After a five hour bumpy flight I landed at Dulles International Airport just west of Washington DC. The wheels of my United flight hit ground about 11:45pm and by the time I rode the 1960’s vintage shuttle bus to the terminal, got my bags, and arrived at my Hertz rental car it was well after midnight. To put it mildly I was tired, grumpy, and feeling more or less asocial. So, I loaded my bags into what appeared to be a perfectly nice Nissan Altima, wedged myself into the driver’s compartment, inserted the key, pushed the start button, and waited for something to happen. The car’s dashboard lights flicked off and on a couple of times apparently attempting to communicate something to me in Morse Code. So I tried again. I ejected the key, reinserted it, and pressed the start button again – only a bit more decisively this time. Once again, as if on cue, the car’s dash lights flickered at me for a moment and came to rest in the lit position. “OK, what in the heck am I doing wrong here,” I thought to myself. “I am tired, and must just be missing some basic step.” So I checked the door to make sure it was shut, made sure the parking brake was disengaged, and double checked that the car was in park. I went through my mental checklist with the precision of an airline pilot and everything looked right. So I drew in a deep breath and pressed the start button a third time. The car answered me with the same, now profane, dashboard blinks and then went silent. “That’s it!” I yelled at the steering wheel. “I am a Hertz Five Star Gold member for crying out loud! You think they could give me a car that would start!” I threw open the driver’s door just hard enough that it bounced back and smacked me in the head as I was leaning to get out. This succeeded in sending my frustration into apoplectic frenzy. I popped the trunk, grabbed my bags, and drug all of my worldly possessions to the Hertz customer service counter. I must have looked the way I felt because, when I stormed into the office, the young counter clerk stared at me as if he had just seen Arnold Schwarzenegger with his titanium skull exposed holding a 40 watt plasma rifle.
“Can I help you sir?” he asked timidly. “Yes you can,” I exclaimed making no effort whatsoever to hide my seething frustration. “I just got off a 5 hour flight and want nothing more than to get to my hotel and go to sleep, but the crappy car you guys have rented me seems content with staying right where it is!” I blurted out. The clerk looked at me somewhat bewildered and asked, “you mean it won’t start?” I shook my head east to west not wanting to have to explain the entire ordeal. “Well I am very sorry for your trouble sir,” he politely continued. “Let me walk out to the car with you and, if we cannot get it started, I will get you a different car. I grumbled something that I did not even fully understand and followed the young kid back out to my car. He took my keys, hopped into the driver’s seat pushed the start button and watched as the dash lights flicked on and off. “There you go sir,” he said with a confident smile, “she seems to be OK now.” I was perplexed. “What do you mean she’s OK , the engine didn’t start,” I pointed out – just in case he had not noticed. He gave me an embarrassed look and after a polite smile said,”sir this is a hybrid.” I paused to let his words sink into my now completely atrophied mind. “A what?” I pressed. “A hybrid sir, it is part of the new Hertz ‘Green Line’ of rentals,” he proudly explained. “Hertz is doing its part to combat climate change,” he gushed failing to contain his enthusiasm, “they are pretty cool cars.”
As I stood there growing my new donkey ears, I felt desperate. I had to lash out in some final attempt save any vestige of my dignity. “I ordered a car, not a golf cart,” I jabbed. “Sir this is a great car,” he reiterated now showing a bit of frustration himself. “It is also the only mid-size I have left on the lot. If you want to switch cars you will either have to pay to upgrade or take an economy car.” He had me and I knew it. Score at the end of round two: 20 year old rental clerk 2 – 47 year old crabby renter 0. “Never mind,” I conceded, “I will just take it.” The clerk smiled, tossed me the key, did a something of a victory lap around my newly adopted golf cart, and disappeared back into his office. I was alone once again, just me and the car. I cannot say for sure, but I think it was smiling.
If, like me, you are a child of the internal combustion age and have never driven a hybrid, the experience will trouble you from the start. My personal vehicle is a Ford F-250 long bed crew cab pick up truck with a 5.0 liter turbo charged diesel engine. When it starts, live squirrels get sucked into the air intake. I sit 3.5 feet off the ground in a fire breathing Detroit-made dragon and can feel gravity warp as I press the gas pedal. It is a 350hp testosterone pump and I love it. God help me – I love it so. The hybrid experience on the other hand, is something completely different. When you push the start button you are greeted with nothing but a blinking dashboard and soft contemporary jazz on the radio. You know, the kind of jazz that makes you want to go out and buy a fern. Your expectations of any type of mechanical affirmation are dashed and you are left feeling…well…green!
As the week progressed, I discovered many other hybridisms. For instance, when you turn it on you have no way of really knowing it is on until you depress the gas pedal (if you can call it that). The car rolls forward silently on battery and you feel as if you are having an out-of-auto experience. How can a car move with no engine noise or rumble? It is just plain wrong. Then as soon as you get comfortable with the silence, poof, an engine appears from nowhere and starts humming in accordance with some complex software algorithm. It gives you a few reassuring minutes of sound, and then without warning turns itself back off. For those of us who grew up driving cars like the AMC Javelin, when the engine stops by itself, it is time to pull over and flip the hood up. It truly makes one’s heart jump until you remember that you are driving something that is half car and half cart. Another awkward hybrid moment occurs when you stop at a traffic signal on a busy 6 lane city interchange and the engine turns off. Crazy thoughts race through your head. Did it turn off on purpose, or did it break down? When I press the gas pedal will it roll forward or will the hood fly open and one of those springy snakes leap out? Then, just to add insult to injury, as you are sitting at the intersection fully immersed in your existential crisis, some dude in a Ford F-250 diesel pulls up next to you and guns it. “What a jerk ,” you think for a moment as you look at your reflection in his shiny chrome hubcap. Then you realize that the face looking back at you is no longer yours but that of Stuart Smalley mouthing the words, “I am important” and “green is good.” For those of us who like a little metal under the hood, it is a holistically horrible experience. The only fun hybrid moment I had was when I realized that, in battery mode, I could sneak up behind people walking in parking lots and follow about 12 inches behind them without giving myself away…until I blew the horn. I have a court date scheduled for February.
Long story short, I kept my little hybrid for a week and, despite the overwhelming urge to buy a cat and go to an Indigo Girls concert, I got through it relatively unscathed. The fact is, my little car got me from A to B just fine, and really did consume fuel from an eyedropper. Still, it was a troubling experience for reasons more philosophical than practical. In the days since my hybrid excursion, I have thought a lot about this little car and what it represents. To understand my thoughts better I went to the dictionary. The first definition of “hybrid” on Dictionary.com is, “…the offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera, esp. as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics.” This definition seems a bit inapplicable and gives me a disturbing visual of the Nissan production process. The fourth definition however, is much more germane:
“…anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of elements of different or incongruous kinds: a hybrid of the academic and business worlds.”
Basically, the way I read it, a hybrid is what you get when you cross something natural with something – else. It makes a good car for a golf cart, and a pretty good golf cart for a car. It is, as the definition says, incongruous. My F-250 may drink more gas going down my driveway than 12 Smart Cars in two months, but it is as natural to the American lifestyle as Bay Watch reruns on TV Land. America is a wide-open land where freedom and self-determination rule, and one can drive their land yacht from one endless horizon to another and know that they will fit in and be accepted (except for maybe in Marin County California). Waste and noise aside, my truck is a piece of Americana at its finest, something that sets us apart from self-righteous Vespa driving Europeans. Yet like so many other pieces of Americana, the Detroit-made internal combustion engine is going the way of the western. In fact it seems that we are loosing our cultural identity more quickly than ever. Just look at the list – freedom of speech (fairness doctrine), freedom of choice (public health care), french fries (trans-fat warnings). It is all being changed right before our eyes. Your kid cannot even ride his bicycle on the sidewalk in some states without 10 pounds of protective gear.
Obama has also made it clear through his policy and speeches abroad that he intends to make us less American and more European. We can no longer take pride in being loud mouthed, over opinionated, big car driving, jean wearing, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead Americans. For some reason unknown to me, the popular sentiment is that we now have to be something else….something incongruous. We are becoming a “hybrid nation.” In hindsight, my hybrid experience was not troubling because of the car, but rather because it was an omen of things to come, or should I say things to go. “But aren’t you being a bit Glenn Beck-ish?” you ask. “It is just a little car.” Maybe so, but history shows us time and again, change can come in ways you least expect it…
“The Sioux warrior sat astride his Appaloosa stallion on the windswept hill, proud and confident. Off in the distance he saw a curious thing. It looked like a wooden box on wheels with a giant white hat. It was far away, but he could hear it as it rumbled over rocks and rivulets. Was it alive? He did not think so, because it appeared to be drawn by many long-eared horses. He had never seen anything like it in his life, but was not too concerned. How could such a small awkward looking thing ever threaten the great Sioux Nation…” Anonymous
By the way, next time I am specifying a Lincoln Town Car.