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May 16, 2010

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Cars are purported to be instruments of convenience
but they're more symptoms of subservience. How did
lives become spread so thin, too little time stretched
to breaking over ever-broadening distances? Divide
and conquer is more than a mere military axiom, it's
the unspoken imperative of capitalism--you will sell
more to people who have bought into the American
suburban illusion of self-sufficiency. The factory system
calls for internal efficiencies to keep costs down but it
needs external inefficiencies to turn over more product.
Planned obsolescence maintains demand for gadgets
and sprawling disconnected communities hunger insatiably
for energy to light, heat, and cool oversized single-family
homes and ever more oil to fuel the means of overcoming
self-imposed isolation from the centers of shared human
activity--work, school, markets, worship, and recreation.
The automobile is said to conquer distance but a
more elegant solution is to localize one's existence.
I'm lucky to live in a city where it's possible to get
around easily without a car. I bike, bus, and, increasingly,
walk. And when I walk, I like to explore new routes. After
12 years, I still haven't trod most Seattle streets. Ruts get
worn in deep grooves, usually defined by the the shortest
distance between destinations. In a culture where it is
assumed that there is never enough time, making haste
is a given, which in turn has made us pathologically
impatient--as evidenced by the rage with which most drivers
react to the most fleeting of delays. Exasperation over petty
hindrances is even seen as a virtue, a mark of one's
goal-oriented resolve. Sociopathic displays of anger--profanity,
threats, faces twisted by disproportionate rage--are so
common on American roads as to be considered normal. Fits
of pique which would be seen as inappropriate overreactions
anywhere else are tacitly accepted so long as they take place
in the relative seclusion and virtual anonymity of one's car.

When walking, biking, or riding mass transit, one is aware of
sharing public space. The little bubbles that we inhabit are
permeable at these times, sensitive to others and the minutiae
of our surroundings. Automobiles also share public space
but seem to their drivers to be private, encapsulated,
personal spaces--my climate, my music, my domain--and
thus owe no responsibility to those on the "wrong" side of
the windshield--the pedestrians, cyclists, and other hurtling
metal boxes out there, intangible as if seen on a TV screen.
I was prompted to think about the psychology of driving after
witnessing a true moron in a '60s muscle car screaming down
Dexter Avenue at easily double the speed limit. The top was
down and driver and front passenger were laughing idiotically
while the rear seat passenger leaned her head back with eyes
closed, either afraid to watch or just enjoying the sun. The car
was extremely loud and after it passed the stink of burned
engine fluid lingered in its wake. I wanted so badly for them to
come back so I could flag down the Mustang's driver and ask,
"What makes you think it's OK to make so much noise, stink
up the air, and recklessly endanger people's lives?" It didn't
come back but I could hear its hysterical burble racing up and
down nearby streets. About 10 minutes later I rounded a
hairpin corner 100 yards from my destination and came nose
to nose with the same car, which had apparently skidded out
of control and slid sideways into the exterior wall of Pasta
Fresca Italian restaurant. It must not have been a high speed
impact because there seemed little damage to either vehicle
or passengers. The guys in front looked dazed, either wasted
on who-knows-what or in mild shock. The front seat passenger
was rubbing his nose tentatively while two police officers coaxed
the driver into climbing out over the stuck door. The woman in
back leaned forward briefly, then resumed her favorite pose,
head back, eyes closed, this time more obviously wishing for
the scene to disappear. It was lucky for me that I hadn't been
on that sidewalk at the wrong time, but more than that I was
amazed at the speed with which poetic justice had been served.