I have this story from the artist Tracy Hicks about his former father-in-law who had a 1960s pickup he’d restored and customized—spent years on the project, loved this truck like nothing else—until one day he backed it over one of his kittens in the driveway. Killed the kitten. Sold the pickup truck. Like that. Well, that sort of sums it up, I thought. That pretty much says it all, it seemed to me at the time. Is metaphor everywhere? Of course it is. Once consciousness, once meaning gets a start, it keeps on going. You get literacy and metaphor and God.
The thing about custom cars and hot rods—glancing through a copy of Rod & Custom magazine, you can see they tend to grade into each other— is the strangely counterintuitive sort of dreaminess involved. I haven’t checked to see if angel hair is still the concours style, but it was when I was a kid. That ectoplasmic spun-glass stuff they’d use sometimes in school plays to suggest a mist or heavenly atmospherics. You would see these cars at shows—again, in magazines; I never went to a show but I was always fascinated—and they’d always have these cloudy mounds of angel hair around them. Underneath and around the tires. Like they were floating. Not entirely of this world. And yet so massively mechanical and sculptural. The custom cars especially, which, although they’d generally have these gorgeously chromed and souped-up engines, seemed intended more as presence, pure idea. And the idea, I think, was more or less that paradise is possible. That you can actually get there in the proper frame of mind—which those archetypal, chopped and purple- painted ’49 Mercurys sought to represent. They’d hover just above the ground—no more than a couple of inches clearance, I would guess—sustained by angel hair, it seemed, and not much else, the wheels a concession, a politeness, ornamental and vestigial. I remember thinking how extraordinarily cool that looked. And how impractical. How could you drive that down an ordinary road? The road would have to be like a showroom floor. Where would you find a perfect road like that? Where would it lead? Yet here were the means for such a journey—as gloriously real and here-and-now as they could be. Which was the point. That they were not like “concept” cars—those empty visions of the future manufacturers like to roll out on occasion. These were ordinary cars transformed. Revealed, in a way, as what they ought to be. And were, essentially, we were allowed to feel. The marvelous implicit in the everyday. How striking and encouraging to discover that a ’51 Ford pickup or whatever had a soul. Who would have thought? So, get behind the wheel of that and where do you go? Can you imagine?