What’s Your Excuse for Driving in the City?

My excuse for driving in the city?

I blame my wife.  There’s no one in my household below me except the dogs—Lord knows it’s not the cat or the kids, though the rabbit and I were fighting it out until I killed her by ‘accident’—so I blame management.  Better the devil you know and all that.

How a city without cars (seewalk) regular comes to be using the occasional Detroit pod to achieve escape velocity from the urban maelstrom, even if only a couple of times a year, is a tale long and unlikely enough to warrant filing it under an alias.  Look for it obliquely, in dicier and less forthright pages than these.

Suffice it to say here that the shame of city driving is wonderful for keeping one’s compassion in tune, and helping one to remember that drivers drive not because they’re evil—though they’re probably that too—but because they feel abandoned.  The soft comforting wrap of the pod is the consolation prize for insufficient suckling, for the welter of desired objects in the matrix with which one failed to close, for the lost aura and the oft-caressed aureole round as a steering wheel half-remembered in dreams and loved forever.  Mountain mama, take me home.

In understanding the worldwide fight against the automobile in its American mode (American in style, distribution, essence, and—in the old days—engineering), the language of political strategy can only carry us so far, since what Freud might call the death drive is not subject to conscious scrutiny.  We are driven.  You with me on this?  The wackjobs driving the typical car in the city aren’t just nutcases, in other words, they’re spurned lovers.

The person at the wheel who in recent decades has gradually disappeared behind a windshield that is a mirror of smoked glass is less the driver than a passenger shuttled around by an unseen chauffer, this latter their unconscious object of desire.  Their crush, if you will.  The death drive is to be found between crush and crash.

The drive is merely a crush that hasn’t yet been fulfilled by its crash.  If you want to understand why we drive, consult the smoke in the glass.  It’s all about shame and its revelries of compensation and complication.  To understand our stop-it-I-love-it relationship to the car, we need a vocabulary with words like yearn, suck, wean, fondle, spank, jouissance, stickshift, and so on.  And you thought cars were for transportation.

When I was two, my otherwise attentive mother worked for a year at the registry of motor vehicles in our town in the mountains of Colorado, one famous for its brewery.  My brother and I were supposed to be in the care of a lady in the next trailer, but a lady in still another trailer informed my mother that my brother and I had spent the year giving the first lady the slip and getting down to the highway and throwing rocks at cars.  Good times.  Just yesterday my nine-year-old and I pelted the hell out of a taxi with snowballs.  In case you’re interested in assigning a spatial metaphor to my development, I should say that I’m not planning on growing up, just falling apart.

I’m particularly charmed by the image of my mother licensing drivers while my brother and I stoned them.  For his part, my dad was a timber feller, a walking tall tale, big as Paul Bunyan, closer to seven feet than six, who’d moved on from handsaws and logrolling in rivers.  He’d come in from his wanderings to learn prospecting and dynamiting at the school of mines in town.  Made the move from trees to rocks.

My dad’s an anti-environmentalist.  He has some notion that environmentalists like me are in a conspiracy to destroy capitalism and bring down the American government by rotting it from within.

Right on both counts, though I hate to admit it to his face.  The internal rot metaphor seems especially compelling.  One does one’s best.  Doesn’t much matter though, since whatever our differences, I got most of my love for the natural world by following my dad around in the big outdoors.  Unless it was from early free-range experiences licensed by my mother.

Contempt Corridors

So, shame and contempt.  Let’s get on with it, much as one might wish to dawdle at the scenes of these early Oedipal configurations, and much as one might wish to remind readers that the central scene of the American experience, its holy crèche, its essential tableau, is the crash.  The crash in that redemptive and bloody moment one second after all movement has ceased, and long before emergency vehicles have arrived, when all pods are ruptured, bodies merged, and atonement has exacted its price but not yet counted its change.

Contempt corridors, I was saying.

Contempt corridors are those portions of urban transportation networks where roads and public transportation run parallel.  You heard it here first.  Can you visualize this?

Drivers and people with disposable income for taxis use cars in contempt corridors to express their contempt for the little people who use public transportation or other alternatives.  Examples include Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto, which run along the top of the subway lines, or all those streets in Chicago’s downtown loop which run beneath elevated tracks—help me out here, it’s been a few decades since I drove for National and did my pickups in the Loop, when speed and skidding capabilities of my employer’s cars were the main focus—or, say, the Great Eastern out of London, bound for Colchester, where your rail coach gets up to a hundred and is typically flanked by an Essex lad on the dual carriageway who’s keeping pace and with whom you and the boys can share obscene gestures for a pleasant quarter of an hour.

We urge an absolute and permanent ban on cars, taxis, and trucks in urban contempt corridors.

Here’s the fine print, which we’ll leave in 12-point for legibility:  Day one, all contempt corridors closed within the city (city to be defined as the portion of the urban mass sufficiently dense with population to make life worth living and walking worth doing—i.e. not a suburb).  Day two: invite the politicians to join the movement, or to go home and do something useful with their lives.  Invite them, as they leave office, to return all highway maintenance funds to taxpayers.  Day three: plant a tree in each pothole, each one named for a child killed in a motor vehicle accident.  The revolution will be deemed complete when live children, not cars for killing, dominate the corridor, at which point a plaque can be imbedded in the asphalt: “Former Contempt Corridor.”  Invite the foxes in.  It is our sense that if the people voting green in any given election—and thereby telling the political system how important and just it is—would be green instead of endorsing the system with their vote, we would have a sufficient number of people to carry the day.

If local and federal governments continue (as they will) their illegal siege of urban areas by permitting and encouraging with subsidies the frivolous use of automobiles—and do not misunderstand the illegality of this amongst nations that have agreed to significantly reduce their poisonous emissions—we recommend massive widespread obedience to higher laws, including the active labeling of contempt corridors and the blocking of frivolous and illegal traffic (i.e. all urban traffic).  Anyone with half a brain left from their last crash knows that subsidies are garnered from the forced tribute of all people in society, including those who do not cheat by driving everywhere, and are spent to satisfy the dirty habits of a lesser number of people.  Therefore resistance is, as the French say, utile.

We do not recommend working “with” governments anymore than we would advise a hen to work “with” a fox to moderate its impact on the henhouse.  And yes, the insult to foxes is noted—all we can say by way of compensation is that once the contempt corridors become green corridors, foxes can move back into the city.  And hens, for that matter.

If practical considerations mandate that we appear for a time to be “with” certain parts of the government, there should be no misunderstanding on the part of the resistance that we do so as an occupied power, not for a moment because we approve of “government.”  And I’m going to tell my wife this, too.  Or at least send her a memo.

Ike Paths

I was born in the late fifties, when nukesmoke was blowing east across the land into our breastmilk from a cluster of government experiments designed to assess the docility of the people in the face of government meddling.  Apparently excellent results were achieved.

This was back when the phrase “military-industrial complex” was a compliment.  A government guy named Ike, no worse or better than the next government guy, said, “we got more tax money than we know what to do with.  How’s about we build us a giant highway system in case we get attacked.”  And lo and behold, 5 to 95 from left coast to right, 10 to 90 from the bottom up, more or less.

It’s hard to tell, looking back, if this was facetious or if they really believed a highway system was going to help in case of an attack.  Isn’t the system on the inside of the country?  And if the enemy’s on the inside, won’t the enemy use the system themselves?  And in any case, can’t you get a lot more heavy pyrotechnics onto a train than a truck, with less manpower?  My uncertainty about this is likely related to the fact that I am not a five-star general.  I could see maybe making a highway to Alaska so you could send them ammo and little encouraging notes and sock puppets and so on.  But as anyone who tried hitch-hiking in the seventies knows, they didn’t build an interstate to Alaska.  Well, I’m a simple man, and it should be admitted right off that I’ve never had a head for politics.  Never voted once in my whole life.  But I am impressed by the number signs on the interstate, which as I recall are shaped like shields.

What I did is, I hitch-hiked every inch of that interstate system (except for a bit in Oregon) more times than I can remember. Talk about the enemy within.  My poor dad.

In nowtopia, we’re not smart enough to figure out politics, nor why we should ratify the system with that yes-grunt of a vote.  I’ve spent more drifter time on the road in America than anyone I’ve ever heard about except for this one guy who played ride hopscotch with me for a thousand miles out of Gary once.  This is if you don’t count the old wobblies on the trains, of course.  That guy out of Gary and I talked enough at the hitchin’ posts in front of the toll booths once or twice, checking out where to get food and so on, that I gathered he’d really been around.  Last saw him passing me in what the CBers used to call the show-off lane on 90 eastbound for Boston.  Gave me a nod that wasn’t so much smug—it was more like he knew something I didn’t.

I’m always interested in parallels.  Not just metaphors and such, but things that look like they’re straight as arrows and would never touch but if you look at them off in the distance, they’re smooching like Debbie Does Dallas.  Convergence at infinity.  Did you know that your eyes will settle for infinity without a lot of fuss, maybe two miles out on a railroad track, a little farther for an interstate?

The continent’s clawed up with these twin smears of desert oil coagulated into highways.  Our own Ike Paths idea is simple.  My right-wing readers are going to like it because it has competition written all over it, and my left-wing readers are going to have to pretend to like it because it means leaving the Volvo at home.  Okay.  Each interstate has four lanes, right?  You stick light rail on all four, two one way and two the other.  Now hold on.  The genius of the idea is that with the Ike Paths, the trains are laid out side by side, about five feet from each other, and you can actually see the competitor.  See?

Unlike fancy light rails that take light years to finance, Ike Paths come with their own rights-of-way, grading, and bridges, and we the people already own them.  The divided highway unites us, offers real competition instead of the phony kind we saw with monopolies granted for single tracks at the end of the nineteenth century or the competition we’ve seen recently on the part of politicians to see who can hand over more money to bankers.

Financing for Ike Paths is a problem only in the sense that there is too much money.  Because not a single highway will ever be built again, we take all the money from that subsidy spigot and put it at the service of the competitive light rails.  Corporate welfare reform, finally.

Savings also include all the damage not done to bridges in the northern states by salt, and throughout the country by excessive traffic and overloaded trucks.  If corporations want to get cheap goods from China, no one’s saying they can’t.  But they’ll have to figure out a way to pay for it, because frankly the rest of us are tired of paying to subsidize them.  For a little while, a few auto train cars can carry some of the automotive traffic for people who can’t break their addiction to the fondlepods—butt warmers in the naugahyde and fliprings for the 24 ounce suckle—but it won’t be long before most people are weaned and move on to other pleasures.

We suggest that it’s more fun to put your feet up and enjoy chatting with neighbors, or at the very least have beer and sex and other forms of parallel convergence, than to fight it out on the interstate, especially if car operators have to start paying their fair share in cultural, maternal, and financial capital.  And heavy goods can go on the main train lines.  Trains have never really needed subsidies here in Canamerica, they need to have the government stop robbing them and giving the money to the highway lobby.

The way passenger trains are run today, if you don’t like the service, you have to lump it.  With the Ike Paths, by contrast, just walk five feet over to better, more competitive service.  And you’ll be able to see with your own eyes which train service is running on time.  If you’ve got a better idea for what to do with these divided highways, let me hear from you.  No comment goes unread.

Ike Paths: divided, we are strong.

DAVID KER THOMSON lives on the 44th parallel north. He can be reached at:   dave.thomson@utoronto.ca