I love my car.
Not driving it. I am one of life’s designated passengers. Driving is somewhere between tedious and terrifying on the annoyance scale. It is impossible to stop fixating on the destination and simply enjoy the journey. There are too many details to attend to, and I can never forget that there are other drivers out there trying to kill me.
But I love being in my car, once it has delivered me uneventfully to the finish line. It is my safe space, my man cave on wheels. It has my scent and my clutter. It keeps me warm on the coldest night and cool on the hottest day. I can play whatever I’m in the mood for on the radio, as loudly as I want.
I like to just sit in the car and look — Lake Michigan was a favorite sight through the windshield when I lived in that part of the state. Sometimes, I go out for a burger and fries, take them home and eat them in the driveway, watching the rabbits nibble in the backyard. For a couple of seasons there was a small groundhog family I named the Waltons — Ma, Pa and Lawn Boy.
The drive-in was created for people like me. We could enjoy big-screen entertainment with the camaraderie of a shared experience without actually having to mingle with the riffraff.
I can mark the passage of my life with the drive-in.
There was the trip with my parents for some long, boring drama. There were no fights or car chases to properly wire the 10-year-old brain, just talk, talk, talk, and I fell asleep in the back seat.
There was the high school outing for a beach movie I could not name with a girl I should not. I won’t bore you with the full baseball analogy — it is enough to say that when I walked her to her front door, I was thrown out of the game.
There was the time in Texas when three other soldiers and I got sloshed on Bali Hai, surely the worst of the worst of cheap wines, while watching “Night of the Living Dead” (the black & white one in which — SPOILER ALERT — the hero is mistaken for a zombie and killed at the end). We decided it was a metaphor for the state of the country, but that was probably the wine.
Ah, warm memories of a life well-led.
Sadly, before I could fully immerse myself in the drive-in milieu, they were on the way out. The post-war car culture spawned 4,000 screens and the “summer movie” concept in the 1950s, but smaller, more uncomfortable cars and the VCR in the 1970s started turning drive-ins into shopping centers and apartment complexes. “Jaws” in 1975 was the last true summer drive-in blockbuster, and today there are barely 500 screens left.
But I may have another chance, and a lot of others might join me.
Along comes the COVID-19 quarantine, and drive-ins are suddenly an attractive option for people desperate to get out of the house. Pop-ups are, well, popping up everywhere, from the Miami Dolphins stadium to a diner in Queens. And Walmart will sponsor drive-ins at hundreds of its parking lots. All that’s needed are inflatable screens for the picture and FM radio stations for the sound.
And more than movies are being offered. Comedian Jim Gaffigan did a drive-in show for 1,000 cars full in New Jersey. Country star Garth Brooks filmed a concert and showed it on 300 screens for $100 a car. (I wonder if the fans flashed their headlights for favorite songs the way we used to flick our lighters for them.)
I can see drive-ins playing a much bigger part of the look-but-don’t-touch, put-your-damn-mask-on, fraidy-cat future the virus warriors have in mind for us. There is almost no limit to what we can experience from our socially distanced automotive bubbles.
High school graduations. Church services. Weddings and funerals. Rummage sales. Traveling Broadway shows. Circuses. Even major sporting events. Many stadiums already have the giant screens. All they need do is tear down the stands and replace them with multi-acre parking lots. Fans could do a version of the wave by raising and lowering their hoods in sequence, properly masked while outside their cars of, of course.
The drive-in might even become the center of our civic life.
I can imagine Governor Holcomb, speaking from a stage at the previously derelict State Fair Grounds, his words beamed to cars parked before hundreds of screens throughout the state, declaring that he will end racism for all time by pulling Affirmative Action out of the 1960s dustbin, renaming it “Equity and Inclusion” and decreeing that any evil not immediately eradicated will be deemed systemic and thoroughly deplored.
He shouldn’t do such things on warm summer nights, however, lest people start shouting from their cars, “Get out of the water, shark, shark!” or “Walk away faster, zombies, zombies!”
And what about the presidential election? Candidates used to have whistle-stop campaigns — now they can have drive-in campaigns, big screens behind the contenders as they speak. Joe Biden’s could translate his garble into standard English. President Trump’s could show his tweets complaining about his own speech.
If this is handled properly, the whole country could be like one giant parking lot. We could leave the bubble of our homes, stay safe in the bubbles of our cars, just pull into whichever drive-in that had what we wanted.
Cars would become important status symbols again, as they should be. But where once they stood for Americans’ rugged individualism, love of freedom and urge to explore, they would stand for our demand for safety and security, our fear of standing out in the crowd, our passive willingness to follow the leader.
We will have matured from a people always on the move to a people who have found their destination and claimed their parking spaces, looking through the windshields and waiting to be amused.
Leo Morris is columnist for the Indiana Policy Review.