The Curse of the Car

I suppose it is the Mennonite in me, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the car. Some week soon I want to add up the hours I, and my wife and my children spend in our cars and gather a family meeting and ponder and wonder together what life might be like if we spent the amount of time in our cars at home with one another.

The first question on the agenda would be why we are rushing about in our cars. Where are we going? We are going to work or going to play, but wouldn’t it be grand if we all developed ways to work and play at home? What if we were completely impractical and moved to a farm in the country and grew our own food and had a cow? There would be plenty of work there and plenty of play.

The second question would be what we would do if we stayed at home. I have an anarchic dream that we might turn our suburban home into a farmhouse, build a barn for the cow and a pen for the pigs and a home for the chickens. What would the neighbors (who we do not know) do with the crowing of the rooster each morning? How would the adjust to the squeal and the smell of the pigs and the nightly attacks of the coyotes on the chicken pen? What would be do at home? We would work in the garden and look after the animals and sit by the fire at night and play Chinese checkers.

Instead in the morning we and our neighbors climb into our metal four wheeled air conditioned boxes and drive to the workplace to sit in a chair and stare at a screen. None of this would be possible without the car.

Then, I wonder, has anyone else noticed that the car has had the effect that it doesn’t take us anywhere? The idea of travel is that you go someplace different. But in America there is no place different. Everything is the same. An interstate highway in Kansas is the same as an interstate highway in Arkansas. The suburbs are identical in every town. America is one vast theme park where commercial avenues are thronged with identical restaurants mass produced by gigantic corporations that populate our towns with cookie cutter artificial emporia.

On every commercial avenue you must have a snazzy Burger King, a fake 1950s diner, a pretend Tuscan villa Italian restaurant, a faux French bistro, a make believe Mexican eatery and a knock up Bavarian knockwurst serving beer house. All of them are surrounded by acres of macadam because none of this would be possible without the car. The car has produced the modern wonder that we travel for hours to go somewhere which is the same as the place we left. It is as if we have set out to go somewhere and wind up being anywhere and nowhere at the same time.

I blame the car, and do not know what to do about it because I cannot effect such a revolution in my own life without endangering the income on which my family relies. If I were alone in the world I think I would retire to that hermit’s cabin I long for and get a horse and carriage and wear a cowboy hat.

Perhaps the Mennonites have the solution. When I was a boy growing up in Pennsuylvania there was a sect within the sect of Mennonites who were called “Black bumper Mennonites”. I don’t know if they still exist, but in that day these Mennonites were not so strict as to use only horse and buggies. They allowed themselves a car. But the car had to be the simplest of models, and it had to be painted black. Furthermore, as their name indicated, they removed the chrome hubcaps and painted the bumpers and all other chrome items with flat black paint.

The car then became an expression of their unworldliness. It was almost an act of penance to drive that car. It was a public witness–a sign of contradiction and a somber meditation on the folly of a world whose dimensions have been produced by a practical, greedy idiot named Henry Ford.

The only other option would be to do what my brother once did. He bought an ancient station wagon because it was practical and he and his artist wife painted it plaid. This riotous checkerboard old Plymouth became something of a celebrity around town. People would roll down their windows to compliment them on their anarchical paint job.

This is really the only other solution: if one cannot turn the car into an act of penance, why then ridicule it as one might a banker or a politician.


Todd Unctuous on the Synod of Bishops
Mantilla the Hon on the Use of Incense
Gimme That Ole Time Religion
New Guest Blogger Flora Harper
  • Matt

    I spend about 6 hours each week dring to and from work, which is probaly lower than the average. Nevertheless, I would pay a great deal to not have this time taken away from the family. Unfortunately, the bills need paying and I wouldn’t survive on a farm

  • FW Ken

    We all have our Mennonite moments, Father. But there is another side of the story. In a little while, I will get into my Kia Rio, drive 60 miles to visit my brother in the hospital, drive another 50 miles to visit my parents’ graves, drive another 20 miles and see my step-father and 91 year old aunt. All thanks to the car. I hope to camp in the Davis Mountains next spring, and they are nothing like the Fort Worth/Dallas area. Not to mention that the McDonald Observatory is there, not here. Without a car, I might have seen Niagara Falls, but probably not. I would not have walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, seen a Broadway show, seen the Great Lakes, and so on. Some places are accessible by train (a truly civilized mode of travel), bus, or airplane, but aren’t those just car surrogates? There is something to be said for the monastic vow of stability, but I’m not a monk.

    And yes, when I travel, I’ll almost certainly hit a McDonald’s or Olive Garden from time to time: quick, predictable, and comforting in it’s familiarity. I’ll also find cafes and local diners.

    Not to mention that without a car, you would be living in the rectory instead of a home with your family. Think about that. :-)

  • Lynda

    Surely, this isn’t an issue for a parish priest, whose work is mainly at the parish church, and around his parish? A parish priest’s workplace is determined by where his parishioners are. More a question for lay persons working in the secular sphere.

  • RMT

    This is related to my masters thesis in architecture–buildings are not only gimmicky and exactly the same anywhere you go in the retail world, but they are also designed further and further apart so that people need to drive from store to store or from neighborhood to store. In a more traditional town or community, there is more of an opportunity to walk from homes to the neighborhood grocery store or pharmacy and more of a chance to meet other people and talk to them.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Are you kidding? My people drive to church and live miles away from each other.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Of course. I was just having a rhetorical rant.

  • marlon

    I am old enough to remember traveling by car before the interstate system. was in place. What an adventure! Up and down winding roads, getting stuck behind great big trucks, being in the midst of the beautiful countryside–I could go on and on. One of the most vivid memories was stopping to eat. We would always try to pick a place that looked like it had good food. I’m sure we stopped at some bad places, but I don’t remember them. All I remember were great little diners with fabulous burgers and milkshakes, nothing like the cookie-cutter places you see today. I guess those days are over forever.

  • ellen

    When I was a kid and we would travel as a family, we would bring CDs and hymnals and spend the time singing and praising God. The car became a mobile chapel. I did the same myself as an adult, especially when I had commute times of 30 min, 45 min, or an hour and 15 min each way. My car became a mobile hermitage. A friend who was a Baptist minister before converting to Catholicism, spent time as a truck driver (because becoming Catholic kills your career as a Protestant minister!), and his truck became his hermitage – the idea actually came to him during his silent prayer time.

    Years ago, I ran across something expressing the idea of using the time we spend waiting or commuting or that would otherwise be “wasted” as time for prayer. I have found it very helpful over the years. If nothing else, I can pray for those around me. God is right with us, wherever we are. He can show us how to redeem the time.

  • Nan

    I generally listen to liturgical music in the car, without which my mother, in long-term care would have a minimal number of visitors. Nor would I be able to both live where I want and work when I can find a project.

  • Will

    My wife and I have visited Europe a few times and appreciate the public transportation and all of the housing and restaurants in the downtown areas of many cities.

    I remember seeing an online series of videos from a city planner. He made fun of suburbia with its separate residential, commercial, and industrial areas. He pointed out how much better a mixed use city was with residential and commercial areas mixed together, where you could walk to restaurants and to work.

  • FW Ken

    Maybe off-topic, but one of my favorite factoids: according to Prof. Eamon Duffy, in Catholic England it was a pious act to provide for the upkeep of roads and bridges, side that facilitated people coming to Mass.

  • Dave in NC

    I do morning prayers and a rosary on my way to work; that time is not wasted. I used to listen to the radio, but added the prayers and rosary for Lent last year. On the way home I listen to sacred music, if I’ve finished my evening prayer.

    It’s only wasted time if we want it to be.

    And btw, for truly wasted time, count the hours spent in front of the idiot box.

  • Pat H

    I tried to post on this yesterday, but I think I did so too close in time to when the original item went up, so I’ll try again.

    Anyhow, I love this blog! It addresses so many interesting varied topics.

    This is a topic I’ve often thought myself. I loved cars when I was young, and even had my first one when I was 15, too young to actually drive. But as I’ve grown older I’ve become convinced that they’re a mixed blessing at best. They encourage sameness in everything.

    As I’m very slowly working on a novel set in the very early automobile era, in the American West, I’ve also been looking at it from an historical prospective and become convinced that we’re so acclimated to automobiles and modern transportation, we’ve completely lost any concept of what things were like before them, for good and ill. My last effort at that was posted here:

    Rhetorical rant or not, there’s a lot to be somewhat envied about certain things in the pre car era.

  • Matthew Keiser

    Fr. Longenecker,

    The “Black Bumper Mennonites” do very much still exist with about 8,000 baptized members in 40 congregations. Officially they are known as the Weaverland Old Order Mennonite Church though they have also been nicknamed “Horning Mennonites” for their Bishop, Moses Horning, who led the 1927 split between themselves and the Groffdale Old Order Mennonites (“Horse & Buggy Mennonites” or “Joe Wenger Mennonites”). Interestingly, the two Old Order groups themselves trace their roots back to 1893 when there was in a split in the Mennonite world between those that wanted to maintain the “old order” and those that wanted to modernize with things like tractors, automobiles, Sunday Schools and protracted meetings. The main body, of which I am a part of, went the way of acculturation (with various conservative schisms along the way) whilst the Old Orders did and have done their best to maintain cultural seperateness, allowing only incremental and tediously slow change.

    As an aside, and I cannot resist. Is there actual Mennonite you? Given theat you’re from Lancaster with a surname like Longenecker, I have to imagine that somewhere back the line there are some Mennonites in your Family Tree.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Yes. The Longenecker family came to Pennsylvania from Zurich Switzerland in the 1770s. They were Mennonite and settled in Lancaster Co. My grandfather was brought up on a Mennonite farm in the Mennonite religion, but left the faith when he grew older. I grew up in Reading PA and am proud of my Mennonite roots. If you word search on my blog you’ll see I make reference to it from time to time.

  • kath

    This essay makes me feel so excited about a step my husband and I are taking. We both work desk jobs and can’t afford not to, and hate how much time our commutes take away from important stuff like family. So we are moving from our no-vegetable-garden-allowed townhouse to a little postage stamp house in a city neighborhood less than a mile from my office, and our son will be able to walk to Catholic school! I can hardly wait to start my straw bale garden and start taking F to preschool in my bike trailer! It doesn’t hurt that I’ve grown to hate my car with all it has been costing us in terms of commuting costs and maintenance. Banished to the garage it soon will be!

  • richard

    How prophetic! My 1999 Camry went caput yesterday. Talk about disenchantment. LOL!

  • Michael Snow

    Now, you had to go and mention a pen of pigs in for your famyard. I just dreamed about pigs last night..two sows with cute little pigs. I don’t know what brought it on. I have not raised pigs since the first time corn hit five dollars, and I said, “There is no way I’m feeding these girls anymore of this.” That was in the late 90s.
    As for Mennonite moments, even C.H. Spurgeon had some real Mennonite moments.

  • Henri

    Lynda is right, but only in Europe. In cities the parish church is reachable in 10 minutes walking at most, and every country village has a church where a Mass can be expected at least once every 2 months.

    + pax et bonum

  • Adam

    Cars are soul destroying in many ways. I’ve been bicycling to work and avoiding my car as much as possible and it’s made my whole life better. I lost 50 pounds, and I no longer sit in that stupid malaise of traffic, frustrated by unused potential energy under my hood. The whole care obsession in the USA is just stupid. We need to emulate Holland and China on this one and rediscover the bicycle.

    I suppose that is tangential to your primary thesis of just working and playing from home. I think we need to engage in a community of our age-group peers somehow. And gathering in a work place or place of worship tends to accomplish that.

  • Augustine

    The Industrial Revolution changed not only the economy, but also the relationship between the family and work. Before, the family worked together; now family and work are split apart and are often in conflict.

    I find it appalling that even though the work of many people stuck in traffic at rush hour could be done from home, since much of the work is done before a computer and beside a telephone. Granted not all jobs are in the service sector and not all jobs in this sector are at a desk. Yet, why are these people required to work in the 21st century using 21st century tools as though they were still in the 19th century? I suspect that it’s not because of economic reasons, but because of the usual brokenness of fallen man.