On a very sad morning almost ten years ago, my favorite vehicle ever was towed out of my driveway. perched on the back of a flatbed tow truck. As my car rounded the bend, donated to charity for a tax write-off and undoubtedly destined to be dismantled for parts, I began to wax nostalgic.
Although I came of age during the turbulent sixties and early seventies, I was not your classic anti-establishment rebel. I grew up in rural northern New England, was raised in a conservative Protestant religious tradition—these are hardly contributing factors to being a Sixties counter-culture flower child. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to make up for lost time during my middle age years. I attribute a number of my defining features—my liberalism, the delight I take in enabling young people to think for themselves, my ponytail—to the atmosphere of the Sixties that seeped into my bones unbeknownst to me as I was growing up. The vehicle in question was a significant addition to this development.
The Chairmobile was a 1991 Honda Accord station wagon—it had about 190,000 miles on it when it dropped in my lap in the summer of 2004; as it left the homestead five years later, it had 250,000. It should have looked like this:
It didn’t. The Chairmobile’s registration said it was blue, but no one who ever saw it called it blue. It looked red to me, but I’m partially color blind. It had a serious rust problem on both fenders; it was apparently in an accident before it came to me and had a gash on the driver side front door that was also rusting around the edges.
It was also covered with graffiti-style yellow spray paint, making the question of its true color moot. The hood said, in large yellow letters, “Cuba Caravan 2004,” in honor of the (illegal) caravan of humanitarian aid to Cuba in which Jeanne participated in the summer of 2004. Along the two driver side doors the words “Love Will Win” are sprayed. The two doors on the other side read “Pastors For Peace,” although the fading letters are hard to read in places. More propaganda was painted on the back window.
Around all four sides of the roof were sprayed the names of various heartland cities, from Minneapolis, MN to Wichita Falls, TX, towns it visited as it was loaded with aid to be driven to the US/Mexican border. The car was intended to go on a barge with the rest of the aid from Mexico to Cuba, but the Cubans could only take diesel fueled vehicles that summer. Jeanne had just accepted a job at a university on Long Island that started in late summer and would be taking our sole vehicle with her. The beat up, graffiti-wearing, Cuba-rejected Honda was there for the taking, so I figured I’d drive it for a few months until it croaked. Those few months turned into five years.
I christened it “The Chairmobile” because I had just started four years as chair of the philosophy department a month earlier. It came with a bumper sticker that said “Be a real revolutionary: Practice your faith.” I added a few more, such as “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlet,” “Dissent is Patriotic,” and the symbol for the ACLU, just in case there was any doubt about the political leanings of the Chairmobile’s owner. Every time I drove out of the driveway I was screaming to the world “I’m a fucking liberal! You want to make something of it?? What are you staring at?? You want a piece of me??” Not the best vehicle for an introvert who would just as soon be anonymous at times, but driving an extroverted car boosted my confidence level.
I have enough stories about reactions to the Chairmobile to fill dozens of essays. A local cop pulled me over in the grocery store parking lot within a week of the Chairmobile’s arrival for no reason other than that he simply could not believe such a horrible looking car could be current and legal in its insurance, registration, and inspection. Soon after, as I was minding my own business loading groceries in the same parking lot, a twenty-something yelled “Hey buddy, Osama kills liberals too!” as he drove by in a BMW convertible.
Then somebody hollered “Love sucks!” at me as I turned the corner from a stop light—obviously his girlfriend had just dumped him. My friend Montana Bob, a veteran of the Cuba caravans, reports that a few years earlier, he was driving a similarly graffitied vehicle through Colorado Springs, gathering humanitarian aid on the way to the Mexican border. Someone at a stop light asked “If you love Cuba so much, why don’t you go live there, you Communist?”, to which my friend, in the true spirit of Christian charity, asked in return “why don’t you pull over into that parking lot so I can kick your ass?” Montana Bob is a committed advocate of muscular Christianity.
But in the years I drove the Chairmobile, I received far more smiles from strangers than frowns. While stuck at a dead standstill in a construction-generated traffic jam on a Pennsylvania interstate,a woman in the lane next to me rolled her window down and asked “Tell me, why will love win?” and a nice conversation ensured. One of my neighbors told me (in the grocery store parking lot again) “I love it when I see your car—it always makes me feel good, especially these days.”
How different would the world be if everyone wore their inner selves on the outside, in the same way as exoskeletal lobsters and crabs do? During the few years that I drove the Chairmobile, I announced to the world in no uncertain terms some things about me that were both true and could no longer be hidden.
- What my car looks like is about 1037th on my list of priorities.
- At least in theory I care more about people in need than people’s opinions.
- I believe being a person of faith has little to do with church attendance.
- I’m living out some repressed rebellious tendencies that had no outlet in my youth while rebellion was erupting all around me.
The money required to keep the Chairmobile inspected and running finally became prohibitive. Jeanne and I have had three or four cars (all used) since the Chairmobile was towed away, but none of them have made a statement like that 1991 Honda Accord stationwagon. Our current vehicle is our first hybrid, which I suppose is its own statement. I doubt Jeanne would want me to do any spray-painting on our hybrid (which doesn’t even have a cool name), but I’m thinking about a bumper sticker.
GOD IS ALIVE, AND HE’S DRIVING THIS CAR