If you walk the same route at about the same time every day, as I do, you develop a certain familiarity with the automobile culture that perfumes the public air. You can rattle off in your head the license plate of the red Ford coming your way, unless it’s that other red Ford, in which case you know that the driver, a somnambulant woman leaning into her steering wheel, mouth agape, is already, at this early hour, wearing her cell phone.
You learn who attends to the road and who doesn’t— who’s double-thumbing a gadget or applying mascara or stuffing a Twelve-Cheese McCloggenStopper into his gaping maw as a talk radio jockey incapable of balance or symmetry fills the unfurnished commuter’s mind with the day’s permitted blather.
You know the routes, the timing, the arrangement of the passengers. You know which of the cars coming toward you will pass you again the other way, and in how many minutes, just as you know which ones will speed by you and, in short order, speed back toward you again, the beloved children safely deposited in the care of strangers.
Able-bodied high-schoolers from my neighborhood drive the same route this creaking arthritic ex-jock walks. The only people I share the sidewalks with are the hobos and the kids who aren’t old enough to drive yet.
I get the feeling that I am more attentive to those around me than those around me are. If this is so, I expect it has something to do with the difference between being a walker and a driver, though I won’t go to the mat on this point. There are, I know, attentive drivers. Perhaps I flatter myself in thinking that I have been such a driver.
But one person whom I know fairly well has whizzed by me for several years now apparently without any knowledge that there are sidewalks in this city, much less sidewalks used by someone he knows. That, or else he knows full-well whom he’s ignoring, and I am less liked than I think.
Some folks do wave; others honk. One knows me and flips me off; later, around the coffee pot, he and I will exchange jokes, puns, etymologies, and classroom anecdotes.
Some have never seen me before, though I can name their vehicles by make, model, and year and tell you their preferred headdress. Someone once threw a fountain drink at me. To acknowledge the gesture I permitted him a glimpse of one of my fingers.
The vanity plates and bumper stickers are enough to keep a man amused for a lifetime. There’s the Hummer with a license plate that says “MR BIG D 5.” (If you’re going to lie about that, don’t you think you’d pick a bigger number?) It was on this route that I first saw the sticker: “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Roll Student.” I’m sure the parents of the chess-club president are decent people, but I’m with the parents of the bully. I liked immediately the driver of a cancerous Toyota whose bumper sticker read: “Proud Parent of Inmate of the Month at County Jail.”
And along my way I can, of course, wave to residents, should any appear on a porch, and also to the proprietors of a few local businesses, save Steve the barber, who on the first of January last year resolved to quit cigarettes and booze and by March was dead of a heart attack. The moral of that story, I assure you, was not lost on me, but Steve–may he rest in beery nicotined peace–no longer clips my mane or fills my ears with salty talk.
I’ve noticed that more SUVs than Volvos have McCain-Palin stickers on them; likewise, more hybrids than pick-ups sport Obama-Biden stickers. But there they are, the liberals and conservatives alike, driving in formation, the difference between them being, near as I can tell, the size of the vacuum hose applied to their conscience—and into which corner of the conscience the hose has been shoved.
The change in private behavior that I should so like to see I see nowhere. The price of gas does not alter behavior. The threat of a warming planet does not alter behavior. Illness and obesity do not alter behavior.
Mind you: it’s not as if there’s no generosity in the world. I’ve been offered rides by floozies and pansies and concerned citizens who think I’ve been mistreated by an unreliable car. But I don’t seem to have inaugurated the transportation revolution I had hoped to launch back in 1996 when I first decided that I would live within walking distance of all the places I need to be.
Many of my colleagues live in my neighborhood; all of them belong to the great mass of air-perfumers who motor by me each day. All of them want something done about global warming.
As pissed as I am at those on the Right who are willing to risk rapid global climate change for the sake of living standards, I am equally pissed at those on the Left who think change is something other people make—people like corporations, for example, whom our Supreme Court has welcomed to the communion of our race. Private life proceeds apace: more flat screens in HD for Democrats, unlimited orange juice in January for Republicans, and another long day’s driving into night for both.
I am frequently told that my dissent does no good. And this is true, I suppose, if measurability be the measure. But the evidence does seems to suggest that everyone’s capitulation to life in the fast lane does in fact, when added up, do considerable, not to mention measurable, harm. That alone, it seems to me, is reason to dissent as often as possible from the flat screens and the Orangensaft and the quick trips in the family hearse.
If not, so be it. I will dissent nevertheless.
But I offer “as often as possible” here in partial remittance for the debt I incur by my own complicity. Like everyone I know, I am the abject dependent of the automobile, the gas company, and distant producers of everything from bow-tie pasta to boxer shorts. Even I wouldn’t imitate me.
But I would have us remake private life in this country. I would have us remake it in large steps and small, by piecemeal if also by policy. I would have, for starters, fewer fumes blasting the walkers of the world. I would have more people with driver’s licenses sharing the sidewalks with those too young to carry them. We who share the sidewalks would be sending those too young to drive a completely different message from the one they’re currently getting.
And what if their attitudes toward HDTV and orange juice were to change?
So I take as my example the automobile. It has become, for me, the emblem of sloth and moral turpitude. Civilized man has built the coach, said Emerson, but lost the use of his feet. That, I think, was a gentle remark. I suffer from two bad knees and a scorching case of plantar fasciitis that scarcely gives me a moment’s respite. And yet in the pelting snowy wind and sub-zero temperatures I hoof it in each day. Such is the pact I made with myself several years ago.
And now I honestly wonder: who would willingly ruin a morning blizzard or a thunderstorm by getting into a motorized vehicle?
Drive rather than walk through snow or lightening? Are you kidding me?