Conflicts of Interest: Pedestrian thoughts

Twenty years ago, I realized that I could not imagine my life outside of the context of automobiles. My mother was born in a car on the way to the hospital and it was the second place—if it can be called a place, this modality of motion and the destruction of place—I ever occupied. My dad hitchhiked to Florida when he was 12 for a NASCAR race. He and all his five brothers were obsessed with cars. Every show or movie you watched, they knew the make and model of every vehicle. My dad worked as an auto insurance claims adjuster (and then manager of auto claims adjusters). He was almost always working on a wrecked car. I knocked a hole in one with a hammer when I was 3. We spent a lot of time at salvage yards. We went to NASCAR and dirt track races. Richard Petty was a household god. Occasionally we would go on a long trip to pick up a stolen and recovered car and drive it back to South Carolina. I got high for the first time and got my first blow job in a car. My wife and I fell in love driving across the country.

I tried to write a novel—my second, disastrously failed attempt—that was a phenomenological study of my relationship to automobility. (Yeah, a real winner, I know.) It was about a young man, I forget the name I gave him (this is why fiction is so stupid, this making up of dumb names and the like), but he lived in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. His father was a NASCAR driver who, after marrying a porn star (second wife), dies spectacularly in a crash (I was incidentally, working on a revised, short-story version of this tale at the moment that Dale Earnhardt crashed and died).

Years later, in college, the narrator constructs a weird art project editing NASCAR and porn footage together and playing it on multiple TVs wrapped around by JAYCO race car tracks. On the day of a rally to bring down the Confederate flag, a drunken professor in a British Racing Green 1960 Triumph mistakes the trompe-l’oeil mural of a tunnel (by a schmaltzy artist Blue Sky) in downtown Columbia for the real thing and tries to drive through it, killing the hero of the book.

I am writing this in South Carolina (to which I flew, though I wish I could have driven because . . . Road Trip!) where I covered some of the aftermath of the horrible racist massacre in Charleston. I was able to cover it because I was able to borrow my mother-in-law’s car and drive there. And today, I am thinking that as much as we take guns for granted, we take cars 10 times more for granted. Everyone near the coast is afraid of sharks. But really, what about the car that gets you to the beach? That’s what’s going to kill you.

This is getting toward the difficulty of a full disclosure regarding my thoughts on cars, which inevitably came into play when Gov. Larry Hogan announced his transportation spending—especially because we have been calling Hogan “Boss Hög” and as in my novel, at this moment, cars and the Confederate flag are all tied up for me in an irrational way because of an early exposure to the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which I am utterly ashamed to say that I loved. I wrote about "The Dukes Of Hazzard's" effect on me—both in terms of its implicit racism, its appropriation of my favorite musician, Waylon Jennings, and its weird redneck minstrelsy—way back in 2001. I’m embarrassed of the story but I mention it again in the spirit of full disclosure and so you will understand it when I say that Gov. Hogan has replaced, in my mind, the Red Line with the Red Neck. The values expressed in Hogan’s plans for transportation spending are not just anti-city, they are anti-social.

The failed novel was called “Cark,” a terrible name for a novel, but an interesting archaic word that means “a bundle of cares,” according to Skeat’s "An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language” (one of the best books ever written, by the way). Everyone knows that however big an asshole you are in ordinary pedestrian life, you are 10 times bigger an asshole behind the wheel of a car. No one flips people off and curses at them when they walk. Pedestrians don’t find every other pedestrian a stupid jackass because they are either walking too fast or too slow. And if you commit a crime—rob a store, shoot someone—you definitely don’t want to wait on the bus. You want a getaway car. At the very least, we can all admit that cars make us assholes.

But that’s only on the psychological level, which is worth mentioning because I believe in Plato’s analogy between the city and the soul and so that same effect will be mirrored when we look at society as a whole.

When I first moved to Baltimore five years ago, we had a car. My wife teaches at UMBC and I was taking the MARC train to College Park, where I was teaching, while freelancing. She picked me up one day at the Halethorpe Light Rail stop and we were driving home and at the corner of Park and Saratoga (on the same block as my new office) someone ran the red light and smashed the car. That intersection is filled with people standing around in the street and it is amazing that nobody was killed (people worry about crime in Baltimore but I am far more worried about being killed by one of the people turning from Calvert onto Centre, one of whom is certain to kill a pedestrian soon). And it turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to us.

I had also been carless in Pittsburgh and in Albuquerque—and it drastically changes one’s sense of space and time. Cities and cars are inherently antithetical (the great Guy Debord argues that James Joyce’s “Ulysses” captures the last moment when cities were cities, before cars came in and destroyed their essence). Cities are about proximity and the accidental encounter. Accident takes on a horrible connotation in the context of the car. But for the pedestrian, accident is opportunity. It is the chance to exchange ideas.

At the same time our car got crashed, I interviewed Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist, whose book “Triumph of the City” really influences the way I think about the costs of suburban sprawl, which depend on a massive consumption of energy. The commuters congest the roads, stealing time from everyone else. Yeah, buses suck and are late all the time. But it’s partly because of the congestion caused by the cars of people who don’t live in the city.

As I started writing this (or writing the tweets that led the editors to ask me to write this), homeless advocates were blocking Baltimore streets. The city should learn from this approach. Mayor $RB should respond to Hogan’s insane elision of Baltimore from his transportation map by making it literal. Make all Baltimore roads toll roads to non-residents—pay to come into Baltimore by car or to pass through it.

If you want to bring your 10,000 families, stop worrying about branding and make the city the kind of place people want to live. You’ve got it backward when you try to attract business and think that will bring people. Attract people and you will attract business. This is how Seattle and San Francisco brought the tech giants. They were places where the kind of smart people making smart shit wanted to live.

Showing the rest of the state how much it depends on Baltimore would be a start. And the income generated could provide expanded bus service. There would be less traffic and the buses would function more punctually.

If we stop subsidizing the suburbs, we make the city more desirable and then you don’t have to worry about branding. The suburbs will start to worry about branding themselves.

Boss Hög does the opposite and doubles down on suburban values. And that’s no surprise. It was his platform. The city failed when we didn’t turn out to vote. We failed when we allowed him to be elected. As Evan Serpick’s editorial had it, Hogan’s proposals may have been the equivalent of telling the city to “drop dead,” but the reality is that the city should have exercised its political power to make sure he never became governor. We told ourselves to drop dead.

But it is so difficult to get a grasp on our own opinions about transportation because they are deeply rooted in us, before we really gain awareness. I do think that writers, such as the Baltimore Brew’s Mark Reutter, who wrote an almost gleeful eulogy for the Red Line, should have to at least disclose whether or not they own a car, because it will inevitably infect the way they think about issues of transportation. I mean, if you’re writing about the place you got your first blow job, like I am, you should probably disclose that, don’t you think?

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