In Praise of the Ole Dirt Lot Down the Road 🔗

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America has a damn strong car culture. In fact it has several different car-related cultures:

  • The mechanically inclined car enthusiasts, restoring vintage cars, tweaking every possible component, displaying their work at car shows, refusing to let the car become a black box only certified mechanics are worthy of touching.
  • The sports car enthusiasts (surprisingly mostly older men and women), buying shiny Corvettes and Lamborghinis, taking the car out to the deserts to compete in (legal) races and joining motorcades through the streets of small town USA, throwing candy onto onlookers gathering on the sidewalks.
  • The bike gangs, clad in black leather vests with the gang name stitched on the back (yes, they look exactly like in the movies), driving in formation down the highways with the wind in their long dark hairs (I wonder if joining a bike gang is a good way to prevent male-pattern baldness).
  • The RV full-timers, living in motorhomes, driving across the country, settling down for a week, a month or a year at an RV park before moving on to their next home.
  • The road junkies, who love being on asphalt, driving whatever piece of junk they manage to put their hands on across the length and breadth of the country, not really caring where the road takes them but eager to find out.

I'm not really referring to any one of these groups, though. I'm talking about something much bigger than that. In America, a car is more than just a form of transportation. It is its own mini world, an extension of oneself, a second home, and for most of the country - practically a necessity.

In America, you can do almost anything without having to actually leave your vehicle. Need to go to the pharmacy? There's a drive-up window; Need to go to the bank or even just withdraw some cash? Drive right up, we've got a teller and an ATM waiting for you; Hungry and looking to eat? You've got drive-throughs, drive-ins and anything in-between; Want to watch a movie? Sure thing boss, there's still a nice assortment of drive-in movie theaters all over the country.

It is very common to see people hanging out in cars in parking lots, alone or with friends, doing something or nothing. Mostly eating. People in the USA eat in their cars so often that you could get away with calling cars "mobile dining rooms." At all hours of the day (and night), you can expect to find at least one person seated in a car, eating, reading, or just hanging out while parked in a large and otherwise empty parking lot.

It's not just hanging out alone too. If you've ever watched American youth-oriented TV shows or coming-of-age movies, you've probably noticed how people are often depicted driving in groups to hang out in parking lots (usually just dirt lots), often overlooking the city, with packs of beer and loud music. As I often find about the United States, the movies are not really exaggerating, it's really like that. Parking lots are the American hang-out spots.

There's a long history and various reasons - some obvious and some surprising - to how America became such a car-centric country, but that's not where I want this rant to go, so I won't get into this. I touch on this subject a bit in the book I'm currently writing - a collection of short stories from my travels of the US.

Speaking of short story books, I highly recommend Seth Rogen's Yearbook (2001, Crown Publishing). It is hilariously funny and well written. In it, Seth also mentions in passing how he used to "find himself driving around a lot late at night" while he was living in Los Angeles, an activity I mentioned as well in a previous rant, Time and Space.

Israel, being a small, tightly knit country, does not have the same car culture as America. Sure, there are car enthusiasts like any other place, and with public transportation being what it is, there are so many cars on Israeli roads you'd be tempted to think that we are a car-loving country, but we're really not. The car industry is also much more regulated in Israel than in the US, so vintage cars are quite rare.

What we do have, however, are quiet, badly lit dirt lots that seem to always be there, never changing, as if whoever owns the land had completely forgotten about it. You may not know it, but they're there, you just need to find them. I like to think - and I'm basing this on absolutely nothing - that every city has at least one such dirt lot that has never been used for anything. Anything except as a parking lot for trucks and a hangout spot for people looking to find a bit of quiet, that is (again, this ties in with my previous rant on the subject).

Badly lit dirt lots get a bad rep. They are often looked down upon as locations of nefarious or otherwise inappropriate activities. I don't know, maybe they are, but I've always viewed them as havens for those who seek a bit of quiet and solitude. The car and the road, generally speaking, are places where social norms, moral fiber and proper ethics break down, and everybody behaves like an asshole. The written laws of the road are weaker than the unwritten laws of that badly lit dirt lot down the road. A car parked in such a lot is afforded the quiet and privacy sought by its inhabitants. Nobody else will bother or even approach it. The cars in the lot will try to maintain a good buffer zone between each other when parking, and avoid shining their headlights on others.

With Israeli population growing rapidly, the country being absurdly small, and the largest cities undergoing major constructions in order to accommodate more residents, I'm beginning to worry these places will disappear. Twenty years ago, when I got my driving license and was living with my parents, there was a big dirt lot not far from our home that I often visited to hang out in my car and be by myself for a bit. I liked to take a book with me, grab a pizza, drive to the lot, park my car facing the hill-side of the lot, put the seat down a bit, and read for an hour or two.

I haven't lived in my hometown for about 12 years now, but I recently returned from a 6 month sojourn in the US, and thus forced to temporarily move back in with my parents. The city has changed quite a bit since I left it, but I was happy to find that the trusty ole dirt lot was still there, unchanged. The trucks are still there, and the handful of car drivers that like to frequent it after dark still do, sitting there quietly, doing whatever the hell it is they're doing there. I don't care what they're doing there, they don't care what I'm doing there (for the record: watching TV shows on my phone or reading books).

There's a certain connection formed between a person and their car. I'm not trying to sound like one of those car nuts who are obsessed with keeping their cars clean and shiny, calling them "baby" and treating them like a person (I'm actually far from that), but it is easy to become attached and find comfort in one's car. Add a nice dirt lot to the mixture, and you've got yourself your very own fortress of solitude. I, for one, am grateful for that dusty, uneven, unchanging dirt lot that's always there when I need it.

Are you feeling suffocated? Is it impossible to get some quiet in your home? Have you been cooped up in your room for days on end and are starting to climb the walls? Find a dirt lot today.

By reading this, you are agreeing that the author of this text will not be held liable in case you get maimed or murdered in a badly lit dirt lot.