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In the Streets Cars

By John G. Short

IM NOW DRIVING the car that's going to kill me. It's long and sharp, an American car, a much-traveled F-85 Cutlass. I prowl down the road, sweep down the side streets, zoom out of the curves. I glide noiselessly through the long December shadows of the trees on the Arborway. I pass you on the expressway, the streetlights bleeding away on the bend in my windshield. Have you heard about the midnight rambler? Have you heard about the Boston. . . strangler?

It has a very large engine, yet, at the same time, it is a quiet car. You can be cruising right along, and suddenly, without scarcely noticing it, you're doing 80 miles an hour. It is heavy, but you can't feel it. You can flow into the drift of a rotary, and the tires will squeal with the strain, which will surprise you. You can't feel the road as much as you can feel the focus of God's movie camera on the smoothness of your existence

How could someone not run such a car into a tree one of these days? Americans build their cars so that you forget what you're doing (driving). They build them for the highways between here and New York and between Billings and Bozeman, Montana. The car just doesn't want to slow down for the kind of cooperation with others (who are opponents and rivals) that city driving requires. This frustration is like a lot of other frustrations that this American life puts in our minds. (One of the Hare Krishna people told me after I bought some incense from him: "Chant to Krishna every day, and your life will be sublime." If p. then q.)

A kid snapped off my antenna while I was parked for a mere fifteen minutes in East Cambridge the other day. Before that someone backed into the front of the car while I was upstairs asleep. They wiped out a headlight and some other stuff. They rip my bumper stickers off my bumper if they don't like them And I rip off theist. Too bad, isn't it?

THINK HOW different the experience of driving your car down the street is from the experience of walking down the street. When you walk, you're your own man. When you drive, you're everyone else's man. You can only do what has been predicted. Your thinking is about how to avoid hitting the others all around you doing the same thing you are, and how to avoid the police and do all the things they require you to do.

Think about the police. A study somewhere once revealed that the average man in this country makes his only contact with police during his lifetime in connection with driving his car. A policeman's function of regulating traffic, overseeing parking, and checking up on registration and inspection of cars is a extraordinary duty really apart from most of what he does as a crime fighter. A policeman can stop you, search you, and easily arrest you if you're driving a car. When they say the "streets belong to the people." it is a dream: the streets belong to the state. They are the policeman's domain.

You have to have papers to drive a car. You are performing a state-licensed act. As soon as you get on the public roads, people (the law) expect all these things of you. You've got to be licensed, registered, inspected, and insured. And you must act predictably. A lot of eyes are on you, and your eyes are on a lot of others. When other drivers see you. you will look like them (you're in a car). You will act like them. And you will be like them because, if you are thinking about your driving, you are thinking like them.

Think about being stuck mostly motionlessly in downtown traffic for half an hour. This is a very terrible experience. Your mind can't wander because your purpose is being constantly minutely served: you inch forward. As a human animal you have no interest in this sort of activity. You are totally estranged from what you're doing. This is why cars have radios.

Think about automobile insurance, which is required in this state. The rates are exorbitantly high (8400-8600 a year) because the companies must be covered for the high risk cases. But the companies, in our free society, are allowed to turn anyone down for insurance that they want to. They turn down the kids and the poor. Only insurance companies that never pay up on damage insure these people. Think about how impossible it would be to clear up the legislation on Massachusetts's compulsory insurance gyp.

Think about how you, as a pedestrian, are irritated by having to wait for a line of cars to drive by. Think of how, as a driver, you get angry at pedestrians who get in your way. The you's in both these situations are both right to feel the way they do. That is true. Think about how unbearable it is that that is true.

THINK OF HOW much it means to us to be going somewhere. All our ontological problems seem to dissolve when we are set into motion. To be going somewhere (literally) means in our world that you're either traveling in a car or better. Think of how much we need cars to set us free so we can each go to our own particular places.

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