Please Don’t Hit Me

Cars kill. [CC Heth AR]

When I was young, “going to town” is what we in the foothills of Appalachia considered an awfully big deal. We’d all get quite excited, drest in clean and un-torn clothes (there weren’t many of these), put on shoes, and pile into my factory-working father’s car.

We lived about 30 miles from the “town,” which bore the Shawnee name for town, so it was perhaps not all that odd that we called it town. “Town” meant something akin to what one imagines a peasant thought of as “going to market,” where we’d see the sights and what wares were offered and maybe bring home a bauble or a trinket or possibly, if our father had enough money (he rarely did) we’d get a new item of clothing. Typically, my little sisters would get new plastic barrettes for their hair and maybe a stuffed animal. I’d sometimes get a book.

Unfortunately, often times the car wouldn’t start.   We were poor, you see.

After all the excitement and possibility and hope the trip inspired, there was this collective moment of despair when it was finally declared that “we ain’t goin’ nowhere” and our parents would get out of the car and argue. My little sisters and I would often remain in the car long after, sitting in shared despair.

One day, my developmentally-disabled and mentally-ill mother got it in her head that she’d drive my sisters and I to a grocery store. We had eaten everything the welfare truck had brought (usually powdered milk and “government cheese”) but still had enough food stamps (these were paper still),  and there was a tiny bit of gas in the car, so my sisters and I got in and my mother started the car to go to town.

Imagine our excitement!  My mother wasn’t really allowed to drive, and didn’t have a license, but we were going somewhere, escaping the monotony of our clay yard and coal-dust covered walls (the government had given us coal to burn in our wood-burning stove that winter, which is not a good idea. The walls were so black, and it got worse when we tried to wash them because it just smeared). But we were going to town!

I guess I should say that my mother didn’t really know how to drive, or hadn’t in so long that she couldn’t control the car and then it backed up into our open sewer which had beautiful thistle and milkweed growing like giants in the black cesspool which was supposed to be a leech-bed. The car rolled backward into the middle of the muck and stopped.

My sisters and I don’t quite remember whether I helped carry them through the open sewage or we trudged out through knee-deep liquefied feces together. But we do remember the despair, and the smell. I think I was 10, they were 6 and 3.

“Chariots of Freedom”

There’s this romanticism about owning a car I shall never understand. The allure of the American Road-Trip, the fantasy of being on an open road, blasting music into the night at inhuman speeds. And there’s the supposed necessity, the idea of the car being a requirement for a human existence and self-actualization. A Libertarian in Seattle once called them “Chariots of Freedom.”  Cars represent independence, self-reliance, a strange and bizarre fantasy I cannot comprehend.

I don’t drive. When I tell people this, depending on where they live, I either get asked what my blood-alcohol level was when I got pulled over, or get a tacit acknowledgment of my economic status (I’ve never made more than 24k/year), or sometimes have to endure an odd defensiveness, like I’ve made some political statement against which my interlocutor must argue.

We all know cars are bad for the environment. Extracting the compressed carbonized corpses of our ancestors, that liquid black-magic from deep in our earth-mother’s bowels and then burning it inside of big metal cages so we can travel really fast isn’t really the nicest thing we humans have done for ourselves.

I’ve never driven, though. I don’t really know how to, nor do I ever see the need to learn. I like my feet, and my bike, and I like living in cities where people collectively decided that owning a car is a luxury, not a necessity. I like buses, and I particularly like trains, because I particularly don’t like roads, or how we’ve re-configured the world around the car.

Pavement and Parking-Lots

If you intend to cross a street where I currently live, you must wait a very long time and pray to every god you know that the drivers of the automobiles with the Tea-Party bumper stickers on the six-lane arterials haven’t decided that your life is less important than their desire to get home from work as fast as possible. In Seattle, the hope was that maybe, just maybe, the nice-looking woman with the Obama sticker in the hybrid car might look up from her iThing long enough to notice I was carrying several bags of groceries across the street in a crosswalk. Often enough she didn’t and I had to run and sometimes lose groceries and lots of dignity and trust in humanity.

Cities in America are built around the desire to own and use and drive one of these big metal things everywhere. Suburbs are very difficult to live in without one, and the further away you get from the urban, the more impossible it is to obtain even the basic necessities of existence without one.

So much space in our world is devoted to the car.  We blast out mountains for them, we drain wetlands, we bulldoze homes.  We don’t move the earth to help the poor, we don’t tear down mountains to stop wars.  But we’ll rape the land and siphon out its blood for our “mobility, convenience, and freedom.”

Why do we do this? I really don’t know. I don’t know why any of you are driving, and I’ve got no reason to judge and hardly the energy for it, and mostly I’m just hoping you don’t hit me when I cross the street and you’re not looking. And also sort of hoping that maybe I might get to live in a world where lots of other people decide they don’t need cars either.

I’m sure you have your reasons. It’s possible without, though. It’d help if you all get together and ask for buses and trains. I’ll help, because I like them, and they remind me of Europe.

Also, the world looks fascinatingly different when you’re not whizzing by it behind glass and conditioned air, mostly alone in a small metal box on wheels. The people on the buses are pretty cool (especially the weird ones!) and the ones on the trains tend to usually read books (real ones! on paper, even!)  And there are spirits and animals and even people that you start to notice when you walk by them every day, and they become your friends, and you become theirs, and then you start building a world together without even trying.

I doubt I’ll convince you to stop driving.  But, at least, please don’t hit me.

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at paganarch.com.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I love driving cross-country, but I hate driving in the city, for many of the reasons you mention. Sadly, public transportation here in Boston (supposedly one of the nicest systems in the country) is expensive, unreliable, somewhat dangerous, incredibly slow, and in the winter it’s great place to catch the flu. Despite the enormous public outcry when the MBTA raised rates a year or two ago (due to insufficient government funding), no changes were made, and the whole thing continues to limp along. This scares me to death, because millions of people use it to commute every day — many people with high-paying jobs, influence, power. It makes me feel like even local government is largely unresponsive to citizens’ needs. =/

    My solution to the problem currently is to have a car AND live close to the subway, but rarely go anywhere. ;)

    • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa

      Christine, I hear you. Don’t get me started on LA! I could easily take the subway to work if construction on the purple line hadn’t been halted by the residents of Beverly Hills, for fear that poor people would take the train to their houses to rob them. (Their official story is that the purple line will make their high school explode. They made a YouTube video.)

      There are so, so many issues behind our dependence on cars. We need enclosed bike lanes. We need expanded networks of fast, cheap public transportation. Even affordable childcare plays a role–if the only daycare you can afford is miles away, in the opposite direction from your job, well, unless you feel like martyring yourself, you’re probably not going to resist the lure of your car.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        > (Their official story is that the purple line will make their high school explode. They made a YouTube video.)

        o_O Wow!

        Better and more city planning would no doubt help as well. I was able to live in a walking neighborhood when I was in graduate school, and it was fabulous! But that was the only time in my life that I *could* walk to everything that I needed.

      • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

        Even “liberal” Seattle had similar issues with building light-rail. A traditionally liberal and very white neighborhood successfully fought plans for light rail on account that it would bring people “unaccustomed to their way of life” into the neighborhood (the proposed line would have gone from a heavily minority neighborhood into this specific neighborhood).

        All these mentioned issues suggest that collective action is necessary to release the individual burdens, which is why I’ll always be a socialist. What is defined as “freedom” to some is often actually economic burden…I can’t imagine cars are very cheap.

  • Ken

    I fear it will take some calamity affecting those in power before they allow changes for the better that really matter.

  • Xiaorong

    Mostly I like your posts about capitalism and disenchantment, and I 100% agree that our environment and culture are suffering because of our dependence on cars. However, I do take issue with part of your post, because of where I live (my sense of place, if you will.) Where I live, it is very close to impossible to live without a car. My area is very, very rural. I am lucky that I live within walking distance of my place of work, which is in a (college) town that is built to be somewhat pedestrian friendly. However, many people I know have to commute from other towns every day, simply because there are very few places close to my town where you can also house a family larger than 2 on a five figure salary. We have a public transportation system, but it only runs from 7 AM – 5 PM on weekdays, and not on weekends, and stops once an hour.

    You say, “I’m sure you have your reasons”, as if we’re all just making excuses. Maybe, to you, we are “just making excuses” – I suppose the people I know COULD all just leave our families behind and move to a big city, or hike 3 hours a day to our workplaces when in the winter it’s below zero and buried in a foot of snow, or lose our jobs because we have to take public transit to the grocery stores during the workday … But often I feel that the people who are most dependent on car culture are often the least capable of changing car culture. When you say “convenience”, all I can think of are the people here for whom a car is a matter of economic survival.

    I am all for activism to help change our society as whole to be less car-dependent, for people paying attention when they drive, for more fuel efficient cars, for better laws protecting pedestrians, for decoupling the notion of car ownership from adolescent rites of passage, etc. Maybe your criticism is better directed towards the people who have the most power to change the system, as opposed to shaming the people who have the least power and are just doing what they can to get by.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      Hello! Thanks for reading my words. : )

      I agree fully with you, and I am not criticizing anyone for their choices. This comes from my understanding of free-will, best defined by the statement that we don’t actually ever have full free-will, only make decisions based on what is available. The impoverished mother of three in the middle of nowhere has fewer choices about transportation than the urban single childless adult. The same applies to questions of organic food or even recycling–the poorest have the least options and many of the rural poor actually don’t have access to glass recycling facilities, let alone organic food or public transportation.

      I’m currently staying in a suburb with one of the sisters who was in that car with me in the middle of the sewer. I fortunately have a bike and had the extreme fortune of landing a (less-than-desirable but sufficient) job precisely 3 minutes away by bike. I understand this is great fortune and not available to others. It also means I have little access to many other things, including anything approximating a social life, as there are no places nearby where people actually walk around.

      I do actively criticize those in power, but as an anarcho-socialist, I also realize we have little power individually. At the same time, I embrace human agency, and those concepts together makes awfully clear that the only way we’ll change this is to build our lives without the car, help those who currently have little choice, and resist those who’d profit from our lack of options.

      • Xiaorong

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Rhyd. Sorry that I didn’t give a more prompt answer and only just saw this now.

        “This comes from my understanding of free-will, best defined by the statement that we don’t actually ever have full free-will, only make decisions based on what is available.”

        Yes, I strongly agree with this sentiment. In my exploration of Paganism, I am particularly drawn to the idea of “co-creation” that Carol Christ presents in her thealogy – that we are all individuals with free will, but this doesn’t mean that we have an infinite range of options, since our actions are very much constrained by our circumstances and often the will of others. So, for example, like I’ve said in the post down below, I find it really problematic to blame the poor people who don’t eat local, organic food and to assume that it’s because they “don’t know better” or they’re just lazy, but because our country (I’m talking the US here) doesn’t really give poor people meaningful options otherwise, and it’s harmful to heap stigma about their “bad decisions” on the people who have the least ability to change their own situations due to a lot of other actions that stem from other people partaking in really harmful ideologies (e.g. neoliberalism, sexism, racism, classism, etc.).

        “I do actively criticize those in power, but as an anarcho-socialist, I also realize we have little power individually. At the same time, I embrace human agency, and those concepts together makes awfully clear that the only way we’ll change this is to build our lives without the car, help those who currently have little choice, and resist those who’d profit from our lack of options.”

        You’re right – this is something I struggle with a lot. I recognize that every individual action is a drop in the bucket, but added together it can do a lot (not everything, but a lot). And I think it is really admirable when people (like you) do put their money where there mouth is and structure their individual choices to reflect their political views, yet it’s not a sacrifice that everyone is able to make. So I’m very torn about this issue, and I am aware of how my own “choices” are not in line with my political belief (which is not something I can always help). Which is why I’m more interested in trying to direct grassroots activism to affect government or corporate policy, which is also not perfect … No easy answers, I guess, or else these problems would be solved already.

        Well anyways, thank you again for your post, and for being willing to ruminate about political activism with me!

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      I’m in a similar situation to you–my work is about 25 miles from me, on another island (I live on the next island up), and though we have a free bus system that can get there for part of the journey from home to work, it only runs from about 7 to 5 as well, with several routes being only once an hour (and not always on time or reliable at all within that schedule).

      Yet, I don’t drive, don’t know how (never learned), and can’t afford a car, gas, or insurance with what I make anyway (I’ve never made more than what the government considers poverty-level wages for a single person in a year)…and I’ve made it work. Part of it is necessity, because I have certain physical issues as well that make it difficult (but not impossible) to drive, which has forced me to get creative and be resourceful to do what I both want and need to miles away from home. Yes, I rely on others who have cars for some things, but I use the bus to get to work and to other places far more often than I get rides.

      I don’t judge you for the choices you’ve made; but, I think it’s disingenuous to say that they’re not choices.

      • Xiaorong

        Thank you for your thoughtful response.

        “I don’t judge you for the choices you’ve made; but, I think it’s disingenuous to say that they’re not choices.”

        Are they choices? I’m not really sure. I did make a decision to get a car, so that I could go to a cheap grocery store about 15 minutes away so that I can cook and I don’t have to subsist on whatever I can get from CVS or from local restaurants. But my choices were severely constrained by the fact that this is the geography of my area, the available housing, my financial situation and my job here, the local, state, and national economy and laws, etc. It’s true I have agency on some level, but I am really not sure if I can call them “choices” when there are so many other factors going on that eliminate many of my choices. For the same reason, I won’t blame poor people who eat a lot of fast food because they live in a food desert and don’t go for organic, local food from farmers’ markets. I can say that theoretically they have a choice in the matter, but I don’t know if that choice (especially when your economic survival overwhelmingly compels you towards the former) is particularly meaningful.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Also, thanks for grounding this post in your personal experience so well. I look forward to reading more in that vein.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      You’re welcome, but I must admit, judging from the vehement blood-thirst from others in my other attempts to be vulnerable elsewhere, I’m greatly dis-inclined to ever do so again.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        Sorry to hear that; I must have missed that conversation.


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