When I first arrived in Petaluma in the early 80s, “cruising” was P-town’s favorite past-time. Within a couple of years, anti-cruising laws kiboshed the circuit and the teens-n-machines scene had little left to turn to but drugs and Satanism like the rest of the era’s youth. Though I was too young to cruise myself, I do recall being struck by the ritual of it. Every Friday night Petaluma Blvd. became an infinite loop of teen automotive angst, that moved with the subtle flow of the tidal estuary it paralleled.
Years later, I’d become familiar with one of the enduring rituals of Italian evening life, “la passeggiata,” literally “the walk,” in which locals do a dusk-time promenade through the center of town. For some it’s merely cardiovascular exercise, for others it’s a form of display behavior, honed over millennia and baked into evolutionary biology.
Cruising is America’s version of the promenade with a particular emphasis on the (typically male) display aspect as well as our cultural proclivity for consuming resources, producing pollution and flouncing laziness.
But the cars look damn fine. At least that was the case with the annual park and ride known as Petaluma’s Salute to American Graffiti: Imagine classic cars parked the length of the boulevard accompanied by some low and slow cruising cannily disguised as a parade.
Naturally, the event is also a hat tip to the car-culture-coming-of-age-flick from which it takes its name, whose most memorable scenes were shot in Petaluma. It’s also an excuse to indulge in a nostalgia for another era through which one may or may not have lived. In this case, I think it was the 90s, which was the last time this slice of Americana reared its pompadoured head. It was the late 70s and early 80s before that (Back to the Future, for example, set men’s haircuts back a quarter-century).
I went to the Salute to American Graffiti -- I ogled, I thought of George Lucas and the amount of transformation his creations have wrought upon the culture and wondered if someday we might regret his influence. I don’t suppose we’ll know until we catch a time travel and read his hit list. We’ll know if “Lucas” is on it after “Hitler” but before “Mickey Mouse.” (Time travelers alphabetize everything since chronology is meaningless to them. Think about it.)
Just to up my carbon monoxide intake for the day (beats smoking), I later ventured to Petaluma Speedway, the shadier, easier sister track to the tony Sonoma Raceway, a few mile further east. Between the acoustical assaults of Winged 360’s, Spec Sprints, Dwarfs and Mini Stocks, this was the thought I could hear myself thinking, “What’s with all the camo?”
A disproportionate amount of men, women and children were donned in camouflage duds, from hats to spats (no, really, spats), crop tops to muffin tops. Between both auto-themed events, there was enough camo to outfit a small guerilla war. It was like some cargo cult that conflated wartime fashion and the black liquid that makes the cars go round. If they wear it, the cars still go vroom (the spilled blood and climate change notwithstanding).
This sounds more patronizing than I mean it to be. Say what I might about the sorry sartorial state of my seatmates, the fact is I looked like a total ponce, wearing, as I am wont to do at all times and in any weather, a black blazer. It’s my "action figure outfit" but for a cool three bills I would upgrade to a Ralph Lauren Desert Camouflage Sport Coat just to blend in a bit. Or more likely find my well-dressed corpse hanging from a speedway flagpole. Just what I need: An excuse for my colleagues to park an “auto-erotica” gag in my obit.
Daedalus Howell drives a Mini Cooper to compensate for the size of his ego at DHowell.com.