The roundest wheel

I mention cars so much because they occupy so much of my brain, such as it is. And this, although I do not own one, hardly ever ride, and would rather shut them out. (I still limp, slightly, from one of them that bumped me while I was road-crossing on a green light, ten years ago.) I am living in Car World, 2015; and if, as more than one gentle reader has suggested, I were to remove myself to the country, I would need a car. For it is now almost a century since the public transport systems of this continent — which could move one from almost anywhere to almost anywhere, urban or rural, with a short walk at each end — began to evaporate. Thanks to cars.

A reader who was once an engineer writes of a winter evening on the Long Island soi-disant “Expressway”:

“I was on a slight rise, looking at probably 20,000 pairs of headlights and taillights. Idly I added up the horsepower coasting at walking speed in both directions: roughly 2.4 million horsepower, just in my field of vision. Here then is one aspect of the tech-liberal paradox. The more autonomous we become, the more we are squeezed into a collective.

“The old alternative would have been the Long Island Railroad. But in the days of communal cars, before the great social atomization, people had to respect each other and dress in a reasonable fashion. Now a trip on a public conveyance is an iffy and edgy undertaking. Tattooed gangbangers and their legions of wannabes, the desperately sexualized, the purple-haired life-stylists (in goosestep with the other alternative life-stylists), the mutilated, the slovenly, the unbathed, the abusers of substance, the trans-gressives, the ear-budded. …”

He enumerates the maladaptive. Sometimes I think the adaptable are worse.

In Toronto, I’ve noticed that even in their absence, cars build our world. A “renaissance in downtown living” has pushed house prices, even for a dive, towards one million dollars; and skyscraper condominium apartments (“condoms” as I call them) have sprouted in glassy jungles around all the major rapid transit points. The same thing is happening out there in the satellite towns: the “sleeper suburbs” now going vertical.

This is not pressure of population, for Canada is fairly large. It is a concentration of population, now trying to avoid the rush-hours by piling into commuter trains. The density in a few blocks downtown approaches Hong Kong levels, and yet, … walk through at most times of day and there is little crowding on the sidewalks. Only the roads full, from the compression of cars, one human in each, trying to reach the ramps of the “expressways.”

For there is no community. The public spaces are sterile, the surfaces all designer-paved, and elaborate by-laws prevent anything human from growing in the cracks. Restaurants outnumber groceries; each is a fake, in menu and decor; the groceries flog ready-made microwave meals. The people themselves are permanently “in transit,” many throughout their lives, on a journey that is the opposite of a pilgrimage. They have allowed themselves to become almost pure economic factors, with a job and a place to sleep, plus free time for demeaning entertainments. It is an environment in which there are more dogs than children — especially those small, yappy, and spoilt, on which the females ladle their maternal instincts. (On one recent walk I counted specialized retail outlets: eight for pets, and two for children.)

More fundamentally, Christ is not welcome there. It is hard, anyway, to see Him in the city glare; just as it is hard to see the stars. But the flip side of social atomization is the extraordinary peer pressure it brings to bear. The place is religion-free, as it is germ-free. Look from the window of the rush-hour train over any new patch of sprawling suburb, with thousands of balloon-frame, ticky-tack houses, and you will see not one church spire; only the occasional minaret. For the white people (often my least favoured race) to acknowledge Christ would be to lose one’s defensive anonymity. It would be to acquire some personhood, of the most inconvenient kind. It would put one in a church, surrounded by the weird, united in a mysterious “body.” It would take one out of oneself. It might expose one to germs.

Cars: one of my happiest memories was of a Saturday morning, decades ago, riding down Oxfordshire country lanes in a little, rusting one, packed with six people. I was thrown in with a family of amateur musicians, and they were all singing — in baroque counterpoint, too.

People today want solutions to their problems, and I think this is the first step.