Hallucination Engine Revisited: Psycho-Dynamic Obsolescence of General Motors
I am a child of General Motors — an ex-auto junkie United
Auto Worker raised in dealerships and auto plants. I am peak oil,
carbon dioxide, speed and redundant mobilty.
is the intervention.
I shop on the showroom floor of illusions. Amidst Ford‘s
chest-thumping “we will survive without a bailout” proclamation,
Chevy’s greenwashed prediction that their extended-range
electric Volt (another candidate to overload the grid) will cure
11 pain, and taxpayers’ frustrated cries from adjusting
to the dubious understanding that they have suddenly become stockholders
with no voting rights in the sputtering American auto industry,
Zeitgeist – “What’s good for General Motors
is good for America,” went bankrupt. Hummer rolled over;
Saturn eclipsed; Pontiac and Oldsmobile phased out. While the
GM announces it will focus on "developing vehicles that can excite
buyers," all I feel is the wisdom of dead junkies, that but for
the grace of God…, and the dynamic obsolescence of hyper-mobility.
was a kid at a red light between the bucket seats of a 1958
hot-off-the-showroom-floor, two-tone Corvette convertible, top
down under an surreal March morning
sky, a Chevrolet jingle on the radio with a chorus singing "It's
all new all over again." When the light turned green,
the melody accelerated through my skin and evanesced into
Boulevard. I was hubcap-eyed hypnotized.
the wheel, wearing his favorite Don Loper shirt, Dad — a
parts department employee at Martin Pollard Chevrolet — smiled
sweet and satisfied like Jack Lemmon at 29. Next to him, Mom
smiled back in Shimmering Rose lipstick and butterfly dark glasses,
Vera scarf straight in the wind. Cruising west on the Sunset
were enshrined in the 'Vette — a Panama Yellow and Snowcrest
White barking GM spider dripping chrome.
eyes locked on the cloud-and-rooftop horizon above the dashboard.
of electricity hard-wired my brain. After a
fuel-injected hit of 20th-century freedom and mobility, I
was never the same
all over again.
make this thing work," said Dad stepping on the gas.
engine om submerged me in a V-8 adrenaline bath. Lost in a 290-horsepowered
paradise-to-the-bone, I was 8-years
addicted to cars.
Before GM, we were clean. A few city blocks supplied all
the life we needed. We walked to work, to school, to shop
groceries. The church. The dry cleaners. The drugstore.
The bank. Our close
Get in a car to visit them? Never. Cars were meant for
a trip or a special occasion — not for a mundane
commute or errand. Let me explain in market terms for
investors in the new GM. Back in the
day, stocks were based on earnings, not derivatives; executive
salaries had something to do with portfolio performance;
you had to have verifiable
income to qualify for a loan; people had some idea of
to whom they owed money and sense of where that money
might come from. Get it?
we became addicts. We dressed for cars, schedule for
cars, wished for cars, cursed for cars and lusted for
speech, manners (or lack thereof), where we did business
and pleasure was
auto-dependent. We loved and hated cars, gave them names,
sang about them, insured their bodies, rubbed them until
into thinking that the outward rush of motorcar markets
could expand infinitely, we came to think of our planet
in the same
way — an
inflating globe growing without limits.
first it was 10 miles…then 50…100…200 miles
a day. Soon we couldn’t even eat without a car — all
of our behavior deformed in a Möbius strip cloverleaf
head-on crash. And now, GM is back from DOA. If that’s
a good sign, fuck me.
my way to work this morning, out-of-control Japanese taillights
flare and spin by. I've almost been
hit by a rice rocket trying
to avoid a squirrel. My Camaro is okay, but I'm
a wreck. I take a deep
to relax," I say. "Blend into traffic. Sink into your
leather seat. Get lost in the drone of the engine.
Flatten the wayward squirrel."
when I arrive at my office, I'm shaking — my
malignant inclination driving me downhill, shifting me between loving cars
needing cars. Jesus Christ in a GTO, I need help.
It's time to call a doctor.
anyone can make me feel good about my automotive Jones, its Dr.
Kenneth Green, the ex-Director
of Environmental Studies at the Reason
Public Policy Institute, now-Resident Scholar
at the American
Enterprise Institute. He’s an old school
Surely, he can talk me back up.
no validity to the argument that we are somehow addicted to cars," Green
says. "When someone approaches
me from your viewpoint, I just say two words:
'Conestoga wagon.' The truth is,
we've wanted greater mobility since the covered
I keep quiet and listen. Economics is the driving force behind
to Green. We are,
going places either to get money or spend
it. A wagon. A bicycle. A horse. An Acura. To a
head on straight,
they're all simply economic conveyances. I
sense that this might be useful
information in my new role as a multi-tasking
taxpayer / stockholder in the new GM.
my second-floor window, a
Harley Davidson rumbles past, its antisocial posture splitting
of the stagnant
reel in a learned
neuro-synaptic response. A dopamine surge
brings me to my senses. What a
load of crap. A car is so much more than
a vehicle. It’s part of our
identity. A 57 Chevy is not a conestoga
wagon. It’s an obsession.
have a demand for mobility that is almost insatiable," Green
informs me. "There's no limit to
how far people will want to spread out."
listening, but an engine starts humming
in my head. The room undulates. The
and a dark
above me. I rise
into it, enveloped in a future where
only one person inhabits each planet: A deep-space
community — Cota
de Caza resized for libertarian futurist
philosophers strung out on mobilty. Powered
by economics and an insatiable primal
urge to spread
out, Dr. Green rockets by me punching
a Turbo 400 Buick Grand National into
the endgame of the Big Bang.
unanticipated coherent question pops
out of my mouth. "Shouldn't
we be focusing on the sustainability of
higher-density cities?" I
look behind me to see where the voice
people don't want to live in cities anymore," Green says. "Cities
create faster social disharmonies.
Riots spread faster. Pollution is in a higher concentration."
look out my office window. There's a gas station (CARS), a backed-up
CARS), an overpass
and beyond that tract homes in every
(CARS TO THE EXTREME). I see no
don't believe we're addicted to the car," he says.
and I are clearly wasted.
me — like a three-grain shot — a
1967 Shelby Mustang GT 350 in mint condition makes a turn out
of the parking lot. On
its rear passenger-side window is a sign that reads "FOR
if in the expanded seconds of a car crash, my mind races between
my loyalties to the old order, my responsibility
in GM’s recovery, and an addict’s rationalization
that this may be the best of all highs – snorting the
ashes of Ford — the enemy and one of the founding fathers
of the American industry.
my head a neon sign flashes, "YOU'VE
GOT TO HAVE THAT MUSTANG."
drop the phone, run downstairs, and jump into my baby. With a
sharp left, I'm in pursuit,
zipping by Old Town Irvine
theme restaurant. Strip-mall history offers the locals
a romantic image at the area’s history. They eat fries
and burgers under horseshoes, next to a blacksmith's forge,
basking in suspended disbelief
about the dangers of cholesterol as well as their denial
that transportation in the days when a horse was an urban
necessity smelled like shit.
a horse-drawn metropolis on a rainy day, the street bubbling with
the stanky gumbo of ass
goblins; on a summer
day, the unscooped,
infected fecal ooze dehydrating and crumbling into a
fine dust rising burnished into the air, coating everything.
the car became our junkie Jesus of locomotion — the
savior and tempter of our muddy urban souls.
its advent, thousands of dead horses were carted from
our city streets each year — unless, as often
happened, municipal street sweepers struck, stayed
home or stayed drunk. In that case,
decomposing corpses — spinning with flies — dished
up tongue and anus feasts for ravens.
did the future look like in 1890? Statisticians predicted
that by 1940, people living in densely populated
would be up to
their knees in horseshit.
through the yellow light at Culver Drive, I follow a different
horse — the
Shelby Mustang. In its contoured body is the
narrative of a hot romance…a torpedo full of adventure
for a twisted new age that promised to deliver us
from air pollution, congestion and death. Yeah. Now I’m
Mustang rolls into a carwash. What the hell: There're bugs on
my windshield and parkway
on my hood. I
a wash, meet the owner and score the Shelby all
at the same time. I pull up to the vacuums, leave my
and follow the
Mustang man to a spot under a patio where we watch
a dozen Latinos sweat and wipe the water off sparkling
fenders, doorjambs and windows. Thin, long-faced,
a tweed suit
and a small brimmed fedora, the mustang owner
has an unsettling resemblance
to William S. Burroughs from the dead risen.
"That's my Ford," he says before I get a chance to speak.
long have you owned it?”
was 1910 when the first Ford Model T came to Orange County." I
he hears my question. "All
production line, one-size-fits-all piece
of history…the beginning
of the modern industrial age…the harbinger
of the Carnuba Sealer Wax shine," he
flinch at the rush of precise details delivered in a measured
gravely voice. Was
over the government-sponsored new GM’s lack of foresight?
much do you want for your car?" I ask.
Ford cut the Model T's original price in two, because he wanted
everyone to own one… get them
farmers. Their wheelbase is exactly
as wide as a horse-drawn wagon's."
what?" I say.
Mustang man pauses and looks me in the eye. "They
fit right into the ruts already worn into the roads. The suburb
and the car
were the perfect bump…a
synchronized transmission. During
the future looks limitless."
smile impatiently. "How
much do you want for your car?"
still doesn't answer.
someone whose shirt is embroidered with the name "Ramon."
man who looks like Burroughs gives Ramon his receipt with a
tip and gets into the
"Is your car for sale?" I ask.
Bill, who's already beginning to drive away.
stare down at the ground, exasperated. Through a crack in the
with soapsuds and Armor-all, a spike
stares back. It's
a sprout rooted in the best agricultural land in America — the
grade-A fields and orchards buried under the asphalt here
at the Irvine Auto Spa. This could be a remnant
of the walnuts, strawberries,
asparagus, oranges, corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, beans
and sugar beets worked by Ramon's ancestors. “Ready” he
says. I hand him seven
crumpled dollar bills and start my engine.
aren't so limitless when I get on the
Santa Ana Freeway.
all the way to the
Orange Crush — a
of freeway intersections
where the main
wrap around one
flow of commuters
their quest for
a mythic ever-expanding
market — is
locked up with
heavy metal. No
how much road
we have, we always
of me, a
in a frenzy,
to change lanes.
A Lexus doesn't
it in. Over
wild honking, the lips,
faces of contorted
are contained behind
punch the auto-scan on
seeking traffic reports
"And now the news," a voice chimes in. "It may
be easier to forgive bad drivers after you've gotten even
with them. This
may be the
case for some motorists, according to a recent survey of
traffic-school participants. The survey found that 31 percent
of the participants
have sought revenge by chasing another driver,
threw an object at an offending car, and 5 percent rammed
the car. Three
percent had loaded guns in their cars; almost 2 percent
guns at another driver. And slightly less than 1 percent
my Camaro the
engines growl. I get
from a middle-class
with an achy-breaky
haircut — the
one in the
Will he seek
is at a complete
stop. He stares
at me as if
it's my fault.
He revs his
I see it — a
Before I can
up to my ankles
in a warm
pool of oil — crankcase
shit — rising
off the road.
me the fuck out of here," I yell at the dashboard as my
start to simmer in the muck. "We've got 4 million miles
and streets in America. Hasn’t anyone heard of
all rational thought," he yells out of his window
as he inches by.
rubber industries — trying
to heighten our addiction to the automobile — bought
the lines and plowed them under (see Who Killed
needs (see Alice in
GM’s legacy — miles
of congested roads.
magazine rack. Car and
Car Craft. Next to Muscle Car
pamphlet titled "Solutions
for an Auto-addicted Orange County."
"You can have a wonderful life without a car," it reads. "Get
in shape. Lose weight and increase cardiovascular fitness.
Save money. The average price of a car in Orange
is $21,544, and
it begins to depreciate in one day. Breathe easier. Cars
are the major source of air pollution."
Laessi of Auto-Free Orange
"I'm addicted to cars. What can I do?" I say.
"Try walking…first try walking," says Laessi
as if he handles 100 calls like mine every
"Where?" I say. "I'm surrounded by cars."
"Orange County is one of the worst areas in the country
for that," he
says. "But if you can’t
walk, try taking a cab. They're $1.90 a mile.
If you can share one, it's even better. Or get
thanks. No bus. Mass transit can't work in the suburbs," I
say, avoiding the real issue. "Southern
California is too much
of a sprawl for public transportation to work.
There's no central point of departure."
“Smart people ride mass transit,” he says. “You
can get your work done, read a book or meet
someone. The first step is to
call 1 (800) 636-RIDE.
you hold for a second?"
"Thanks for calling the Orange County Transportation Authority," a
new voice says. "Can I help you?" Laessi
has forwarded me through to bus-route information.
I freeze and babble something
into the phone. A minute later, the sweet voice
at the other end
of the line has informed me that OCTA can get me
home in 30 minutes.
myself? I’ll miss my drive-time junk:
my daily two-hour taillight tripsomania. I’m
in hurry. Let the man go through. The
“30 minutes,” the transit authority operator’s
kindness calms me. I can do this. I join the crowd at the
bus stop. They
eye me suspiciously at first and move imperceptibly away.
I know we’ll
grow to be friends eventually. If you're going to break
a habit, you have to get hooked on something
convertible – a
"'Give to every people of every land better roads and more automobiles,
and we shall do away with most of the ill will that exists between human beings,'" he
says mockingly. "Some
jackass named Irwin Cobb wrote that in 1923. He
believed that World War I wouldn't
have happened if the
world had more cars."
"Really?" I say. Silently I wonder. Was Cobb alive
to see WWII? What would he have thought of
this new millennium, where American
need for petroleum-based mobility secured an involvement
in seemingly endless foreign conflicts? Would
he have thought
the American auto
industry deserving of redemption in the form of a bailout?
need a lift somewhere?"
you going to pass up a ride in Mr. Fin's first Chevrolet?" Bill
"What happened to the Mustang?" I ask.
needs that shit?" Bill says. “I’m a Chevy man.
With fins like these, I can peel the skin off a bag lady. You
can thank Harley Earle for that. General Motors hired him in the
after seeing the custom cars he designed in Hollywood. At GM,
Earle reached down into the cars' guts and pulled out a personality.
called Earle "Mr. Chrome." One of his protégés — Bill
Mitchell — became
'Mr. Fin.' He cooked up this Chevy.
"GM had Earle making major design changes every year. Without this
year's model, you were yesterday's news. He called it 'dynamic obsolescence.'
General Motors called it huge profits."
"Earle's beautiful machines crept through traffic nightmares
in the 1930s," Bill says, sliding into the free-flowing
eastbound traffic. "Southern
California had streetcar-scale downtowns packed with
GM cruisemobiles. It was a mess."
of Los Angeles
"Where the hell did you get that?" I say.
"Shut up and listen. The automobile, which was 'designed to be the
emancipator of man,' was 'defeating its own purpose,'" he reads
to me, slapping the paper for emphasis. "'Man
is being enslaved again by the servant he created.'
"So what did L.A. do? Lloyd Aldrich, a city engineer, pushed through
a plan for 600 miles of multilanes penetrating downtown. Right then and there,
the fast-lane lifestyle was born.
the car and the city merged, urban energy was sucked away.
Cities became diluted…borderless.
A crisscross concrete grillwork defined Southern
California, scattering businesses and homes to
places ruled by the car.
Dynamic obsolescence described our way
expansion — manifest
realities of resources.
"Cramped non-ethnic Californians were enchanted by the spectacle
of Motorama during the '50s and into the early '60s; it was GM's car-show vision
of tomorrow. At the Pan Pacific Auditorium in L.A.,
a scale-model of a future metropolis paraded cars through pollution-free air-tight
"That was the blueprint," he says like Rick Warren
in a self-possessed rant. "In
1955, the blueprint was made real with the opening
of Disneyland and the
Santa Ana Freeway. Some people thought Disneyland
would be a permanent
world's fair. I say Orange County is Motorama."
South Coast Plaza. The
"Even our goddam president started pushing the car," Bill says,
attempting an impression of Dwight David Eisenhower: "'Automobiles
mean progress for our
country, greater happiness and greater standards
of living.' That's what Ike said.
"Congress agreed and laid down the cash for the construction of a
system of interstate highways. It was a public-works scam as big as anything
FDR finagled, but with a 1950s propaganda spin.
"With the Soviet Union supposedly ready to drop the Big One on us,
the Feds said new freeways could be used to transport troops and evacuate the
population. I guess we were supposed to believe that
when the commies launched the H-bomb, we could jump on the 99 and be in Barstow
in time to watch the fireworks."
isn’t the version I remember hearing in the chrome and
formica booths at Cantor’s Deli in my youth, but Bill
on a roll: Interstates created a colossal, taxpayer-funded sprawl.
Automobiles powered our move to the suburbs — the largest
migration in U.S. history. I was part of that move when
County became my home. On my last day of citizenship in Los
Angeles — my
last hour — I
sat in the parking lot of the Chevrolet Plant
in Van Nuys where I worked.
My eyes stung. The air was green with smog and
tasted like dirt. I left and
it with me. As I headed out of LA, a 40-foot tall
cat with glowing green eyes maintained his vigil
over Felix Chevrolet, smirking down
at me as though I
missed the joke.
“People didn't want to live in cities anymore."
"Bullshit," Bill says. "The planners of this sprawl
could have been visionaries instead of pimps.
They could have been leaders
and shown some courage. Instead, those assholes developed
land faster than a $2 blowjob."
a circle. "Hasta la vista," Bill
"I don't want to drive anymore," I say in a panic.
laughs. “Get out and face your fears," he
only half-way out the door when Bill jerks the car
away, spinning me stumbling through the mini-mart
lot. Hissing rubber
pavement, the Chevy's
low rumble fills the
night air — it's
gull wing disappearing
into Harbor Boulevard traffic. I find my Camaro,
inside, breathe deeply, and drive.
the end of a
chain — clear
up my country, the economy,
serene — but
nestled in the
hills of Rancho Santa
Margarita will never
admit that BMW is
of a menace to
society than N.W.A
ever was. Yet, automobiles
and auto accidents
to more deaths and
injuries in suburbs
do in cities.
endless expanse of rural
clean. But I need to test myself.
intersections — a
"There's so much to see," I hear an overjoyed woman
in a Dodge Hemi T-shirt and fanny pack exclaim.
appetite for mobility is
harmony between man, nature and machine," announces
a woman in a black business suit to no one in particular. "It" is
the Third Generation
technology” the Prius is heroin lite – our mobility
methadone. It doesn’t cure us of our addiction, it
the dope easier to stomach. The Prius’ is user friendly and
green as a hemp shower curtain, but no one from Toyota talks about
less. It’s all about going where you aren’t,
not growing where you
that creates “harmony between man, nature
and machine" only mildly amused. But across the hall,
pushes toward a stage. Cameras flash. Grown men and women gape.
Children squeal ecstatically. Before them is the Corvette
the old side of the new
never wanted to drive a car so much in my life," I
hear someone say.
air scoop streamlined snout. A taste
metal in my mouth wakes me.
Weak with craving, I
manage to spit it out.
away — when
dark highway. “Get
I hop over
time to meet the future!" I yell.
crowd is startled. Bill hops the barrier and jumps
in with me.
the cities!" he shouts.
I’m staring into the eyes of
a dead junkie. Distorted and distant, the voice of the transit
my frontal lobe.
“I know why you’re dead,” I say killing the
engine. Bill grins and
searches his pockets for exact change. I pull a mangled
bus schedule from my pocket.
crowd hisses as we abandon the display, asking directions to
the exit and nearest public transport. But they part
as if we hold stone tablets, a new set of commandments,
keys to a different
a life beyond this
neighbors and friends.
we can live free
strung out as
I am. Let’s
make this a
Take a cleansing
into the asphalt
and bring up
Take a staycation.
Visit your local
library or park
you still have
them. Open yourself
to the adventure
of the world
you stand is the
Callahan, July 17, 2009
Clinton-era version of Hallucination
Engine appeared in The OC Weekly, March 14, 1997.