I thought I’d make a change from poetry for once and share a longer short story (3332 words).
I wrote this story inspired by someone’s dream, though it turned out differently than they dreamed it. I borrowed the idea of the class from two University of Dayton Professors I saw recently on CSPAN, discussing their class on cars in the movies in the seventies and the effect of those movies on culture, and vice versa. I recommend watching it. It does take you back and make you realize how much life has changed in the past fifty years.
Hope you enjoy the story and look forward to your feedback in the comments. Let me know if you catch any errors. None of the characters are meant to be anybody real.
“Class will be very different today,” the professor announced, setting down his spectacles and umbrella on the lectern desk at the base of the bowl-shaped auditorium.
Chad Weinberger perked up. Rotating his front-row seat, he could see that he was by far the oldest student in the class. At a trim, well-manicured sixty, Chad had decided to retire from a long and storied career in his profession. On a lark, he had signed up to take this college course, offered at a discount to seniors. Even though the social sciences class, “A History of the Automobile and its Effect on American Culture” was well outside his technical comfort zone.
Not that Chad didn’t know his way around cars. He had been twisting a wrench in the shade of the old oak tree all his adult life. And part of his teens. He knew the inside of an engine like the palm of his hand and kept his family’s cars as fit and trim as he kept himself.
All it took was maintenance. Alertness. You had to pay attention, and react, when conditions changed.
Nuts and bolts, he understood. But the social sciences, aside from the snippets of historically relevant fact you might pick up in a news program, were all Greek to him.
The “Now” was what concerned Chad. What was really important. Dealing with problems as they came up and fixing them. And with his education in the hard sciences and engineering, Chad was especially well-equipped for doing just that.
But don’t ask him the “meaning” of a hood ornament. Don’t ask him, whether the cinematic portrayal of men in cars, as rebels against society was a reflection, of the ennui of twentieth and twenty-first century men, in a society which no longer held a place for them.
These were the topics that had been covered, to date, by this class. Topics, which made Chad glad, that he was not taking this course for credit. It also made him glad, that today, they would be doing something quite different.
“Put away your textbooks,” directed the professor. Obediently, the teens and twenty-somethings shut their laptops.
Chad put his own hardcover book, purchased at the Campus Bookstore in the traditional way, into his high-end travel backpack, marveling at the seamlessness of the students’ transition.
Books no longer were a concrete thing to them, apparently. A thing with weight, dimension. Paper pages, a cover.
Ideas, always invisible and therefore hard to control, contain, or convey to others, had in recent years become even more insubstantial. Publishers no longer tried to confine them in cages, between book covers, behind the horizontal jail bars of shelves.
Now, ideas were free spirits, roaming electronically, somewhere on the Web, never appearing until specifically beckoned.
But this was a new kind of servitude. The old adage, that “Children should be seen, not heard,” came to mind, as Chad sat in this sea of youth, here, among students young enough to be his children.
These days, the tomes that these students were compelled to read no longer glared at them from the shelf, judging them, and finding them deficient. Instead, the books were blissfully absent, hidden away under laptop lids, and responding only to the specific incantations which called them forth.
They remained invisible, until the student issued the command that they appear. Like a servant, who must seek to be invisible whenever the master is in the house. So as not to burden him, with the notion, that someone has got to go to the trouble of cleaning his magnificent house.
Why should ideas provoke us, or disturb us, after all? Aren’t we the masters of them?
“Take out your phones,” continued the professor.
Chad noticed the absence of any qualifier. Another change, marking the passage of time. Once, there were work phones, home phones, mobile phones, even car phones. There were even party-lines and phone operators if you went back far enough.
But now, the word “phone” — a word that Chad still associated with a certain belled ring, a certain curly-cue plastic cord, the sound of the rotary dial as it purred back into place, the click of the cradle as you hung up—all those sensory impressions had been condensed into this thin, rectangular, slippery, buzzing thing. A nearly weightless nothing, that, between its thin and fragile walls, held the world.
The students cradled their cell phones in their hands expectantly, waiting for the professor’s instructions. Of course, some could not resist a quick scroll during the interstitial moments. They held their devices gracefully, as if they were an extension of their own hands. Much as the automobile had felt to Chad’s and previous generations: as an extension of their weak and faulty human bodies.
Chad knew that while our bodies are slow and relatively fragile, a car is fast and tough. While we can walk maybe five miles an hour, a car can cover than distance in five minutes or less. Besides the improvements in protection from the elements and from exertion, and the transportation time recovered, for other things, cars offered swagger, a way to stand out from the dullness of the crowd.
Sure, they were a hassle. Noisy, dirty, finicky. And expensive, to purchase and maintain. But oh, the quality they gave to your life! The value-added. It was indescribable.
The love of cars had defined Chad’s sixty years in so many ways. Starting with his first dump of a car–held together with chewing gum and tin foil. He had driven it, when he was their age, working nights, trying to get through weed-out classes, trying not to get evicted. His love of cars had culminated in his pretty present model, parked right outside, worth a year’s wage. It seemed to float, not drive. Yet, it responded enthusiastically to the slightest tap on the gas.
Is this how students thought of their phones? Chad wondered. The ones they paid three months’ rent for, stretched out over some endless payment plan? The ones they replaced, long before the warranty was up, leasing them, in effect, and which, by the time they paid them off, were so old in tech-years, as to be obsolete. And good for nothing, other than being shipped off to some poor soul, in what used to be called the Third World?
Chad had one of those older phone’s, its life measured in dog-years. But even he could not resist the technicolor splendor of this multi-purpose device. It sure came in handy, though he had to grit his teeth when he looked at the price.
Some seniors, older than him, mostly, refused to make the transition. They picked a cheap plan, audio calls only or maybe texts but no internet. Some just kept a phone in the car, “for emergencies” and otherwise relied on a landline. Though for the young folks, landlines were a thing of the past.
Many older folks denied themselves the joys of a mobile connection to the entire internet. It was a matter of principle, which sometimes meant it was a matter of price. You had to cut corners, on a limited retiree’s budget. You couldn’t squander it all on the latest gadget, like these young kids did. And it was an investment to own a phone, especially if everyone in your family had to have one. You had to be all in. The old fogies saved lots of money, sure, but the real price they paid, was to be out of touch.
Chad liked to believe at least that, about himself: that he was reasonably “hip” to the modern “vibe.” He was aware. He kept his eyes peeled. At the very least, he prided himself on paying attention.
“Did you get that, Mr. Weinberger?”
The prof peered over his spectacles and his eyes rested on Chad in a very general, nonthreatening, myopic way. He was used to students not paying attention.
“Oh yes, Professor. Got it,” Chad responded, lying. The other students looked up briefly from their cell phones, but their thumbs never stopped flying. It would have been humiliating, if anybody had cared.
“In case anyone missed what I just said,” the Professor continued graciously, “I need you to pull up the Castleberry Dating App on your phone and fill out your profile.” He peered at his own phone’s time display. “You have five minutes.”
Chad instinctively checked his watch, or rather his bare wrist. He had recently stopped wearing a watch, having noticed that no one did, anymore.
He looked around for help, and nudged the student to his right, a young woman with sensible hair and glasses and a troubling tattoo.
“Hey, what’s this got to do with cars?” he whispered.
“I dunno.” She never looked up. She was busy clicking and swiping and maximizing the screen, and nothing else around her seemed to exist or matter, including Chad.
“C’mon, help me.” Chad used his best persuasive tone. “How am I supposed to find this app he’s talking about?”
The woman looked up like an annoyed librarian who hears an unapproved sound. She tucked her chin back into her neck, her mouth slightly ajar. “You must be kidding,” she intoned, through her nose.
“No really,” persisted Chad. “Just point me in the right direction.” He smiled sheepishly.
At last, she succumbed to his charms. “The app store,” escaped from her reluctant lips.
“Well, duh.” Now, what was the name of that dating app? And, oh my god, a dating app? What would The Misses have to say about that? What if the kids found out? He’d never hear the end of it. Castle-something, wasn’t it?
He came upon the app, pushed the button to upload. Damn! The password!
Chad reached down to unzip the corner of his bag, the secret pocket where he kept his important passwords. Just in case. Because who knows when you might be run over by a truck…
“Time’s up!” announced the professor, gleefully. He was no more than Chad’s age and probably considerably less, but he seemed to delight in dipping his toes in the kiddy pool of the latest technology. He seemed to enjoy proving himself savvier than at least some people in the room.
Chad looked around for kindred spirits. Surely in a room this size, there would be someone with that lost look in their eyes. But no. Their faces, lining the rows above him, looked universally bored, if not impatient. Their faces seemed to say, “Get on with it already!” or “There are so many things I could be doing with my time, rather than this drivel,” or “How about if I don’t do this assignment and say I did?”
No one, but no one, struggling with the technology. Only Chad.
Chad slowly laid his phone on the table. His shoulders began to relax. He folded his arms and leaned back in the bouncy, attached lecture hall chair, enjoying the slight sway back and forth, as the chair tried to return to a position of least resistance. To its default setting, so to speak.
He decided to use the skills that had served him so well, as a successful professional. He decided to listen and observe.
The professor continued. “Okay, now that you’re done with your profile, save it, and skip forward to the questionnaire about cars.”
Chad smiled as he recognized the first flash of relevance, in a lecture which had already gone on for thirty minutes.
“Fill out the car survey, save it, and select ‘Prof A’s Autos’ as your network.”
The librarian clicked once or twice and looked up expectantly. Chad tried not to ogle her tattoo. Focus, he reminded himself.
Suddenly, bells and whistles and chirps filled the air. Looks of delight lit up the young faces, as they tapped wildly on their tiny keyboards. One by one, they looked up, like disturbed squirrels. Then, spying their quarry, they scampered over to meet, in small clumps, and to giggle, over the phones that, as surely as providence, had brought the like-minded among them together.
After the students had enjoyed a few moments of togetherness, smiles, jokes, and actual conversation, the professor called them back to their seats.
“And what have we learned?” he asked the class. His yellowed teeth were bared, but clamped tight, holding back a sophomoric giggle.
“People have very strong opinions about cars!” observed one student, shaking his head in disbelief.
The professor nodded eagerly, casting glances in all directions to encourage more participation.
Chad had seen what the professor drove. He drove a 1989 Jaguar, very well-preserved. Sleek, black, with a big cat hood ornament that purred success, and hissed exorbitant repair bills.
“Our group—the Mini Coopers—was pretty large,” offered another student, this time a blond woman with a pink bedazzled cell phone and impractical nails.
“Toyotas were popular,” said a young man whose shabby sweater and holey sneakers betrayed a second job. “Mine was the oldest in the bunch.”
Chad smiled. He remembered having an econobox, back when Japanese cars were relatively new on the market, and the cheapest thing around. Now they cost a small fortune.
That was back in the eighties, when he was trying to make ends meet, delivering pizzas, working night jobs to pay tuition and rent, after the money ran out. He reminded himself to sit next to his younger doppelgänger, next time. He might have more in common with him than this stern librarian-type.
Just then she chirped up. “Some of us realize the role that The Car” (she spat out these words, clearly not enjoying the taste of them, in her mouth) “has played, in the post-war military-industrial complex. And we don’t want anything to do with them!”
“How many were in your group?” asked the professor, pen and paper poised.
“Oh, just me,” smirked the librarian.
A voice came from the middle of the auditorium, from an unkempt, long-haired young man with dirty nails and an AG-Extension T-shirt. “The green group had lots of members—you know, electric cars, hybrids, scooters, electric bikes. Alternative vehicles. We’re trying to do the responsible thing, and get over our addiction to oil. We’re like crack babies in the eighties, only the drug our parents hooked us on is the fuel we use in our cars. We’re trying to fix the problem our parents created, but still, somehow, get around. I want a solar car, myself.” He sat down proudly, as if he had taken first place for Voice of the Future. “Or a Tesla, if I can afford it,” he admitted, as an afterthought.
“And you, Mr. Weinberger? What did you think of this exercise?”
The professor pivoted behind the lectern, as if his torso acted quite independently of his hips.
“Me?” Chad breathed, stalling. He placed his hands on the segment of the auditorium-length desk before him, and carefully extracted himself from the squirrelly attached chair.
Standing, he cleared his throat and addressed the class. “Actually, now that you ask…I have to say that I was disturbed.”
“Disturbed?” The professor’s eyes widened with concern. “What could I possibly have done—what could you possibly have, to be disturbed about?”
“The whole experiment,” Chad began. “The very premise, that all of us could turn on a dime, and instantly use our phones in a very specific way, to do a very specific task, a task of first instance, for which we have been neither trained nor prepared…”
“Hardly,” said the professor in a most condescending tone. “None of the other students feel put upon. Do you?” He put the question to the entire class and was greeted all round with stiff shakes of their handsome accommodating heads.
“Well, I do,” continued Chad, still standing. “You assume too much in this exercise. You assume we have cellphones and internet capability. You assume we use both regularly, and that they are as familiar to us, as the digits of our own hands. You assume that we like apps, have downloaded them before, and have no objection whatsoever to downloading something so personal—and fraught with danger—as a dating app! You assume that we can do it. And that we will be eager to do it—all this, which we have never done before—in record time.”
The Professor bit the end of his pencil eraser with his slightly bucked front teeth. He straightened up to his full height, which was considerable.
“Nonsense! Anyone can do this. Perhaps if you can’t, Mr. Weinberger, this class is not a good fit for you.” His tone of insult quickly morphed into a look of compassionate concern for the poor out-of-place waif, who had somehow aimlessly wandered into the professor’s class. This othering technique was one Chad had both seen before and used himself. It only had the effect of angering him more.
“Not a good fit. Not a good fit.” Chad shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Do you know what doesn’t fit here, Professor? The device, Professor. That’s what doesn’t fit. A college is meant for training the human mind, not the thumbs and fingers!
“Ridiculous,” said the Professor, his voice getting shriller. “That is not the purpose of this exercise—to work out their finger joints! They are learning how their preferences—in cars, in this instance—can lead to connections with other human beings in the wider world. This is an exercise in communication. In fact, there is a study on this very point…”
“An exercise in communication?” Chad lifted his heavy textbook out of his backpack and let it fall on the desktop with a thud. “You call it communication, when you use an intermediary—a robot, or AI, or software, or whatever you call it—to couch, cushion and mediate every interaction we have with another human being? Instead of talking, we text. Instead of visiting, we email or video chat.
“We have forgotten how to communicate, Professor, just as surely as one who is in a prolonged coma forgets how to walk. Otherwise, why would we have to use all these crutches to meet and know our fellow man? Why wouldn’t we just talk?”
The Professor fumbled with the loose papers on his lectern, and held one up, triumphantly.
Chad began to pack his book bag again.
“I think you will find in the Code of Student Conduct here, that you are violating Paragraphs four and five with your insistence on behaving like this during my class…
“Like what?” challenged Chad.
“Like this—debating, arguing, disagreeing. Being contrary!” The Professor flung his elbows on the lectern with upturned hands, in a dramatic gesture of disgust.
“Far be it from me to cause a ruckus, to cause an exchange of ideas to take place, in a college classroom!” muttered Chad.
“What was that you said?” asked the Professor, lunging a quarter- to a half-inch in Chad’s direction.
“I’m outta here!” Chad slung his backpack over his shoulder. He threw a wink at the shabby-sweatered student. His hand on the door’s pneumatic handle, Chad remarked, as an afterthought, “If any of you really want to learn anything about cars, I’m twisting wrenches every Sunday, dawn to dusk, under the old oak tree.
He looked at the young unwrinkled faces before him, still waiting for their innocence and ignorance to be driven out of them by education or life. He smiled.
“We don’t love cars because others love them too. We love cars because they enable our individuality. They make us faster, more productive, more well-traveled, more social. Shouldn’t this amazing cellphone technology do the same? Shouldn’t it make us better? Seems to me, it helps us hide from each other, cut ourselves off from each other. And worst of all, it emboldens us to condemn anyone, who won’t come along for the ride.”
Chaz pressed the door handle down. It complied with a reluctant sigh, allowing him to slip out. Then, startling the whole class, the auditorium door slammed shut with a bang.
Copyright 2021 Andrea LeDew
For a poem about our attraction to our devices, at the expense of other things, read Sparkly Things.
For a nostalgic poem about old car figureheads, read Figureheads.