Monday, August 17, 2009


Years ago I read a few excellent books by a cartoonist named John Callahan. When he was young, Callahan was in a terrible car accident, and he became a quadriplegic. He draws cartoons by gripping the pen between his two hands (I think one arm works sort of OK) and you'd be surprised how well the drawings come out.

Callahan got really depressed after his accident and drank a lot, and as you can imagine, his cartoons involve a lot of "black humor" -- like the one where a guy with two hooks for hands stands on a street corner with a sign saying "Will refrain from shaking hands with you: $5.00." Now he's sober and I just learned on his wikipedia page that he's involved in a million new projects, which I gotta say was pretty cool and nice to find out about someone.

So back then when I was reading a lot of Callahan, one thing I read was his sort of memoir, Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? (ha ha) and the two things I remember best are his hilarious descriptions of sex education and advice for disabled people (humorless, unsexy, pathetic) and his indignation at being called "wheelchair-bound."

Sure, he uses a wheelchair to get around sometimes, but that doesn't mean he is "wheelchair bound" any more than the fact that you use a car to get around sometimes means you are "carbound." So it's just dumb to say that he's "confined to a wheelchair."

I remember finding that very persuasive, and I tried from then on to avoid using the term "wheelchair-bound," which if you think about it is kind of a stupid term anyway.

But I've been thinking a lot about Callahan lately, because I've started to think "car-bound" is actually a kind of apt description of the way a lot of us live in North America in the early 21st century. Personally, I hate driving and I feel lucky to be able to live in one of the few places in which living without a car is reasonably comfortable. Over the past few weeks I've visited three fairly typical American places in which living without a car is not so easy. And it seems to me that the way the landscape and the driving habits of people are changing, it's becoming not just difficult but actually impossible to get around town on foot any more -- even if the distances are reasonable and the weather is OK.

Sidewalks appear and disappear. Plazas have impossibly long entrance-ways and huge parking lots. When you want to cross the street, drivers don't stop and wait for you anymore -- instead, they just slow down, creeping along as if avoiding actually hitting you is the most effort that can be required of them. And if the drivers are on the phone or in a hurry, forget it: you have to practically wave your arms and shout if you want to cross safely. "Hello! Pedestrian here! I know you don't see pedestrians here very often! But I am here! PLEASE DON'T HIT ME! THX!"

No one should have to be car-bound. It's a terrible condition with awful symptoms. I don't know what the answer is but maybe as they say in my favorite novel Amazons of Jumping Frenchman's disease, "What this disease needs is some good PR."


Thea said...


So happy to bump into you on the internet here! I'll have to give you an update sometime soon, but I wanted to leave a comment here to say that you might enjoy looking at the magazine Monacle. I spent most of my day today (at my boring job) reading through the July/August issue which had a large section on urban planning and how the cornerstone of urban vitality is something like 'transportational diversity'. Anecdotal evidence probably suggests that the greatest cities in the world to live in and visit are ones where cultural/community hubs are accessible by foot/wheelchair/bike/tram and (perhaps least important) car.

Gotta say though, I'm pretty addicted to having a car in the city. I guess that's probably a function of the cities I've lived in...

Talk soon!

Patricia said...

Hi Thea! One thing about driving and not driving, I think, is that the pleasures of not driving only emerge after you've been not driving for quite a while. At first it's kind of annoying ... but then when you get in the groove it starts to appear differently. As you say, though, cities differ a lot, and in some not driving will drive you NUTS.

Yes, send me an update! At first your profile didn't work and I was't sure if you were the same Thea. Glad you are!