Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Cars and Driving

Like many New Yorkers, I learned to drive later than my suburban counterparts. The delay owes in part to the ubiquity–if not efficiency or pleasure or reliability–of the city's public transportation as well as the density of metropolitan construction: when everything is close and you can go to and fro with relative ease, you're no so eager to incur the expense of a car. Too I lacked that adolescent distemper which seems to prise youths from home at the earliest possible moment. Lacking the impetus to escape, I settled, and working in the city, I naturally adopted the pedestrian antipathy toward drivers so common among New Yorkers. Antipathy, of course, in blatant indifference to the inconvenience I put upon friends and family to chauffeur me around. At any rate I learned to drive but several short years ago.

I admit to a certain trepidation about that examination. How infamous become the people who fail their road test, and what objects of scorn! What will people say if I fail, with my much vaunted knowledge? That I knew then and now without a doubt that each and every friend would have responded with charity mattered little when the instructor sat Sphinx-like in the passenger seat, recording my every error. Passing though I did, on the first try, when driving I have progressed but moderately beyond the anxiety I felt that day. My present concern though is less on of being judged than of harming.

Naturally most people don't live day-to-day in fear of their lives and like most people mortality is a fleeting philosophic concern to me, at best. I'm attentive to hazards and rather able to protect myself and avoid harm, and likewise I realize few people have the incentive to harm me. Yet put those same people in a car, with a few tons of steel and hundred horse power, and see how man is transformed.

On foot, we of course frequently bump into one another without much commotion or concern. It is even common for two people in attempting to avoid each other by stepping aside, continually to step into the other person's corrected trajectory, further stymieing each other in a comedy of manners. I always find that such mismatches buoy my spirits: how wonderful are we, so full of concern for our fellow men! Yet put us in cars and we would be shouting each other down, blaring our horns, and jockeying positions for the profitless patch of ground. Paragon of animals indeed!

The power of his car which he did purchase but did not, because he did not cultivate it himself, earn and which he therefore does not understand, is the Ring of Power on his finger. It magnifies his rage and avarice as it puts within reach otherwise inaccessible pleasure. Like the ring also, it can only be mastered by him who made it.

Man may possess many powers of speech, mind, and hand but these are all hard fought and in the suffering, in the vulnerability of learning, we grow to respect not only the skill we cultivate but also its fruits. Who learns to speak well learns to be moderate and not abuse, who learns to think quickly and discern learns patience, and who learns to gather wealth learns to be beneficent and liberal. Yet who buys a car learns no discipline but leaves himself to be seized with a mania, not to drive but be driven by a suddenly unfettered and untutored appetite. Multiple appetites in fact, and being appetites they can be sated but never filled. The motor vehicle 

The fact that there aren't more accidents is perhaps a reproach to my argument, as is the relatively affordable cost of insurance and the fact that roads aren't constantly tied in tangles of traffic. (Though they often are.) Too, much of my driving stress comes from the recklessness and brazenness of pedestrians, a brazenness which finds its origins in the certainty that judges and insurance adjusters will sooner find fault with the driver of two tons of combustion-propelled steel than the measly flesh and bones of the pedestrian. Timid drivers are of great danger to others as well, enraging speeders and moderate drivers alike. Just the thought of one nervous driver holding up a whole column of traffic boils my blood, as does the way in which the quite orthodox phenomenon of rain seems to throw some drivers into a confused tizzy. If we finally add the fact that clairvoyance and telepathy are now mandatory for all drivers, since if practice is any indication the use of turn signals is now optional, it's nothing short of extraordinary that there's anyone left alive at all.

I can seldom drive for five minutes, and sometimes not even around the corner, without witnessing behavior which is downright death-defying. I know not what fortune, skill, technology, or fate interferes with what seems to be certain catastrophe.

Yet the dangers and the variety of variables with which driving presents me is but one complaint, the other being that I find it unnatural and generally unpleasant to interact with the world by means of a car. It is natural and appropriate for man to interact with others by means of words and because of that need to learn to speak and write with skill. I enjoy the rules, traditions, and possibilities of discourse. Man being mobile, it is fitting and necessary to walk, and I do so with great pleasure. Yet when  I drive, for all the convenience it brings me and for all the possibilities laid open, I'm not at peace. I feel in a state of disequilibrium which ought not endure. When driving it is difficult to see people and they you, and it is hard to be courteous to others, however seldom the need may arise. (How precious is the wave of thanks!) Even with the windows down I can hear little but the buffet of air billowing by, and with the windows closed I can hear and smell nothing of my environment.

Worst of all is the way it temps me with easy power. Whatever skill I have of speech, any action must take some toll of effort. Every phrase must be turned, every argument structured, every twist of wit twined with foxy dexterity. Yet my car presents me with over 200 horsepower the ability to accelerate from 0-60mph in but a few seconds, all with the press of a pedal. Every word asks that I choose it with care lest I confuse or offend, but who cares about nameless, faceless drivers?

All of these admissions and admonitions seem a terrible betrayal of my car, to which I am irrationally attached. In it I enjoy a quietude and luxury far greater than most anywhere else I can find or afford. Its refined, conservative styling is, I hope, a reflection of its owner. I enjoy keeping it clean as I do my desk and books, with every manner of cloths and sprays. How the light glints off its speckled finish. How the dew beads on its waxed exterior. How I cracked the tire valve and watched it deflate before my eyes. Yet for all its inconveniences and burden, without it I feel stranded. Without it parked outside I feel constrained, even if I'm unlikely to go anywhere.

Like much of modern man's technology, the car is a much greater power than we realize. As such it requires discipline and sacrifice, and most of all prudence. Not exactly our strengths.


  1. Never before have I seen something that expresses the absurdity that I feel on the subject of driving. Multitudes of people are given 2 ton metal monstrosities that are capable of achieving speeds of 150 miles per hour, but rarely do I see the driver of a car even bat an eye when they have drifted too far into the next lane and almost caused a multiple car pile up. Perhaps my nerves have become exhausted at an early age, but I am usually quick to react to loud noises and sudden situations that can cause a bad accident. I too cant go more than 5 minutes at the wheel without seeing an almost catastrophic event, but as soon as its over everyone involved goes about their business. No one takes a moment to reflect on what caused the almost accident, and what the consequences would have been if the accident came to fruition. This fear and uneasiness has caused me to repel any driving lessons offered to me and I still have not achieved a passing grade on a road test. I am forced to see my friends enjoy the freedom bestowed upon them by the Department of Motor Vehicles, and become concerned about the nonchalance of a driver who has only been on the road for 3 months. In the meantime, I will enjoy the solitude of long walks which gives an extreme sense of self and what I am thinking. Also I think that the solitude of walking would be a great topic for an essay on this blog and I would like to hear your observations and your experiences on the benefits and detriments of long, solitary walks.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, and please accept my apologies that I took so long to put it through as I've been with many regrets away from it for a few weeks.

    At any rate, your comment is most well said also: I simply don't understand how anyone drives without great concern. I can't even commend it to being oblivious, since it seems patently obvious to you and me what nearly happens every few moments. In this respect being christened a driver, which seems a social sacrament, seems but to commend indifference.

    I too enjoy the liberty of the walk, in which my mind is at ease not to use and manage, but appreciate. You're too kind to as for my thoughts on the topic, which I'll happily do perhaps after a few spring walks.

    Once again, thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, and I'm sorry it waited so long.