Car Spotting and the Capitol Dome at Near-Dusk.

March 16, 2011

5:00 on the Front Stoop.

My boys are really into cars. It’s more like an obsession, actually. I’d be willing to say that use of the word “car” accounts for 50% of their daily conversation. Use of the words “Mama,” “Dada,” and “cracka” (cracker) make up another 40%, while the remaining 10% is a toss-up between words like “Orwell” (one of our cats), “dog,” “bat” (bath), and “da te” (don’t touch).

Not a waking hour passes without a mention of cars. Toy cars  and pictures of automobiles in both magazines and books are of great interest, and, of course, so is engaging in imaginative play with their toy trucks. Boasting a large repertoire of revving engine sounds, they push the wheels along the floor, the kitchen table, the back of chairs, their brother’s leg, the dogs’ back…and so on. But nothing can top the real thing, which is why just about every afternoon around 5:oo we go sit on the front stoop and watch the cars go by.

While I sit and wonder about the people inside the cars–folks headed to and from work, school, the grocery store, all that coming and going that creates the rhythm of daily life–the boys, on the other hand,  judge each vehicles’ level of awesomeness (to use a technical term) by the loudness of engine. Little pudgy pointer fingers extended and tennis shoes stomping the concrete steps, “Car!!” they’ll loudly exclaim as each one zooms past.

Before I tell you more about our 5:00 pm car-spotting ritual, let me first let me say this: On the whole, I’m not a fan of children’s gender-themed toys.  I’ve never encouraged my sons to fall in love with automobiles, plastic or otherwise.  They’ve done this all on their own.

Personally, I’m kind of Luddite when it comes to transportation, and, truth be told, I think we all ought to all walk, bike, ride a horse or train to work whenever possible. To this end, I’m all for bike lanes, carpooling, high-speed rail, and covered wagons, depending on your locale. This opinion of mine can be traced back to an afternoon in the mid eighties when I was looking out the window of my grandparent’s house in our small central Arkansas town and saw two people riding horses toward Second Street.

My father and I rode horses often, as did so many families with roots in rural communities that surround our little town. But we never actually rode inside the city limits, unless there was a parade of something. Even then our family never rode in parades, but many did. Always at the end, of course, so that the high school band didn’t have to step in the horses “calling card,” as my grandma would say.  Anyway,  seeing these people ride horses toward Second Street got me to thinking.

“Why don’t more people ride horses to work,?” I asked my grandparents. After all, it used to be commonplace I reasoned. Open up a box of our old family photos, and I can almost guarantee that there are just as many mules and horses in those photos as there are people.  They were companions, co-workers, transportation. So why did the automobile kill the transportation horse, I wondered. I don’t recall their answer, but I do remember pleading my case to my mother later on that evening. “After all, people don’t usually die in horse wrecks,” I argued.  Thus was my childhood argument for fewer cars and more equine. I suppose I’ve always been kind of morbid and a bit suspect of things that go too fast.

Sure, I was a little naive then, and I learned to enjoy cars–first toy cars and then real ones when I turned 16 and could drive myself. But sometimes I still wonder, in the age when we’ve finally admitted to ourselves that our dependence on oil is an unsustainable mess riddled with human rights violations, why not more horses?

This is all to say: automobiles are not really my thing.  But it’s hard to escape the  ubiquitous toy cars, trucks, fire trucks, semis, and other wheeled-devices that make up the bulk of toys geared toward young boys.  Our house is therefore adequately populated with miniature police cars, dump trucks, tractors, and even an orange low-rider (my personal favorite), all hand-me-downs and gifts from family and friends, things for which we are extremely grateful  Raising twins on a tight budget is much easier when you’re happy with used toys. And we most certainly are.

But I also want to make sure my sons have dolls, kitchen utensils, and, you know, things that are pink (I’ll skip my whole rant on color-themed toys, but I mean, really? Why do children need color-coded toys?!?!) , which is why I went out and bought them dolls for Christmas. If memory serves me right, it’s the only toy I’ve ever purchased for them. I just wanted to create a bit more balance in their toy collection. I figure if we want our sons to be good husbands,  fathers, brothers, partners, or just folks who like kids and know how to provide empathy to humankind, we need to start allowing them opportunities to practice these skills as early in life as we allow our daughters. Playing with dolls is pretty much just role-playing the art of caregiving, and I figure we could all use a little more practice in that department. So, around here, we’re into hugging dolls and pushing trucks.

So, now that I’ve said all that, let me get back to the thing that’s all the rage around here: car watching.

The steps.

Our new/old house sits up on a hill overlooking the state capitol, and there are several steps built into the side  of the hill leading up to the porch. During most of the day our street is pretty quiet. But around 5:00 things pick up a bit. It’s the perfect time for car spotting, and my boys are becoming real pros. They can find a car anywhere, under any circumstances, but on our car observation stoop we are sure to see a particularly wide variety of automobiles. There’s the city bus which stops just a few blocks from the house, there are old beat-up pick-up trucks driven by older black or white men dressed in factory work shirts, minivans filled with young children,  fancy-pants expensive cars with fancy-names, Subarus filled with dogs, Cadillacs with thumping bass, tinted windows, and spinning rims, UPS trucks, fire trucks, ambulances, rusted, beat-up, on-their last-leg Honda’s blaring out indie pop, and every variant in between. In other words, the car spotting on our front stoop is superb.

It amazes me that G and E will actually sit still that long. Some days we’ll watch cars for a good thirty minutes. That’s the equivalent of hours in toddler time. Every time a new automobile comes barreling down the street they’ll stick out their little pointer fingers and scream “Car!!”  like it’s the first one they’ve seen in days.  If it’s a particularly loud vehicle they’ll most likely squeal, which is quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. “Yes, car!” I’ll confirm. Lately I’ve been attempting to add van, truck, and bus to the vocabulary, but they’re pretty stuck on car. So car it is.

I’m reminded of a game I used to play with my older cousin, something she and her friends dubbed simply, “car.” Here’s how it works: You get some people, you set on the front porch, and then you decide whose going to be first, second, third and so forth. Once you’ve got that worked out then you just start watching cars. Each car that drives by supposedly belong to one of the people involved in the game. So, for example, the first person gets the first car, the second the second car, and so on. And repeat, repeat, repeat. You cheer when you get a fancy car and boo and laugh at the poor soul in the group who gets the clunker. It’s great fun and can go on indefinitely. Something tells me this game was more appealing before preteens had cell phones. Anyway, our grandparents house on 2nd Street in downtown Dardanelle was an ideal location for the game. Most of the town’s 3,000 residents had to drive down that narrow street at some point in their day, so we’d see everything from speeding Thunderbirds to snail-paced harvesting combines. It was a lot like our current front stoop.

I loved that game not because I cared that much about cars but because I adored my cousin and wanted to emulate her every super-cool move. And she was so kind as to let me tag along in the first place, an awkward kid with long braids and lots of annoying questions who typically performed best  in social situations involving the elderly.  I remember fondly how she would let me play even when she had a friend over. And I remember how sometimes our grandma would come out on the porch and get in on the action, giggling at her luck when her car was the new snazzy purple Camero zipping down the street. Some days dusk would approach as we’d sit there watching people head to and from wherever people are forever headed to and from.

E feet on the front stoop.

I’d never admit it to G and E, but I personally don’t find that much excitement in watching cars every afternoon. Please don’t tell them I said that. But what I do enjoy, besides, of course, the joy of watching my sons find something so utterly engaging (and the fact that they sit still!), is watching the sun fall low in the sky and set the capitol dome aglow. As I mentioned before, we live near the Arkansas State Capitol, and the combination of watching so many different people drive by while also seeing that gold dome, almost orange in the light of dusk, is something I thoroughly enjoy. The Capitol building is a place of power, sure. But what gets me is that it’s a place with such great potential—a place where people have the opportunity to do, and have done, both just and unjust things for our state.

I think about the sculpture of the Little Rock Nine on the front lawn. I think about how regular people, committed to justice, change things for the better. And I think about the never-ending debate of whether change for the better is a battle to be fought inside or outside the system. When we moved to Little Rock I never expected to spend so much time looking at that building, but now I look forward to it everyday. I don’t have anything grand to say about my ruminations. Really all I have is a bunch of questions and long-winded observations, many of them the same questions I was asking a decade ago. But that’s what stoop-sitting is good for: letting big ideas ferment, sprout, distill. Pick your metaphor, but basically  stoop sitting is about rumination. And I really enjoy that.

G feet.

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