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The Deadly Mustang-Cougar-Jaguar-Tiger GT Wheelchair

Chapter 2 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

Car-lifting the bike is the only way I know to beat the syndrome of city living. The whole thing works as if were master-minded by Dr. Fu Manchu or Moriarty; it works so well that it can't be accidental. The more you drive, the less air there is to breathe, the less air there is to breathe the more you have to drive because you are just not capable of doing anything else. Heaven help you if you try.

Back in bad old Los Angeles, I understand people are told to stay home and do nothing during air-pollution alerts. I learned this by reading a Paris newspaper---the best way to learn what is wrong with Los Angeles and the rest of the United States. But no Paris newspaper has yet gotten around to explaining to my why I spit black solid particles in Paris and nowhere else, not even in New York. Paris was once civilized, now it's dieselized. It is when I start spitting black that I sound my own alert; I cut my effort down to the point of doing nothing more than wiggling the steering wheel of my Citroën until I have gotten up up and the hell away.

But don't let the exhaust fool you, it's only a smoke screen. Run an automobile on steam, electricity, sunshine, or the morning dew, it'll still get you. Put on bumper of eiderdown, bring back the man on horseback waving a red flag ahead of every motorcar (why did they ever take him away?), the automobile will still be lethal.

For that deadly Mustang-Cougar-Jaguar-Tiger GT you take by the tail is really nothing but a wheelchair. The difference is that most wheelchairs give the patient a chance to push the wheels. Hardly a wheel to push or turn in the deadly Mustang-Cougar-Tiger etc., it demands no more effort than the paraplegic's eyelid to flick that flips the pages of an electrically operated book. A buddy of mine who had a foot nerve severed in the infantry got a priority in 1945 for an Old Hydramatic; everybody has a priority today. Everybody is a paraplegic, we have superpower for infra-people.

Rewrite the riddle of the Sphinx, cut the legs out from under it. What starts out in life on wheels and stays on wheels until wheeled out? What starts out in a carriage, graduates to a stroller, then walks only through childhood and early adolescence until carried again by wheels? Why, it is man the hunter, that two-legged beast of prey. He could run a horse into the ground, he could plow a hundred acres, take a reef off Cape Horn, shovel four tons of coal on a single shift, he could do all of that and more. Not any more. Now he sits and twitches a finger and a toe. Yet his genes and his metabolism have not changed during the nanosecond of his biological history that has seen him reduced to a lump of helpless cushioned cosseted flesh.

He goes on eating like the hunter and the plowman, the boeuf bourguignon of the peasant winegrower, the bouillabaisse of the fisherman, the lumberjack's flapjacks, the cowboy's steaks, and he does nothing at all. Again the syndrome; the more he eats, the bigger the car he needs to be able to move. He can pass on a hill at eighty miles per hour, but he can't climb a flight of stairs. This is where the car gets us; we are turned into a nation of Falstaffs but only superficially. We are not jovial fat men, we're just fat. The pot belly and the beefy jowls of the Victorian exploiter of child labor, we've all got them now, the exploiters and the exploited, a classless society all the same weight class. Everyone looks like Diamond Jim Brady, but it doesn't come from high living with Lillian Russell.

Small wonder that the organism of man the hunter races wildly; all that energy intake is going wild, Achilles' heel is on the accelerator, his toe is on the brake. Small wonder that the energy bursts out elsewhere; perhaps it erupts into carcinomas that strike us down willy-nilly like the plague in Defoe's London, you're here today, you're gone tomorrow. It cloaks us, too, with unhealthy tissue, a refuse heap of quivering grease that we must tote with us when we jelly out of our wheelchairs, our hearts pumping like a schoolgirl's at the sight of her first swain, our chests heaving, our lungs panting.

A preposterous outrageous claim. Of course it is but go take it apart. Find a controlled population identical in all respects except that some drive cars and some do not. Keep tabs on them from adolescence on, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the disease pattern for the drivers is the same as that of the carless, that the incidence of cancer is identical or, at least, within the bounds of statistical error. Even if you succeeded, I wouldn't believe you because it doesn't suit me. It did not suit a number of people to believe the Surgeon General when he produced his report on smoking, based on patients living the same lives in veterans' hospitals except that some used cigarettes and some did not. But don't worry, the tests are being run now, everyone is in the experiment whether he likes it or not, no one is asking him, we have been volunteered. What is it that knocks the growth process askew, that disturbs the balance of regulatory mechanisms? We do not know, of course, there are too many factors; some may be self-cancelling, others are certainly synergistic. What we do know is that no human beings until now have ever commanded so much artificial energy while using so little of their own.

The calories pour into the gut; the gasoline that goes into the tank is converted into motion, but not the calories in the gut. The power has to be used up, it has to go somewhere. Smoking is one way. I do not know the physiology, all I do know is that I was a lot more tired when I smoked. I did much less, I needed sleep more than I do now. Tobacco can use up the excess energy. Yet it, too, seems to spoil the balancing act. For a while, we can do anything, smoke, drive eat, drink. Not forever, though; the furnace stops drawing, we keep shoveling the stuff in but it doesn't go away. Cut down on sweets, try cyclamates instead; no, back to saccharine again; anything that will save the sweet sensation of fuel going down the gut without forcing us to convert it to work. Try the drinking man's diet, try the driving man's diet.

That is the true physical pollution of the car. The maimed and the dead are the tip of the iceberg, the gassed and the poisoned are but part of the picture. The real loser is the winner, the man who, like my late, dear father, never has an accident, never is hit, just sits and swells in his driver's seat, from Willy-Overland to LaSalle, over the years his engines growing more and more powerful as he grows weaker and weaker. It was the second infarctus that got my dad. After the first, he watched the cholesterol, he stopped smoking, he thinned down until the confidence came back, he started driving again, eating again, taking a taxi four blocks to the office. He thought he was whole again; he was moving less than when I had walked him slowly through the Bagatelle Gardens in the Bois de Boulogne after the first heart attack that had hit him in Europe. And he died, he survived his own father by only two years. The old man had faded at eighty-nine. I think his last car must have been a Franklin and he got rid of it when it was almost new. He walked through the jungles of Manhattan unafraid, he lived on the edge of Harlem where he had moved up from the Lower East side as a young man; he smoked to the end; he outdrank three generations; he never used anything more than a cane to move about. He was a sport and a sportsman. Fifty years ago he visited a ranch in Wyoming, he had kept horses and women; he went deep-sea fishing with his cronies who kept their derbies on as they dropped their lines and hoisted their glasses. He looked you straight in the eye with a flask in his hand, straight with his untamed eyes. He was a pre-car man, my grandfather, he lived but he did not talk of his living.

He was a sport in the day before the advent of the sport car, that contradiction in terms, the overhead-cammed, mid-engined, wide-tired wheelchair for the dead tired. I won't malign the pro, the rally driver who does it for a living. I once rode with Jean Vinatier of the Renault stable around the road circuit at Montlhéry outside Paris. He took me with him for some kind of a story that I had to do. He did a day's work; I remember he had forearms thick as telegraph poles, they moved the wheel at just the right moment to throw us into a power skid. We drifted around the turns of Montlhéry without a swerve, the Renault sideslipping easily, power holding it in place, wheels cocked at the right angle to keep us sliding. Then the forearms moved just ever so little and we were rolling down a straight, moving up to a hundred miles per hour until down went his foot and the smell of brake pads rose up again. Vinatier was risking only his own life; I felt safer with him than on route Nationale 20, the Paris-Orléans highway that I had taken out to Montlhéry. No one was watching us, no one was listening, he was keeping his touch, running through the scales. That was sport driving, it had nothing to do with laying rubber on Boulevard Saint-Germain before the impassive eyes of some poor agent who knows that anyone who can afford a Porsche can fix a ticket... and fix the wagon of some poor agent along with it.

The sport car is nothing but plastic surgery; the older and uglier one gets, the leaner and younger one's car must look. The pudgy and the puffy are turned into svelte long-muscled youths with the barrel chests of four-barreled carburetors, the tapering limbs of flared tailpipes. The car is a face; how many times have I been told that I did not see an acquaintance who drove by me in a red Peugeot 204 while I was on a bicycle. Yvonne saw me on a bicycle. I saw only the red Peugeot 204; it could have been Yvonne, it could have been the pharmacist on Rue Brea, it could have been anyone completely hidden, anonymous, nameless behind the huge mask of the windshield. It could have been a red Peugeot 204 driven by a computer and guided by radar, an experimental model intended to test the neuromotor responses demanded by traffic on Rue d'Assas. The only drivers I know by their vehicles are a few truckmen: Feron, the moving man, with the special high green body he put on a Mercedes-Benz chassis; Gasq, the coalman, a flatbed Citroën truck bowed under coal sacks. These men use motors to work, not to consume, they do not buy them as disguises.

That is how the pudgy and the puffy wear their jaguars and their Citroën Maseratis in Paris. Their wives seem to favor Fiat 850s or sawed-off Peugeots as if, unlike the menfolk who try to present a face of power, they want to look winsome and petite. The heart of the little Fiat is young and gay even if Madame is old and sad, sadder and wiser with the knowledge of what Monsieur is up to with the E-type Jaguar, all hood and engine, a four-wheeled phallus, more plastic surgery, the ultimate prosthesis.

I know a great deal has been thought and written about the bumper guards of Cadillacs during the Fifties and the thrust of hood ornaments, but even that aspect of the automobile is illusory. A friend of mine, Serge Vitry, once let me drive his steam locomotive. I sat in his chair, I looked out the window, there was the boiler, black, thirty feet long, shooting orange flame at one end, spouting steam at the other, whistling in the middle. I told him about the symbolism, he had never heard of it. He didn't know what I was talking about, he let me shout my inanities while he kept an eye on the water gauge and the track. Not many E-type Jaguars would be sold if a few more people could have a chance to watch a steam engine cleave the countryside, leaving it quiet and contented after the train has gone, the leaves hardly trembling in their repose, a caress of love, not at all the gang-shag of the superhighway, the perpetual day-and-night flashing of the putative Vinatiers in their sport cars. What a strange sport, there is none like it; men of fifty do not buy football helmets to go out and emulate Joe Namath, but anyone can buy Vinatier's Alpine and, in France, drive it legally as fast as Vinatier does. In America, cooler heads prevail; the car is meant to be seen rather than heard, the Toronado and the Le Mans purr along at the same quiet rate as the laundry trucks and the campers. Americans belt up in their sport cars, they are trussed like sausages, wrapped like packages, physically fit only to be tied. Yes, the car has given us mobility. On some cars, the trouble with the safety belt is that it makes it hard to reach the hand brake and the hand brake is the last aspect of automobility that demands any effort at all.

So we are bound hand and foot to our sport cars, we seal ourselves in, we drop into the box, we have all the mobility of a letter except that it can go first-class. We go fourth-class, junk mail, containerized bulk shipments. We can't even go to the toilet, no stopping except at designated rest areas. We have true mobility, eternal mobility, we are condemned like the wandering Jew to wander from one rest area to another, to beat like the Flying Dutchman around the Hawthorne Circle or the Bagnolet interchange. The British scream blue murder because steers can't turn around on factory farms, yet it is the British who pen humans into MGs and Morgans where they can hardly move enough to glance in a rear-view mirror, let alone turn their heads. I once interviewed a pioneer of the research submersible; he could not understand why people were reluctant to cram themselves into spherical pressure hulls no more than six feet in diameter. "It's not nearly as uncomfortable as going from Boston to New York in a Volkswagen." The airlines hesitated before they tried to sell us the big economy-sized box of a 747. They were wrong, they should put their tallest passenger model into the back seat of a two-door import and redesign their seats around him.

As it is, there is hardly any difference between driving to and flying from an airport. In both cases, the passenger is fastened to his seat and various distractions must be placed at his disposal to stop him from reminding himself that he can be dead at the next moment before he even has time to change the stereo tape cartridge or put on his earphones to catch the dialogue of the mature film. Planes and cars alike need entertainment: in-flight movies put seeing back into flying, rear-seat television is apparently on its way in cars. Only the driver will be deprived of a view of the world outside. He will have to be content with what he can glimpse of the passengers' expressions in his mirror as they watch the show. He always has the same view through the windshield, he only has to keep track of the exit numbers; never have people traveled so much and seen so little. The car started as a way to go places, it soon became a place.

While the commercial airliner is only an occasional experience, even for the seasoned passenger, the car is a semi-permanent environment. It influences the way we apprehend things. Not only does it cut physical activity, but it filters and inhibits sensory stimuli. We do not touch, see, and smell the way we did. Has this changed the way we interpret the world? It might be a good subject for researchers, the same sort of scientists as the ones I read about recently who were putting kittens into a room where they only had horizontal stripes before their eyes. When they grew up into big cats, they could not recognize vertical stripes, these were not part of their store of references. What are the references of the car children? Are they blind, perhaps, to everything that moves at less than forty miles per hour? What have they lost forever from the reference libraries in their heads? go to it, researchers, but hurry, you may not even have any controls left as it is.

This is the sort of work that could be carried out by a family or a team of scientists, working from one generation to the next. Father and son could follow the car children from the carriage to the hearse. Then perhaps they could catch that subtle moment when the addition of horsepower turns into a subtraction of strength, when Phoebus' chariot burns out and falls to earth as the wheelchair. Youth can stand anything... cars, cigarettes, education, the perpetual jet lag of its biological clock brought on by night living with artificial light (which has not been around much longer than cars as far as the ancestors of most of us were concerned). Then a discontinuity seems to appear. We do not have a smooth transition from youth through maturity. Instead, youth is lost, all is lost, it is a reverse moult, the butterfly becomes a caterpillar. Lewis Mumford talks about somewhat the same process when he describes how we now discard old technologies, the ways of the past, instead of building and improving on them as our ancestors did. We are obliged to drop our youth like a beautiful shell, to leave it to the next generation to don and display, while we crawl defenseless towards some sort of security. By the time we realize what has happened, it is too late. We have been moved down the production line, we are the senior citizens, we are the pro-pension lobby. Fear appears; if we lose our security, we will lose our cars and our energy, we will be cut down from two hundred and fifty horsepower to one manpower. So we do not take chances, as we grow older, we prefer not to gain so that we need not venture. The car gives us that illusory freedom to move but, in fact, it is the cars that are free to move. Socially, we are bound, just as we are belted into the car; we cannot move for fear that we will lose our parking place. In the end, the car serves as a school for discipline when it is used in large numbers. It is a training ground for sheep. Anyone who accepts a traffic jam will accept anything.

And yet, in all this dullness, there is that imminence of death at best or, at worst, disfigurement and maiming. We accept this as part of our transportation system run by incompetent amateurs, that is, ourselves. As usual, the French seem to have outdone most other people in this respect. It is just about impossible to get a French driver's license unless one is "presented" by a driving school So the future driver must take lessons at five dollars an hour, which can be five times what he himself makes an hour. The winner is the driver who gets his license with as few sessions, as little experience, as possible. One is worried sick if a friend or a relative is a few hours overdue on the highway in France, one has any number of acquaintances with bashed-in foreheads, glass eyes, rebuilt noses.

There is tension in the air of Paris, any intersection can deal a mortal blow. The driver is allowed to continue when the light turns orange if he is going too fast to stop... and there are ways of making sure of that. On a warm evening with the windows open, sleep may come to me softly until it is frightened off by the usual sequence of tires screeching, steel buckling, glass tinkling, a woman moaning, all for no reason at all, a trip to the movies, a visit to the children in the suburbs (those suburbs that would not exist, either, if the car had not destroyed the villages of Paris.)

I think the tension must exist everywhere, even in well-behaved American cities. There is always the subconscious attention that must be exerted, all the good driving habits that must be practiced. No matter how you slice it, you are still flesh and blood shooting along at the speed of an eagle, only you have no feathers to slow the landing impact, you are not the master of your element, you do not have two-hundred-fifty-horsepower reflexes.

What I am getting at is that you can survive as a city-suburb driver but only at a price. You are under tension, you use tension, a synonym for force and strength. Use it up driving and you have less to use somewhere else. Tension is creativity; God knows how may Sainte-Chapelles of stained-glass windows are lost to Paris in its daily jousts with danger.

No one has a choice, everyone must play, the pedestrian and the bus driver, the cyclist and the aging Don Juan with his monkey glands by Austin Healey. The car takes it off the top, it skims the cream from the city, the Parisian does not have much left by the time he has reached safety. Nor does anyone in any big city. He is in a state of constant battle fatigue, he gets only a few weeks a year away from the front; we gave our combat soldiers better treatment than that.

I am talking about a loss of creativity at any level, not necessarily the work of art. I mean good building, good cabinetmaking, good shoemaking, good cooking, the kind of creating that comes from the human mind and hands working in a place that does not intrude upon one's substance, that does not pluck and jangle nerves just when they have been turned to the proper pitch for making music, for making anything. The city dweller uses sedation and stimulation to try to achieve this pitch as he fights off the assault of the car on his ears, his eyes, his nose, and his very life. Or he flees to the seaside and the countryside where, precisely in the very places where nothing at all can be done, he feels capable of doing anything.

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Chapter 3, Interstitial Living

 

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