Monday, September 24, 2012

Automotive Omnipresence Sucks

A Porsche Spyder?  Yes, please.
I've never owned a car of my own.  OK, asterisk:  I believe there was once a car registered in my name.  Ages ago, my then-boyfriend and I bought his mother's stick shift Ford something or other, and I was, of course, driven around in that car.  But since I don't drive stick, I believe I can go honestly into the record books with "I've never owned a car of my own."

It's been my experience that the more you take public transportation and the less you drive, the more vividly you experience both the peace of public transportation and the hell of driving.  I know the bus is unpredictable, and the ride can be long.  But I've got my book; I've got my headphones; I've gotten into a quiet mental space; I'm generally good to go.

Conversely, daily taking on the the responsibility of maneuvering a deadly 2-ton piece of machinery on crowded streets?  Is that not insane?  Did you know over 32,000 people people died in the US in car accidents in 2010?  And that was down from previous years.  If that were the death rate from any other activity like sex, drugs, or rock-and-roll people would be going out of their minds.  OMG! Don't drive! Won't somebody please think of the children?!

Anyway, all this just to say:  I have no real intention of buying a car.


It's also been my experience that unless you live in a monastery, you are in the overlap zone between "car culture" and "consumer culture."  It's impossible not to occasionally day dream about car ownership.  And I do.

And when I daydream about car ownership, my thoughts always run smack into the Great Car Dilemma, which goes something like this:

I cannot own a sensible car.  I know this is ridiculous.  But there's something about cars -- there's something about them that is just so fucking depressing to me.  When I think of cars, I think of long quiet nights in quiet suburban towns, cut off from life; I think of endless driving around to find a parking place; and I think of that feeling of being in that little box, cut off from everyone else in their little boxes.  I remember the cold dark winter mornings of my youth, de-icing a windshield, which at the time seemed to me about the most depressing activity in the world.  When I was really young, I thought "I'll live in the woods, and get around by horse!"  It was only when I got a little older that I realized the bus, train, and occasional taxi could be my salvation.

There's only one thing that can undo and erase the depressingness of cars for me, and that's thinking of a car as an amazing toy, a beautiful object, rather than a way of getting from place to place.  Some cars really are lovely and exciting.  They're sexy to look at, awesome to ride in, and a thrill to drive.  They have extraordinary shapes, like the Ferrari, and extraordinary paint quality, like the new Audis.  To me, a true sports car or luxury car is not a depressing symbol of car culture.  It's a symbol of fun, pleasure, and the life force

So then I think, OK, I don't have a lot of money, but perhaps I could afford a really old version of a really beautiful car.  Like, a thirty year old Jaguar, or one of those refurbished "pre-owned" BMWs.  When I was a kid, my father was obsessed with cars.  His love was the kind of obsessive, inclusive love that embraced the Dodge Dart and the VW Rabbit as well as the Audi he never did buy and the Porsche 914 that he did and that was our family car for about six months.  Perhaps I could buy an old, beat-up Porsche, which would be a kind of homage to my father.  That would lend respectability and intelligibility to an otherwise completely irrational choice, wouldn't it?

You can see where this is going.  What could be more ridiculous for a person who doesn't need a car and doesn't like to drive than the purchase of an old, temperamental car that would suck in the winter and would surely be expensive to maintain?  Old cars aren't even safe.  It's completely crazy. 

So.  Can't have a sensible car.  Can't have a beautiful snazzy car.  No car for Patricia.

Sometimes I worry about what would happen if I absolutely had to move to a place where I could not get around without a car.  I did survive seven years in California with no car.  But there were extenuating circumstances, and I was able to cobble a life together -- even though that life did include walking across overpasses to get from my apartment to stores and restaurants, getting my high heels stuck the grass when (as frequently) there were no sidewalks and I had to walk on the side of the road, getting drenched with sprinklers set to water lawns but really showering down on walking paths that no one ever used, and, of course, often just not going anywhere interesting.  I don't know what I'd do.  I try not to think about it. 

The Great Car Dilemma makes me even more alienated from the automobile way of life than I would be if I were just, you know, a non-driver.  Because not only don't I have a car in the real world, I don't even have a car in any nearby possible world.

And indeed, as time goes on, the more strident and angry I am about the whole automotive omnipresence business.  On top of everything else -- on top of the obvious and enormous cost to the environment and all that insanity -- car culture is like an exponential magnifier for inequality and other social problems.  Car ownership is expensive and if you're poor you can't afford it.  If you're old or have certain disabilities you can't drive.  If you screw up, you can get your license taken away.  Car culture means that the initial difficulties, which might otherwise be manageable, become huge, life-destroying problems for many people.

For most people, there is no option of treating a car as fun or a toy, because a car is an absolute necessity for the basics of life -- which is a ridiculous state of affairs. 

It's one of those many domains in which individualism, which is great when leavened with a cup of collective care, becomes intolerable when pursued alone.


Tim said...

Whoa, you had a Ford something or other? That was their greatest model! Worth a fortune today at auction.

Patricia Marino said...

I know! If only we hadn't abandoned it in ... um, the Adirondacks somewhere? I'd be trading it in for a new Fiat instead of riding the bus.