One of the nice things about living and working centrally in Melbourne, is that you rarely really need a car. When I moved here from the US, I was also moving from a situation in which I had a ridiculous daily commute – a commute of proportions that so turned me off driving, that I didn’t even consider purchasing a car for my first five years here: it was simply a relief not to have to get behind the wheel. Then I was recruited by a research project that involved field work out in the far distant suburbs. Even then, I tried to resist. Taking two trains and then a bus for the occasional trip out, seemed a small price to pay for not having to own a car. And, of course, there were always fellow graduate students on whom I could impose…
At some point, though, this became untenable. Maybe it was one of the times when I missed the last bus (after all, who needs to travel after 7 p.m.?), or maybe it was that time on the train when the guy threatened to hit me with a pole, when I told him to stop hurling racist abuse at another passenger, or maybe it was one of the times when people offered to give me a lift home, and then ended up running so late themselves that they could only drop me off at an unfamiliar train station, after I had already waited so long that I could have gotten home faster without the “lift”… These sorts of frustrations eventually banked up, until I finally decided that maybe I did need a car, if only for very occasional use.
I looked into car sharing services, but none garaged vehicles near where I live. Relatives stepped forward to offer a thirty-year-old Toyota. This car lasted through a harrowing virgin run to the corner grocery shop and back, before refusing ever to start again. (Some other time, I’ll tell the story of how it took three different tow trucks, over several days, to extract the thing from the car port where it died. The towing company may have thought it was a bargain to pick the thing up for scrap. They were wrong.) Finally, I bought a sprightly twenty-year-old vehicle from another postgraduate student, whose parents had become frightened at the thought that she was driving this car to work, and insisted that she buy something newer. This car does the job for my purposes. Occasionally. At the very least, it always adds that extra little bit of excitement that comes from uncertainty, every time I agree to conduct interviews on the edge of Melbourne: will I make it? Will I make it home?
A friend who is aware of this situation, made the extraordinarily kind gesture of loaning me her car while she is away overseas for several weeks over the break. Needless to say, this is a much nicer and newer car than my own – enough so that my friend was a bit nervous how I would manage some of the novelties.
“It self-diagnoses,” she tells me, standing in my leaky porch, rain dripping down on us, as her husband waits in a nice, dry car to whisk her family off to the airport.
I look back and say nothing, figuring that the context for this statement will eventually become clear. “It has a computer,” she explains, looking very uncomfortable about being someone whose car has a computer. “And it self-diagnoses. If something goes wrong. It will tell you what’s wrong, so you don’t need to worry about figuring it out.”
She goes on to tell me that at the moment it is self-diagnosing the need for its next regular service: “So just don’t worry about that. If you see this symbol that looks like a spanner, it doesn’t mean anything is broken.” If something does break, however, I’m to call the number on the manual, which is stored in some shelving apparently built in under each of the car seats. I find myself wondering idly if there are life jackets down there as well, but figure the chances of a car – particularly a self-diagnosing, computerised one – breaking down over water are probably too low.
She asks me to read the manual before I actually take the car for a drive. I promise to do this. She gives me two keys – “Just in case, you know, you lose one” – from which I gather that I should store the keys in separate places. I hold back from telling her that she is (quite seriously) being very brave to leave her nice car with me for five weeks: I’m actually not bad with driving, but I’ve had a tendency since moving to Australia to be nervous about driving other people’s cars – a vague paranoia that my old US driving reflexes will somehow spontaneously reassert themselves in mid-drive, leading to a disaster I’d rather not inflict on someone else’s vehicle. She saw me refusing to drive in Sydney for this reason a few months back, and I’m a bit humbled that she should spontaneously offer her car to me after that.
But back to the story. Later that day, in a break in the rain, I decide to introduce my son to the new car. He looks on it with suspicion. He’s actually ridden in it a couple of times before, but clearly can’t place when. “Is it Liam’s?”, he asks nervously. It isn’t Liam’s.
With some coaxing, he gets closer. “Can you open it?” he asks. I push the button on the key to unlock the car. This was an unwise gesture: since my car has to be manually unlocked, this will not be what my son was expecting me to do. The car goes “THUNK!” My son runs screaming back into the house – the car growled at him! He makes me open a window so that he can look out on the growling car from the safety of the house. At some point later in the day, I manage to coax him inside by sitting in it myself. After a few minutes, he nervously asks, “Is it Liam’s?” It isn’t Liam’s. And then, plaintively, “I don’t want to sit in this car… I want to sit in the red car…” The next morning, he refuses to go out shopping with me (something he loves) because we will be taking the “green car”.
As I had promised, I read the manual before taking the car out the first time. I had assumed the car was an automatic but, no: the manual tells me that it’s some strange hybrid thing (perhaps this is now common: my recent practice of driving cars manufactured during my own childhood doesn’t particularly render me au fait with contemporary vehicles). This car can be an automatic, the manual tells me: if you don’t manually shift gears, then the car will “learn your driving style” and shift them for you. If you want to shift them, though, you can – sort of: there’s no clutch (which feels very strange), and to change gears, you sort of lightly jiggle the gear up or down – which I find to be a sort of… tactile disappointment. As I drive, though, I learn that all this jiggling is only so much smoke and mirrors: if the car disagress with my decisions, it goes ahead and does whatever it wants instead. Jiggle all you like, it says – but I’ve heard things about you – how you aren’t too sure about this Australian driving thing – we can’t leave decisions about something so important as changing gears with you. So I drive, and occasionally jiggle, and glance down to see whether the computer has endorsed my decision. I feel like my driving is being diagnosed.
I get to the market, buy far too much, and disappoint many other drivers, circling like vultures for a parking spot, as I keep going and dropping bags off in the boot, and then locking up and walking off to run other errands. On my way back after my final errand, an elderly woman pokes her head out a car window at me: “You leaving?”, she wants to know. “Yes. But I’m parked all the way over there” – I point to the other end of the parking lot. Apparently that’s acceptable. She tails me. I’m carrying a lot, and so I don’t walk quickly. Determined not to lose dibs on my space, she snails along beside me, damming up an angry wave of last-minute shoppers behind her. By the time we finally reach my car, the elderly woman has managed to wedge her car at an awkward angle that blocks traffic going in both directions. The market will be closing soon. I feel intense pressure to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
So I throw my bags in back, whip out of the space, and head off, relieved that I am no longer the proximate cause of a parking lot full of chaos. Then “bing! bing!”. What the hell was that? I look around, glance at the dashboard – nothing immediately catches my attention. I go back to driving. “Bing! Bing!” Glance at dashboard. Nothing. Drive a bit more. “BING! BING!” Finally I see this tiny symbol: I am being diagnosed! The problem is, the symbol – an angry red exclamation mark surrounded by parentheses – tells me nothing. What am I doing wrong? For several seconds I can think only about what I’m going to tell my friend, if I manage to destroy her car on a single trip to the market. I forget entirely about the number I am supposed to call if something happens. I pull over, look things over, realise I didn’t release the parking brake. The angry exclamation mark goes away. The car maintains its passive-aggressive practice of second-guessing my gear changes all the way home.