I appreciate cars as much as the next doofus on the street, but I don't consider myself a "car person." Sure, I use them from time to time, and when I have the occasion to do so I find that I really enjoy the time to myself that driving affords me. I never listen to the radio anymore, except when I'm in a car by myself. And I love the exposure to the unknown that comes from listening to those weird channels down at the left end of the dial—there's nothing like the soul-tingling first strains of a 6 a.m. raga as the pre-dawn sky infiltrates the urban darkness with pale blue luminescence. Or if I'm lucky, the car that I'm borrowing has satellite radio, and I can catch up on some Howard Stern, now featuring the uncensored C-word.
(For the record I don't have a car of my own because I have nowhere to put it—my apartment is small enough as it is, and it's plenty tricky trying to justify to my "special lady" the need for space to house another bicycle, let alone a used Nissan.)
While I'm not anti-auto, I have little interest in thinking about what cars look like, or what they have under the hood, and I certainly can't be bothered with obsessing about the accumulation of either mud on the outside, or banana peels on the floor of the back seat. (I can't keep pulling over to look for a garbage can every time I have a snack, can I? I mean, let's be realistic here.)
Despite my inattentiveness to the non-utilitarian aspects of motor vehicles, I'm sensitive to the fact that my disinterest is not shared by everyone else. It doesn't take a long time living on this planet to realize that the frustrations and shortcomings of a great many of its residents are offset by the distractions of fawning over prized motor-vehicles. For example, there are absurdly colorful and over-horsepowered Asian motorcyles (favored in the NYC area by black dudes who for some reason adorn their heads with WWII German Army-style helmets, with I'm not sure what degree of historical/ironic awareness); boatloads of sport utility vehicles, which usually see only a small degree of utility, and even less sport; and of course, a myriad of Toyota Priuses (or is it Prii?), the favored car of self-important do-gooders—though with those miniscule rear windows, it's clear that greater awareness of the world around is not really that high of a priority for their drivers.
More of a sun-roof, isn't it?
While I like cars for their usefulness and convenience, unfortunatley what I see too much of is overblown attentivenes to the aesthetics of cars—a trend perpetuated by both the manufacturers and the end-users. (End-users are doofuses with driver's licences.) Car-makers build to appeal to consumers' egos and libidos, and when they successfully tap into these regions, Practicality quickly takes a back seat—where it finds a dvd player and enough Sponge Bob Square Pants to keep it occupied while the Ego—which is always at the wheel—and its copilot in the passenger seat, Libido, take a drive down Indulgence Avenue. And this is why we ended up with a ridiculous decade-long plague of SUVs.
It's also why car fenders have disappeared from the landscape.
You see, there once was a time when cars were endowed with fore- and aft-mounted protective attachments called “bumpers.” These served to protect your vehicle in the event of a slight physical encounter with another driver’s vehicle, a garbage can, or for those of us who hail from the upper, “countrified” parts of New York State, wayward farm animals.
Over the past decade or so, however, car bumpers have been enveloped by the glossy, eye-catching, and vaguely aerodynamic body-paneling that has left our roads overrun with two-ton jelly beans.
These days, unless you are in a profession that requires you to drive an outdated vehicle (farmer, old-school pimp, college professor), chances are your car is fully encased in fiberglass and plastic, making it more aesthetically pleasing than cars of yesteryear but much more susceptable to damage. Owing to this, you may find that you exist in a state of constant paranoia about the possibility of your car making even the slightest contact with any other object. And if another driver actually bumps your bumper-area with their bumper-area, you’ll both have to go (well, you'll have to wait for the fisticuffs to subside, and then go) to the body shop to have $400 or so worth of work done to restore your respective bumper-regions to their original contour and luster. (And possibly the hospital to restore the original contours of your now knuckled-up face regions.)
Any person I talk to, regardless of the income strata to which they belong, seems acutely concerned with money these days. Yet because of the irresistable appeal of a shinier, sleaker car, no one seems to mind the ridiculous automotive evolution toward bumperlessness and the accompanying increased risk of hefty and wholly unnecessary expenses. Instead, this ego-driven automotive frailty is itself cause to spend more money—on after-market protective products. In a deeply ironic twist that would leave Yakov Smirnov twitching like an overstimulated femme-bot, now you have to protect your bumper, whereas, presumably, in Soviet Russia, bumper protects you!
Civilian drivers have options like the “Bumper Badger,” which should be called the “Bumper Bumper,” because that’s what it is: a bumper you hang out of your trunk to protect your bumper. Professional drivers, also known as "hacks," drive around in yellow taxis which are outfitted with permanently-attached rubber protectors on the outer-edge of the car body. Put simply, these are miniature bumpers designed to protect the plastic body-paneling that covers the actual bumper.
Allow me to sum things up: your entire car has become a delicate and expensive trophy that you must protect with a rubber floor mat hung from out of the trunk. And this, of course, makes your pretty vehicle look like a sloppy piece of crap. It’s the equivalent of a nice sofa covered in protective plastic.
An object lesson in gaining a small benefit at the expense of a big heap of dignity. I suspect the driver wears a fanny-pack.
A brief stroll through Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood (home to Volvo-loads of college professors and their ilk) yielded an abundance of the Fenders of Yesteryear.
By the way, in the "tonier" parts of New York City, a car this old would be considered an eyesore, and traffic cops would find an excuse to ticket its owner in a New York minute. (A New York minute is like an ordinary minute, only it's preceeded by the words "New York.")
While the wheel wells of this car are slowly giving way to corrosion due to exposure to the New York elements dating back to before the Lindsay administration, the body appears to be, on the whole, remarkably intact. This impressive longevity surely has been made possible, in part, by the robust bumpers (and by the letter "H" and the number 6, since in Park Slope by law all things must be made relatable to children; "The Slope" caters to children like Times Square caters to tourists).
It may be old, but this is a bumper worthy of note. Not only does it protrude appreciably, it is held out from the car with what appear to be a couple of shock absorbers.
That thing's going to take quite a hit before the impact will do any damage to the rest of the vehicle. And anyone in Park Slope who is still driving an old car like that will have lost their patience with parallel parking long enough ago to put that fender through its paces more times than they've enjoyed a cold Kombucha.
Shortly after this find, I happened across a newer vehicle which illustrates just how fragile is the outer shell of a modern automobile.
And also how hollow.
Mind you, it's not entirely empty in there; note the layer of styrofoam under the exoskeleton. It's nice to know that in your 1500 lb. automobile you and you're family are afforded the same protection had by an 8 lb. toaster oven in it's original packaging, freshly purchased from P.C. Richard. And to be fair, maybe there wasn't always an empty compartment hidden within the faux-fender; judging from the amount of rust accumulated on the clearly non-stainless steel components in there, this accident took place some time ago, and it's entirely plausible that the foam packing peanuts all fell out after the accident.
The further I look into this (figuratively, that is—I didn't want to look any further into that car's bumper for fear of contracting tetanus), the more I'm convinced that a car's protective protuberance is basically akin to a bicycle helmet: it consists of hard foam padding encased in a plastic shell, and rather than reusing it you're supposed to throw it out after the occasion of any potentially damaging impact with the understanding that in serving its purpose its structural integrity has probably been compromised.
The Toyota owner has a choice: either pony up half a week's pay (or as it's known these days, a week's Unemployment) to take care of that gaping eyesore; or, just ignore it. Judging, again, by the block of rust peeking out from the bumper-mound, I think the owner has already made the choice.
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the most aesthetically-concerned of human beings are not going to be the most sensible, even when it comes to making choices that in the long run would ensure the aesthetic endurance of their own prized possessions. The little red Volkswagon, which has suffered so many decades in service of its Park Slope-dwelling owner to have developed an angst-ridden existentialist world-view of its very own, is adorned with a dorky but admirably pristine Fender of Yesteryear. The fairly new Toyota, in spite of its shimmery contours and modern safety technology, was quickly transformed (probably by a sub-5 m.p.h. impact in which only one of the vehicles was moving) into an undignified, sloppy piece of crap.
The good news is, you could probably fit a lot of banana peels in there.