. During graduate school, I found myself needing a new watch. That need morphed into a consuming interest in a very specific subset of Japanese-made mechanical diving watches. Not that I dived or aspired to, but I was attracted to the durability and universality of those watches. A watch for all occasions. I studied watch movements, read discussion boards, looked at large, almost pornographic photos of watches on online trading forums. It became exhausting. By the time I actually bought a watch (which I have worn every day since), I had amassed quite a lot of knowledge, which I have now almost entirely forgotten.
And then there were bikes. So much to learn. Thousands of parts and options. My interest moved toward steel bikes. I waded through Sheldon Brown’s encyclopedic website, explored Dale Brown’s Classic Rendezvous discussion board and looked at large, almost pornographic photos of bikes on online trading forums. It became exhausting. Eventually, I bought a respectable touring bike, and a mid-1980s Bianchi road bike. I’ve put thousands of miles on the touring bike, and rode the Bianchi hard until it died in a collision with a car on Friendly Avenue.
In both cases, what began as a problem became an interest and then a way to think about myself — to figure out who I am and who I want to become. But the obsessions, and the purchases they begat, were also ways to eventuate those aspirations.
Scholars who have studied material culture describe the power of objects. Wampum, dentalia and European trade goods all circulated as currency. Maps rarely just described the territory they depicted. They were often instrumental in bringing that territory into existence or under control. Objects have power to make lives, which is different than saying that the objects make the life. It’s a stretch, I know. But I’m on sabbatical from my teaching job, and reading a lot of this kind of work as part of my current book project. My analytical instincts are on a hair trigger.
So, the station wagon is hope. It represents an imagined, aspirational life. It’s an older, worn, cluttered life of activity and energy. It has dents and scratches. In my mind, the car can carry tents and all the supplies for a week of camping, the dog, everyone’s luggage, old furniture, food to last for weeks, boogie boards, skateboards, soccer balls, stray books, an extra bike helmet, hiking sticks, a canoe and a few bikes up top, spare friends, and still have space to lay in the back watching planes land at the airport.
Now, as the three of us climb into the Civic for the weekday morning rounds, I’m struck by how small the car has become. I know we can live that aspirational life in a Civic. We already do. But the station wagon gives me hope.