Here’s another glimpse of a quintessential residential street on the east side of Columbus, OH. After driving all day yesterday, I arrived back here in New Hampshire at 7:00 pm last night, right before dark, so today’s pictures are from Sunday morning’s stroll around my parents’ neighborhood. Few people in my parents’ Columbus neighborhood walk their dogs–that’s what large fenced yards are for. So as Reggie instigated a minor ruckus by causing all the yard-bound Pit Bulls and Rottweilers to bark and yowl at the strange sight of a leashed, walking dog, I tried to snap some surreptitious photos. It’s rare enough to see a white woman walking in my parents’ neighborhood; it’s even rarer to see a white woman walking a dog while snapping photographs.
One way to tell the socio-economic status of a neighborhood is to observe the kind of cars you see parked there. In some older New England neighborhoods, for instance, you’ll see beat up cars parked in front of large, impressive houses: those houses, apparently, were bequeathed to folks who presumably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to buy them outright, judging from the kinds of cars you see parked out front. Similarly, in large cities the size of one’s apartment or condo doesn’t necessarily bespeak the size of one’s investment portfolio: the brownstones in Boston’s tonier neighborhoods, for instance, might not look big, but their price tags certainly are. But when you consider the throngs of new BMWs, Saabs, and Volvos parked along the streets of places such as Beacon Hill, you know the folks living all but on top of one another in those brownstones chose to live there, the cachet of their address being worth the hassle of wrangling for a winter parking space.
Since Ohio is a land of wide roads and expansive parking lots, you’ll see lots of large cars there. Not every Ohioan drives a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Crown Vic, but you’ll see more such cars in Ohio than you will here in New Hampshire. Here in New England, Subarus are everywhere: their all-wheel drive and “drive ’em ’til they drop” dependability make them a popular choice for navigating our notoriously snowy winters. In Ohio this weekend, though, I can’t recall seeing a single Subaru, a car that my parents lump together with other “foreign” (meaning simultaneously “strange” and “un-American”) cars such as Fiats and Pugeots. (To this day I don’t think my Dad understands or has forgiven my sisters for buying “toy” cars, believing that the size of your car is directly connected to the respectability of your lifestyle.)
Years ago when we first moved to Beacon Hill, Chris and I (well, make that Chris) drove a passed-down Buick. In one of the more memorable moments of our marriage, we had driven–on New Year’s Eve, no less–the first hundred or so miles of the trip back to Ohio in a slowly dying Ford Tempo, intending to sell it when we arrived to pick up Chris’s grandmother’s old car. What made that New Year’s Eve so memorable is the fact that the Tempo’s heater coil was shot, so we had no heat…and the windows kept fogging with vaporized antifreeze. As we continually wiped down the windshield in order to see the icy surface of the Mass Turnpike ahead of us, that damn Tempo slowed several times to a dead, entire stop. After learning the hard way that AAA will not make service runs on the Turnpike, we (again, make that Chris) literally pushed that car into the nearest service plaza where a bottle of gas treatment (temporarily) fixed the problem and got us safely to Ohio.
Although that Ford Tempo was a junker, at least it tried to blend into the Beacon Hill neighborhood where we were living at the time. (Before you judge our investment portfolio by our then-address, let me hasten to add that we lived in a cramped, dimly-lit underground “garden flat” that was a carry-over from the days when Beacon Hillers had live-in servants.) When we arrived back in Boston with our boat-like Buick, we immediately realized why we’d never seen one cruising the streets of Beacon Hill: it was impossible to park. The street-yacht that had seemed so sensible on Ohio streets was all but entirely untenable in Boston…but Chris at least (briefly) relished the cachet of being the only person for miles around to be driving a “ghetto car.” All he needed was a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror and a fur-upholstered steering wheel to complete the image of the ’90s latest white rapper: White Boy Slim, denizen of the mean streets of Beacon Hill.
I think my fascination with the old, decrepit, and seamy underbelly of places like Keene derives from my childhood in Columbus. Everyone naturally enjoys the beauty of a brand new, brightly shiny car…but there’s a certain genuine character about old junkers that contain so much of their owner’s personality (and stored belongings). Some have (rightly) argued that you can tell a lot about a person–or a family–by looking at the sorts of things they display on their refrigerator: those tacked-up soccer schedules, children’s drawings, and shopping lists communicate our truest, least primped selves, the things we really value, neighbors’ opinions notwithstanding. I’d take this notion a step further to argue that our cars say a great deal about who we are, what we value, and where we come from. The person who threw a blue tarp over their already-rusted car also has meticulously tended flowers in front of their bland, cookie-cutter house: they might not be able to afford a new BMW, Saab, or Volvo, but they try to make the best with what they can afford.
In a place like Columbus, after all, people spend a good deal of time in their cars: the suburbs at least aren’t designed with pedestrians in mind, so the best way to navigate sprawl is behind the wheel of a vehicle. If you spend enough time in a car (and believe me, after yesterday’s all-day drive, I speak from experience), its metal hull becomes a kind of exoskeleton, a chrome and metallic excrescence of your own True Nature. In my case, I’m frugal and practical: although I rented a newer car to make the drive to and from Columbus, what I typically drive is a 1993 beat-up blue Subaru with 230,000 miles on the odometer and too much dog hair in the backseat. She ain’t pretty, my newly body-worked Little Tank, but she’ll get you there and back again no matter what the weather. Although my chosen make of car isn’t characteristically Ohioan, maybe the values behind that choice ultimately are.