My Wheels, My Self

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American car owners have a peculiar habit. When we walk out of a mall, blinking and dazed, and realize we've forgotten where we've parked, we scan the parking lot, keys in hand, and ask, "Where am I?" Where am I — because your car, in this country, is you. It expresses your aspirations, your taste, your social class and your virility (or your need to compensate for same). I learned this growing up near Detroit, where people lived for their cars — American cars! — and lived by the GM slogan, "It's not just your car, it's your freedom." And it's not just your freedom. It's your soul.

After college, I moved to New York City and, in a way, left America. Many New Yorkers don't have cars; others, like me and my Brooklyn neighbors, don't have driveways to display them in. We don't experience our cars as ourselves. If we did, I would have to confront the sad fact that I am a mouthwash-green 1995 Mercury Tracer. We express ourselves instead through our clothes, shoes and furniture, which is probably why we love Queer Eye for the Straight Guy so much.

There is, however, a car-country answer to Queer Eye: the car-and-bike makeover show. Discovery Channel's American Chopper, MTV's Pimp My Ride and several others turn junkers into sleek street machines and motorcycles into works of art, and in the process tell us how people (mostly men) express and define themselves through their stuff. They're Queer Eye, the shop-class version: the Gear Eye.

In these shows, you have heavy metal and rap, not dance-club remixes. Tattoos and piercings, not Dolce & Gabbana. Metalworking, not wine pairing. If there is such a thing as the opposite of metrosexual, the Gear Eye shows are it. Most important, where Queer Eye is about growing up — becoming urbane and understated — the Gear Eye shows are about nurturing your inner third-grader. On the likes of Discovery's Monster Garage and TLC's Overhaulin', cars get tricked out into roaring, smoke-spewing beasts that resemble something out of a 6-year-old's toy box.

These stories are Cinderella for boys, in which the stars are the lucky pumpkins that get turned into kick-ass coaches. But Gear Eye shows can also have heart. On American Chopper, Paul Teutul Sr. and his two sons (Paul Jr. and Mikey) run a custom motorcycle shop. But the real story is the relationships in the most foulmouthed yet loving TV family since the Osbournes. Watching Chopper, you learn a little about bikes and a lot about how men express love with outbursts and power tools. When the Teutuls squabble over deadlines and designs, they're really wrestling, like any other father and sons, over control and independence.

No one feels the connection between wheels and independence more strongly than teenagers, which is probably why Pimp My Ride became an overnight hit for MTV. With rapper Xzibit as host, it's a kind of hip-hop Queen for a Day. It takes young drivers' beat-up jalopies and turns them into rap-video dreams, rolling Xanadus with DVD players, video-game machines and the mandatory spinning-wheel rims. The show owes everything to the materialistic side of hip-hop culture, but Xzibit says that Pimp's fantasies are at least more accessible than the million-dollar house tours on MTV's Cribs, and more personal. The makeovers, Xzibit tells me, are "a boost to the kids' confidence."

I suppose he's right. I also hope, though, that Pimp's viewers — watching a channel increasingly dedicated to the idea that a car, or a mansion, or a new pair of breasts, is the ticket to fulfillment — realize there are cheaper routes to self-esteem. "We're about to put $20,000 into a $900 car," a craftsman boasts as he rebuilds a pathetic Mitsubishi Mirage for Antwon, a 19-year-old art student. The gleaming, finished car is hilariously over the top (it includes a built-in fish tank), and Antwon is delighted. But I have to wonder: Wouldn't he be better off with $20,000 to pimp his college fund?

That, of course, is the spoilsport New Yorker in me. The Michigan kid in me replies, Better not to ask. Better to enjoy the ride. Better to step back and admire your reflection in the beautiful Mirage.