Carless and Carfree
Marylaine Block's "Carless and Carfree" column from September 1996. I copied it here to format it a bit better. She didn't want the whole thing here, because she wanted people to visit her site... but the format on her site is hard to read... just so you know I'm being arrogant and disrespectful (and figuring nothing really bad will happen...). The original is at: http://marylaine.com/myword/cars.html
The original is at: http://marylaine.com/myword/cars.html
vol. 2, #10, September, 1996 CARLESS AND CAREFREE
You could think of me as a unicorn--you know, one of those phantasmagoric creatures that maybe once existed, but certainly hasn't been sighted for centuries. One of those legendary animals our ancestors used to sit around the campfire telling tall tales about.
At least I'm the next best thing--an American adult without a car.
Those of you dwelling in large urban areas with excellent public transportation may not understand this as a freakish lifestyle choice, but it is, oh, indeed, it is.
This choice was not a statement of anti-materialist ideology. It was made very simply because I had enough money to have any two of three things--I could have a house and a car, a child and a car, or a child and a house. Since I already had the child, it wasn't a difficult decision.
It was, however, a thoroughly unAmerican decision. If it ever seems to you that I kind of stand off to the side of our culture, observing it rather than wholly participating in it, living without a car in America is part of the reason. Behavior that cars encourage or enforce, that other Americans take for granted, seem to me every bit as curious as the behavior of the Cargo Cult.
For one thing, cars are far more addictive than caffeine or nicotine or heroin. Once you own a car, you arrange your life around the assumption that you will always own a car. You think nothing of choosing a house that is miles away from your work, miles away from a grocery store, miles away from your friends. And when your car breaks down, as it assuredly will, you are in deep, deep trouble. When the roads are impassable with blowing snow and ice, as they assuredly will be, you are in deep, deep trouble. When you work on one side of a river, and live on the other, and ALL the bridges are simultaneously shut down for repairs, as they assuredly will be, you are in deep, deep trouble.
But an American will buy that house in the boondocks anyway, because he cannot conceive of the possibility of NOT having a car. After all, he's an American, dammit, and life, liberty and a driver's license were part of the Constitution, or something, weren't they?
Part of the American fascination with cars has to do with our love of mobility, with change. If they ever made an Olympic sport out of leaving, Americans would take the gold, the silver and the bronze from here to eternity. Sometimes we leave to make a better life for ourselves and our families. We go to Arizona because of our asthma, to the gold fields of California or Alaska in hopes of striking it rich, to California where it's green, because our own land dried up and blew away. We leave to go where the jobs are.
Sometimes, of course, we're not so much leaving as running away. Running from taxes (another Olympic event we'd do well in). Running from bad schools, and a decaying urban environment. Running from neighborhoods that have changed color. Running from inept or corrupt city governments that cannot fix the problems. It's always easier to leave than to work to make things better.
But another part of our fascination with cars is the amount of personal choice cars make possible. Cars allow us to go wherever we want, whenever we want to go there. We don't have to plan our movements. We can decide, on the whim of the moment, to go hang out at our favorite bar and look for foxy girls or hunky guys. We're not limited by train or bus schedules, nor are we limited to going where the trains or buses go.
Furthermore, we can choose who goes with us. Or we can go alone. We can carry on conversations or flirtations as we go, or we can think through problems, or listen to music or Rush Limbaugh (a great person to share a traffic jam with), or eat breakfast (America is the natural home of the drive-through window), or conduct our business on a cellular phone.
Whatever we do in our cars, we are doing it in a fairly spacious, comfortable environment. We are not queuing up with strangers (Americans are NOT good at waiting), not squeezing into crowded subways and buses, not precariously hanging onto straps, not listening to boomboxes playing loud rap music, not smelling other people's noxious body odors, not overhearing teenagers demonstrate their mastery of the four-letter-word vocabulary, not being threatened by young hoodlums.
And we are not being exposed to anyone who is not of our own social class and values. Do you wonder that our political and business leaders are "out of touch" with the working class?
All aspects of our lives are determined by the fact that cars are assumed as a given. Towns are created out of fields wherever highways meet--all that is absolutely necessary is a large shopping center, with ample parking, someplace along that highway. These towns can sprawl out endlessly, because there is no center, no downtown, that people will need to walk to. (Indeed, walking is such an alien concept that many suburban towns do not even have sidewalks.) Suburbanites think nothing of driving half an hour in pursuit of the perfect bagel, the finest chocolate, the most authentic Indonesian cuisine.
The nature of communities has changed because of cars, too. Women in the suburbs in the 1950's, home all day, without a car, had no choice but to find their friends in their neighborhoods. Now, because our cars will take us to wherever our friends may be, we choose them differently--our friends are people we work with, people we play racquetball with, people whose kids are in our kids' scout troops, people who work on voter education drives with us. Our friends are friends by affinity, not geography. Nowadays, we may not even know all our neighbors' names.
Our children have turned into an entirely new class of being--the unremittingly chauffered. Parents (mostly mothers) organize their lives around transporting, or arranging transport for, kids--to go to school, or ballet lessons or cub scouts or little league or rehearsals for the school musical. Our kids grow up knowing that they will never achieve independence until they own their own car.
We have no true initiation rites in American society, nothing equivalent to the Bar Mitzvah, signifying "Today I am a man." The closest we really come to it is getting our driver's license, and buying our first car (wrecking our first car, too). The car allows us to go on dates without a parent in the front seat. It allows us to attempt that first, off-center kiss in private. It allows us to go places our parents told us not to go. And, since it costs us big bucks for car payments and insurance and gas, it forces us to go out and get jobs and learn how to budget money and time.
Our politics are shaped by cars, too. That's why we feed our roads and starve our public transportation. It's why we will always be only half-environmentalists, because we can't rid ourselves of our dependence on oil--from the Middle East.
So how, you say, did I then manage to survive and raise a child without a car in America?
With some minor difficulty. I bought a house that is near my work, near a grocery store, near a laundromat, and near a bus line. I can walk or bike or take a bus almost anyplace I need to go. I rent a car periodically to visit my family in Michigan. On rare occasions, I call on my friends with cars for assistance in buying or moving large items that do not fit on the back of the bike.
I don't say this doesn't have its inconveniences. I just biked three miles out to our Target store only to find that it had been moved to the farthest outskirts of town--according to the sign on the door, "To serve you better." Personally, I feel that the next time they want to serve me better, they could ask me whether moving 5 miles north and 3 miles east of the center of town would do that.
My carlessness means that I raised a son who is hopelessly unfit for American society. He did learn to drive, though without getting much actual practice or confidence (while doing more than his fair share to keep the little old ladies of Davenport spry). But he learned to enjoy his carless state, finding it very much in keeping with his environmentalism and his politics (nobody's going to have to fight a war in the Middle East to support his way of life), and finding that he very much enjoyed long distance walking and biking. He will be moving to a town with a 24 hour transit system that will allow him to continue his cheerfully carless lifestyle. (He wants you to know that he is responsible for the title of this column--he used it for one of his poems.)
How did he manage to achieve any degree of independence, without a car, and with a mother who refuses to be offended by (and even likes) his music? Well, actually, by leaving home. And by having that Y chromosome that tells him that, however rational and intelligent I may seem, I am still a girl and may be cheerfully disregarded.
Living without a car makes it a little harder for us to fit in to our society. We stand on our little cultural island, observing the peculiar habits of the natives of our surrounding continent (with them regarding us as even more bizarre). Nonetheless, because I have no car, I own a house. I have a lot more money than I would have if I were supporting a car, a gas station, an insurance company and an auto mechanic. I am in a state of cardiovascular fitness that is the envy of my family. Life as a unicorn has its compensations.