Colossus of Roads
Monday, June 5, 2006
When the beast approaches, a rumble burbles from its chest, the sea of traffic retreats and suddenly there's a space.
Three quick turns and the Hummer H1 -- the biggest and most powerful of a big and powerful breed -- slides into the spot. The door opens and a pair of sleek black Ferragamos appears. They pause for only the briefest moment, touching on the step a foot and a half off the ground before climbing down.
Seven years ago, a young man approached Mary Williams as she parked, knocked on her window and demanded to know: "How dare you drive this vehicle?"
"I said 'thank you,' " she recalls, and then walked away. "There's very little you can say to someone like that, being judged like that. I was not going to stop driving this."
If we are what we drive, then Mary Williams is a 3 1/2 -ton, 42-gallon, 6.5-liter turbo-diesel grandmom who wears pale pink sweater sets and houndstooth trousers from Brooks Brothers. If our vehicles are our defense against the world, she is armed and ready.
Yes, diesel is tipping $3 a gallon or higher, greenhouse gases may be melting the polar ice caps, and the fuel mileage on this $140,000 baby today barely breaks double digits. Drive down the street in an oversize SUV these days and you'll get Medusa-like stares from the Prius-loving, BioWillie (soybean fuel) world. Even GM sees the writing on the wall.
But in matters of love, none of this matters.
Mary Williams, 69, fell for the Humvee when she first saw it 15 years ago. It was in uniform, its camouflaged hulk speeding across the oil fields in Desert Storm. A year later, AM General sold the first civilianized one, the Hummer H1. She brought one home from the showroom, drove it around for a couple of days, then announced: "That's the one. That's for me."
Here was a vehicle that spoke to her: It could handle anything that came its way, muscle its way out of trouble, even take a hit and shake it off. "Safe, I felt very safe in it," she says. She held back for a few model years until they boosted the horsepower even more, to give the brute more speed.
"I wanted a truck that I thought suited me," she says. She bought it on May 29, 1999, "and I've been driving it every day since."
It's 6:30 p.m. near the end of a long week and Williams emerges from her personal training session in Georgetown, freshly changed into a black and white silk blouse and trousers. She climbs into her Hummer, parked in front of the fitness club, with the graceful motion of an equestrian. Her left foot steps high up onto the running board and she slips into her seat.
She guides the truck onto M Street, easing into a clot of vehicles inching toward the traffic light at Wisconsin. This is the worst of the rush hour, and it can take an hour and a half to get home to North Potomac, but she seems unfazed. One freshly manicured hand curls lightly around the leather-wrapped steering wheel; the other hand is propped at an angle on her hip as she waits patiently. In the background, Ray Charles croons "God Bless America" on the Monsoon speakers.