Thursday, January 07, 2010

Report from Detroit: We Bear Witness

To be awake and outdoors at four-thirty in the morning in Rochester, New York, in January, is kinda like being at the bottom of the ocean. Once familiar notions like "light" and "warmth" are like distant rumors, intimations from past lives, fuzzy radio signals, just beyond your grasp, not quite capable of penetrating the murky depths. Layered, coated, booted, gloved, I'm brushing the night's accumulated snow off the car, checking its vital fluids.

At the gas station there is one other vehicle besides mine, the only other vehicle on the road: a plow. I fill up, zero out the trip odometer, calculate my mileage from the last tank. 12.87? What? Once or twice in the year I've owned it I've dipped below twenty, but just barely. I scroll through possibilities in my head, ignore the troubling ones, settle on the idea that I must've filled up the tank half-way last time and not noticed. It's five a.m. and I'm westbound.

Nearing Buffalo I'm faced with a decision. An extra hour if I stay on I-90, or the hassle of border crossings and possible delays short-cutting through Canada? I go conservative. Slow and steady.

At some point I glance down to gauge my progress, and the answer to the mileage mystery reveals itself. The trip odometer still reads zero, the main still stuck on the 194,899 it read at the gas station. Sonofabitch. If you've ever shopped an old Saab you know that about three quarters of them have odometers that stopped functioning at some point, but I'm still disappointed. The car had 180,000 on it when I bought it. I was proud of the 15,000 miles we'd covered together—Chicago and back, Boston and back, North Carolina and back, twice, New York City and back more times than I can remember—and I was looking forward to the 200,000 milestone, maybe even doing something special to celebrate, a bottle of Champagne like when the Miata turned 100,000. Much as I still love that car, though, with the Saab and me there's something different. An unnamable sympathy. And just a couple weeks shy of my fortieth birthday, and even more loathe than usual to make any sort of plans for it, I completely understand. Forty years, two hundred thousand miles? Fuck it. I'm not counting any more either.

Not far past Buffalo the snow starts falling. Serious snow. Lake-effect, stick-to-the-ground, piling-up-between-lanes, seriously-compromised-visibility snow. I hear myself reassuring my mechanic, the real-life inspiration for the overbearing and hyperprotective "Saab Nazi" of Seinfeld fame no less, that my snow tires were good for another season, and I hear him berating me—"Don't fuck around, Peter!"—and I see myself in the garage a couple months later, looking the snows over and deciding, you know what, crap, the tread's pretty shallow after all, maybe I'm better off just sticking with the high-performance all-seasons I got this summer, just for this winter, you know. Fuck. Lesser vehicles spinning off onto the shoulders all around me, buried past the sills in snow, hopelessly stuck. Gently, now. Every input gradual, deliberate. Slow and steady.

Hours pass. Stop to eat outside of Erie and the snow is so deep that cars are getting bogged down in intersections. A while later the unpleasant discovery that the Ohio roads budget apparently doesn't cover salt. Even the parallel lines of tire tracks are covered in the white stuff. Thick slush. The driven wheels feel like Arctic icebreakers now as forward progress slows to 40, 35, 30 mph. Audi Quattros sail past in the left lane, followed by Escapes and Escalades. The SUVs will be passed again in due time, idling in the median to stay warm, awaiting rescue. The Saab soldiers on, impervious, dutiful.

Entering Cleveland the road improves, and on the other side the weather does too. I'm able to make up enough time that I'm only half an hour late rolling into Detroit, through downtown, under the Renaissance Center, and into the parking lot where, for the first and likely only time in my life, I am applauded for driving a 1988 Saab 900 Turbo SPG. Literally applauded. Pulling to a stop, I am instructed not to get out as the car is quickly surrounded by photographers kneeling and standing, guys with HD camcorders and microphones, flashbulbs and clicking shutters, people waving signs. Because? Well, because I'm a guy who just drove a 22-year-old Saab from Rochester, New York. Should this elicit some other reaction?

The funny thing is, I don't have much in common with most of the people here, as friendly and good-natured as they are. For one thing, all but one of them—a dude in a totally sweet four-door 900 beater—are driving GM-era Saabs, about which my opinions are already on the record.

And unlike some of them, I'm not petitioning my elected representatives to intervene on behalf of an insolvent car company. Kinda for the same reason I'm not praying to God that the Green Bay Packers beat Arizona this weekend. My senators and congressmen get enough shit from me about healthcare, stupid wars, and corporate criminals getting rich off the backs of the poor and middle class that you know what? I'm not going to bother them about something that ultimately doesn't affect anyone but a few thousand people who have the good fortune of living in fucking Sweden, where getting laid off from your job does not necessarily mean losing your home or dying of a curable but untreated illness because you can't afford to go to the doctor.

But I keep my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself, as someone secures a "Save Saab" placard to my windshield. Because at the end of the day, I am here, just like them. Not in the hopes that it will make a difference—it won't—or to express any sort of outrage or even indignation, particularly.

After all, if we're talking Shameful Episodes in General Motors history, what they've done to Saab probably doesn't even crack the top 100; in the context of American Corporate Malfeasance, it's gotta fall somewhere outside of, oh, the top ten thousand. But there's something symbolic about this that speaks to issues larger, I think, than the ones immediately at hand. You've got a wealthy, powerful, arrogant entity that decides it knows what's best for a tiny, modest, troubled entity, and carelessly imposes its will, consequences be damned; a decade or two worth of incompetence, neglect, and hubristic denial later, the former is bankrupt and the latter is in ruins. Huh. Remind you of anything?

There are those who would have us believe that terrorists, those all-purpose boogeymen of the 21st century, "hate our freedom." I disagree. I think it's the entire rest of the world that hates us, and I think it's less our freedom they hate than it is our arrogance and tendency to fuck shit up wherever we go. And here we have a perfect example: a giant American corporation—the giant American corporation—preparing to snuff out of existence no less of a national institution than itself, one from a country that never did anything to the world except give it some awesomely depressing movies and turn out a lot of well-designed furniture. Why, guys? Shouldn't we be giving the world fewer reasons to hate us, and not more? Isn't that what we're all about now, with our new and thoughtful president, the one who, by the way, bailed out your fucking asses with our fucking money, which is the only reason you still exist?

Of course, at this point, nothing is going to stop the General from doing what it's going to do. That's kill Saab, because selling it is too much hassle and ultimately GM just doesn't give a shit. Me spending a day driving through blizzards isn't going to change that, nor are any of the well-intentioned, sign-waving, GM-Saab-driving folks assembled in the shadow of GM's corporate headquarters on this cold, gray afternoon. But I'm glad they came, and I'm glad I did too. It may seem a small and inconsequential and even pathetic thing, but I think it's important that when the history books are written, the record will reflect that somebody—anybody—was there to say bullshit. This is wrong. We bear witness.


Blogger DJ Rick said...

Outstanding writing! There is a beautiful Saab 99 Turbo that I often walk past near my house. But to music crazies like me, the Swedes are not totally innocent. What the Hives and Grande Rock by the Hellacopters did to the greatest American musical form was indeed punishable, but surely not at the cost of Saab. Not even Ace of Base tipped the scales even 1% far enough. Long live Erik på taket!

11:57 PM  
Blogger pph said...

thanks man, but c'mon now—the singular greatness of bob hund is enough to outweigh out a million crappy garage bands, and ace of base is cancelled out by abba. sweden is WAY on the plus side when it comes to music.

10:09 AM  
Blogger DJ Rick said...

Oh, I certainly agree that Sweden's on the plus side. The singular greatness of the Brainbombs also ensures this.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HOLY SHIT DUDE! you went?? what a badass. autoblog said gm execs were going to have lunch with you all, did that happen? seemed far fetched.

1:48 AM  
Blogger pph said...

i was late, missed lunch.

2:31 AM  
Anonymous Robin Brown said...

Wonderful stuff, well done for braving the conditions.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Davis Chino said...

read "...impervious, dutiful," and I got a little teary-eyed.

I am reminded of another quote, also associated with GM products, "Self-contained world all of your own suddenly ends--"

I hope the end of the tape is still a little ways off for Saab. But I just read Bernie Ecclestone is thinking of buying.

And you thought GM was bad! Prepare for the retroactive liens you supporters will receive when Bernie decides you guys should have paid more for your Saab's in the first place--and he intends to collect. It's the F1 way....

(Possible bright side: Saab F1 team)

My word verification word is..."trustro." (like Astro's "rutro?")

Well done, young Hughes!

8:53 PM  

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