Sunday, July 19, 2009

Triumph at Baker's Basin

According to one cynical view the two secrets of a happy life are, first, to identify genuinely modest goals and, second, to cultivate very low expectations in their pursuit. In other words, “Dream the possible dream.” From this point of view my past week must be judged a succès fou. I succeeded in having my pickup truck inspected and validated by the State of New Jersey.

The general experience of NJMVD Inspection Station at Baker’s Basin used regularly to be described as an imaginary supplement to Dante’s Inferno. Many residents of the state suspected that the system was secretly controlled by the garage owners’ and auto mechanics’ lobby—there must be one—since many people were willing to pay almost anything for a private inspection that would relieve them of the necessity of a personal visit to Baker’s Basin. My first happy

Baker's Basin (Mercer County NJ) Inspection Station before recently instituted reforms

surprise was that the place itself had shaped up measurably since I was last there four years ago. The geography is still vestigially infernal. You have to drive around three sides of the Quaker Bridge Mall to reach the station, though if you go early that mainly involves lapping empty parking lots. But once there, things weren’t so bad. In fact, they were pretty good. It used to be like a Black Friday shoe sale. You are now funneled, in single file, into an automated gate, where you pick up a ticket stamped with an accurate time of arrival: in this instance, 9:31.
Baker's Basin (Mercer County NJ) Inspection Station since Jon Corzine became governor. Note coordinated pastels, which invite the motorist to make contact with his/her own inner inspector...

There were fewer than a dozen cars distributed among no fewer than five inspection alleys. By the time I got to the head of my line there was nobody at all in either of the two left-hand lanes. An inspector in one of those alleys beckoned in my direction, but when I started to react he yelled out, “No, not you—you,” pointing to a late model Acura driven by a bejeweled matron behind me. “Your vehicle,” he said, shouting to me again, “is too old for my lane.” Snappy repartee in such a situation is not easy, but I tried. “You sure know how to hurt a guy’s feelings,” I shouted back. I thought the remark had been drowned out by the Acura sweeping around and past me, but he surprised me with a good humored answer: “Sorry about that”.

The purportedly ancient vehicle which I presented for inspection is a 1993 Ford pickup truck. Now something fifteen years-old is, generally speaking, not exactly venerable. For instance, would you really like to have a fifteen-year-old give you a colonoscopy? Would you seek the meaning of life from a fifteen-year-old metaphysician? Would you really be impressed by a firm that boasted that it has been a "purveyor of sweetmeats to the royal household since 1993"? My truck, though fifteen years old, has been driven less than 100,000 miles, and it has been scrupulously maintained from the mechanical and safety points of view. On the other hand, its exterior, especially the bed and tail-gate, naturally display the cicatrices of serious industry. This is of course entirely as it should be.

What a 1993 Ford pickup should never look like (except perhaps in 1993).

What a 1993 Ford pickup should always look like.

The commonly encountered phrase "a beat-up pickup" is a pleonasm. Every pickup should be beat-up. That is what pickups are for. Those grotesquely pristine things you find parked in front of franchise restaurants in shopping malls are not real pickups. But, alas, some folks in New Jersey, and particularly the state inspectors, simply don't get it.

For nearly two decades they have been doing their level best to get "older vehicles" off the road. They say so quite openly. This policy, executed under a bogus claim of ecological consciousness, ministered to the sloth and incompetence of Detroit and the greed of lending agencies, contributing to the results we have recently had cause to deplore. If the vehicles Detroit makes are junk, they soon end up in the junk yard; but it's an ill wind that blows no one some good, in this case the duly certified usurers who loan the motorist the dough for the next expensive piece of junk.

More than twenty-five years ago I noticed a dramatic change on America's highways: the virtual disappearance of the jalopy. The kind of vehicle that most male 'teen-agers of my generation once bought on monthly installments with their paper route money, then lovingly rebuilt, then endlessly drove around the courthouse square of a Saturday

The Joad-mobile from John Ford's version of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Soviet authorities arranged for mass showings of this movie in Russia, claiming that it gave an accurate picture of the realities of typical family life in America. They had to abandon the program quickly when the factory workers reacted with amazement and jealousy that an ordinary American family could be so prosperous as to own a car.

night--that vehicle simply no longer exists. The loss to our culture is not slight. In 1936 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published a famous book, The Revolt of the Masses, in which he used a now classic characterization of modernity through the image of the internal combustion engine. Throughout the western world, he wrote, millions of people have become utterly dependent upon a machine whose basic mechanisms are mysterious to them. The point is an excellent one, and truer today than then, especially when we think of the cybernetic sphere; but it was lost on me when I first read Ortega's book because of the ineptitude of the the specific example offered. When I was growing up there wasn't a fourteen-year-old boy in Baxter County who couldn't take apart and reassemble a Chevrolet of the same age. For both sexes erotic initiation involved the negotiation of the steering wheel of an old Plymouth. I was left wondering about whatever could be wrong with little Spaniards. No more. I haven't seen a kid working on his car in about twenty-five years. The video game addict is the unworthy successor to the shade-tree mechanic.

At the inspection station you have to wait in a little bullpen from which you can watch the inspectors at work on your vehicle as it moves slowly down the lane. Mine moved much slower than the others. My guy was nice enough, but he became obviously frustrated by his inability to fail me. Yes, the horn works; the lights all work; the windshield wipers are actually new. If you get a reasonably tuned Ford engine with tight cylinders and correct time, it will not emit culpable emissions whether it was made in 1939 or 2009. Brake equalization is a little tricky, but if it's really out of whack a driver will know it and have it remedied before showing up at the DMV. It just about killed the guy, but at 10:02 am he had to to plaster this on my windshield:

HOW vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
While limping numbers tell the score:
Oh seven three, oh four six four.


  1. You are the only man I know that can write knowlegeably about a pickup truck, the New Jersey DMV and a Spanish philosopher with the added bonus of poetry. I'd say you were a Renaissance Man but that might insult the Medievalist Man.

  2. Apparently, if one must drive, the environmentally sound thing to do is to buy a used car and drive it until its very last gasp has puffed out of the tailpipe. (One could also buy a car new and drive it until its very last gasp has puffed out of the tailpipe, but so few people do this today that such behavior is almost hors du discours). In other words, the inputs in terms of energy expended to manufacture and install the parts, ship the new car to your local dealer, etc., are comparatively important elements of the automotive environmental catastrophe continued by the actual spewing of emissions into the atmosphere by the driver. A brand new, undriven car, parked on a sales lot waiting for its first owner represents an enormous amount of energy expended and carbon footprinted.
    I don't have a citation for this, but I've heard that the Toyota Prius, that gleaming new hybrid ultra-efficient status symbol of the environmentally self-righteous and the wealthy feel-gooder alike, must be driven 100,000 miles before the owner will have offset the inputs that went into making it. Sadly I think few drivers of the Priuses on the road today will still own them at 100K miles; modern illusions of affluence seem to require the purchase of a new car every two years or so.
    Of course the DMV would like to fail your slightly battered pickup; the last rickety pillars of our crumbling ruin of an economy are footed firmly on pedestals of consumer spending, and so virtually nobody so far (at least in the mainstream media) is discussing a cure for global warming and a lessening of personal environmental impact simply from the point of view of buying much less STUFF and using what we have bought much, much longer. Luckily, here in New York we don't have to go to the DMV at all; the only inspection that counts is emissions, done at the local garage.

  3. I hear tell that Hieronymus Bosch painted several panels depicting New Jersey DMV facilities. Scholars question this, however, insisting that the facilities in question are really located in Georgia.

    BTW, I was directed here by Sparrow, and I can certainly understand why she enjoys your site as much as she purports to do. It is, in a sense, a site for sore eyes... and other eyes as well. The eyes have it.