Car Haunt

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In the only clip I’ve seen of Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance (1983), the French actress Pascale Ogier sits across a desk from Jacques Derrida and asks if he believes in ghosts. The camera centers on her face for the moment in which she poses the question, then flips abruptly to Derrida—pipe in hand—and zooms in on him slowly as he formulates his answer. “It’s a difficult question,” he says. “Firstly,” he tells Ogier, the back of her head now obscured at the frame’s margin, “you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. Here, the ghost is me.” He pauses, blinks, proceeds: “Since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film, which is more or less improvised, I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Curiously, instead of playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words or play my role.”

Ogier, who will be dead from a heart attack a year or so after this scene is filmed, nods—a dreamy open-mouthed smile on her face. Then the camera returns to Derrida as he reaches his thought’s final resonance: “The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms … it’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back.”

Derrida’s point plays out in the paragraphs I’ve just written. In 2015, I use the present tense to describe a scene filmed thirty-three years earlier, a scene whose stars were dead long before I first beheld them. But for me, now, watching them on YouTube, their words, their gestures—they themselves—still feel very much alive. They linger; they haunt.

And this is the particular power of what Derrida refers to as “modern technology,” by which he means not just the cinema but also that which he calls “telecommunication.” He claims that rather than banishing our medieval belief in ghosts, modern technology, by its very ability to keep the past present, “enhances the power of ghosts … and their ability to haunt us.” By recording things, the past can play forever on loop, its actions or words unfurling as though for the first time, even when they are well past their original expiration dates.

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In 2012, Tom and Ray Magliozzi—also known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers—stopped recording new episodes of Car Talk, their radio show that has aired weekly since 1977 and been in national syndication with NPR since 1987. For years they’d been receiving around 2,000 messages a week on their 24-hour answering machine from people experiencing a wide range of car problems. The show’s producers would listen to the preceding week’s messages, pick the eight callers who’d get on the air, and Tom and Ray would, with varying degrees of effort, attempt to diagnose their car problems. Often the problems were mechanical. Sometimes they were ethical. Other calls dealt more directly with car disputes/dilemmas/disagreements between husbands and wives, parents and their children, siblings, friends, etc. But the show was always less about the cars than their drivers—and most of all about the joyous, raucous, hysterical way Tom and Ray related to each other and the world.

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“The joyous, raucous, hysterical way Tom and Ray related to each other and the world.” —I ask myself, is the past tense really the right way to deliver that statement? Or does it make more sense to talk about Click and Clack—like Ogier and Derrida in Ghost Dance—forever in the present?

The question is more complicated in the case of Car Talk for two reasons: First, the show didn’t simply go off the air when they stopped taping new episodes—it didn’t, like a movie, “wrap.” And second—and this is crucial—old episodes were not rebroadcast. Instead, the producers decided to reassemble 25 years of old, unused material into new episodes—episodes that are made to sound like they were recorded in the studio yesterday, even though, for Car Talk, there is now no such thing as yesterday.

This time lapse goes completely unacknowledged in the new/old episodes. In fact, the producers go to some length to conceal it—selecting old material on the basis that it was originally recorded at the same time of year when the new/old episode will air. Visiting my parents over Christmas this year, I tune in and hear Adrian from Vail, Colorado, signing off with “Thank you and happy holidays!” (Click and Clack have just advised her to disable cruise control, which her husband likes to put on while driving down the back of 10,000-foot mountain passes.) And the new/old episodes don’t just heed the seasons, they also conform to the show’s own temporal rules. For example: there’s no Puzzler segment in the summer because that’s when the Puzzler goes on vacation. And so what if there’s no such thing anymore as the Puzzler? Or summer?

It of course bears mentioning that there’s no such thing as Tom anymore, either.

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I grew up listening to Car Talk casually and intermittently—a scattering of Saturday mornings across my childhood. In our kitchen while making banana pancake batter. In the backseat of my friend’s dad’s ancient sedan on our way to gymnastics. I still remember his car vividly: the felt lining of the ceiling worn soft by sun and years, hanging low on our heads, sagging away from what it was supposed to shield. The way we drew on it by dragging our nails against the velvety grain. The pictures we made—pictures that faded like ghosts when we rubbed the cloth the other way. Also fading into the background of the car and, now, my memory of those rides: Tom and Ray’s voices coming over the tinny speakers. Their jokes about love and partnership and driving and other things I didn’t know how to do at the time.

I grew up into an insomniac. I worried when the lights went out, and I stayed awake in the dark. An arsenal of over-the-counter sleep aids couldn’t touch it. I put a lot of energy into learning about things as dubious sounding as “good sleep hygiene.” I wore an eye mask. Sometimes I’d fall sleep, but frequently I’d lie awake until four in the morning—the things keeping me up beyond the reach of more obvious cures.

Then in 2010 I got an iPhone and the NPR app. I can’t remember exactly how this came to pass (as often seems to be the case with miracles), but one night I discovered that an episode of Car Talk at just the right pre-bedtime juncture resulted in sweet, nearly instantaneous sleep. And so it was that Click and Clack became a fixed star in my nightly routine.

Why? Why did five minutes of Car Talk put me under with the consistency of an anesthesiologist? Was there something secretly mellifluous to Tom and Ray’s Boston accent that only I could hear? Was I still so mad about being forced to learn how to change my car’s oil in high school that I spiraled into a rage blackout/revenge sleep anytime cars were discussed at length?

No. I slept because Car Talk, at its heart, is/was not about cars at all but rather about quelling fears, taking risks, making mistakes. About understanding, in the broadest terms possible and deep in your soul place, that when something falls off your car, chances are it didn’t need to be there anyway. I slept because the thing keeping me awake wasn’t chemical or biological or the light shining into my apartment or the fact of too much coffee; it was the fear of being a young adult in a life I was still struggling to understand. It was a fear that could only be answered and assuaged by aphorisms like these of Tom’s—words about being alive that are forever present tense:

“It is better to travel in hope than arrive in despair.”

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

“Kids: get away from the cell phones, get away from the computers, and mail someone a fish before it’s too late.”

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According to the show’s producers, there’s enough archived material for ~1,200 more new/old episodes. By my calculations, that’s 23 more years of sleep.

Haunt me, Car Talk. Haunt me all you want. In this, I echo Derrida: “Whether I believe in ghosts or not, I say, long live the ghosts.”

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