A Hummer Changes Everything

Test-driving the SUV for bad people

Wally McCarthy's Hummer dealership sits to the side of Highway 35E in Roseville, a strip-mall neighbor to Red Lobster, Applebee's, and the Good Earth. It's hard to miss, because the word HUMMER is everywhere--painted in huge and dripping letters on the showroom's plate-glass window, and plastered high above the Wally McCarthy sign that beckons to the small cars driven by small people who take the freeway to and from their small lives.

This is Hummer ground zero in Minnesota--even though Wally's main thing is still Cadillacs, which look like origami lanterns next to the H2, that icon of double-ought dread and opulence and These-Bright-Primary-Colors-Don't-Run statement-making. A dozen or so Hummers ($49,000-$75,000) are on display here in the outdoor lot. Two are propped up on flatbeds near the entrance, so when you crane your neck to salute them, they look like monuments to death-from-above. Stationed near the showroom window, a more ominous-looking specimen with a snowplow chained to its massive front grille suggests that HUMMER kicks Minnesota winter ass.

Walk in the front door and the first person you see is Hummer employee Scott, but what you really notice first--all you can see, really, all you want to see, all you came to see--is right in front of you: a fire-engine red Hummer. "That's what they call it, but fire engines aren't this red," says Scott, who's clad in maintenance worker garb and a Cadillac baseball cap. While spritzing his unit with a spray bottle and wiping it with a rag, Scott talks evangelically about this particular Hummer's custom chrome exhaust pipes, and massages the driver's door (or "cockpit," as the promotional lit has it), the way a horse trainer might stroke a champion stallion. Scott's eyes rarely meet yours, but when they do, they have the manic-hollow look of a man who spends his days getting close to something he's working hard at never having.

James O'Brien

I ask Scott to see George, which is what George told me to do when I called to set up my test drive. Scott points me toward a bald 50-something salesman whose desk sits beneath the plaque-festooned Wally McCarthy Wall of Fame near the back of the showroom.

George shakes my hand, takes me out to the lot, and leads me to a sleek black rendition. He unlocks the door and hands me the keys, and the straightforwardness of it all is surprising: no background check, no asking for ID, no sign that says "For Your Security This Transaction Has Been Videotaped," like the one that greeted me at Mount Rushmore earlier this summer. The only personal data George asks of me is what line of work I'm in. I tell him I'm into music and that I'm a writer and that in fact I might write something about this. He doesn't flinch, I suppose because at this point the Hummer is both bullet- and blame-proof. General Motors can't make them fast enough.

We sit in the lot, George and me, soaking in the first moments of our blind date. He talks with an easy, practiced big-one-on-the-line buoyancy. One of his customers installed three TV monitors in his Hummer, George tells me, but all I can think about is how bitchin' the stereo system is gonna sound. George tells me to turn the key in the ignition, scanning my face and demeanor for signs of rapture. He proselytizes about how easy it handles and how I shouldn't worry about hitting anything.

Pulling out onto the road, I feel like I'm driving a Holidazzle float. When I see another one pulling out from the back of the lot, and still another plunging down the frontage road, I feel an instant bond with my fellow Hummer enthusiasts. In a better world, we would be talking on two-ways, synchronizing our respective coordinates, flying over the crests of massive dunes in tight formation. First we take Arden Hills.

Everything about the machine is preternaturally big, but George is intent on emphasizing its manageability: how it's great on corners and whatnot. He guides me out onto the frontage road to test the brakes and the 0-60 acceleration, which doesn't really turn me on, but I do like his approach to coaching me around a sharp curve. "Have faith in George! Have faith in George!" he encourages me. "Is it true the Hummer only gets 8 miles a gallon?" I ask him later. He scoffs: Why, a lot of people get 10-12 miles per gallon, and "14 if you're really good. But most people aren't really good."

It's hard not to like George. He's got two daughters in college, one of whom he just drove to school in a Hummer. I imagine empty-nest George tooling down a wide-open interstate in a borrowed Hummer, like Gorgo sprinting through a poppy field. "Oh, people look at you. People will look at you," says George. It's true. Men, women, children--they're looking at me, all right, but they are not looking at me the way I've seen people staring at, say, the drivers of vintage convertibles. When one woman fixes me with a look of particular disdain, I feel just like Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, watching rock videos all alone in my home theater. But the trials of Hummer-dom are nothing compared to the satisfactions, George assures me: "When you come up to an intersection, they all stop for you. They want you to go first. They want to watch you. And there's a fear factor, too."

Sold! We drive into Arden Hills, past Bethel Seminary, and around Lake Johanna. It's a beautiful day, Norah Jones is cranked on the smooth jazz station, and everything is so perfectly controlled, every worldly contingency so remote, it's like I've died and gone to a heaven I've only read about in TV commercials. George points to a visor that runs the length of the sunroof and says, "This is so the wind doesn't mess up your hair."

Fifteen minutes after we started, on our way back to the lot, George has me drive into a ditch--to prove that, well, Hummers can drive through ditches. When we go by a rock the size of one of the truck's monster wheels, he mutters, defiantly, "We could actually drive over that rock."

As we pull into the lot, George tells me about going to Hummer school in South Bend, Indiana, and about the "Hummer Happening" he recently attended at the Trollhaugen ski resort in Wisconsin. "Hummers are like Harleys, they really are," he says. "Each one is an individual. There were 40 Hummers at this place, and if you think this looks big here now, imagine what 40 of these look like, climbing hills in Wisconsin."

"Some environmental tree huggers have damaged some Hummers," says George as we walk back into the showroom. "But Hummer [school] teaches us to tread softly on the environment. Hummers got tons of torque and tread, but don't tear up the terrain."

Back at his desk, George gives me his card, a sales brochure, and a poster. I browse through the showroom one more time, and say goodbye to Scott, who is now wiping the particulate matter from a yellow specimen. I walk out to the lot and get in my 12-year-old Toyota. The passenger-side door doesn't work, and neither does the radio, so I drive in silence save for the sound of the puttering engine below. I get on the freeway, crack the window, and wonder why on earth anyone would want a car that doesn't let you feel the wind in your hair.

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