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Running on Empty

So I’m—we’re—back from dropping off Nick in St. Louis.  We drove home on Saturday, setting a new family record by making the 770-mile trip in one day:  thanks to Jamie for his travelling skills, his patience, and his willingness to entertain himself for twelve hours at a stretch.  Last year we screwed up almost every aspect of the trip: we stayed in a one-star motel, we dined at a skeezy Del Taco at 10 pm because everything else was closed, and I booked one of The Hill’s weakest Italian restaurants for the farewell dinner.  This year we stayed in a good place for cheap, we moved Nick into his dorm with brutal and terrifying efficiency, and we dined at one of The Hill’s best Italian restaurants, where the maitre d’ stopped by to cut up Jamie’s chicken saltimbucca for him and then took Jamie and Nick on a tour of the kitchen so they could see how the gelato and sorbetto are made.  Next year, we want to become even more adept at this game: we’re going to drop off Nick and drive back in one day, slowing down to 30 mph as we approach his dorm and throwing him out of the passenger side with a sleeping bag as he does a drop-and-roll.

St. Louis looks much the same as when I last visited, and because Nick is now a sophomore, I was spared the many wearying challenges of Parent Orientation (though I have to admit I enjoyed the reception with the School of Architecture faculty last year; I did the Orientation drill while Janet and Jamie drove up to Champaign, Illinois), and of course I didn’t have to reprise the traditional father-son knife-fight in the parking lot.  And because we delivered Nick a bit early, we were spared the very worst features of the Annual Parental Infestation—the parade of J. Crew-festooned forty- and fifty-somethings carrying laundry baskets and clock radios for their offspring, fighting with each other (and us!) for the last remaining boxes of inexpensive-but-nice silverware at Target, and recalibrating their families’ wireless calling plans and auto insurance rates for the school year.  You might recall that Don DeLillo’s White Noise opens with such an Infestation; it’s the postmodern version of the Epic List, with noble antecedents in Homer, Virgil, Spenser, and Milton:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus.  In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.  The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn: the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years.  It is a brilliant event, invariably.  The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse.  Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.  The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction.  The conscientious suntans.  The well-made faces and wry looks.  They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition.  The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names.  Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.  This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.

Great stuff, that White Noise.  Written twenty years ago, but still relevant today, like the great timeless classics of literature.  But hey, does anybody remember station wagons?  Does anybody remember stereo sets, phonograph records and cassettes?  For that matter, does anyone remember controlled substances?

I’m serious about the station wagons, actually.  Maybe it’s just the shock of driving two thousand miles round trip to the Outer Banks and then turning around and driving another two thousand miles round trip to the Midwest, but I’m starting to get the impression that no one drives cars anymore: everywhere around me on the interstates it’s SUVs, SUVs, SUVs (I tell you, the movie Robocop, with its SUX 6000 cars with “really shitty gas mileage,” is looking savvier every day).  Not that we’re especially virtuous ourselves: our 2003 VW Passat gets 28-30 mpg (and has great interior room, with a big trunk), but even that kind of mileage means we spent about $350-400 on gas while spewing all our fossil-fuel refuse into the air.  The time seems right for a hybrid—though at this point I’ll try anything, including Floo Powder (there’s no point anymore in developing the car that runs on water: we’ll be all out of water by the year 2078 anyway).  But I can’t even begin to imagine how the SUX-6000 drivers are handling this.  I have to think that, quite apart from the farcical driver-masculinization involved in the SUV phenomenon (as opposed to the soccer-mom minivans, which are considerably safer and more fuel-efficient, hence feminized, hence abject), there’s a perverse kind of conspicuous consumption going on with these top-heavy, tip-on-a-dime boxes-on-wheels: they say, almost as if they carried bumper stickers to this effect, these piddling gas prices of yours are of no concern to me.  Or, as Janet put it, channeling Leona Helmsley:  fuel efficiency is for the little people.  I think the appropriate movie reference here isn’t Robocop so much as The Freshman, with its hilarious depiction of a decadent group of the global ultrarich who dine on nearly-extinct species.  (And if you haven’t seen the scene in which Bert Parks sings “Maggie’s Farm” for those diners, you have missed one of American film’s more sublimely loopy moments.)

Anyway, don’t get me wrong here.  As our national leaders have pointed out, there is no such thing as global warming, and even if there were, it certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with increasingly violent hurricanes.  In fact, I believe that recent studies have shown that SUVs have a beneficial effect on the atmosphere and help to protect us from the sun’s harmful SUV radiation.  Though (via Susie Madrak the Suburban Guerrilla), I did learn that hurricanes can have an impact on oil production (Susie links to this New York Times article):

In an interview later with CNN, the mayor also referred to the potential impact the hurricane could have on the oil supply from the vulnerable area.

“The real issue—that I don’t think the nation is paying attention to—is that through the city of New Orleans, through the Gulf of Mexico, we probably deal with almost a third of the nation’s domestic oil that is produced. And that will most likely be shut down,” Mr. Nagin said.

“So, this can have a significant impact on oil prices going forward,” he added.

This, children, is what’s known as the Oil Circle of Life: the fossil fuel goes into your tank, the exhaust goes up into the air, the air swirls around and around until it reaches speeds of 150 mph, it hits the Gulf Coast, and then it gives the country’s gas and oil production a kick in the shins.  This then increases oil-company profits, and the fossil fuel goes into your tank, and . . . well, it’s just like the Water Cycle, only oilier.

In the meantime, this blog sends its best wishes to everyone in the Gulf Coast, particularly the people who don’t own cars and can’t evacuate at will.

Posted by on 08/29 at 01:43 PM
  1. Yes, the first 100-so pages of White Noise may represent the best fiction of the ‘80s.

    Posted by  on  08/29  at  03:37 PM
  2. I watch The Freshman every time I chance upon it on cable JUST to see Parks sing Maggie’s Farm.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  08/29  at  03:48 PM
  3. Only 7 comments a year ago. My how this little blog has grown. I feel so proud.

    Posted by  on  08/29  at  04:05 PM
  4. Only 7 comments a year ago. My how this little blog has grown. I feel so proud.

    Yep, and only 1000 visitors per day back then, too.  But you know what happened the very next day?  The Republican National Convention, that’s what.  And the RNC, together with JDC (thanks, pal), propelled this blog to Hugh Hewittian heights of popularity and self-delusion.

    Posted by Michael  on  08/29  at  04:29 PM
  5. Welcome back from your great adventure! You’re right about SUVs, they are, for the most part, a proclamation of hyper-maleness. In the wild west, it was who had the fastest or largest gun, now it’s “My Hummer is bigger and meaner than your Yukon, so therefore I’m bigger and meaner than you are.” Gas prices, we don’t worry about no stinkin’ gas prices!

    Posted by  on  08/29  at  04:48 PM
  6. Ah, but those of us who drive Geos hope for the day when we’re seen as responsible caretakers of the planet, although we’re much too polite to spit upon the bumpers of the SUVs (as they push us off onto the too-narrow road shoulder).

    Posted by Linkmeister  on  08/29  at  05:10 PM
  7. I think that the SUV as a moniker of conspicuous consumption is even more pronounced abroad.  A friendly cab driver explained that Rovers lose their value very quickly, because with the price of petrol (and this was 5 years ago) only very rich people could afford to fill them up.  If you were rich enough to be able to afford to drive one, you could afford to buy a new one.  Nobody was in the market for a used SUV, since no one who actually needed a lorry would buy an SUV.  And they do have station wagons over there, only they call them estate cars in the UK.

    Posted by  on  08/29  at  08:43 PM
  8. The Simpsons did a great SUV spoof in the Krusty-as-George Carlin episode, with the “Canyonero” TV ad song (western genre, Johnny Cash-esque.) The opening lines are the best:

    “Can you name the truck with four-wheel drive,
    smells like a steak and seats thirty five?  Canyonero-o-woah” (Add cracking whip sound effect here.)

    Google “canyonero lyrics” and you’ll get all the lyrics.  It’s worth it.

    Posted by  on  08/29  at  11:53 PM
  9. On the issue of the weather, the frightening spiral was well elucidated by Kerry Emanuel, MIT Prof of Meterology.

    See today’s Democracy Now transcript:

    [url="http://www.democracynow.org/print.pl?sid=05/08/29/145206"]
    http://www.democracynow.org/print.pl?sid=05/08/29/145206[/url]

    or audio:

    http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/08/29/145206

    Posted by Kenneth Sherwood  on  08/30  at  12:15 AM
  10. We just returned from the same adventure.  The station wagons are all in Massachusets.  They are mostly Volvos, which is not quite what DeLillo evokes, but there they are.

    Posted by Bill Altreuter  on  08/30  at  10:04 AM
  11. According to NPR this morning, Chicago has on average gas prices of any major city. Amazingly, we seem to have the largest per capita SUV population outside of the military. I agree with Linkmeister, the drivers of over 30 MPG vehicles will become the revered gods of the oiless future, a super-race of conservationist crazies.

    BTW, You’ll have to spill the beans on the Hill restaurant you so respectfully leave unnamed. I was in St. Louis this weekend as well and learned where garlic is king (hint hint).

    Posted by  on  08/30  at  11:30 AM
  12. If only some of those possessing cars had thought to leave the keys in the cars they abandoned, then perhaps more people would have gotten out of New Orleans. Thousands of cars flooded and destroyed on the ground, thousands of Orleanseans stranded in their attics. What a shame.

    Posted by Dave Munger  on  08/30  at  12:56 PM
  13. The local papers ran stories about wild bacchanalias in the streets of Durham this weekend.  It was actually peaceful aside from some UNH frat boys setting their dumpster on fire--- and themselves.  And a nonstudent from the nearby town of Dover broke into my old high school classmates business and was found inside the building smoking a cigarette.  He said he got lost on the way back to Dover.  He was indeed: the place was on the road to the next town in the opposite direction (Newmarket.)

    Good thing you didn’t get rained on.  And it’s really lucky Jamie didn’t choose Tulane.  The kids all arrived just in time to be flooded out of their dorms.  (The sports teams were the exception: they are safe and relatively dry in Jackson and Dallas.)

    Posted by Tim Horrigan  on  08/30  at  10:47 PM
  14. Next time you visit St. Louis you really should get a tour of the Universtiy City jail where, it is rumored, Emma Goldmann once spent the night. The city hall, where the jail is located, was built originally to house a feminist magazine. What about Holmes Lounge just off the quad? Haven’t you even gone there for coffee on your visits?

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  18. However, Skittle does have a good suggestion. If there is a Buca di Beppo’s in your area, they’re worth a visit as well. They usually have a table in the kitchen area held for special occasions and this would sure qualify.

    However, search the web in your area for any Italian or Italian-American organizations. Contact them, and find that great out-of-the-way spot that they can probably recommend for the best Italian in your area.

    Posted by Richmond tuxedos  on  09/03  at  01:44 AM
  19. You are correct about the SUV, they are, for the most part, a proclamation hyper-maleness. In the wild west, it is the fastest or the biggest guns, now “My Hummer is bigger and more evil than the Yukon, so since I was bigger and more evil than you.” The price of gas, we are not worried about no stinkin ‘gas prices!

    Posted by Herman  on  12/16  at  03:35 AM
  20. Dont like bumper stickers they are annoying as the car in front of you takes off as you are reading it,its like the waitress taking your beer when its still half full. I have one in my window on the inside. “At least I can still smoke in my car”

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