Arts & Culture

This American Life Ira Glas Man-Fatuation Post: Auto Show

Ira talks about cars. We talk about how that makes us fee. Read More

By / October 19, 2011
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This week’s This American Life begins with a woman recollecting a major car accident.  She remembers calling her husband, telling him “my car just flipped in the air three times, but I’m okay.”  Sharing the incident with Ira, she confesses that her first, most dominant thought was, “I can’t believe I just did that to my car!”

I didn’t expect this week’s car themed episode of TAL to be too compelling.  I hate cars.  I mean, I can appreciate a beautiful looking car and I can even enjoy the feeling of going fast in one, but I don’t feel it in my bones like all of my friends growing up.  One of the thing I remember most about high school was faking, pontificating, even studying in order to try and seem like a person who really cared about cars and how they worked.  When 9th grade rolled around and we could finally choose electives, I somehow conceded to taking shop, which resulted in a whole year of watching seniors concoct different ways to get away with smoking pot inside the auto shop classroom.  Suffice to say, I expected to be as let down by this week’s episode as I was that entire year of shop.

In act I, a TAL reporter attends a car stereo tournament, aka the most superfluous ostentatious excuse for a competition the human mind could dream up.  To demonstrate, a short clip of the song “Livin’ On The Edge” by Aerosmith is played through one of these systems, completely inscrutable under such bass.  However, music isn’t optimal for these types of contests, so instead of music, the competing stereos play these CD’s of blips, akin to bass farts. Most of the cars themselves aren’t very good, however they must be driven to the tournament, so they’ve got to at least be in working condition to compete.  The reporter, after entering and receiving the lowest score in the competition’s history with his rent-a-car comes to the realization that contests like this exist because everyone needs to be the best at something.

This story reminded of a friend from high school, lets call him Billy.  Billy identified, as many high scholars do, as a drug person who distinguished himself by pushing the drug stuff as far as possible.  When it came time to get a car, an 11th graders most indentifying asset, Billy went with the obvious choice, a mini van.  Does this not seem like the obvious choice?

Billy wisely figured that, being someone who uses and sells drugs, particularly pot which is an odorous drug, it’s best to drive the most inconspicuous kind of car.  This turned out to be a smart move on Billy’s part.  He was right, in fact, if you watch Breaking Bad, the show’s younger meth dealer does the same thing.  However, Billy, being the type to push things, grew weary with such a dull car.  He first painted the van black, but that wasn’t enough so he dropped it lower to the ground.  Soon, Billy’s van was black with windows almost entirely tinted, low to the ground with speakers so loud they cracked his windshield on multiple occasions.  As I recall, Billy got arrested more times than just about anyone I knew that year.

The next story is about a guy who firmly believes in this one type of car, an MGA, made by the ill-fated British Motor Corporation.  This man thinks the MGA is going to make his dreams come true, more friends, beautiful woman, etc, but it does none of those things, in fact, it brings him ridicule from friends and women, but he explains that, for him it was all about faith.  This kind of faith leads to a career as a car tester/writer.  Ira points out that he’s the car version of a rock critic.  In conversation with the car critic, we learn that cars are far better made today than they were 20-30 years ago, far more so than we’d think, and that the danger factor of car driving is part of what people most covet about it.

This reminds me of my friend, lets call him Devon, who was the first of us to drive, so our weekends revolved around him until he got grounded a few weeks after getting his liscense.  Devon, having tasted the sweet life, got together a couple hundred bucks and bought an old used car, to drive around for the time he was grounded. He just hid it from his parents.  He’d even named the thing, but when his grounding was over, he drove it into a lake.

The third act is about car salesman, and the tips and tricks they use to rope people into buying cars.  Car salesman are among the least trusted professions.

When I turned driving age, I’d just booked TV commercial, and I took to a Chevy dealership with the money.  My dad was with me, and a salesman darted right at us when we arrived.  He showed us a couple sedan’s, some SUV’s, but as soon as my dad took a phone call he took me right to a red Camaro Z11.  Suddenly, in my head I heard the voices of all my friends, reacting to this car.  The guy took me for a drive, making the car, swing out sideways and burst forward at every opportunity.  I bought it, and managed to get it my friend’s house.

But the car was a stick shift, and I quickly learned that I couldn’t drive it.  I can still remember the feeling of puling out of the local shopping center and stalling over and over again as people waited behind me, honking.  I returned the Z11 within a week and drove my dad’s Chrysler Sebring, which my friends all called “The Mid Life Crisis Mobile.”  But, it was a convertible, had a CD player and zipped forward when you floored the pedal.  I kind of loved that car.

In the end, not only did this episode not disappoint, it was one of the best reruns I’ve heard in years.  Most of us grew up out outside the city and as a result, cars are inevitably inextricable with our growing up.  I’m grateful for my car memories, but more than anything, this episode made me thank god I live in New York City.