I passed the venerable Cadillac on the right at the place where westbound Saginaw Street widens to three lanes. The Caddie hadnâ€™t aged gracefully. It had to be at least 30 years old. When I was growing up in Michigan, sixty-plus years ago, I could identify every car, every model, every year. In those days it was all about Michigan. No one would have dreamed of trusting vehicles with names like Honda, Volkswagen, or Mitsubishi. My lifelong habit of identifying car model and year hasnâ€™t died completely, but the process has become so complex these days that Iâ€™m sticking mostly to crossword puzzles for mental exercise.
The paint on the Cadillacâ€™s pale blue trunk was so worn that a grayish undercoat showed through. A bicycle rack was bungee-strapped to the trunk; no bicycle. The car was rather low slung, even for 30 years ago. It had a sad aura of long-gone nobility.
As I passed I saw curb feelers sticking out from the front and back fenders. â€œCurb feelers!â€ I thought, â€œI remember curb feelers! Whatever happened to them?â€ The darn things were hard to keep on. And it was harder to make them stay in a position that would contact the curb when you backed, letting you know you were close; telling you it was time to snug the front end into position. We had them on our â€˜55 Chevy Bel Air; on our â€˜63 Mercury Meteor, on . . . I hadnâ€™t seen them in years. I remembered rusty, jettisoned (intentionally or not) feelers lying on streets and roads; in gutters.
Parallel parking was a big part of my driving lessons, many years ago. What trauma! My brother said, â€œBack until your outside rear fender lines up with the left headlight of the car behind you. Then straighten out and youâ€™ll be in good shape.â€
“What if there isnâ€™t a car behind me?â€ I wailed. â€œAt the driverâ€™s test they just have these dinky little post things and youâ€™re supposed to pretend thereâ€™s a curb there. Iâ€™ll never make it.â€
â€œNo, they find an actual, real place for you to back into,â€ he said. Even worse, I thought.
Years ago a friend told of a much, much older woman who went for her first driverâ€™s test. Probably she was nearingâ€”gasp!â€”sixty. The man giving the test said, â€œJust back it up right here into this parking space, maâ€™am.â€
â€œYoung man,â€ she informed him in her most icy tone, â€œI donâ€™t back.â€
In those days you had to back. The sight of those curb feelers made me think about backing, parking, passingâ€”things we really donâ€™t have to do very often today. Time was when stores lined a street and you had to wiggle into a space along the curb as close as possible to your destination. Not now. Parking lots abound. You can choose diagonal or straight in. No backing required.
Passing on a two lane road? Almost never necessary these days. Two lane roads are as quaint as Amish buggies. If you must travel for any distance on a busy two lane road, there are encouraging signs telling you thereâ€™s a passing lane one or two miles ahead. Any two lane road that doesnâ€™t have those wonâ€™t be likely to have a string of approaching cars, either.
With the old Cadillac in my rear view mirror, I began to recall tire pumps in the trunk. Lap robes. Looped straps on the wall of the back seat. Evaporative coolers that hung outside a car window, dripping water. Fuzzy dice. Eight-track players. Bobble-head dolls. Statues of saints on the dash. Styrofoam balls on the antenna. Full size spare tires. Those things had all slipped away when I wasnâ€™t looking.
Forgotten. Maybe not worth remembering.
But each one had its day. Itâ€™s fun to recall them, to remember when discussions about the art of starting on an uphill grade could be downright lively.
No more curb feelers. Parking, cooling a car and starting on a hill no longer present any kind of challenge. We donâ€™t even kick tires any more. Our car windows open mostly to grab a parking pass. Kids can play video games and watch movies in the car, never having to bother with boring scenery.
Itâ€™s called progress. And it is.
So why do I feel a sense of loss?