Thoreau’s Bicycle

Fall falls. Footfalls squish and squash through redorangeyellow leaves, their green energy sucked back into roots, an understandable hoarding for the winter.

The casual bicyclist dismounts for the season, buries the bike in the basement, perhaps intending to walk through the winter.

We have come to rely on the automobile to our detriment: for cars require a massive infrastructure, costly to build and maintain, that blights the landscape and harms the environment; cars are fuel-hogging inefficient, noisy and polluting, difficult to recycle; car use subtracts from walking opportunities. Even in parking lots we search for the space nearest the entrance, though that distance might be our only walk of the day.

While Thoreau probably knew of the bicycle, he didn’t ride one. If Thoreau wanted or needed to get somewhere, he walked.

In his essay simply titled “Walking,” Thoreau says he wants “to make an extreme statement.” What does an “extreme statement” sound like? “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” Thoreau says, “and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” At that pace, few of us would ever be ready or able to go for a walk.

Maybe it’s an argument of definition: what’s a walk? “But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day,” Thoreau says. He tells us, in Walden, he often walked four miles a day, and would walk eight miles to say hello to a tree (“Former Inhabitants” chapter, para. 17).

“I am a good horse to travel but not from choice a roadster,” Thoreau says in “Walking.” I stopped walking when I got my first roadster, a 1956 Chevy. Cars are cool. Who isn’t intoxicated by the odor of a new car’s interior? Today’s cars, souped up with on-board, high-tech falderal, make my old ’56 Chevy seem a bicycle by comparison. To answer Thoreau’s extreme statement about going for a walk, to walk with Thoreau, we would add our cars to his list of things we must be ready to leave and never see again. It’s an argument of revolution.

Related: Thoreau Posts

Economy of Emergent Stuff

Last week, over on SE Stark Street, a pothole the size of Devil’s Punchbowl emerged in the eastbound lane. Someone had erected a barricade that barely covered the problem. I told Susan a local state of emergency should be declared – call out the Guard. I might even be willing to get back into uniform and man the compressor truck, my old specialty. She scoffed at these ideas, yet several dangerous days passed before a detail was finally dispatched, during Friday rush hour, of course, to fill the gaping pore. I drove slowly through the detour, obeying the bright orange pylons, saw the road crew assembled like a team of dentists, one in the hole up to his neck, picking in the horrible cavity.

Portland was once the City of Bridges. Now it’s the City of Roses. Soon it will be the City of Signs. We see new signs popping up everywhere, like teenage acne on the urban landscape. One new sign currently multiplying rapidly is affixed below stop signs, and reads: “Traffic to the right does not stop.” What did we do before these signs were deemed necessary? There are signs, seemingly randomly distributed, posting a phone number to call to report rampant potholes. I did not see one, though, near the Stark Street Devil’s Punchbowl crisis of last week. James Joyce once challenged his contemporaries to walk across Dublin without passing a pub (though I think he considered the impossibility a good thing). Our challenge locally is to drive cross-town without encountering a roadblock. Yet the roads don’t improve. One new sign I’ve noticed, at the end of our block, reads, at the entrance to what we used to call an alley, “Caution: Unimproved Roadway.” The roadway is obviously unimproved, and the sign does nothing to improve that. In any case, are there any roadways in Portland that are improved? If we don’t soon become the City of Signs, it will be because the City of Potholes sticks first.

While the Stark Street pothole crisis still threatened locally, I happened to pick up the March 19 issue of The New Yorker and turned to James Surowiecki’s “The Financial Page.” I’m a regular reader of the feature, for in a single page Surowiecki is usually able to do for the economy what Robert Frost suggested poetry does for the soul: “a momentary stay against confusion.” But this week I came out of Surowiecki’s “Great Expectations?” feeling like I had just hit a pothole. “One good sign,” Surowiecki argues [that the economy is improving], “is that Americans are buying new cars again.” But where will they drive them, as the country’s road and bridge infrastructure continues to deteriorate, potholes proliferate, and the price of gasoline again threatens to spike? The age of the average car on the street today, Surowiecki says, is at “an all-time high,” suggesting a “pent-up demand for new cars.” But surely the fact that Detroit finally started making better new cars at least in part helps explain the improved longevity of the used car.

But the number of households is not increasing, Surowiecki says, a bad sign, for young people can’t afford to move out on their own, but “when this trend reverses there will be a spike in demand, both for housing, especially rentals, and for all the stuff that you put in a house.” Thus the economic recovery relies on thoroughly anti-Thoreauvian principles, for what we need are fewer, more efficient new cars, improved mass transit of all kinds, smaller, more affordable and more efficient houses, and less stuff, not to mention freedom from oil dependencies. Meantime, the potential of rising rents and the consolidation of available rentals in the hands of a few speculators may conspire to throw both the young and old to and from combined households. And why would a young person want to add to student loan debt the absurd cost of a new car loan? And how will they qualify for home mortgages with increasingly stricter requirements, saddled with their student loans? And then I came across another article, this one pointing economic blame at the same young for their alleged entropic and torpid inactivities.

Over at the HBR Blog Network, I found Sarah Green “stewing all week about a logically sloppy op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times.” Amazingly, the op-ed Green refers to, titled “The Go No-Where Generation,” blames the continuing poor economy in part on young people’s staying home, even citing a downturn in driver licensure as evidence, when, as the Surowiecki article also suggests, what we need of our young people is early licensure for the commute from the new home to the de-benefitted new job to afford to fill the new car with ever more expensive gas and the new home with new stuff. I quickly saw why Green stewed, for the op-ed invokes Steinbeck’s Joads as the prototype of the flexibly mobile go-where-the-jobs-are independent American worker – as if they had a choice. Besides, I was also reminded of John Grisham’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Painted House. Set in Korea War era Arkansas, the story compares and contrasts the stay-at-home, determined but economically doomed cotton farmers with friends and relatives who move up north and find jobs in the automobile factories, and who return to visit driving outlandishly expensive new cars. The irony, not found in the novel, is that not too long ago, the descendants of those local defectors to the north could now be found returning to the south to find jobs in Texas and environs as their manufacturing jobs in the north disappeared.

But what if, Sarah Green suggests, young people have decided on something new, an innovative idea toward value: “The choice young people face,” Green says, “isn’t whether to be jobless in Nevada or employed in North Dakota. It’s whether they’re going to drag themselves unwillingly into an unfair game or decide to invent a new one.”

Free Parking at the Library of Congress

ParkingWe try to imagine a world without cars. Given our experience, it’s difficult: our MOS was wheeled and track vehicle mechanic; we parked cars at the old LA International while working our way through college; we underwrote autos for a time. Our first car was a 1956 Chevy, purchased for $75 from our friend Gary leaving for Vietnam – he never returned. Our second car was a 1949 Ford pickup truck, called the “Peace Truck” for a small peace sign decal we put in the center of the rear window – we used the truck for surf trips. Then we went through a series of old Volkswagens, mostly bugs, but we did have a VW van for a time – it blew a rod one night on way home from a Jimmy Hendrix concert. We try to imagine Kerouac’s On the Road without cars: impossible.

We try to imagine a parking space at the very spot and time we need one. We’ve always talked to our cars, but parking spaces don’t listen. We remember our first time parking in the Columbia Tower in Seattle: the entrance to the underground parking garage is a concrete circle that descends quickly around and around and around for seven stories below the building, the massive concrete beams just inches overhead – not a place for the claustrophobic, almost as bad as the MRI machine, another circle of hell. Dante would love it, were he in Seattle with a car to park. After parking, one must take four separate elevators to get to even the 33rd floor.

John Grisham’s A Painted House contains a theme related to cars: it’s 1952 and the characters are struggling to survive on small cotton farms in rural Arkansas; some leave for the north, where they find jobs in the automobile industry, in Flint, and they travel back in their big new automobiles to visit and show off. The irony in the end of the story, underdeveloped, is that as the main characters finally give up the dream of making the farm work and follow the exodus to Flint, today’s reader knows they’ll be back – imagine cities full of hollow parking garages, empty parking lots.

What in the world brought on this reverie of the car? A road trip? A particularly gruesome commute? No. This, a post at the Inside Adams blog at the Library of Congress site: “Long Live the Parking Garage.” There will be free parking as soon as we get rid of the cars; meantime, we should caution you that if you are susceptible to following links you may never find your way out of the parking garage post.