One of the strange new cultural phenomena of the present day is the turning away of newer generations from the car culture, which had been a focus of Americana for nearly a century.
For decades, cars (and trucks) represented so much more than just a way to get from one place to another. They represented freedom, independence, social mobility and romance. Getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage; having access to a car was a magic carpet of liberation.
Not so much today. Millennials and the so-called Generation Z which followed are not as fascinated by car as the cohorts which preceded, as least not as early. In my day (Sixties and early Seventies), if you weren’t driving by at least 17 you were considered the most profound of anomalies. Many kids of my era went down to the DMV on their 16th birthday to get that piece of paper which sent them roaring down the road – sometimes literally – toward adulthood.
Many forces have combined to change this. Back in the Dark Ages of Orange County, there were no buses. Now, there is an extensive system and there will shortly be a streetcar line as well.
In an effort to reduce the alarming rate of deadly car crashes involving teens, the State of California placed a boatload of restrictions on teen drivers, including making their license “provisional” until they turned 18. You can’t have a passenger under 20 years old, you can’t drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. etc.
On top of that, the cost of maintaining a car – insurance, gasoline, etc. – is more than a lot of young folks care to bear. With Uber and Lyft driving services now, there’s even more reason to forgo the “pleasures” of sitting behind the wheel.
It’s kind of a shame, really. One of the most memorable aspects of my youth was the practice of “cruising,” a tradition all but lost today. Cruising meant a certain kind of leisurely driving around, the point of which was often to see and be seen. There were ritual stops at drive-in burger joints and diners, and side trips to spy on the homes of friends and romantic partners, real or imagined.
Harbor Boulevard was the preferred cruising thoroughfare back in the day. From Garden Grove Boulevard all the way up to Ball Road, that street was thronged with young people in Volkswagen Beetles, Ford Mustangs, Chevy Impalas and Toyota Coronas. Disneyland, of course, was orbited by many eateries, garishly-lit motels and tourist traps.
We piled into Tim McKernan’s station wagon, a long-in-the tooth vehicle he called “The Green Weenie.” Stops were made at the Bob’s Big Boy (now a Coco’s) at Chapman and Harbor, or the Circus Wagon (a defunct chain which sold hot dogs and popcorn) and with Iron Butterfly playing on KHJ-AM in the car radio, we made the circuit.
During the long summer before our senior year, The Magic Kingdom attracted throngs of teens from all over Southern California. Windows were rolled down, partly because of the heat, and partly to flirt. As far as I can remember, no romances were hatched therein, but the possibility of meeting someone from an exotic place like Whittier or Redondo Beach made the cruising all the more alluring.
Inevitably, someone would say, “hey, let’s go past So-and-So’s house,” so we would. Sometimes we could lure that person out. Sometimes we would discover that He or She lived in a tiny, beat-up house and feel sorry for them. Sometimes would discover them in a clinch on a dark street, windows rolled up.
I guess today’s kids get to cruise for companionship on the web, and having to have a car also means having to have a job to support it. I get it.
Still, I have to admit I enjoy making that same drive. Gone are the Orange Julius, Belisle’s and the Candy Cane Motel, but the memories remain. It was friendship, discovery and a whiff of liberty. I hope today’s teens have something that can compare.
Jim Tortolano’s first ride was a 1964 Dodge Dart that drank oil like an alcoholic consumes a $2 bottle of wine.