Let’s pretend like we didn’t drive through Canada. We didn’t drive through Ontario. We didn’t cross one border, where we lied about not having any weapons (the ax radiating heat from the back) and that the car is mine (we are borrowing it from ever generous parents). We didn’t peer longingly at Toronto across one of the Great Lakes, twinkling in the distance. We didn’t drive through the barren landscape, and the industrial, flat buildings, and the huge mini mall gas stations come rest stops. We didn’t get confused about speed limits being posted in kilometers per hour, and why every highway sign had a crown on it. We didn’t cross another border, back again but never left, right next to the car that is stopped, opened up, and frisked by 6 police people with huge guns. We didn’t lie again at this border, saying that I live in California (my ID claims I do), that the car is mine (again, but the plates are California and this time the patrol person asks), that we don’t have alcohol on board, that we don’t have any fruit on board. This is an American Road Trip after all, so let’s just pretend like it didn’t happen.
We drive into Michigan, and the tangle of freeways leads us into a Detroit we don’t see.
The un-drive through Ontario was devoid of placeness, and Detroit, though very much a place, is obscured by rain. Some neon still glows, but churches and storefronts are shuttered as we pass road signs named after miles, a car’s vernacular. I feel like we are in the movie Cars. I feel silly for thinking this. I want to go to dinner in a revamped auto shop outfitted in warm incandescent bulbs, to be in the sumptuous interior of a blue collar shell. I feel ashamed for wanting this.
We see more vanity plates than we’ve seen anywhere else. The car here is a statement, an object of desire. Not just useful, but beautiful. The roads have cracks down the middle, as if we cannot cross and if we touch that other side we would slide out. I see more dead deer on the side of the road here than anywhere else. Maybe it’s the rain. Maybe it’s the cars. Maybe it’s the deer.
Continuing north, the rain clears and lanes give way to manicured lawns, brick McMansions. Stop lights yield to roundabouts, and roads named after miles become names like “Squirrel Rd,” neighborhoods called Blossom Ridge, Silverlake, Hawthorn Hills. There’s a civility to the cul-de-sac. Something that makes me check my hair and adjust my shoelaces.
We are ushered into the biggest car I’ve ever been in. It is not a minivan. It is big and refined. Like it has its own ego. We have to climb in. There is so much space between us, miles of tan leather interior. We eat and drink and are let in on an industry we know nothing about, despite spending most hours of our day inside its offspring. We have been living in 2007, listening to CDs and slamming the hatchback closed, but now we are beyond 2019, talking about the future. The future, we are told, is self-driving. All those trucks we see on the highway will be the first to be automated. It’ll revolutionize shipping. It’ll be efficient. It’ll behave rationally. Better than humans.
The warehouse is basically empty. The floor is endless concrete, like an airport hangar, big enough for semis to drive in and pick up dyes that could crush you in such a way that there’d be nothing left of you. There is pride in the description of that power. Thousands of tons of pressure stamp out the pieces that fit together to make a door, a hood, a tailgate. They are tested to the millimeter, occasionally touched lovingly, scrutinized and hand-welded or, more often, picked up by robots and assembled perfectly. But now, there are only phantom sounds: the air ducts clanging, pressure being moved through the building like a basilisk.
It feels as though we are being permitted to peek behind the curtain at our god while in Detroit, the god of cars. We are shown the inner workings – the machines that make the machines that make the machines. Or: the machines that make the assembly lines that make cars. It feels surreal, like limbo, or studying the way the gate to Heaven is intricately carved. We are in a holy space, that much is certain, where the beings that make the cars are made. We are witness to our car’s god. I feel out of body – exhausted in a way that makes me feel high as I am stepped through the way our savior and angel for the last two months was made.
In the dark, we are driven back to our car, and then drive again to where we will stay. We have been in cars for so long, I have begun to think of them as natural. They are not natural. They are something scary and lucrative and vital to the way we are experiencing the world right now. For the first time, ours stays inside, its sounds unfamiliar in the echo of a garage.
Perhaps, for me, Michigan is an entirely out of body experience. Or at least an out of place experience. Attempting to leave, we learn that a friend who had moved an undrivable distance away is currently 20 minutes from where we are. This would make an excellent car commercial. We can simply drive to see her, hold her, drink coffee at zero inconvenience to ourselves.
She is radiant. Life is easy and good and it’s because of cars. She is coughing, the air in Korea badly polluted. Life is bad and hard and it’s because of cars.This feels like another pocket of limbo. A friend from New York, who lives in Korea, who we visit at her mom’s apartment outside of Detroit. This pocket resonates as another place outside of place. We are suddenly transported somewhere between all of these places, like we are trapped between seams.