Car Folk

When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.

My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?

Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.

But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.

Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.

My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.

Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.

12 Replies to “Car Folk”

  1. This is lovely, Nate. My dad and his dad drove tractor trailers for a living for most of my growing up so I know all about that bar of soap and the smell of grease. It’s what I grew up with too. I just recently got my old VW bug fixed back up and it’d been so long since I’d driven a stick that I’d forgotten what it was like to actually “drive” a car and not just be a passive participant. It’s so much different when you have to pay attention to all the details of driving the thing instead of just riding and letting it drive you. Thanks for this one!

    1. ‘Passive participant’ is exactly it, Jenny. I never learned to drive a stick; but I’m much better about Seeing the things around me on the road, and singing loud to the radio, and enjoying my break from routine.

  2. So much to digest here. The cars and what they represent to your family. The die-hard patriotism of supporting American made, revealed so finely with your car rental insistence. Or maybe that was die-hard loyalty to family and not being punched in the arm. This whole piece made me smile. As a former Michigander my heart swells. Thank you!

    1. Michigan is a special place. I’m still navigating my opinions on what my city’s products have done to the environment, but with everything there’s good and bad. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Wonderful rumination on how cars affect our lives – it’s so easy to forget the not-so-distant past, and how those farm-to-farm distances were much more insurmountable.

    1. I can’t imagine being limited to my community for social and career aspects like my relatives were. But then again, if it were all I knew it would be easier to handle. Pretty sure I’d have still moved to the city, though.

    1. There’s something so surreal about seeing pictures of people in their 20s that you’ve only known in their 70s, isn’t there? I can’t get over my conservative and serious schoolmarm grandmother kicking her hip out like that for the camera.

  4. every detail is telling here, especially the cake of Lava you expect at everyone’s sink.

    i admit that I accepted the VW Bug the rental folks gave me last time I was at the Flint airport. I will repent and go American next time.

    1. hah! Lisa. Don’t worry. People from Flint aren’t as rabid about American cars as they were when I was younger. Most people realize now that the Volkswagens and Toyotas that are on the roads were put together in American factories, just not necessarily factories in Flint.

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