Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Demise of the Jalopy

 Norman Rockwell celebrates bloguiste's fourteenth birthday

“Don't it always seem to go,” asks our great philosopher Joni Mitchell, “That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?” But things are even worse than that, because once it’s been gone long enough—whatever it may be—you don’t even know that you once had it.  Especially in ages of rapid social and material change like our own, large swaths of human experience can be erased in a decade or less.

            Take, for example, the jalopy.  One of the things that still strikes me as odd whenever I am in a large open parking lot at an airport or a shopping mall is that all the cars, practically without exception, look new.  When I was young half the cars on the road were genuine jalopies.  Industrial statistics prove that there were lots of cars made in America in the 1950s.  They cannot all have been exported to Cuba.   Yet you hardly would have known that in the rural enclaves where I used to hang out.  Median vehicular age seemed to be about seventeen years, four months; pre-war models were by no means unusual.  
 a Dorothea Lange classic

            Many of the jalopies were mongrels, the product of some shade-tree jerry-rigging involving somebody’s uncle and a transplantation of  a fortuitously acquired Mercury transmission into a Chevrolet.  These cars were always breaking down, which meant in turn that their owners were always fixing them.  And here’s another thing that’s gone.  There was hardly a kid in America who could not take apart and reassemble any car Detroit made, and a sizeable proportion of our national youth seemed to devote a sizeable proportion of their time to doing exactly that.  Some years ago, after I had been living in my affluent New Jersey college town for a couple of decades, I realized with a start that I had never, no not once, seen a teen-aged boy constructing or deconstructing a jalopy  in the family driveway.  Needless to say I haven’t seen once since then, either.

            There are other interesting and related things that I have not seen.  For example, at no time in the quarter of a century I have lived in my nice neighborhood of expensive houses set upon largish lots amid expansive lawns has any young native speaker of the English language knocked on my door to inquire whether I would like to hire him to shovel my walks, or mow my lawn, or rake my leaves, or clean out my gutters.

            This is only in part a grumpy geriatric’s complaint of O tempora, o mores!  It is actually an index of a serious economic problem in this country—a problem that in another mood might provide the materials for another essay.  But I raise it here in relation to the demise of the jalopy.  Youngsters of my generation did a lot of low-level job hustling of that sort with the practical aim in mind of buying a car.  Because if you were single-minded, you could in fact save enough to buy one with the gleanings from paper routes and hedge-trimmings.
 Green energy of yesteryear

            Of course you get what you pay for.  I am sure that Joni Mitchell must say that somewhere, too, even if I cannot remember exactly where.  Naturally for two hundred bucks you don’t get a car that actually runs.  Getting ahold of a wheel base with something like a chassis on it was merely the first step on a long journey toward actual automotion.  Your jalopy would then demand of you a few hundred hours of sweat equity, cutthroat negotiations with the sometimes unsavory tribe of junkyard proprietors, and nearly endless “trading” with other jalopy builders.  I use the quotation marks on the word “trading” because the ratio of actual goods-exchange to inconsequential schmooze was pitifully low.  Everybody wanted to tell you about the car they were constructing.            

            I deduce from the national press that the prospect of gasoline at four dollars a gallon presages the end of civilization as we have known it.  I know that orthodox existentialism demands that we live in the moment, but could we not on occasion be allowed just the tiniest peek back over our shoulders?  When I entered high school the average cost for a gallon of gasoline was 38¢, and the minimum wage was 75¢ an hour (it’s now $7.50).  So it now requires a whole half an hour of labor to purchase a gallon of gasoline, whereas in the good old days it only took half an hour.   But as I never knew anybody in the South who paid the minimum wage for casual labor, I felt lucky when I could command 50¢.  That was with a hand-powered mower, of course.  Even the meanest jalopy required many hours—so many that I and many of my friends never achieved more than a time-share on tires.  But it did mean that the cultural diversity of the vehicles on the road was conspicuous.

            When I began writing this essay I had no definite knowledge that there was a Norman Rockwell cover that covered it, but I did know there had to be one, if you grasp the distinction.  People like myself are often chided by the politically advanced for buying into the fantasy world called “Norman Rockwell’s America”.  I do have to say that when it comes to fantasy Americas, Rockwell’s is awfully good; but if I had my choice of nostalgias I’d probably choose to live in “Albert Bierstadt’s America” or maybe Mary Cassatt’s.  Unfortunately the political mood of post-modernism requires most of us to live in “Roy Lichtenstein’s America”.  He’s the comic book guy.