Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy


During the cold war, the United States targeted the Soviet Union’s
railroads. Finite in number, limited in alternative routes, they represented a weakness, for it was by their railways that weapons and supplies would primarily be moved.

The same could not be said for the United States. My nation is interlaced with roadways, far too many to place any value on them as a target. For every route there exists hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of alternative routes. Weapons and supplies moving in trucks will frequently pass through intersections giving choices. Trucks are not forced to follow fixed tracks and can readily be detoured. My nation’s weakness would be our source of petroleum, the refineries and pipelines. Then again, trucks can also move petroleum.

General, later President, Eisenhower understood trucks and roadways. He appreciated the value they would have during a time of war. He gave us the Interstate system, with enough straight roadways every few miles to allow a plane to land, if necessary.

Mine is a nation of cars. It is a reflection of our individual independence to come and go as we please. We pay less than the rest of the world to fuel our cars - right now the price for 87 octane is less than a dollar a gallon. And once, when gas prices were high, my community, Levittown, Pennsylvania, erupted into a full-fledged riot. We suburbanites firmly believe it is our Right to have low price gas, because it guarantees our freedom of mobility.
The story goes that the automobile industry and the petroleum industry formed cartels to buy railroads and trolley systems. They allowed public transportation to rot, making them less attractive and forcing the public to make greater use of the automobile. Suburbia is their success. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” might as well be my country’s motto.

Levittown, Pennsylvania could not exist except for the ubiquitous car. Without it, we could not get to or from our jobs, or reach the market to buy our sustenance. It is ingrained into our culture, the lifeblood that keeps our society alive. You need only look at a map of Levittown and it will resemble a diagram of the capillaries in our circulatory system. The houses are never more than two rows thick, so that every home can be reached by automobile. Combustion powered vehicles carry food and fuel to the houses like corpuscles delivering their goods to cells. In Levittown every house has a driveway linking it to a web of streets. Mail trucks, garbage trucks, passenger cars delivering the kids to soccer practice, bulldozers expanding communities, even gas-powered lawnmowers, this is all suburbia’s metabolism.

Because we suburbanites must have our cars, dealerships are part of the suburban landscape. More than three dozen dealerships line the local stretch of U.S. Route One, between Trenton and Philadelphia. Perhaps Levittown is especially attractive to dealerships. At one time the Langhorne Speedway occupied a field adjacent to U.S. Route One, and Levittown was built right up against it. That racetrack is now gone. It was only a mile and a half
from my home, but on Sundays I could hear the growling of racecars, even while I was watching television inside the house. When the racetrack was still there, across the highway grew Reedman’s.

Behold Reedman’s. At one time this was the largest dealership in the world, and might yet be the largest dealership at one location. Reedman’s occupies more than a quarter of a mile of U.S. Route One, most of it a wall of showrooms. Heading South those showrooms visible from Route One are Lincoln, Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Geo, Chevrolet, and Jaguar. Unseen from the highway are the 150 acres of asphalt lot that stretch out behind those showrooms. More than 3000 cars are there arranged in phalanxes. Buyers come from as far away as Connecticut and Ohio. In the last fifty years of business the franchises have changed, and more than a 1,000,000 customers have bought cars there.

Without cars, teenage boys could not date teenage girls, and, perhaps, in this day and age vice versa. And some of us lonely romantics, fueled by our hormones, but lonely without love, sublimated our desires by racing about in our cars.

As a young man, I showed no interest in driving. My father, concerned as to my manhood, and wanting to provide me with a competitive edge, saw to it that I had a car. He bought us, for we shared it, a 1967 MGB roadster. To this day I remember the snowy night he drove us home from the Reedman’s dealership in that car. I loved it and was driving it illegally before I had my license. When at last I did have my license, which in those days was obtainable at age sixteen, I expended the energy of my lust for the next several years just driving the back country roads of Bucks County all day, and sometimes all night. I could easily compile 600 miles during a weekend without leaving the county.

In those days the car was an extension of my body. I became a cyborg. I felt safer with steel skin, impervious to rain, wind, and snow; yet I was mobile. From an invisible reservoir of power that one could mistake for one’s self, I was able to effortlessly pace highways and climb hills without panting. The MGB responded instantly and exactly, an extension of my thought. Just deciding my direction, thinking my speed, and my feet instinctively employed the clutch, my hand unconsciously selected the gear, and I felt the happiness of a yearling dashing ahead of his mother, discovering the speed his legs provided.

The car rescued me from suburbia. It put me in reach of other interesting people. It brought more experiences within my scope by giving me the tool to venture off to places faraway, like Boston and Washington D.C. I frequently escaped suburbia, driving through the nurturing panorama of countryside untainted by development. One Saturday afternoon, when I was twenty-one, I straddled my Honda 450 Sportster motorcycle, and by Monday evening, found myself at the foot of the Rockies in Colorado.

Now I am older. My reaction time is not as quick. My vision is not as sharp. The night is more blinding and my pupils are slower to recover from headlights of oncoming cars. There are no buses or trains between me and my job. Every day I work it is a fifty miles round-trip. The car, which in former years was an extension of my body, is now an extension of my house.It is a bit of den I carry around, lounging on leather seats, listening to the CD player, while waiting for my destination to arrive.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the sixteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.