When it comes to cars, my wife and children demand a hermetically sealed environment, filled with all of the essentials required to sustain human life.
I’ll never understand why.
On a spring day back in 1987, I passed my road test and was awarded my driver’s license. A red-letter day in the history of me. After dropping my mother off at home, I drove alone for very first time in my life, two miles down the road to Danny’s house, where I picked up my best friend and took my very first joyride as a teenager.
We only nearly died twice that day. The second time, I drove off the road into a forest, knocking down saplings and barely avoiding an ancient oak. Teenage boys shouldn’t be allowed to drive until they are at least 35 years old. No joke.
The vehicle I was driving wasn’t especially impressive: A 1976 Datsun B210. A car about the size of a box of Pop-Tarts. It was my mother’s car, although within the span of a couple months, it would essentially become mine.
I drove that car all summer long, racking up speeding tickets, bending something called tie-rods, and eventually totaling it two days before Christmas in a head-on collision with Mercedes Benz that left the driver of the Mercedes completely unharmed but resulted in me requiring CPR in the back of an ambulance in order to restore life to my body.
Wear your seat belts, people.
Also, did I mention that teenage boys shouldn’t be permitted behind the wheel of a three-ton death machine until they are old enough to require Viagra?
My cars didn’t get any better as I got older.
Once I was discharged from the hospital and able to drive again, I bought a 1978 Chevy Malibu for $100. Less than a year later, when the car stopped running for the 10,000th time, I simply abandoned it on the side of the highway, hitchhiked home, and upgraded to a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron, purchased from my boss who was desperate to improve my workplace attendance.
But the cars never mattered to me. It was the road that I loved. Windows down, radio blasting – Springsteen or The Eagles or Guns n’ Roses – I would drive without aim or destination, turning wheels just for the sake of turning, exploring every street of every town that I could find. I would pay for gas in fistfuls of change collected from the teenage passengers who joined me for the ride.
It was glorious.
More than 25 years later, things have changed dramatically.
My family and I are leaving for a visit to a farmer’s market half an hour away. It’s early September. The heat of summer has not yet given way to the chill of autumn. As we pile into the Hyundai SUV, my mind wanders to the road ahead. The lure of the pavement. The last great gasp of another bygone summer.
I am excited. Exhilarated.
Then it is ruined. As I back out of the driveway, before I’ve even shifted into drive, my wife asks if I could roll up my window. My daughter immediately concurs. The wind and noise are too much for these Fabergé eggs.
Roll up the window? The days of rolling up windows are long gone. These days, windows are raised and lowered by gently depressing a sad little button on the door, activating an utterly unnecessary motor that raises the glass, creating a vacuum seal inside the car.
“Roll up the window?” I ask. “What about the fresh air? The roar of the wind? That visceral sense of speed and power and life?”
“We don’t want any of that!” my son shouts. “Roll it up!”
When I manage to keep the window down while I’m driving, it’s almost always when it’s just me and a child who lacks the leverage of my wife. I pointedly ignore any whining. I disregard any concerns over the possibility of insects flying into the car or smells that could potentially waft inside, disturbing the delicate equilibrium of the interior. A few weeks ago, I extended my arm out of the car during one of these wife-less drives, allowing my open hand to bounce off the passing air like a wave.
From the back, my son shouted, “Are you crazy! Get your hand in this car now!”
What has happened to the world?
I’m turning off my street onto the main drag when daughter asks if we can replace AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with the Hamilton soundtrack.
My wife and son erupt with approval.
I die a little more inside.
We’re still less than a mile from the house when my son asks for food, because we can’t go anywhere without a bounty of healthy and semi-healthy snacks, topped-off water bottles, and a library of books at the ready. God forbid we travel anywhere without a sufficient number of calories and nutrients to survive. It’s 86 degrees outside in the flatlands of Connecticut, but my family prepares for every trip like the fate of The Donner Party lay ahead.
When I was young, I never grabbed food for the ride. I didn’t bring water. I can remember a day while driving through New Hampshire that my friend and I pulled over and drank from a cold stream.
Today, my children would have me committed for such an action.
They also won’t allow me to break a single law. They watch my speedometer and demand that I slow down when the needle creeps above the speed limit. They complain when I invent a parking spot in an otherwise filled lot. There’s a patch of grass between the road and parking lot at a local pizza joint that I’ve been dying to drive over for years to cut the corner and save time, but no. My family will not allow this, so I had to wait until they were all out of town to do it on my own.
It was a solitary, joyless moment of indiscretion, further sullied by the wagging fingers of my family after the fact.
It’s not all bad. There are still moments in my life – always when I am alone – when I can barrel down the highway, windows down, music blaring, but even on those glorious days, I find myself looking left and right and am so often shocked by what I see:
Hermetically sealed bubbles of placid humanity. Men and women, couples and families, proceeding down the road at three to five miles above the speed limit, windows up, musical soundtracks or NPR podcasts playing at entirely appropriate levels, forgoing the roar of the wind and the thrill of the road for a gentle, quiet, utterly incomprehensible drive.
I feel sad for these people. They have no idea what they are missing.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, a bestselling novelist, and a 48-time Moth StorySLAM champion. He is the co-founder and artistic director of Speak Up, a Hartford-based storytelling organization.
Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.