Walk, Damn It!

by Jason Peters on January 27, 2010 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

BoysCrosswalk


Rock Island, IL

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?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dianne January 27, 2010 at 4:17 am

Maybe they’re not ready to walk everywhere yet, but at least, fortunately, 98% of U.S. commuters heartily support public transportation:

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/report_98_percent_of_u_s_commuters

Problem nearly solved, right?

avatar Bob Cheeks January 27, 2010 at 5:48 am

The thing I like about porchers, as P.A.L. says, is that most of them not only talk the talk they ….., well you know!
Jason, I’m surprised that someone with a phd…(well, er, maybe I’m not), hasn’t figured out that the way to save his aching knees is to purchase a bicycle.

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 27, 2010 at 9:24 am

Jason, a fine and worthy manifesto, which I agree with entirely. Walk to school

…or, as Bob wisely observes, ride you bike.

avatar John Médaille January 27, 2010 at 9:33 am

Walk where? The cities are designed around the car.

avatar rufus January 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

Walking also saves a lot of money. Here in Canada, I think they make up for saving on health insurance by pricing the auto insurance way too high. When I put my car in storage and stopped driving a year ago, I started saving about $500/ month. Sometimes, I need to go far enough to take the bus, but I actually like public transit, just for the chance to listen to people in our city talk about their personal soap operas. Usually, though, I walk. Another important suggestion- leave the cell phone at home and you can get more thinking done.

avatar AML January 27, 2010 at 11:41 am

I’m in John’s boat on this one. From my perch in suburbia, there is literally nowhere I can walk without undue risk to life and limb. This is a regrettable siutation but one I am stuck in for the time being.

avatar Zak January 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm

What do you drink for breakfast? Your German beer traveled quite a bit further to get to Bierstube than my orange juice did to get to my kitchen.

avatar Dianne January 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Keep up the dissent. I agree with you completely, and I’m also glad you acknowledged how badly implicated we all are in the car culture anyway, even as we try to resist it. I am all too much, I must admit to my shame, like the “98% of U.S. commuters” in the Onion article, who support public transportation for *other* people. Even as I despise how we’ve designed nearly all of our built environment around the car, and even as I live in a pretty walkable neighborhood, still, most places I go, I need the freakin’ car.

And about this walkable neighborhood. It has a lot going for it, but it irks me mightily that the much-praised street of local businesses that I live near is 90% frou-frou yuppified shops that have nothing to do with daily needs. There’s a public library, thank God, a drugstore, and a Trader Joe’s, which I guess I’m supposed to adore (okay, it’s convenient for a lot of things, but stupid in so many ways). But otherwise, I’m not doing a lot of walking to buy daily supplies of gourmet cookware, designer dresses, interior design items and high-end audio equipment. Like, would it be so bad to have a hardware store on the street? But I fear that most of the Priuses in the ‘hood would still drive to Home Despot for that. Sigh.

I have to grant that this neighborhood was a great place to raise kids. Neighbors out on the sidewalk, some wonderful parks and a lake in walking distance, and that aforementioned public library. But now they’re teens and, yep, need a car to get a lot of the places they go. They still walk a lot, and take the bus, but their stuff isn’t cozily circumscribed by our walkable neighborhood any more.

avatar Smith January 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Here is an interesting article which reading between the lines suggests that allowing the market too much influence creates our problems and that has to be true about the design of our environment:-

http://www.qfinance.com/macroeconomic-issues-viewpoints/viewpoint-richard-a-werner

avatar JP January 27, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Love the article. I often walk thinking that those whizzing past are really missing out – brisk morning walks are among the most invigorating. A few yrs back I lived in MI and would always look forward to a 5am -10 or cooler (with windchill) walk with the dog along the river in Lansing.

Like I said, just breathing in fresh air makes it all worth while. Here, I can walk to the local market in less time than it takes some neighbors to get out of the house, start the car, de-ice it, etc, and then park, shut off the engine, get out and walk to the front door. Talk about wasted energy.

Thanks for another great essay. I always look forward to reading my daily dose of FPR. Prof Peters never fails to brighten my day.

avatar Duncan January 27, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Many Thanks Mr Peters for the fine article from, I suspect, a lonely Australian reader.
It reminded me of the poor illiterate bloke I saw driving a beautifully restored 1960′s EH Holden (GM) with the vanity plate ‘UNIQ’ attached. Perhaps he was and the jokes on me, but I suspect not.
Thanks too, to all the FPR contributors for this fine insight into a more considered American conservatism, something previously thought to exist only between the much thumbed covers of Mr Berry’s books. (Largely unavailable here.) It has been a most enjoyable education.

avatar Bob Banning January 28, 2010 at 8:02 am

I’m with you, Jason. Perhaps I compromise a little–I ride a bike instead of walking. The places I want to go are between 1.3 and 2.8 miles, and the trip subtracts just a little less of my workday when I bike it.
Almost everyone who sees me biking is in awe of me when it rains a little or gets below fifty degrees: “Tell me you didn’t bike in this!” “It’s true,” I say. “I am an iron man. I am Supereditor. Several times a week I burst out of my study and bike 2.8 miles–even in the rain.”
I do not want to be amazing. I want biking to be ordinary. I think I will be waiting for that for a long time.

avatar Nathan P. Origer January 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

@Zac

“What do you drink for breakfast? Your German beer traveled quite a bit further to get to Bierstube than my orange juice did to get to my kitchen.”

Relevance FAIL. Dissent from Peters’ dissent is much more palatable when you address something more substantive than a minor point that he makes about orange juice, particularly given that his actual statement is pregnant with very specific limits. Moreover, and more important, good beer is far more fundamental to civilization than orange juice.

avatar Cecelia January 29, 2010 at 1:47 am

While taking my morning walk I have of late noted a man – always dressed impeccably in a suit and top coat – riding a bike – with briefcase tucked onto the rear fender. Today this amazing soul – still in his long top coat and suit – was also carrying a bouquet of flowers. – his hand grasping both the flowers and the handlebars. What a sight! Kept me smiling for some time. I hope those flowers went to a properly appreciative woman.

In England there are areas that now stop the school buses a half mile from the school and send the kids out to walk the rest of the distance. Part of an effort to deal with rising obesity among children.

My grandfather once advised me to marry a man who would walk in the rain. I was in my youth perplexed by that advice but I understand it now.

avatar Hans Noeldner January 29, 2010 at 10:12 am

Beautiful, Herr Professor! God bless you for walking the talk. There are many important things one will never grasp from the inside of a windshield.

And you hit the nail on the head indeed about the vacuum hose applied to the conscience. Solvitur ambulando, baby. Literally.

avatar Paul Noeldner January 30, 2010 at 12:19 am

Trilobytes have indeed inherited the earth. Their DNA lives on in our trilobyte-level brain areas that demand hard outer shells in which to skuttle to and fro, without exposing our softer sides. I have no doubt that given enough time humans will evolve wheeled exoskeletons :)

avatar RL February 1, 2010 at 10:46 am

Making your trips to the grocery on foot has the added benefit of cutting down the number of impulse items you purchase since you won’t want to have to carry them home.

avatar Sam M February 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

“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.”

Drivers are idiots? Fat, or something? OK, I guess. But the tone of this article seems pretty off base to me.

Yeah, “people” drive too much. But nothing irks like a self-satisfied person casting scorn on others. Sure, I guess you are our better in terms of walking, but I am sure there are some drivers who are your superior in terms of eating locally, or being attentive to the children in the community, or volunteering, etc. And it wouldn’t seem to do, at all, for those people to questions, say, your radio-listening choices.

Honestly. You think that people who are walking are somehow less influnced by “talk radio jockey incapable of balance or symmetry fills the unfurnished commuter’s mind with the day’s permitted blather”?

You choose to take your stand on the issue of driving. Good for you. But that’s harldy the last place to take that stand. And it’s not fair to insinuate that anyone who takes the stand elsewhere is a mindless, McDonald’s-scarfing, anti-social idiot. Why, I happen to know some VERY good people who eat at McDonalds and drive cars and listen to Howard Stern. Hardly any of them have gaping maws. Some of them, I would even venture to guess, are better people than I am, all things considered.

Imagine that.

avatar Ryan F. March 5, 2010 at 12:57 am

Walking feels so extravagant when everyone else acts so time starved. I like it.

avatar Becca July 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

a) orange season begins in January, I think if Republicans want orange juice that is when they should drink it
b) I almost completely agree with you in all of your arguments, but nonetheless
c) you are certainly a self-righteous elitist, in the best way possible.

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