Friday, November 12, 2010

Are Cars Necessary?

I carried on at length in my post of November 10th about cars, driving and parking in Los Angeles. An astute observer might say that I carried on at such length because I had a guilty conscience. And why would I have a guilty conscience about something as mundane as a car? Because one does not absolutely have to own a car to survive in Los Angeles. As Thoreau might say, a car is not "necessary." A car in Los Angeles, though, is a major convenience and life without one here can be distinctly brutish and often unpleasant.

Before Alma met me, she had spent her entire adult life without a car, including 10 years in Los Angeles. She survived in a previous marriage and then as a divorcee and single mother using public transportation and her feet. Alma points out that, before she met me, she never had to exercise, because she walked so much in her day-to-day life. Now, ironically, we drive to the beach each day . . . in order to get exercise. Thoreau would no doubt find that little paradox worthy of comment.

I drive a beat-up 1993 Nissan Sentra and have done so since June of 1993. Despite having been seriously damaged twice in hit-and-run accidents while parked and vacant on the street, the Nissan still runs well. It has about 125,000 miles on it, although the clutch may be starting to fail. I have long since paid off the loan I took out to pay for it and so consider myself truly a free man when driving it. It is a very dependable vehicle and I would not trade it for anything else on the road, I think. Well, now the clutch may be starting to fail and I have been warned that this could be an expensive repair. But it is an expense I will gladly endure because I have no car payment and because I save so much time with it. compared to taking the bus, bicycling or travelling on foot.

I must say, though, that when I am driving and I happen to look over to my left or to my right and see a single person driving one of these modern-day land yachts like a Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, or when I see some high-paid denizen of society driving a BMW or Mercedes, I must confess to wondering how much of the car he drives is necessity and how much instead ostentatious display.

Or, as Thoreau might say, the people in LA who drive these opulent displays are the

most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.

I occasionally see commercials on television for these types of expensive vehicles and am continually thunderstruck by how high the monthly payments can run, often in the neighborhood of $4-500/month just for the vehicle payment. When one adds insurance, the monthly vehicle cost may easily exceed $750/month. I have never seen the inside of an Escalade or Navigator, but I think one had better be able to live inside one for $750/month.

One of the things I most like and admire about Thoreau is that he is so uncompromising, at least in print. His curmudgeonly persona matches the persona I frequently offer to the world; one of my former companions referred to me as a "Spartan in the land of plenty" and so I find in Thoreau something of a kindred spirit. Thoreau sets a high standard and one that I find impossible to attain completely, but his standard is one I strive for in my daily life.

The first section or chapter of Walden, "Economy," offers a protracted discussion of what exactly is necessary to survive and to stay free. Somehow I think Thoreau would heap scorn on anyone who said that he or she simply had to have a motorized vehicle to survive or to save time. If one were to reply to Thoreau about how much time one wasted getting from point A to point B by bus or, better yet in Thoreau's thinking, on foot, Thoreau would reply that one is imprisoned by the very idea that one "must" get from point A to point B in any amount of time. This "gospel of the necessary," if preached by a fuss-budget, would drive most people away. And although he does sometimes come across as a bit prissy, still Thoreau compels us to engage his point that we do not possess things so much as they possess us.

Here is what Thoreau says:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable [sic], but positive hinderances [sic] to the elevation of mankind.

Along those lines, thinking like Thoreau, is it not a contradiction of the highest order to think that one must save time to get to the beach only to stand in the presence of timelessness? Is it not a contradiction of the greatest severity to employ the infernal internal combustion engine in order to more quickly see Nature face to face? And is not one doing a disservice to brutes to call life without a car 'brutish' as I did in my first paragraph?

Life is 'brutish' without a car in Los Angeles? Thoreau would laugh at me, just as he would laugh at my petty need to save time. But I still like Thoreau. A lot. And I would gladly offer him a ride to anywhere he needed to go. And he would probably gladly accept it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks hun for the mention of my life before I met you. I occasionally find that tendency of yours to "make due" on so little frustrating but then that is only because it harkens to a time when my life was somewhat trying and certainly hard work. I guess nobody however, ever died from hard work and just the opposite found that they were in better shape for it.