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Color of the Beasts

Those silly General Motors executives. They just don't know Richmond. A yellow H2 (12 miles per gallon, city) is so new-money. It would never do in the CCV parking lot or at (whatever astronomers claim) the real center of the universe: Libbie and Grove avenues. No, darling. If you are going to move among those who own a real property and not just a shanty at the Rivah, or at least look like you are trying, you must have a Suburban (15 mpg) or, if you wish to be sporty, a Tahoe (15 mpg). And, by all means, buy it in champagne.

The names we give automotive paints are as twisted as our lust for four-wheel drive we never use, but we all know what "champagne" means. It's that nondescript, dirt-shedding silvery light-brown hue that actually looks like something on the floor the morning after drinking too much champagne. If the scales have not yet fallen from your eyes, do your own little experiment by checking the colors of those gigantic plagues-on-wheels.

Check these factoids from my recent "Color of the Beasts" bike ride. In the three-mile stretch between my chiropractor's office on Grove and the University of Richmond campus, I pedaled along and counted every body-on-frame GM SUV (Escalade, Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon) I could find. I did not count those crossovers or anything made with a unibody. Tally: 28 champagne-colored giants to 30 in other hues. To corroborate my findings, I planned a second expedition (sorry — I'll do a separate Ford Motors count later) on foot in Carytown. I racked up nine champagnes to 11 others in end-of-cheap-oil black, dying ocean blue and clear-cut-forest green. I spotted one champagne Prius (loser!) and one black H2 (poser!), by the way.

I almost respected that Hummer owner. If you are going to be a jerk who doesn't give a damn about wrecking the planet, why not flaunt it in an arterial red ecocide machine with a rhino bar? There's something downright creepy about big SUVs that try to make themselves invisible. It's so Richmond to try that. I keep thinking of how it resembles those backhanded "Richmond compliments." You know: "Why, you have such a nice little house." or "You do so much with what you have."

Now, however, I'm picking up a new vibe in the air when I'm close enough to Hampton House to feel the gravitational pull of what, in these degenerate post-Clover Room times, passes for old Richmond. There's a desperation on the faces of these Richmonders behind the wheels of their planet-killers. Maybe it's that $100 per tank: not even a nibble out of such individuals' budgets, but a benchmark for what may be coming. At times, I think I'm seeing the same trembling that the ensconced nobility at Versailles must have felt when rumor of revolution first reached them. This time, thank God, the gutters won't run with blood. When the smooth-flanked metallic beasts have been guillotined in our auto-recycling centers, it might be biodiesel or switchgrass ethanol running, and running whatever replaces our grotesquely overpowered, oversized vehicles. That is, if we are very, very lucky in the coming era of what a number of petroleum geologists and energy analysts are calling a global peak in oil production. Like Rome at its peak, that means only decline afterward.

Of course, it could be nasty when it dawns on the majority of Richmond drivers that cheap oil will be as extinct as Miller & Rhoads, and world production of the sacred fluid begins to slowly ebb. As a friend quipped when I was discussing how empires fade, "In America, when that happens, it will not be pretty."

Rome at the height of its power? Wasn't that followed by economic stagnation, barbarian invasions, religious warfare, the loss of knowledge and the dismantling of the most advanced society on the planet?

But wait. There's hope. When oil prices spiked, President Bush was replaced with the Bizarro-world version of President Bush. The same man who in a 2002 speech called for "an energy bill that encourages consumption" now wants us to conserve energy and kick America's "addiction" to oil. When he ditches the armored (black) SUVs he uses for a motorcade of Segway scooters, I may even believe he's sincere.

Meanwhile, I'll take my new dinosaur in champagne, please. It'll blend in with the tennis-skirt set.

Maybe when that inevitable day comes, that angry mob won't see it when I'm trying to escape from them. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond and plans to run the family's 45-mpg Jetta diesel on fryer grease as soon as the VW's warranty expires.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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