Infernal Combustion

Chrysler-300C-007I still consider New York the world’s greatest city, but my life changed quite a bit when I moved here from Jackson, Mississippi. Some changes were expected: lots of people of all ethnicities living very close together, a brusque coarseness for which New York is famous (but in reality is rather overblown; most people are quite considerate, but they hate like hell to wait in line — excuse me, “on line” — and they loudly sigh and whine ad nauseam because they have to do it every day), wicked tall buildings, staggering housing costs, etc. But one change, maybe the most significant of all, I hadn’t seen coming:

I haven’t owned an automobile for 21 years.

In Manhattan, where I live, it isn’t necessary. Walking is free. (Probably for that reason, Manhattanites are the thinnest people in the five boroughs, though I personally affect the curve adversely.) Buses and subways will take you anywhere for a couple of bucks. A taxi is usually the fastest way to get around, if you have the dough. Trains can get you to Westchester or Connecticut — or Florida, for that matter. But here, only a tiny minority actually have their own wheels — my guess is mostly to get to their summer houses and back.

I don’t know what cars cost. I don’t know which ones are good or bad. Last summer’s spike in the pump price of gasoline was an academic story for me, because I don’t know what gas is supposed to cost. For more than two decades, cars have meant nothing to me.

Oh, I still drive. In fact, I enjoy driving. When I go to a place where a car is needed, I just rent one. But I sit in the airport parking lot for five minutes every time, figuring out my new car before I can crank it up. Which side is the gas tank on? How do you open it? How do the mirrors work? The windows? The seat? The a/c? What are all these freakin buttons?  My morbid fear is that I’m gonna somehow deploy the airbag. You may snicker, but then, you have an owner’s manual.

Every once in a while, I think about the money I’ve — not saved, just not spent. And, more important, the dozens of close calls I’ve not had in 21 years. I had one just last March, when I drove Linda and my in-laws from Phoenix to California. We were tooling back on the interstate, and we could see lots of people putting on their brake lights ahead, so I slowed down. But what brake lights can’t tell you is the intensity with which the driver is jamming the pedal. There had been a bad accident ahead seconds before, and everybody was going from 65 to a dead stop. The guy in front of me had to turn left toward the median to avoid the guy in front of him, and we stopped with only inches to spare. Fortunately, we saw only one mashup, evidently the drivers right behind the accident. You can be the best driver in the world, but if you’re in the wrong place, you’re toast. Every time I see a driver talking on a cell phone, it gives me the creeps. (A recent study showed cell phone users are statistically every bit as dangerous as .08 blood-alcohol drivers, and hands-free devices don’t move the needle at all, because the conversation is what distracts you. Guess which administration put the data in its pocket.)

Phoenix. I go there at least once a year, and it amazes me how much gas it takes just to live your life in such a spread-out city. (The only place more difficult to get around in is Los Angeles.) And until the recent housing crash, it was one of the fastest-growing spots in the country, continually making matters even worse. Just to take in a movie requires miles and miles on the interstate. We celebrated Linda’s folks’ 50th anniversary a couple years ago and drove 45 minutes each way to get to one particular restaurant. It was a very nice place, granted, but 45 minutes? Every American city of any size now has a ring road, or beltway, that’s supposed to make it easier to navigate these great distances, but most of them have produced little more than heavy traffic, only traveling at interstate speeds. Manhattan’s walkability is an anomaly, and people sure do get hit by cars here too. (And yes, every other driver is blabbing on a cell phone.) But whenever I pull up to Avis to return a car, anywhere in the U.S. of A., I can’t help thinking, oh jeez, God, thanks for sparing me again.

I just know we’re spending too much time in our cars, and not because we want to, either. They’re essential. So Detroit’s current woes are particularly poignant, because people have to continue to buy cars — but now, maybe they just won’t buy them from Americans. Nissan built a plant near Jackson after I moved away, and you have to drive by it to comprehend its immensity, not to mention the secondary suppliers which surround this behemoth for miles. No wonder governors fight each other with cheap labor and tax breaks to get auto plants.

But nobody down there has to build one for me. Just a little lagniappe for living in New York — and making it that much nicer.

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