Living at the speed of feet: cars and violence in a new world

My grandmother didn’t drive. When I was a child, I figured this was natural: old ladies don’t drive.

But the truth was my grandmother had never driven. Her eldest sister, Alyce, was famous among the six siblings for being “a driver.” She owned a dusty, humped-over, black Quasimodo of a Buick with a big FAILED-INSPECTION sticker on the front windshield. Aunt Alyce took all us grandkids to bowling, pizza, Sunday mass. She went screeching up to lights, skinning through stop signs, tailgating and swearing and careening and barreling. Gram sat next to her, gasping, stomping her foot to the floor, crying: Slow down, Al, watch it, watchitwatchit, that car!

The whole time, I sat staring at that FAILED INSPECTION sticker. I never took my eyes off of it. I might’ve been eight years old, but I was already starting to understand that never, under any circumstances, could any car be trusted.

My grandmother could remember the first time she ever rode in a car. It was 1925 and she was fifteen years old. They actually called them Tin Lizzies — that wasn’t just in period movies. Gram was marked by the Great Depression; she invested in government bonds and would never dreaming of throwing money away on anything as spurious as an automobile.

From my grandmother, I learned the essential utility of walking and the infinite possibilities of mass transit. Each day, she walked a mile downhill to Linden Avenue to get a few groceries, then she walked a mile uphill, towing her wire cart behind her. She couldn’t buy too many groceries at a time because they weighed too much, so she simply made the trip every day. Sometimes more than once a day. When I was in high school, I offered to teach her how to drive. She looked at me in bewilderment and said, “Whyever would I want to do that?”

She took me all over on busses: we went into Manhattan, to Broadway shows; we went to Hershey Pennsylvania to see the chocolate factory; to Menlo Park to see the first light bulb; to dude ranches in the Pocono Mountains. In Europe, we took busses to Stratford upon Avon to see As You Like It performed in the Globe Theatre, and to Montmartre to watch sidewalk artists, and to the scrolling flower gardens of the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg.

Cars have taken me to a lot of places too. Like to the emergency room when my nine-year-old sister was hit in front of our house and needed twelve stitches in her forehead. Or to the animal hospital when our cat was hit in front of our house and needed a week of inpatient care. Or to the hospital again when my friend in college fell asleep at the wheel, broke his neck, and had to wear a halo brace screwed into his cranium for a year. Oh, and also to gravesides, like when my graduate advisor skidded on his motorcycle and ran into a car: instead of having class we all went to his funeral.

Still, I hadn’t become passionate in my dislike of cars until we moved to Miami. During an interview for a faculty position at the University of Miami, I was stunned at the vehicles rampaging along the Dixie Highway. I’d flown in from Oregon and I’d never seen anything like it, the traffic density interspersed with wild intensity. “How do you even drive in this?” I asked the professor ferrying me around Coral Gables.

“You kind of have to get numb,” he said, smiling widely. “Shell shocked. Then it’s easier.”

Daunted yet hopeful, we took the plunge and moved to Florida. I asked friends to sit with me while I tooled around Miami, making test runs to downtown, the beach, the Keys. Each outing was a lesson in place and culture. A single wrong turn or missed exit delivered me to new interplanetary worlds — Liberty City or the Foutainbleu Hotel –polarities extending along a strip of asphalt. The rules of these unfamiliar roads were a new dialectic and language immersion course. But in Miami, it felt less like discussion to me than argument — a fight for supremacy. Cars nosed into every available inch — turn signals a sign of weakness — or mindlessly tailgated, or cut each other off as if in personal vendettas. Drivers sometimes stopped short on the highway and threw it into reverse. Shirtless bikers screeched between lanes, hot as hornets.

Instead of getting numb, though, I got aggravated. While we lived on a quiet little lane, it connected to a big, busy thoroughfare that roared with traffic. Our neighbors lived in tiny boxes but drove outlandishly expensive luxury cars: Bentleys, Maseratis, Lamborginis. All I saw when I looked at these polished surfaces was waste and destruction: noise, pollution, the ultimate in conspicuous consumption. A monster that consumed its creator.

On the Miami evening news, we saw guns framed in the drivers’ windows, heard nightly tales of drive-by shootings. I started to think of the two as linked: cars and guns — random, brutal uncontainable things, available to seemingly anyone at any time.

Then, six years after we moved to town, our dog was struck, thrown twenty feet mid-air, and killed before she hit the shady little street in front of our house. I screamed and screamed, standing in our doorway. The driver had been texting and going too fast.

I felt broken and enraged. I began to feel swallowed alive by a car-obssessed culture. They were everywhere, stinking, roaring, ripping up the earth, running into lovely living things; killing fast and killing slow. I started looking for pedestrian-centric communities. We house sat for friends in Key West and bicycled everywhere. We didn’t once get into the car for five weeks.

A few years after our daughter was born, we moved up the street to Fort Lauderdale. Yes, there are cars in Broward County, but I noticed a bit more space between them. In our new neighborhood, we can walk to a small grocery store, a coffee shop, a park. We can bicycle to a beach. Children still play in the road out front. I hear their voices when I read, not the distant churn of traffic. And this has made a small yet profound difference in our lives.

My grandmother remembered a time when a trolley went down the main street of Elizabeth, when the neighbor kids rode horses to school, when the country was criss-crossed by trains. I didn’t grow up with these things, yet somehow I feel nostalgic for them. I suppose it makes me a Luddite to admit to this, but I suspect that, in a world of engines, I was built at the speed of feet.

And deep down, I believe, we all must be.