The Great White Hope

My neighbor has this ridiculous car. Really it deserves to be called an automobile, a word that is cruising toward grandiloquent obsolescence as surely as this vehicle: a 1969 Cadillac Coupe Deville. Convertible. White, with white leather interior. Tremendous beyond all reason. Its gas mileage is probably better expressed in gpm than mpg.

The cetacean Caddy spends most of its time beached in the shade of our street’s magnolia trees. Even when it’s stationary, as I look at it from across the street, I can feel its loose, indifferent steering and squishy ride in my bones. You just know, almost kinesthetically, what it must feel like to swim this vehicle down the streets of Oakland.

This is the best photo I can find that approximates how the car would have looked when new (though with a different top and interior color). Here’s a rear view of a similar car. Let us admire together the back fins, the fender skirts over the rear tires, the front corner light assembly that wraps the lines of the grill around to the sides. And the trunk. Giving someone that much trunk space seems maliciously irresponsible, an invitation to mischief that only the strongest could abnegate, and then only while they believed themselves to be in view of their mothers or a judging god.

In its heyday, the car would surely have been a shining, grandiose monument to American automotive craftsmanship and prosperity. Sadly for the White Whale of Golden Gate, its day is no longer hey.

The car’s paint is dull and chipped; runnels of rust and patches of bare gray metal show in places. Portions of the convertible top are shredded. The Cadillac coat of arms that once shone proudly on the trunk is missing; the lock it covered was hammered or drilled out long ago. The car is a few windows shy of a full complement, including the back glass, which exposes much of the interior to the elements. After a hard rain, it probably reeks like a flooded basement. The white leather seats are cracked and stained. Fallen magnolia leaves stack up on the rear deck.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “With those missing windows, what’s to keep someone from stealing the car?” Don’t worry. My neighbor thought of that, too. He keeps a “The Club” locked onto the steering wheel, by far the most aspirational act of theft deterrence I’ve ever seen.

Notwithstanding its overall outward decrepitude, the car does run. While I can only stand at my window and imagine what it must be like to sail this land yacht through the public thoroughfares, my neighbor has the privilege of doing so whenever he likes. Criminally, he takes few opportunities. The Caddy remains docked under the magnolias. He moves it only about every two weeks, to avoid parking tickets on street sweeping days.

He has two other functional vehicles, so he doesn’t need the Cadillac for transportation. He has to pay registration fees and insurance, and he isn’t always perfectly observant about moving it on street-sweeping days. The Caddy has accordingly reaped a generous harvest of tickets on the windshield, a tidy municipal counterpart to the riot of magnolia detritus in the rear.

Why does he keep it, then?

I’ve never asked him why he holds on to the Caddy. We don’t chat much. But I know from another, more gregarious neighbor that he entertains notions of one day restoring the car to its original state of gleaming white glory.

Practically, the car is impossible for him to restore. Too many of its parts are ruined or missing. My estimate is certainly uninformed, but I recoil at the amount of money and time I think it would take to bring the car back to proper shape. I can’t see my neighbor investing either in sufficient quantity.

I look out my window and I see a barely functional heap of metal and leather and rubber that can never be brought back to life. I see scrap.

But my neighbor sees hope.

That’s the real reason I’ll never ask him about the car. I could get over my shyness. But to ask would be to poke at him with a sharpened stick of cynicism that even I can’t muster the strength to wield.

I’ve realized that it’s not my job to judge his hope. It’s not even my right.

My neighbor keeps the car, moves it fortnightly, pays its legally obligated costs, and has to deal first-hand with whatever odors emanate from its upholstery in the rainy season. He gets something in return that has nothing to do with transportation.

He gets a reason to look forward to tomorrow. He probably has others, too, but I don’t know if we can ever have too many, and I don’t think we can assign a dollar value to them. How many parking tickets would it take to nullify even one reason to get up in the morning?

My neighbor is doing something right. Everybody should have a giant white rustbucket in their lives. We all need something that we want to make better. For some, that’s the size of their bank account; to steal a wonderful phrase from Jonathan Lethem, they want to move the money around and make it get bigger. Some people want to fix broken policies. Some people want to spread a religion. Some want to make the world more beautiful, however they define that. Some are driven to paint or draw or sculpt.

And some people just want to string words together in ways that are pleasing to them, and, they hope, to others. For a long time, I sat on that and didn’t know what to do about it. I finally figured out that the only way to rebuild the car was to start rebuilding the car. This may never result in the literary equivalent of the pristine Cadillac that my neighbor sees in his hopeful visions. But it’s worth waking up for.

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