Couple days ago, I was out for a walk and I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of a suddenly appearing piece of moving scenery.
A gorgeous, perfectly restored, Candy apple red ‘67 Ford Mustang fastback rolled by.
To steal a line from P.G. Wodehouse, the only thing that prevented me from doffing my cap in reverence was that I wasn’t wearing a cap at the time.
I showed my appreciation by giving a thumbs up to the driver who I judged to be about half as old as his car.
Don’t get the idea I coveted that car. I was only paying due respect to a work of art. The 67 fastback was one of the prettiest cars ever made but I prefer the coupe. I wouldn’t want to own either, though. I’d never drive it. One ding would kill me. If I owned one I’d keep it in the garage under a tarp I’d be afraid to lift because the exposure to light might fade the paint.
Watching the Mustang disappear up the street, I did feel a little jealous of the kid behind the wheel, but it wasn’t over the car, it was over the fact that he was in a car, driving somewhere. I was on foot because I was being good and responsible, saving money while doing my bit to save the environment by reducing my carbon footprint. All my errands were to places within walking distance and, normally, I like it that I don’t have to get in the car to mail a postcard or return a library book or pick up a gallon of milk. That’s one of my givens for calling a place livable, being able to walk to places. If I had to buckle up to go get a newspaper, a bagel, a cup of coffee, or a light bulb I’d go out of my mind.
As walkable as life is here in Mayberry, I still need to drive somewhere every day, to work, if nowhere else. And I get to resent that, especially when one of the places I have to drive to is the gas station and even more especially when it’s to the repair shop. Which reminds me. Have to get the brakes on the wagon looked at.
Just a note, I have to drive farther to the gas station than to the shop and I can walk home from the shop after I leave the car off and walk back when the repairs are done so I never have to wait around reading back issues of Car & Driver and trying to ignore The View on the TV. Small compensation.
But just because I’d rather not have to drive anywhere doesn’t mean I’d rather not drive anywhere.
In fact, often what I’d rather do is hop in the car and drive, anywhere as in any place as long as it takes at least a couple of hours to get there.
Even if I lived in Boston or New York City and didn’t need a car I’d still want to own one just in case I got the urge one night to be on a beach on Cape Cod to watch the sun rise.
A car in the driveway, gassed up and ready to drive, means that if you need to you can escape.
Escape from what and for how long depends and escapes aren’t actually defined by leaving but by arriving. You can’t know if you’ve really escaped from somewhere or something until you see what you’ve escaped to. You are at least free of what you’ve left behind you and you are free to believe that there’s nothing but adventure, romance, good meals, and soft beds ahead.
Americans love their cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they take us where we want to go when we want to go. If that’s to the beach at sunrise, terrific, but if it’s to the drug store in the middle of the night, well, there’s also a sense of freedom in that, the sense of freedom that comes from being able to do for yourself in a time of trouble, the sense of freedom that comes from knowing you can solve a problem if only by leaving it behind.
There’s also the sense of freedom that comes from having control, over several tons of stubborn metal, sure, but also over space and time and over one’s own self. In a car you are in control over where you are, what direction you’re going, how fast you’re headed there.
This is why I’m sympathetic to this sentiment:
I love that statement, America is addicted to oil. What an elitist point of view. Americans are not addicted to oil. Americans are addicted to freedom — the freedom and liberty to move where and when we want.
That’s the former governor of Virginia George Allen talking.
Former Republican governor of Virginia George Allen.
Former Republican governor of Virginia and failed candidate for the United States Senate George Allen.
Former Republican governor of Virginia, failed candidate for the United States Senate, and inadvertently self-outed closet racist George Allen.
Not somebody I’m generally inclined to agree with.
And as a matter of fact I don’t agree with him here, not when his remarks are put in context. He was criticizing President Obama’s energy speech of a couple weeks back and the implications of what the President said about developing alternative sources of energy.
Allen’s another pro letting Big Business do whatever it likes and dollar-worshipping believer in unlimited growth because it will cause money to rain from the skies in buckets who thinks that the way we live now is the way God intended man and machine to live and if we just punch enough holes in the ground we can go on driving our big cars as far as the open road will take us forever.
On his blog Allen boosts for burning more coal. He calls it clean coal to differentiate it from dirty coal the way you call it cow manure to differentiate it from bullshit.
Burn more clean coal to heat our homes and power our towns and cities and that’ll leave us more oil to turn into gasoline.
When the coal runs out…well, we’ll just leave it to the boys and girls down in R & D to figure something out well before that happens.
I’m not sure how reducing our dependence on foreign oil is an elitist goal.
You can sound elitist by assuming that everyone should and could live within walking distance of a great museum.
But you can sound elitist by assuming that everyone should and could live in a McMansion and drive their SUVs everywhere and anywhere they want to go whenever they want to go there.
I guess Allen believes that the only way to cut down our use of gasoline is to give up driving or he believes that’s what’s being advocated, as if there were no alternative to our gas guzzlers but scooters and Vespas and good pairs of stiff walking shoes.
Allen appears not to have heard that it’s possible to build electric powered cars and hybrids and cars that could get as much as 25 percent better mileage.
We don’t need to give up our cars to break our addiction to foreign oil.
Nobody is seriously suggesting an infringement upon our God-given right to be a nation of motorheads.
To the degree that going green sounds like a plan to make us move into cities and give up our cars for bikes and buses Americans will resist and resent conservation efforts, and I suppose that’s how it might begin to sound as soon as the discussion switches from solar panels and fluorescent light bulbs and paper or plastic to mass transit and multiple-use zoning.
The object is to reduce the number of cars driving into and our of cities. This is good for the environment, a boost to our national security as it reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and good for the people who live in and around cities generally. It’s also good for smaller, local businesses.
It’s also a good idea for suburbs to reduce the number of cars on their roads by reducing the need for residents to get in the car and drive. The model should be the inner suburban towns around Boston and Chicago and not the sprawling developments surrounding Los Angeles and Dallas. Again, good for the environment, a boost to national security, good for people who live in these towns, and good for local businesses.
But basically everybody who doesn’t live in a city or the exurbs is excluded from this discussion.
That’s a lot of people.
And I’m one of them.
If I want to take the train into New York City I have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest station and hope that I don’t have to spend another 15 nosing around the parking lot vulturing for a parking space to open up. In 45 minutes I can be in New Jersey on the Pallisades Parkway. In 60 minutes I can see the top of the George Washington Bridge over the trees.
It would be nice if a train still ran from here to the City. I would probably make more trips into Manhattan if one did. But it wouldn’t change the fact that I have to drive 24 miles round trip to work, 24 miles round trip to the doctor’s, 24 miles round trip to the grocery store, 24 miles round trip to Barnes and Noble, 24 miles round trip to church, 24 miles round trip to see a movie---you get the point, and, yes, all those scattered places are 12 miles from our driveway.
Buses serving the routes to these places probably wouldn’t help me get out of my car much. There aren’t enough people living here to justify frequent runs or to keep them running late into the night.
No point taking the bus to work if there won’t be another one to get me home.
And scheduling a doctor’s appointment would mean freeing up a bigger block of time in a day that probably doesn’t have a lot of room in it already.
Depending on the bus schedule, I might have to leave as much as an hour earlier to get there in time and then I’d need to allow for the possibility that the appointment would take longer than expected and I’d have to take a later bus home.
What takes up an hour and half thanks to having a car could take three hours or more if I had to rely on a bus.
But having a car means more than the freedom that comes from having more control over my own time.
I couldn’t live here the way I do without car. A car gives me the freedom to enjoy living in a small town.
The town existed before there were cars and people lived here and enjoyed their lives. But those lives were circumscribed in a way I simply could not tolerate.
Without a car I would have to live in a city.
Which I wouldn’t mind. I might prefer it. I liked living in Boston.
Or I’d have to live in the kind of small town that is like a city neighborhood dropped into the countryside, a town busy enough and prosperous enough to offer all the amenities and provide lots of local jobs, a town like Chatham, Massachusetts, that exists mainly thanks to the influx of lots of money from outside. Those places are few and far between and they are expensive to live in.
There are two or three of those towns around here, and we couldn’t afford to live in any of them.
Having cars has given us more freedom to choose where to live and how to go about living here.
I don’t think Americans are “addicted” to the freedom that Allen says cars give us.
But we do like it.
I like it.
The question is, how truly free are we?
Cars free us up in many ways but the free us up to live lives that are dependent on having a car.
Theoretically, cars and good highways give us the freedom to live anywhere we want in relation to our jobs, as long as the distance can be covered within a reasonable amount of time, a reasonable amount of time being a subjective and idiosyncratic judgment. And maybe once upon a time they did give a goodly number of people that freedom. But nowdays, people live where they can find a place they can afford and, if they have kids, that’s near or near-ish to a halfway decent school and accept whatever amount of driving living there forces upon them.
Under those circumstances, a car isn’t a means to freedom, it’s a necessary tool of your trade, whatever your trade is, and a necessary living expense. You can’t live where you live without a job, you can’t have the job without the car. Filling the tank and paying for repairs and insurance are as liberating as paying the electric bill and property taxes.
I suspect few people do the calculations and tally up just how much owning a car costs them or if they do they don’t let themselves take in the costs.
It’s hardly liberating to know that you’re shelling out thousands of dollars a year mainly to help keep yourself tied down by your house and your job.
Loving your car for the freedom it promises is like loving your hot water heater for the freedom it promises.
That’s unfair to hot water heaters.
Hot water heaters don’t demand constant upkeep and it’s rare when they refuse to do the job you bought them to do on a cold morning when you’re late for work.
On the other hand, on a beautiful summer night you can’t get into your hot water heater, roll down the windows, crank up the radio, and head out on the back roads to drive a long winding route to an all night diner you know of four towns over.
Once upon a time, when I was not footloose and fancy-free but in desperate need to feel that way, especially late at night, which is to say, back when I was a teenager, I would do that a lot, hop into the car, roll down the windows, crank up the radio, and head out on the back roads to drive a long, winding route, sometimes to an all-night diner, but more often to nowhere in particular and back.
For however long I was gone I felt a sense of freedom that was spiced by the thought that no one knew I was gone, no one knew where I was. Out on the road I was alone but not lonely because I was free from outside definition. I wasn’t a me limited by my relation to other people, circumscribed by their expectations and preconceptions. I was just me defined by what I was thinking, feeling, and doing at the moment. I was me, driving. I was me controlling a car but also controlling me. I was me in the driver’s seat of my soul.
I was free.
I felt free anyway.
I didn’t know until later that Pop Mannion was keeping sporadic track of his gas mileage and that there were some mornings for the little while before it dawned on him what was happening when he’d be surprised that his car had managed to put 50 or 60 miles on the odometer while it was supposedly sitting in the garage overnight.
Back then, to Pop Mannion, the freedom owning a car gave him was the freedom to raise a thoughtless and irresponsible and expensive to insure teenage boy in the suburbs.
A freedom I am only beginning to enjoy myself.
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