Back in the '50s, the kids on our block knew every make and model of car on the street and could identify those belonging to neighbors and relatives from the drone of an engine, the pitch of an exhaust, a glimpse of chrome bumper.
We knew that the wood-paneled station wagon running the signal lights at the intersection belonged to the beleaguered mother of seven who lived up the block, that the sharp-finned Cadillac was carrying our white-haired neighbors to the supermarket, that a crackling radio heralded the approach of a rusting green Oldsmobile driven by the lovesick suitor of the girl next door.
Imprinted from infancy was the particular frequency of my father's eight-cylinder Chevy. I could sense its faint pulsations anywhere in the neighborhood and would drop whatever I was doing and run to meet it.
Cars were a second skin then, as evocative of a driver's personality as the dogs we owned, the clothes we wore. We didn't need to see the face behind the wheel to know who was in control. And lacking tinted glass, there was no false sense of anonymity. You were what you drove, and your driving did not go unnoticed. That knowledge helped keep most everyone civil. While city congestion provoked occasional horn-honking peevishness, around our suburban village self-restraint and courtesy prevailed.
How different the landscape today. While I might recognize the car coming up the street as my neighbor's, I'm not likely to pick it out anywhere else in town. And with its tinted windows, I never know who is driving or waving or honking hello. When one car per family was the rule, keeping track was effortless. But with three and four now crowding our driveways, I find it hard enough just identifying my own children as they streak past.