Robert duncan.

Blogs, books, articles, audio, video, photos
& digital debris.

Center of the Universe (41)

Center of the Universe (41)


Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

No doubt about it, the Sorellas parking lot is cute. A funky folk-art replica of an Outback or Friday’s lot at 5/8 scale — big enough to fill the tight corner parcel, small enough to be barely usable, and authentically gnarly.

Especially when your car is new.

The main area features perpendicular slots where, with a couple inches clearance, you can hardly avoid opening your door directly into someone else’s, after which you wriggle from the driver’s seat, shirt buttons and belt buckle scraping paint, and eventually make it inside to fatten up further. These are parking spaces designed to challenge a birthday patron happy on a half-carafe of Sangiovese. Or a loudmouth on a bottle of Nero. And that’s saying something because I’m a champion of tight-space driving, a lapsed NY cabbie with an advanced degree in brakeless, side-street threading-the-needle (to gasps and whimpers from the back seat). And, sure, on the east of the L-shaped lot, between the dumpster and Sherman, there are three parallel spaces. But if you manage to wedge your car into one of those, your shotgun is likely to open his or her door into the stockade-style fence and drought-resistant scratchy plants of the Taoist temple next door, inflicting dings and scrapes you will never forget, even if only you will ever see them.

There are a million ways to die in the universe.

My car is new. My soul, bare. I just can’t park in the Sorellas lot. So I wait till after seven when the dry cleaner across the street closes and stow my ride there. The unmarked pavement allows to me park irrationally far from other vehicles protecting themselves over there. It also allows me, from any of our usual tables, front or back, to watch. See whose bad driving is getting alarmingly close, who to chase, who to key, who, if necessary, to kill.

I remember when Roni was first knocked-up, I said that to have a kid was to make yourself hopelessly vulnerable. Same thing. A new car is like a kid, only with three months free Sirius.

I forgot in the ten years since I bought the Prius how complicated car buying is. And I’m not talking about the loan paperwork that eventually lands you in a small back room of the dealership — or even a small back room across the street from the three-story brushed aluminum spaceship of a dealership in a 1948-era quonset hut with 1948 interrogation rooms — where some green-eyeshade relentlessly flogs his version of the undercoat: tire insurance, paint insurance, one-year full-replacement-value insurance, five-year prepaid maintenance option, did I go over the tire insurance? — until it’s darker than you ever thought it could be in July. Hours, days, years after the salesdude has split for craft cocktails, you find yourself still stuck in finance, weary enough, soul-dead enough, rolled-over enough by a day of dreams that turns out to be pulling a trailer full of nightmares — about the cost of dreams, nature of time, end of days, persistence of decay, larceny of men, perfidy of parking lots, and, mostly, the fearsome impetus of the focused sales-mind — to either buy the undercoat or bludgeon the loan guy. Swirling in exhaustion, apprehension, remorse — even, in a Stockholm Syndrome way, misty-eyed gratitude that this bland demon with the gold-framed family should defer the succor of their embrace to proffer the full succor of his generosity to you, a rank stranger — you take the prepaid maintenance.

Can we go now, Mr. Liu?

Next door, in the drive with the discarded water heater, is a brand I remember only vaguely — Chevy Aveo — from a decade I remember only vaguely.

I’m not talking about any of that, as scarring as it may be. I’m talking deeper: the road through life and consciousness. Sublimation of ego, satiation of id. Love, sex, god, grace, status, money, gas. I’m talking about answering the big questions in the little interrogation room of your mind.

Sure, BMW is a wonderful vehicle, the best. Great reviews. Fast, nimble, well-built. Elegant, inside and out. By some measures, cool. And entirely out of the question. Even thinking about it, test-driving it, is out of the question. I remember when Jerry Garcia was busted smoking crack in his five-series in Golden Gate Park — that selfsame greensward where, clutching a dual-cutaway six-string in nine-and-half chubby fingers, he’d become the avatar of a generation, a non-materialist generation — and I thought: BMW?!? How the righteous have fallen.

That kind of complication.

Where to begin? I’m not a car freak. But I know one, and, in past transactions, have tried to tap his knowledge. That’s how I wound up with a seven-passenger SUV that was verboten in most city garages — except where it was twice the price to park — and drove me to the brink of bankruptcy with gas expenses, back when gas still cost money. So I decided I could read Car & Driver as well as he could and determined to keep an open mind. I considered electric cars and muscle cars and sub-compact cars and big, bourgie sedans. I did my patriotic duty, as a former resident of the Motor City, and considered American cars. And as a guy who loves driving, I did my patriotic duty to consider performance cars (but not BMW).

I discovered my motoring needs had changed in the ten years since the Prius. For one thing, no brats to bundle along. So I considered convertibles and cramped two-seaters and cheap, unbeefy cars. I set aside a youthful bias against Italians, developed when my friend Jeremy owned a Fiat he never got to drive — I was biased in favor of a ride that was not always in the shop — and thought about Alfa-Romeo, where my father worked as part of the Marshall Plan after the war. I thought about the poetry of that and then the price, and my thoughts drove on. I thought about the Chevy Volt — or is it the Bolt? — the electric one, because I was gullible to hype and Car & Driver said it was pretty damn good, and, while I wasn’t exactly a tree-hugger, I liked all the whiz-bang. On a whim at the mall, I even test-drove a Tesla, the Model S. Which may have been a mistake. From the moment that stealthy beast threw me back in my seat — electric like you’d never thought possible, three or four Gs of the most authoritative get-up-and-go — I was hooked. Ready to stick up a liquor store for the price.

And then they sent me to finance.

No matter how this Elon Musketeer in his green eyeshade sliced it, that price was way beyond the cash drawer of any liquor store I knew. It would have to be a bank. Which is how I avoided prison: by keeping to the plan to keep the Prius — dependable, if a tad shy on the onramp — until self-driving car-bots were a thing, for real.

Then my son called to report the death of the Lexus. His 1991 dust-covered, champagne-colored (I guess) Lexus. I think I mentioned. He’d bought it at 16 with the vast sums he’d saved — like a miser — from working almost full-time, since 14, at the Fairfax Theater, first behind the candy and popcorn, then, at 15, behind the projector. After college, where he majored in Russian, he exported himself to Moscow for eight years, providentially leaving the Lexus to crowd our driveway and soften the landing of the drunk who would one day tumble from Berry Trail. I think I mentioned. And when he returned from Mother Rus, only to leave again for Asheville, he put a couple grand into making the old jalopy run again, rather than pop for a new one. And it duly rewarded his faith by breaking down twice going cross-country. The mechanic in Asheville told him, don’t bother with another couple grand. So he learned the bus system, making friends with a Russian-speaking driver from Ukraine.

When he flew back for his cousin’s wedding a year later, I was beset by empathy for a budding writer and told him we’d give him the Prius. And thus did his journey begin. And mine — through car websites and website aggregators and showrooms, as well as my budget and conscience.

And mate.

Roni drives, but not really. Doesn’t like to. And definitely doesn’t want to shop for cars. Born and raised in Brooklyn before the rent went up, Roni’s idea of going somewhere is hopping the D — often to the end of the line in Coney Island, where she lived. That’s why she’s so attached to our city crib — no car necessary. And why, now that we’re back in Fairfax, she’s feeling a little constrained. What was the word she used when we drove home from the Sisters last night? Dependent? Cars, shmars — all she wants is something not too big, powerful or gimmicky, just in case.

An odd point of pride for me has always been my car-owning history, which ought to inform my search, but doesn’t, and in chrono order goes something like this:

• Checker Marathon

• Datsun Bluebird

• Yamaha DT1 (motorcycle)

• Dodge something-or-other (65 bucks, no reverse)(h/t to Carol Swanson)

• Saab (metallic brown — not quite as badass as its inspiration, Sandy’s black 900)

• VW Golf (our first new car)

• Volvo wagon

• Saab (not metallic brown)(Roni’s car)

• Toyota Sequoia

• Toyota Prius

As you see, I don’t stick to one brand or category. And some cars I’ve bought used, a few, in recent years, new. And I keep them for wildly varying durations, depending on, well, nothing you could figure. I assume my car-buying behavior is erratic enough — in a 360º, 3D-chess, PCP-user way — to confound all predictive algorithms and leave database marketers scratching their propeller-hats. There’s no way they could predict what’s next. I couldn’t.

Which adds to the complications.

As those marketers know, or think they know, a car is who you are, aesthetically, financially, socially, politically, even chronologically — e.g., owning a Lexus, with my son the sole exception, means you’re old. But what’s a car for a guy like me? Someone who knows brand from the inside — and deliberately eschews it. Who lives in a place known as Mayberry on Acid. Who’s a singer, turned writer, turned writer with kids, mortgage and day job. Who’s not rich, but no longer poor. Not old, but not by any stretch young. Who’s looking for a little more zip when he punches in to the freeway. Digs all the new safety systems — but more on a gadgetry than a self-preservation level. And who wants a sunroof so he can accidentally burn his shinehead.

In short, who — automotively — am I?

Context makes a difference. So maybe the first thing to ask — especially because it’s the fundamental question of this blog — is who or what is Fairfax?

When we first moved here and my snobby mother made a trip to meet the grandkids, I tried to explain it.

“It’s the kind of place where the driveways are full of trucks,” I said.

“It sure is,” she replied, icily.

And it was true, most of the driveways on Dominga enclosed pickup trucks, middle-aged, working ones, not pinstriped restorations. That’s because Fairfax was home to the tradespeople of Marin, as well as a ragtag army of odd-job hippies — the servants quarters, in a sense, to Mill Valley, Tiburon and the county’s closer-in, weller-off districts. But even the music folk drove trucks — players and roadies alike need to transport equipment. A Fairfax car, in those days, was a truck. Indisputably.

There are still a lot of pickups in Fairfax, serving a lot of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, gardeners, hippie handymen. But maybe, to my son’s point about the changing face of his hometown, not as many. My hillside constitutionals have shown me that a Fairfax car today is a Prius. Or a Corolla. It’s a van — Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. It’s a Bolt, Volt or homemade electric spaceship thingy.

It’s a Subaru wagon or SUV. Sonia just got a new 4Runner. And after the trip down to see her son Jack at college in Santa Barbara, Soy had to get a new minivan, a Ford, to replace her old minivan, after, for just a few seconds too long, she ignored a dashboard warning. But first she had to find a rental to drive home. John, Soy’s hubby, a drummer and painting contractor, with double the motivation for driving a van, does exactly that. Giovanni, the front-room accordionist, recently got a new Acura via Uber, where he’s moonlighting. And this weekend I discovered that, at nearly 87, Rev. Kang still climbs behind the wheel of an ancient Jeep Cherokee, donated to him — over her brother-in-law’s objections — by Sonia.

Next door to me, in the drive with the discarded water heater, is a brand I remember only vaguely — Chevy Aveo — from a decade I remember only vaguely. But judging by the subcompact’s dirt, dents and awkward styling, it must have been a long time ago. There are plenty of junkers in Fairfax — ones that run, barely, odiferously, ones that are full of junk — like the Aveo — ones that are planters, overgrown with weeds in the yard. And there are more art cars per capita than any other quadrant of the Milky Way, and they all show off in the Fairfax Festival parade (the selfsame that, 32 years ago, mired us in impenetrable traffic and ensured we’d discover Mayberry on Acid and, decades later, start this account). And, for many locals, a Fairfax car is a bicycle — after all, this is where mountain biking was invented.

As you get higher in the hills, the cars, like the houses, get more elevated. I even saw one exceptional deck with two late-model Mercedes parked beside a late-model Volvo. And, yes, there are Beemers — old ones, with “Only in Fairfax” and “Mayberry on Acid” stickers, down on the flats — and, further up, sleek, scary new ones transporting what I imagine to be sleek, scary owners. But then I re-imagine: even if you’re a Master of the Universe, a tech wizard, a financial bro or sis, if you’re living out in Fairfax, an hour-and-ten from the FiDi, there’s got to be something wrong. Maybe you have a recording studio in the basement. A painting studio out back. A novel-in-progress in the standing desk, medical marijuana card in the hand-stitched hemp wallet.

So what’s a Fairfax car? By strict arithmetic, there are probably more Toyotas here than anything, but there’s so much more of everything else, everything imaginable — including all variants of Toyota—that it becomes impossible to say. And that may be the real answer. It’s a hodgepodge, crazy-quilt, mixed bag. A lot like Fairfax drivers. Or the crowd at Sorellas. And if the town is changing, it’s not changed yet. The irony, of course, is that it’s cars pushing the change. It was cars that drove us to move, part-time, to the city, refugees from a commute that had ballooned from 45 minutes to an hour-ten. And it’s cars that’re driving others, commuting now from Santa Rosa or Stockton, to reckon that an hour-ten doesn’t look so bad, and put down for a crackerbox on Dominga or Meerna or Bothin. In the meantime, having once extricated ourselves from daily commuting, we’re back. And I’m looking for a car.

Check that. I found one.

Roni figured out that if we stop contributing to our 401k, we can afford the payments. Sometimes I think my family banker has absorbed a little too much of my cavalier financial outlook. But if she says OK, I don’t ask. And with the encouragement of Car and Driver, who gave the car thumbs-up, we sign our lives away in a cell in a 1948-era quonset hut to the quietly merciless Mr. Liu, and drive off, close to midnight, in a brand new Audi.

I couldn’t have predicted it either. And it does seem to be pushing it, brand-wise, in a town like this. And maybe that’s part of what my ego was looking for, to be a cut above — not a world above, like a Beemer, but just one baby step up. And if so, I chide myself for it. But I will point out it’s a surprisingly small car, no bigger than the Prius, perhaps an inch or two shorter, with a practical-minded hatch on the back — really a tarted-up VW Golf — and only pretends to be badass in black on black. A3 is the model. But an A3 that’s a tree-hugging, three-way combo of gas, hybrid and plug-in electric. A new model for the US: the A3 e-tron. And compared to the bashful Prius, it is badass — sprinting up Gough, leaping onto 101, juking the potholes of Fairfax. And inside it’s got all the airbags and whistles — nagging, for instance, when you’re too close in front, side or back — all of them programmable, if you’ve got the patience (which no one does, I suspect, least of all me). There’s the sunroof I needed — except these days it’s called a moonroof. Plus, the three-months free Sirius I didn’t know I needed, but now can’t live without.

And, yes, it’s made me wonder about myself, how I ever arrived at this brand to which I’d never expended a thought, why this color, this style, this price, this car, at this time, this place. And when I peek through the curtains at the driveway to make sure it’s still there, I think: is this who I am now? This?

But the creepy part is how infernally well it sums me up.

Center of the Universe (42)

Center of the Universe (42)

Center of the Universe (40)

Center of the Universe (40)