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.