Vital Signs

Desire & Death

Back in the days before OPEC became a notable force on American street corners, high school, for most of us growing up in Detroit, meant one thing: a driver's license. All we had to do was spend 12 weeks with a shop instructor, who was looking for a way to pick up a few extra bucks, in a Rambler Hornet, thoughtfully donated by a dealer who never dreamed of Renault. Then, the magic would be ours. Everything—from the drive-in theaters (now turned into strip malls) to the drive-in hamburger stands (now featuring a kiddy playland and ferns)—pointed toward the day when a set of car keys would be in hand, even if they were for a mother's four-door Valiant. The car meant freedom, not as in the wild anarchy of On the Road, but the freedom to be your own person, to go somewhere, or even nowhere, aimlessly driving up and down the same streets.

The driver's ed instructors weren't quite as dense as we liked to think. Before receiving the certificates that brought us very close to cruising Woodward Avenue or racing away from the lights on Telegraph Road, we were ushered into the school auditorium for a film that achieved semi-cult status: Mechanized Death. It's a documentary-style film that shows in unflinching detail the consequences of hurling 4,000-pound objects around with abandon. Blood, gore, screams, moans, death. Police officers shake their heads as they try to find meaning in the mayhem. Only metal...

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