Honk if you don't wash your car, either

Attitudes change, often imperceptibly. For instance, I couldn't name the hour precisely when I started liking parsnips. Nor am I completely sure when I stopped cleaning the car - any car, I mean.

When I parked near the local post office a couple of afternoons ago, a small episode brought it home to me. I had backed into what I thought was a rather tight parking space. For some reason, parking is difficult in our small make of car. It is hard to judge where it begins and ends.

On this occasion, I disembarked and was surprised to discover I wasn't, as I thought, less than a foot from the car behind; I was in fact a good yard away. As I was inspecting this gap, the lady who owned the car appeared.

"What a filthy car!" she exclaimed. I looked at my car. "Mine, I mean," she added quickly. "Yours is bright and shiny."

This was nice of her, but not true. It was drizzling in a very Scottish way. It was dark. The streetlights on this particular Glasgow side street are not notably luminous. But my car still looked numerous shades duskier than hers.

"Oh no, it isn't," I laughed. "I haven't cleaned it for years. The other day I noticed you can hardly read the front license plate!"

"It doesn't seem worth cleaning them, does it?" she said. "The moment you do, they are covered in dirt again."

I agree completely. My justification is "lack of time." But this is a coverup. "Lack of priority" comes closer. It just seems less important than it used to be.

I remember the pride distinctly. That first car! An Austin Mini: its whole surface, with all its contours, tricky juttings, nooks, and crannies; its paintwork, its chrome, its very tires were polished and endlessly polished almost to extinction, at least once a week.

I waged a particular and indignant war on tiny spots of black tar thrown up from the road and the remains of sadly splatted insects. Both were astonishingly sticky and hard to remove. But I wasn't satisfied until I had lathered and leathered, sponged and expunged every trace.

And the dreaded rust spots! The car was new, but the weather was English. Rain, mist, fog seemed a conspiracy to encourage rust from the outset. I soon became an expert with touch-up paint, but constant attention was called for.

This almost religious devotion to the shiny, clean, glistening car continued for several years. It was a recognition of one's sense of privilege at owning a car at all.

I had cleaned my drop handlebar Raleigh sports bicycle with similar fervor. The purple Hillman Imp, a radical new design of neat 1960s modernity but mechanical unpredictability, was perhaps the last in line of our "pride and joy" cars. In those days, even if car washes had been much in evidence in Britain, we would not have contemplated anything but loving - and free - hand washing. Going to a car wash would have seemed like cheating, somehow.

America changed all that.

It wasn't long after my arrival in the United States that someone explained that Americans thought cars were as essential - and as commonplace - as umbrellas. The US was well advanced as a car-owning culture. Americans drove on the wrong side of the road, but that wasn't their fault. That was a matter of upbringing.

The first two cars I had in America were large and secondhand. To me they seemed to be bold and useful tools for going from A to B, but not precious and sacred icons. They underwent tough conditions: the appalling East Coast climate that someone once said was a well-kept secret - phenomenally humid heat half the year, piercing cold and deep snow the other half.

The cars were made to cope. They were also wonderfully air-conditioned and effectively heated. The annual changeover to snow tires entered my car-owning life for the first time.

I also started to encounter an entirely unfamiliar attitude toward bumpers. To dent someone's bumper at home was an answerable offense. Addresses and insurance details would be heatedly exchanged. But the Americans I encountered seemed to look upon the bumper as the part of an automobile that was designed to indicate, by a process known as collision, the car's outer dimensions. Parking was a percussive matter. You rebounded fore and aft, using the parked cars as a measure of the space you were endeavoring to fill.

I also recall, one very severe snowstormed morning, skidding down a hill toward an intersection on my way to work, I was stopped short not by my brakes but by the bumper of the stationary car in front of me. It was a massive bump and undoubtedly dented both bumpers. The man in front seemed hardly to notice. He certainly didn't rage and rant, European-fashion. He just continued to sit there listening to his radio. And I ("Americanized" to a degree I hadn't quite realized) also sat tight. Neither of us saw a need to fuss.

In other words, for better or worse, in America I learned to be less precious about the outward state of my car.

Then I discovered the virtues of the car wash. Somehow, I was an easy convert. It was the beginning of my moral downfall.

When I returned to Britain to live, I bought the favorite vehicle of my life so far, a navy blue Ford Transit van. Since I lived on a farm, and the farmyard was as farmyards are wont to be, the point of cleaning this splendid machine was completely out the window. My van accrued a wonderful cakey patina.

Undoubtedly, this protected the paintwork.

The move back to the city, after 10 rustic years, coincided with a return to cars and - for a while, I admit - to car washes. But my heart was no longer in it.

Today, what I consider my American attitude toward the fussy polishment of cars is summed up by a remark dropped by the normally fastidious, traditional-standards mother of a friend of ours. This woman's son lives in the States, and he invited her out for her first American visit.

The experience apparently broadened her outlook.

When she returned home to small-town Scotland, she was overheard one evening making a pronouncement to a local friend she had just treated to dinner. The friend had offered to wash the dishes. "No, dear, no," was the unexpected response. "There's no need at all. Let's leave them. I have just been to America, you see, and it doesn't matter."

My sentiment precisely! What goes for dishes certainly goes for cars. (I have wiped my front license plate though, in case someone feels like reading it.)

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