Back in the '50s, the kids on our block knew every make and model of car on the street and could identify those belonging to neighbors and relatives from the drone of an engine, the pitch of an exhaust, a glimpse of chrome bumper.
We knew that the wood-paneled station wagon running the signal lights at the intersection belonged to the beleaguered mother of seven who lived up the block, that the sharp-finned Cadillac was carrying our white-haired neighbors to the supermarket, that a crackling radio heralded the approach of a rusting green Oldsmobile driven by the lovesick suitor of the girl next door.
Imprinted from infancy was the particular frequency of my father's eight-cylinder Chevy. I could sense its faint pulsations anywhere in the neighborhood and would drop whatever I was doing and run to meet it.
Cars were a second skin then, as evocative of a driver's personality as the dogs we owned, the clothes we wore. We didn't need to see the face behind the wheel to know who was in control. And lacking tinted glass, there was no false sense of anonymity. You were what you drove, and your driving did not go unnoticed. That knowledge helped keep most everyone civil. While city congestion provoked occasional horn-honking peevishness, around our suburban village self-restraint and courtesy prevailed.
How different the landscape today. While I might recognize the car coming up the street as my neighbor's, I'm not likely to pick it out anywhere else in town. And with its tinted windows, I never know who is driving or waving or honking hello. When one car per family was the rule, keeping track was effortless. But with three and four now crowding our driveways, I find it hard enough just identifying my own children as they streak past.
And the cars seem to change almost as frequently as the neighbors do. With the advent of leasing, automobiles remain in the family only two or three years, hardly sufficient time to get to know one another. No sooner have I begun to identify the black Honda up the street than a silver Volvo takes its place. Has the family changed or just the car? I used to wake every morning to the muffled rumble of an aging Lincoln Continental, a gentler alarm than anything on my night table. But the day of the inevitable trade-in dawned, and the new car is so quiet I'm cast upon my own devices to rise each morning.
There's more to this change than merely an exercise in nostalgia, however. With the loss of our ability to pair vehicle with driver has come an alarming rise in rudeness. Horns honk as frequently in the village as they do on Fifth Avenue, parking spaces are just as hotly contested, lights as frequently run. Does anyone wait for the approaching car to make a left turn before hurtling forward, asserting one's right of way? Do pedestrians have a prayer?
The trouble is, we're all perpetually behind schedule, late picking up the kids, getting to the dentist, making the train. I'm as guilty as the next driver, feeling all but immune to identification and hence to censure. But on several memorable occasions, unexpected eye contact left me feeling chastened.
There was the time I failed to yield the right of way to a car already stopped at a four-way intersection, noticing, as I rushed by, the indignant glare of my own mother. Slamming a door in her face would have been only slightly more offensive. Or the time I cut into a line of cars waiting to make a left turn, squeezing in between, it turned out, my rabbi and our pediatrician. Would we drive as aggressively, shooting the stop sign by the school, tailgating the rare observer of the speed limit, endangering the pedestrian, if our cars were instantly recognizable to friends and neighbors? I suspect not.
And hence a modest proposal:
For our own safety, and in the interest of returning courtesy to the public arena, we need to come out from behind the tinted glass, to put our best face forward, as it were, and openly accept responsibility for our conduct at the wheel.
How do we do this?
A simple device, nothing more than a tiny closed-circuit camera that projects an image of the driver on the windshield for all to see, like those bus ads that appear to cover the windows but don't, or those "heads up" displays that project instrument readings on the canopies of jet fighters.
Imagine if instead of encountering dark glass and steel we recognized the faces of friends and neighbors, parents and children. I, for one, would be less likely to assert my right of way, to muscle into parking spots, intimidate pedestrians, and to exceed the speed limit if my face were on view. We tend to be on our best behavior when we know we are being watched, to act politely in the public square. In humanizing our machines, we become more human.
And consider the added benefit of realizing that the approaching car is being driven by a harried parent, cellphone to one ear, with howling and combative children in the backseat. I would certainly give that car wide berth. I'd also readily yield to the visage of the exhausted commuter, the anxious job applicant, the disappointed suitor, the enraged subordinate, and the late-night partygoer.
Knowing what's out there, not just the make and model but the pilot, would benefit us all. What we would relinquish in privacy we would more than gain in safety and civility, bringing new meaning to the phrase, "in your face." It might even provide us all with a renewed sense of community, turning our interest from the elegant superficialities of the cars we drive to their far more precious occupants.