Published 19 Jul 2020, last modified 15 Sep 2020
If you asked me a few years ago where I saw myself in July 2020, I would probably not have imagined that I’d be in the driver’s seat of a big, dually-rear-wheeled, diesel-fueled pickup truck. I find maglev trains and the proliferation of mass transit a lot more exciting on a personal level than having control of a personal vehicle with enormous horsepower.
But now I have this big old truck. Or we have this big old pickup truck. It’s mine on paper but it’s my spouse who plans to drive it most of the time. We decided a while ago that we wanted to try living in an RV for a while as a family, and at that point we indirectly committed ourselves to having a big truck like this: the RVs that can comfortably accommodate all of us who live together in this family are big “fifth-wheel” trailers and those trailers are designed to be towed by big pickup trucks. And they really have to be diesel trucks; gasoline starts to become a less efficient fuel when one is towing something this heavy, and as of right now (July 2020) there is no electric truck on the market with that towing capacity. So, soon after I started my first salaried, full-time, office job—remotely, of course, due to the pandemic—I signed some papers and somehow bought a truck, essentially the first one we found for sale nearby. It’s a 2011 model, and it doesn’t have all the luxury features like a moonroof, but it has the towing specifications we were looking for.
It’s a little scary; I have this feeling that I shouldn’t be allowed to buy something like this and the fact that I got it financed and the dealership just let me sign all these papers so we could drive the truck away was a mistake at some level. I mean, yes, my income and credit score have both gone up recently because of a few choices and a lot of plain old luck, so technically I’m a qualified buyer now in the eyes of the financial industry. And yes, we have specific plans that reply on this specific kind of vehicle. But the aesthetics of it are all wrong, aren’t they? Certainly I’m not the right kind of person to have this truck.
There’s an especially weird kind of commodity fetishism built up around vehicle ownership, and especially here in the United States, where mass transit never really recovered from the contraction that coincided with the explosive postwar growth of car-centric suburbs and the Eisenhower Interstate System, we tend to see the cars we drive or don’t drive less as machines created and assembled by people in Korea or wherever and more as concrete extensions of our personalities. If you met me you might guess that I drive a Prius. You’d be wrong.
For a good long while I couldn’t afford a car even with financing, so what I’d actually been driving to work before the pandemic made me a remote employee was my father’s old car, a 2010 Kia Forte, which is still in good enough condition that I plan to give it to a relative. That, in a way, tells a story about me. It tells you that I had enough privelege to receive this car from a relative so I could pursue jobs and educational opportunities that would have been out of reach for me without one, and also that I didn’t have the wealth at first to simply choose the sort of car I liked best.
But that’s not really the sort of story that we’re telling ourselves when we think of “Prius people” or “BMW people” or “Tesla people”. People have a bizarre need to not only make inferences about other people based on the cars they drive (or don’t drive), but also to shape their own driving habits according the various market niches that car manufacturing companies have devised. Driving a Tesla shows that you’re trendy and either rich or just enough financially solvent and devoted enough to a post-fossil-fuel world to have saved up a whole lot of money for one of these things. Driving a Prius shows that that you’re thrifty and eco-conscious. Driving an enormous Ford truck like the one I just bought shows you’re a rugged member of the National Rifle Association who doesn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. None of this real, exactly, or maybe there are a lot of people who do happen to fit these stories, but they are market-driven stereotypes, mental shortcuts we make in an environment where we are alienated from each other and use the superficial signifiers of the make, model, even paint color of cars as a substitute for actually knowing anything about the people inside. Like any such shortcuts, they’re limited, and only work in the flight cultural contest. What kind of person would drive a GAZ 24 Volga in Moscow in 1988? Most people I know wouldn’t have any kind of intuitive judgement about that.
So, anyway, am I big truck person now? I don’t know, but I have a big truck…
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