I saw a 1967 Ford Fairlane the other day. It was in the parking lot of a Best Buy in Atlanta where my girl and I had just returned another computer game that didn’t work properly. Or maybe it did work but I didn’t know. Maybe, besides plugging it in and installing it, there are other ministrations you need to do that are considered so basic they aren’t even in the instructions. Because I picture one’s ability to understand technology as a ladder, with each of us having our own with the rungs only going so high—or so low. For example, I once asked a tech-support guy to describe the craziest call he ever got. He told me of a lady who complained that the software package she just bought wasn’t working properly. It took fifteen minutes of them talking before it became apparent to him that she did not own a computer. She had bought the software package believing it was a complete thing, not understanding that there was this whole other thing needed to go with it in order for it to work. The top rung of her ladder of understanding did not reach up far enough to touch the bottom rung of his.
My ladder would traverse theirs. I understand basic technology, but I also get why a person who doesn’t would purchase a software package without knowing you need a computer to use it. After all, it doesn’t say on the box you need a computer. The presence of a computer is just assumed, and to know any different you’d have to read the instructions, which are only accessible after you install the software on your computer.
About the Ford Fairlane. My daughter saw it first. She’s nine and very adept at pointing out vintage cars to me, because she’s spent her life in the backseat of our own car listening to me covet every single vintage car we pass on the road. “Look at that Karmann Ghia!” I’ll exclaim, or MG Midget, BMW 2002, Corvair, and so on. A Ford Fairlane, though, was the pinnacle of sightings.
“Look at the upholstery,” my girl said. “It looks original.”
Oh my God, I wondered. How does a nine-year-old know to point out the awesomeness of original upholstery on a 1967 Ford Fairlane? And the upholstery was original. It was the same poly-something sixties kind of upholstery that feels like it was made from melted party balloons. I know because I drove across the country twice in this thing with my parents and sisters. I could feel the upholstery sticking to my butt as I stood there.
Our Fairlane was old when we got it, too, bought used from a bartender at my father’s favorite booze hole at the time, an ocean-side tavern in Melbourne Beach, Florida, called the Casino. My mother used to drive the car to her job at NASA. My dad didn’t need a car at the time, having lost another of his jobs as a trailer salesman. Instead he would spend all day at the Casino, which was within walking distance and where it was understood that he was independently wealthy on account of how he could spend all day there drinking. The real reason—that he was between jobs while my mother provided for the family—didn’t seem to exist on anyone’s ladder of understanding.
Then we left Melbourne to drive first to New Hampshire and then on to California. I sat in the backseat with my sisters, completely seatbelt-free the entire time. It was simply understood that nothing bad would happen to us. And nothing did, except for the fact that there were no headphones or DVD players or iPods or satellite radios or computer games—or even air-conditioning, for that matter. For amusement we were forced to either talk to each other or get lost in our thoughts while gazing out the window at the passing scenery.
It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, or the most exciting, but it managed to light up every single one of my senses in a way that resonates with me to this day. So strongly, in fact, that simply the sight of an old Ford Fairlane makes me want to stop and brush the dust off the chrome-swivel rearview mirror. I gaze at it with my girl, who loves computer games but also loves old cars. Her ladder is already way above mine, and soon she’ll be so far ahead of me when it comes to technology that she’ll be like a rocket in the sky, visible only by the trail she is blazing. But for now, in this instance, she is with me in front of this 1967 Ford Fairlane, and the bottom rung on her ladder of understanding reaches down to touch the top rung of mine.
Illustration by Peter Arkle