Getting Nowhere Fast
ABUNDANT LIFE WITH PUBLIC TRANSIT
“The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban humanity. Even before the Volkswagen, observers about street level often noticed the near resemblance of cars to shiny- backed insects.”
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding
Media: The Extensions of Man
My first summer in New York City was 1968, when Harlem was still smoldering from the riots following Martin Luther King’s murder that spring. I was sixteen years old and worked as a volunteer in the first children’s day camp at Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.
Neighborhood teenagers introduced me to the fine art of hangin’ on the street; the favorite song that summer was “I’m a girl-watcher, I’m a girl-watcher, watchin’ girls go by, my my my ..."
From them I learned the names for the configurations of white cops rolling by in squad cars: four cops in a car were the “four horsemen,” with the apocalyptic overtones of big trouble. My friends informed me that under their tutelage I would become so cool that I’d be wearing alligator shoes, and while I never reached that giddy peak of hipness, I did take with me a love for the street I have never lost.
That summer I explored the subways. My first foray was out to Coney Island, since I’d just been reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. Only a dime to go and a dime to return. What a thrill! The warning signs on the subway introduced me to the Spanish language—those hauntingly beautiful lines: “La via del tren subterraneo es peligrosa . . . “ rendered prosaically by the New York City Transit Authority as “Subway tracks are dangerous.”
Three years later I moved back to Manhattan for graduate study, and, with the exception of brief periods of travel, recuperation, and seminary, it was my home until I moved to Philadelphia last year. The move prompted inevitable comparisons between the two cities. Philadelphia’s tradition (until recently) of limiting the height of buildings to the height of William Penn’s statue atop City Hall symbolizes the most obvious difference in character. In the anarchy of Manhattan such a regulation would be totally inconceivable and would be regarded by the real estate moguls who rule the city as dangerously insane. (Perhaps similar chaos will come to rule Philadelphia now that the building-height tradition is being discarded.) Philadelphia is generally less flashy and less vicious than New York. If New York is like a 45 rpm hit single, Philadelphia is the same record played at 33 1/3.
But what strikes me most about Philadelphia is that it seems much more unusual than in Manhattan for a white couple not to own a car. Many people here solicitously offered us rides until we could get our own car and were puzzled—even offended—when we said we had no plans to buy one. Neither my wife nor I has ever owned a car, and although everyone assures us that when we have children we won’t be able to do without one, we are becoming increasingly adamant on this point.
I believe I have some serious reasons to be antiautomobile: the squandering of irreplaceable fossil fuels; the sheer waste and inefficiency of thousands of quarter empty automobiles invading the city daily, jamming the streets and fouling the air; the unconscionable destruction of neighborhoods to create highways; the preposterous unfairness of federal handouts to the highway lobby while mass-transit riders suffer; the lunacy of putting such lethal machines into the hands of wicked fools. But I hate to preach. Besides, no one takes seriously a ranter against such a basic fixture of modern life.
I would just like to point out that it is different when you travel without a car. First, when you travel in a car, you travel alone or with a few prescreened individuals. On the street and on the subway, you travel with the masses. (This is, course, precisely why most people want a car in the first place .) Second, when you travel by car, you have unlimited range--you can go wherever and whenever you like.Without a car your physical environment
has a different shape, which is more restricted but richer in texture.
When I visited Nairobi briefly in 167, it struck me quite forcefully that,
in this independent African nation, the white people were driving cars and the
black people were walking. When I ride the trolley home into West Philadelphia, the majority of the riders are black. As we approach my home, we gradually off all the white people, and I am often the last white to get off. The trolley its riders graphically represent our neighborhood demographics. We move from Center City past the University of Pennsylvania, to the furthest reach of the gentrification process, which is the border of the black neighborhood. My street, predominantly white with some blacks and Asians, is right on the frontier. But wherever you ride in this city on public transportation (with the possible exception of the buses in the all- white Northeast) blacks constitute an overwhelming majority of the ridership.
Being without a car keeps you in touch with some basic social realities. You are also kept. in constant contact with people. Walking home from Seventh Avenue church one Sunday afternoon, Sylvia and I were treated to an off-key rendition of Eddie Murphy’s “Kill the White People” by a friendly bunch of teenagers on the street corner. Strolling in our neighborhood one evening, we were rewarded with an unsolicited blessing from an elderly Dominican woman sitting on the stoop: “Que mattimonio bello! Que Dios les acompane!” (“What a lovely couple! God be with you!”) Once in the subway a black Muslim in white cap and robe came up to me and exclaimed, “Man, you look like Jesus!” I was too flabbergasted to attempt to continue the conversation.
Without a car, one’s physical horizons are limited. In Philadelphia, we are fortunate to live one minute’s walking distance from our church. Within a fifteen-minute radius live all but one of the members of our bible study group and most of the members of our English- language congregation. Within this radius live half a dozen members of our Vietnamese church and a dozen of our Cambodian English-language students. I’m beginning to measure the city with my feet--thirty minutes to the Thirtieth Street train station, forty-five minutes to the museum, seventy-five minutes to the Ritz Five movie house.
When Sylvia and I were dating, she lived in the Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in the South Bronx and I lived in Manhattan. At night, after visiting her, I would climb aboard the subway for a forty-five-minute ride home. One night, as she walked me to the subway station, we decided we were utterly tired of this arrangement. So we decided to get married. We were so thrilled that she walked me down to the next subway stop-at Yankee Stadium. Then I walked her back to the VS unit. If either of us had had a car, none of this would
have happened. -Ross Bender