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Driving her kids to school, a South Carolina woman, Amy Lynn Stewart, encountered a group of teens walking in the middle of the road. She honked but they would not get out of the way, so she plowed into them, hitting four. They were 12, 13, 13 and 14-years-old. “I wanted to knock some sense into them,” she would tell the police. Four victims were treated at the scene. One was taken to a hospital.
At that intersection, there are no sidewalks. All over America, there are many roads without sidewalks. Many communities are built just for the car. Lawns, often vast, encroach right to the curbs. 307 million Americans own about 150 million cars. Entire blocks are reserved for parking garages. Walking on a road shoulders, one can feel like a vagrant or a prowling criminal.
In South Carolina, one has to be 15 to get a driver’s license. (In most of America, the driving age is 16.) The kids struck were too young to drive. Unless one is living in selected, pedestrian friendly cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, for example, to be carless in America is to be confined to one’s living room and the nearest strip mall, and also school, if one is of school age. As a teenager growing up in suburban Virginia, my social orbit consisted of school and shopping mall. There was no town center, no square, no main street, no nearby park even, just Springfield Mall, where I went on the back of a friend’s scooter.
Encircled by a vast, nearly always packed parking lot, your typical American mall is of a scale seldom seen in Europe. One doesn’t just stumble into this shopping emporium, but has to make a decision get there, which often requires at least half an hour of sitting in an automobile. After several more minutes circling around to find parking, a kind of competitive endeavor requiring alertness, good eyesight, cunning and sometimes outright thuggery, one might as well spend several hours inside the air-conditioning, marching back and forth to sniff out a totally unnecessary bargain. Spousal disagreements over parking tactics are common, often resulting in full blown arguments. “You’re an idiot!” “You’re a control freak!” Divorce proceedings can begin even before a desirable spot can be pounced upon.
Americans often wish they were handicapped so they could be saved from the torments of long distance parking. Men have shot themselves on the foot so they could be a tad closer to JC Penney.
Flinging more propaganda mud at us yahoos, Yahoo just chirped that latte sales are up, meaning the economy is blinking and twitching its way back into life, but don’t you believe it. Across America, shuttered stores inside malls are hidden behind brightly painted, mural decorated plywood. Even stores that appear healthy maybe months behind in their rents. Many malls are so obviously dying, it’s no use pretending. In downtown Buffalo, I strolled through one that was so empty, each step echoed. In its forlorn food court, the homeless nursed cups of joe or dozed off. At my local shopping magnet, Philadelphia’s The Gallery, there’s much foot traffic thanks to adjacent train and subway stations, but each month, a couple more shops would go under. This week, death was literal. Early morning commuters were greeted with a suicide leaping from the mall’s third level. He wasn’t a merchant but likely a homeless man, according to the security guards. This death never made the news. We wouldn’t want to scare away the shoppers, would we?
Ignore that corpse, honey, let’s just go inside and buy. Shops inside shopping malls are remarkable homogeneous from sea to shining sea. It hardly matters if one is in San Diego or Portland, Maine, the same clothing stores and fast food joints appear. On a regular commercial street, the quirks of each store owner give his business a degree of uniqueness, but inside a mall, every little detail is regulated, from signage to decoration. Drinking establishments inside malls are like those at airports, cheerless, sterile and devoid of character. No matter how long they’ve been in business, they’re without history.
The minimum drinking age for most of the world is 18. In America, it’s 21, so one can start to drive at 16, join the army at 18, get killed at 19, and have one’s first taste of Miller High Life a couple of years later. Everything, though, starts with one’s first car. With this vehicle and symbol of maturity and freedom, one can run away from home daily, have drug and alcohol fueled something-like-sex in the front or back seat, beside or even under the car. I did it with my McDonald’s uniform still on. Ditto, she. We didn’t know what we were doing, or at least I didn’t. She never forgave me.
The woman who slammed into those teens was on, among other pills, Ativan, to calm her down, and Prozac, to nudge her up a bit. Judging from her mug shot, she may have cut her own hair at home, with a cracked mirror. There’s no shame in that, I haven’t visit a barber in ages. The authorities also revealed that she was driving without shoes, wearing only green sox with holes in them. Is green here an incriminating evidence?
Like many newspapers across America, the Charleston Post publishes photos of every local person arrested for anything, no matter how minor. Presumed to be innocent before conviction, these grim or grinning individuals are publicly shamed. A good chunk of them have been booked for drunken driving.
Officer, if there’s no pub near my house, like there is nearly everywhere else across the globe, how can I abstain from getting in a car before and after I juice up and socialize a bit. Would you prefer I drive to a shopping mall bar, then walk, or maybe crawl back? If I bought a six pack and stayed home, what would I see on television but beer after beer commercial of good looking folks having a great time?
Too young to drive and living in a town of pedestrian-free, lifeless streets, these teens staged a kind of impromptu protest against the automobile and had some sense knocked into them. Live and learn, fools. Soon, you will be old enough to enlist in yet another foreign war for oil. Before marching off, you can have I WILL KILL FOR UNLEADED GAS tattooed on your brain, and if you don’t get chunks blown off over there, you can come back and drive, drive and drive until this bloated and murderous jalopy finally breaks down, which will happen sooner than you expect. Bank on that.
Before Communist China became partner with Capitalist USA in a New World Order of union-free sweat shops, Americans used to laugh at all the bicycles on Chinese streets. Now, as the Chinese become more car dependent, as their cities become more clogged and polluted, many Americans are rediscovering the pleasures, healthiness and sanity of bicycling or walking. Suddenly, a street full of bikes seems positively idyllic. In a country (and empire) on a downward spiral, this will be one of the few changes for the better. Riding and walking through one’s community at a more human pace, one will also regain one’s sense of belonging. One will also discover that one has two legs, arms and a set of lungs. Sprung from the steel prison of the automobile, Americans will be glad to see other faces and limbs. They will realize that they actually have neighbors.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.
[A shorter version of this appears in The Guardian.]