Monday, August 21, 2006

On (Not) Washing Your Car

I often walk in the early mornings, around sunrise. Sometimes I see the following remarkable phenomenon: a man out washing his car. (Yes, always a man.)

What's so remarkable about this? For one thing, the car is always clean before it is washed, already the cleanest in the neighborhood. No doubt a certain type of eye could have found an imperfection of dirt in it somewhere, though who but this man himself would inspect his car so closely? Maybe washing it again gives is a special sheen? Well, maybe so! -- but the difference is at most incremental and brief, thin pay for his labor.

Does he enjoy washing his car? Probably he does; and it gets him out in the morning air. But why should one enjoy washing a car more than washing dishes, or going for a walk, or lingering over the newspaper, or gardening, or any of the many other things a man could do in the morning for profit, pleasure, kindness, or self-maintenance? Surely he's not simply bored?

No, he loves his car. In washing, he caresses it. He spins the shammy cloth with a flourish. He takes comfort in the ritual. He tells himself it's only a chore, that he doesn't want to do it but he should -- that those of us who wash our cars at more moderate intervals are slovenly. Is his car a production of his hands to be proud of, a rebuilt 1932 Ford, maybe? No, it's an ordinary 2005 Lexus -- a "prestige" car. Is he proud of that? He is, of course, in his secret heart (and why not?), but also -- perhaps more -- he delights in the car itself, in its shine, its smooth surfaces, its power.

My father drove his cars into the ground. He never washed them. Following my father, I used to be proud, too, in my own perverse way -- proud that I drove a dirty 1985 Corolla rather than a two-year-old Lexus, proud precisely because it was an old and dirty car, and so -- I thought -- it said something about where my values, time, and money were: somewhere other than my car!

That pride was misplaced, though. I would never say the same about having an unwashed body and clothes. I would never sport them proudly as evidence that I have better things to do with my time and resources than take a shower and use a washing-machine! The Corolla is gone; I wash my two-year-old Honda, though not as often as I should.

My father always lived next-door to car-washers. He was always friendly with them, and them with him; but they could never entirely understand each other.

(Revised August 30.)

9 comments:

schmendrick said...

"Is he proud of that?"

... quite so. perhaps next time you`ll meet him while walking by just say "hi, nice car!" and his day will be so wonderful.

hm, don`t know about your residential neighbourhood. here in germany it`s schizophrenic, too: if neighbour a has washed his car or painted his house, you can easily make good money by betting that neighbour b will also wash his car or paint his house...

crazy world with crazy memes. presumably tyler durden (movie: fight club) is not this much wrong:

"The things you own end up owning you."

kboughan said...

There is so much more going on, I think, than a simple protection of property value and "pride of ownership."

There is a theater of suburban/exurban bourgeois manhood.

The guy washes the car even when the car itself doesn't really need washing, yes?

And if it's a newer model, he can afford to take it to a car wash. A savings of time well worth the money.

So he doesn't *really* have to be out there massaging his prize piece in public like that. (All sexual overtones fully intended here.)

He does it, I think, because his "place" as a man is on the exterior fringe of the middle class suburban home. This same guy probably hangs out in his garage a lot. Same gendered behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

"Theater of suburban manhood": I love it! Would he do it differently in his backyard? Does he leave his garage door open so we can see his tools? Does he proudly sweat, upgrading his front-yard landscaping?

I can't say I don't do things differently in the front than in the back....

I don't want to be too negative about such men. When my son, Davy, then 5, first saw the new Honda Odyssey we brought back from the dealership, he was ecstatic. I quote: "Hubcaps shiny as the sun! Tires as sticky as a sticky frog!" I think I lost something when I cast that part of me aside, something of what's authentic (and there is something authentic) in my "suburban manhood".

kboughan said...

My view is colored where I live ( campus of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina) which is a theater of manhood in the (exasperating) extreme, and that includes not only the cadets, but my faculty and staff neighbors.

I'm also plugging the humanist perspective, which is all about social and cultural context.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I could definitely see the potential for exasperation at the theater, especially in certain locales! Riverside, I must say, is in some ways appealingly down to earth, compared to many of the other California locales I know.

Without disagreeing with you in the slightest, kboughan, I wonder: Why is the "humanist perspective" all about social and cultural context?

Brad C said...

What about the divide on Lattes?

"Latte sipping liberal"

The ideologues would have us think no proud "red state man" would be caught sipping one (if they would be caught sipping anything).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've never seen a man sipping a latte while polishing his Lexus. That would be a sight!

kboughan said...

I wish I could get a proper caffe latte, i.e. a bowl of hot fresh frothy milk with a dash of espresso in it. Nothing more, and never after 9am -- it's breakfast.

ricochetdave said...

this is awesome. i had to post this on my own blog giving you the proper credit.. great work!!!!!!!!!