If, as this month's cover story suggests, we are what we drive, then I've got some explaining to do (see "Four-Wheel-Drive Fantasies," page 26).
Consider the cars I've owned since I got my driver's license 22 years ago. They include a 1970 Chevy Impala with a rusted-out trunk and missing floorboards; a 1970 Plymouth Valiant boasting an exterior color that I'm sure was euphemistically dubbed something like "lustrous dung"; a 1979 Chevy Malibu with a nonworking driver's side door; and a 1982 Toyota Tercel on which I used a padlock to secure the trunk.
It was well into the '90s -- and the largest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history -- before I even owned a car that had been built in the decade in which I was driving it. That momentous occasion came in 1996, when my wife and I bought our first new car, a Nissan Sentra, precisely because it was the cheapest car on which we could easily lay our hands. Two years later, we supplemented that subcompact dream machine with another unabashedly low-end automobile, a Ford Escort wagon.
What do my cars say about me? First and foremost, that I don't care much about cars. (Fortunately, neither does my wife.) Wheels have never been particularly important to me, except as a strictly utilitarian means of transportation. In high school and the early years of my working life, I spent what little disposable income I had on other sources of gratification and self-fashioning, from travel to books to more education. Even now, though I'm flush enough to buy pretty much whatever I want, I remain interested in little more than minimal comfort, reliability, and style when it comes to cars.
This puts me at a distance from the vast number of people who see their vehicles as extensions of themselves. In his "defense of the SUV," Hans Eisenbeis looks in particular at the psychic lure of the massively popular sport utility vehicle as a personal marker. He sketches the associations that both manufacturers and owners prefer when characterizing such cars. "SUVs," he writes, "have some interesting things to say about us....We are free; we are individuals; we want access to wilderness and new frontiers; we are self-reliant. Taken as a whole, the qualities of the SUV are quintessentially American....The SUV could not have originated in any other country."
Though I don't share a love for SUVs, it's easy -- and important -- to understand the process of creating an identity through consuming things. We send signals about who we are, what we believe, and what we value through the stuff we buy. It's easy to write all such activity off as shallow "consumerism," but it also gives us great pleasure and allows for wildly different visions of self-expression as we combine mass-produced items in highly personalized ways. The great genius of the United States may well be that it generates a mind-boggling array of products that can be used to create an endless number of personal statements. What's more, these building blocks of identity are generally available to anyone who is willing to work for them.
Which makes the story told in "Breast Men," by Melinda Ammann (page 40), all the more enraging. Amador Anchondo-Rascon has spent time in jail for his role in helping illegal immigrants come to this country and work at a Tyson chicken plant in Tennessee. Anchondo-Rascon has admitted to breaking some laws, but the real crime is an immigration system that denies legal entry and opportunity to people who want to share in, and add to, our bounty. When their attempts at building a new life -- and a new identity -- are thwarted, we're all impoverished.