Autos, Autonomy, And The Quest For Immunity

Finding ways to feel at peace in our cars while following proper hygiene, could be our ticket to communion with fellow humans.

The first weekend, (March 20-21) of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” public health order was unlike any that any of us have seen before. Typically congested freeways were predominantly free from traffic. City streets and intersections had less cyclists, shoppers and commuters rushing to and from Metro stations, outlet stores or boba shops. To wake up to a bustle-free and quiet Los Angeles was a scene from the Twilight Zone but without Jordan Peele or Rod Serling as narrators. Local neighborhood streetscapes became upside down images of the normal world with signs on store windows saying, “Closed Due to Covid-19” or “Hugs, handshakes and kisses forbidden for now”. Facebook posts marking what day it was were welcomed, like this one from a Bay Area friend:  “COVID-19 BLUES DIARY – DAY 7 – I just learned that COVID-19 does not linger on paper and envelope, and I’ve decided Zoom and calls, are not enough. I need the feeling of something tangible. I’m going back to my mother in this time; she loved to write and receive letters. If you’re interested in starting a correspondence, Private Message me your address.” And true to my friend’s rhapsodic countenance, her next post on March 24 said this:  “COVID 19 BLUES DIARY – DAY 8 –  Beauty in the Midst of Calamity. It was a day filled with rainbows, clouds, light and talking to my cousin in Paris (while he soaked in the bathtub); it ended with more rainbows. (Meanwhile I did my taxes).”

For at least two weeks after the Safer at Home order, my son awakened at 6a, ready to go while I downloaded a Google maps app to find the fastest route to his high school in the Pico Union neighborhood before proceeding to my office in South Park, Los Angeles. I would remember that the HR Department instructed me and my co-workers to stay home until at least May 15 unlike family members in the medical profession who didn’t have a choice but to don Personal Protective Equipment and clock in at work almost daily. Upon remembering that we were in lockdown mode, my son and I would go back to sleep until it was time to log on to a Microsoft Teams conference call or Zoom online class.

 The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on many people’s lives. As my brother frames it, “At least we are not alone in this conundrum”. Many Angelenos are remedying feelings of helplessness by going on road trips and disembarking on hidden trails to see orange poppies spread out their bright petals in Antelope Valley. Others have lined up in caravans in front of City Hall in Pasadena to protest the exclusion of grocery and restaurant workers from financial protection. A colleague shared that her sister was lucky enough to work from home, but spends 4 out of her 8 work hours a day in her Honda Civic taking calls because 6 people in a one-bedroom, Section 8 apartment equals no privacy, especially with teenagers taking online classes over a weak wi-fi connection.

Several neighbors have postponed car purchases or changed plans to buy used instead of newer vehicles. During the first quarter of 2020, automobile analysts reported declines in cars sales with months January and February being positive until March.

Road/Show magazine noted that Honda saw sales plummet to 48% during this month while Hyundai’s dropped to 43%. For Toyota, sales in March dropped 35% but its hybrid vehicles caught on with RAV4 sales overall increasing to 16%. General Motors’ Chevy performed best with a sales decline of only 3.8% while Buick posted a larger decline of 34%. The Chevy Silverado, however, saw a jump in sales at 33%.

What could be causing this contrast? Is it possible that part of the pandemic population is attracted to hybrids, trucks or SUVs due to the anxious need to get out of Dodge (pun intended), reclaim autonomy by climbing into a truck or SUV and leave behind the entrapment of day-to-day, Groundhog Day existence? In the solace and privacy of our automobiles, we can daydream about being immune from this retrovirus, at once capable of autonomy and community next to others in parked or moving cars.

Around the United States, people have adaptively reused cars as part-time offices, meditation rooms or other unconventional ways. Some take rides to kill time or worship on Sundays via church drive-throughs. In Westerville, Ohio, for example, Pastor Frank Carl from Genoa Church delivered a sermon 25 feet off the ground on a scissor lift. He told Time Magazine reporter, Andrew Chow, that this was not what he had in mind when he accepted a higher calling. Through a chorus of amens and car horns from parishoners’ parked vehicles in front makeshift pulpits, many pastors have accepted the need to be inventive during a time when a zoonotically-transferred virus has disrupted every part of human life.

Neither the drive-through church service nor the short road trips to see a sea of poppies will grant us immunity from Covid-19. But finding ways to feel at peace in our cars while following proper hygiene, could be our ticket to communion with fellow humans.

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