Issue #32, July 1999

Pluckings from the Tree of Knowledge

I once marveled at the fact that we had learned how to 'capture the moment,' more perfectly than had any culture or people before us. It began with photography, about 150 years ago, and moved into the recording of sound, then the extension of photography into film, and finally the merging of sound and film -- so that by the time I was born, history and past reality would never again vanish with the end of living memory, or be subject to the vagaries of what had been written, and the contradictions of selective interpretation.

That, at least, was what I thought. It took me many years to realize that we had merely broadened the base of our confusions about what "really" took place. And even that would eventually pale, as an intrusion on how we know the past, alongside the ultimate banality of how we manage to trivialize it.

Let me give you just one small example of what I mean by trivializing the past. When memory still had some edge of its old authority, it was a treat to locate a retrospective showing of -- let us say -- old Humphrey Bogart films. I might have seen Casablanca once or twice since its original run in 1942, but not The Treasure of Sierra Madre, or that real early gem of his, The Petrified Forest. So it became something of an occasion when it happened, and not to be missed.

But then came TV reruns -- sometimes at inconveniently late hours -- but even so, worth staying up for. Then, the VCR and the videocassette . . . first for tracking down the old classics, and then for recording them on your own. How very much more convenient than waiting for reruns. And how ultimately "ho-hum" it all became! Today, I wouldn't go out of my way to see any Bogart film, and seldom find the time for it when I don't even have to go out of my way.

In a way, it's all to the good, this glut of availability, for my thirst is slaked and I've other and fresher things to spend my time on. But there's a sadness, too, over what's been lost: the wonderful feeling of reconnecting with an old friend, a part of my past. And it has happened so many times, with so many 'old friends,' that I grieve the loss of my old self, in the process. And I have to recognize, finally, that there is a very personal downside to this race we're doing into the land of technology, that no amount of 'goodies' can make up for.

It's kind of ironic, in a way, because we tend to see technology as the very ticket to choice within our own lives. Isn't this what the advertisers hump us with, every time a new commercial appears in the saturation derby: taking charge of our own lives? Yet, that's exactly what we are deprived of, as technology shapes the world we're compelled to live in -- the noise and speed of it, the congestion and inescapable pollution, the endless hype and promotional trivializing of it. Even the back doors to some tropic hideaway, through which escape was once possible, are being tweaked, one by one, for their every last tourist potential.

But we are addicted to this, alas. If not to the process, itself, then to the ever-fresh seduction of the goods portrayed, quite certainly persuaded (though it is seldom the conscious attitude) that salvation will arrive with the next big plunge we make, the next major investment. Nothing better exemplifies it than our favorite addiction, the one that has led the field over the course of the century. And surely you know which one I'm talking about.

Which one is it that commonly masquerades, in every TV commercial, as the hallmark of freedom, as the unbeatable expression of personal power. And the never questioned, can't-live-without-it, necessity?

Yes, of course . . . the automobile. More specifically, the ownership of an automobile. Next to the roof over our heads and the clothing on our backs (which, I daresay, are genuine necessities), the one thing no true American would ever be caught without is a personal, private set of wheels. Not if they've any say about their well-being in the world.

And probably not you, yourself. I do know one or two whose lives are free of the addiction, but I'm not at all sure it was their open choice. For the rest, you didn't arrive at this unchallenged conviction in any natural fashion; you have been groomed for it from your earliest ability to read.

Consider this: the oldest National Geogra-phic on my shelves is an issue that came out in 1914, devoted entirely to pre-Leninist Russia. It cost only 25¢, in those days, and it was prime reading matter for school children (just as now). And guess which product category tops the list of its full-page advertisements?

Yes, even in 1914, when there was hardly a vehicular highway system, the Geographic carried five full pages of automobile ads, and another two pages for automotive equipment (tires). We were programmed to want one before we ever had the chance to think about it. Today, of course, the programming isn't even necessary, though it never ceases.

In many instances (and maybe even most) it truly is a necessity of life -- but only because we've shaped our world, and our individual worlds, around the instant availability of a car. And our world, in turn, has been shaped by it. Indeed, the automobile has shaped us. One can still choose to live without the thing, itself, but we've no choice left, as to living in an automobile culture: in the way that our cities have been laid out, our neighborhoods constituted, our environment compromised . . . in fact, many incentives we think of as our own are simply reflections of a world shaped by automobiles: the things we do on weekends, the routes we travel to anywhere, even the places we go to for surcease from this very techno-intensity.

And things you don't even associate with the motor vehicle. Very recently, here, we held a neighborhood potluck, in a grassroots action to ready ourselves for Y2K, and it was incredible to see people who had lived just a few houses apart from one another, for twenty years and more, becoming acquainted, now, for the first time! Our automobile culture encourages an alienation from community. It has brought on the demise of the corner grocery, and the disappearance of all but the hardiest of specialty shops that once held a neighborhood together: butchers and fishmongers, bakeries, drugstores and soda fountains -- small town America as it once existed within the big city, and made it livable. They call it the malling of America, but the right word for it is "mauling."

The automobile's great and dubious gift was an ability to leapfrog community boundaries on any least impulse, any trivial whim. And thus, it turned out that we only wanted community when given no other choice. Did we ever give a thought to the connection between community and our ways of mobility? I mean, aren't there people -- 'professionals' -- who are paid to think about such things . . . before it's too late?

Well, it's not hard to make the case . . . that we've suffered easily as much as we've gained, from our automobile hangup, but that's not what I'm setting out to do in this issue. It's just a backdrop for one of the central threads of my end-of-century review; for the automobile has been a vital part of my path -- so often in critical and turning-point ways, that it merits a whole chapter, to tell the tale of how I lived with it, how I soured on it, and how I finally came to live without it.

Me and the Automobile

Like every other boy in this culture, I suppose, I had my love affair with the automobile and the open road. I did my first extensive hitch-hiking at the age of 16, in 1943 -- from San Francisco to the Canadian border, or just short of it. Inspired by the readiness with which servicemen could thumb rides with a war-conscious citizenry, I got myself a surplus khaki jacket for a couple bucks, and it worked for me. Without even a sleeping bag to comfort my nights, on that first road trip, I had one of the grandest adventures of my young life.

I wish I still had the tale I wrote of that journey, on my return -- one of my first writing efforts -- but I have the images, and some have remained as clear as the day they were registered . . . the friendliness of total strangers; the rain-heightened smell of sheep manure in an open-bed truck; the crazy, ingenious places I found, to gain a sheltered night's sleep; and that morning when I was momentarily certain I'd lost my wallet to a thief, in a 50¢ downtown Seattle flophouse -- my earliest memory of Seattle. (I had merely been hasty, and not looked in the right place for it)

But the best of those images revolve around one episode of the adventure: the night I spent in a Gold Beach, Oregon, jail cell. Oh, it was nothing dastardly that I did, and largely a matter of choice -- but it might have been otherwise had I not heeded some wise advice from my Dad, on the night before the journey began.

In many ways, he fell short of what I would have liked in a father -- but in a few significant things, he really came through for me, and this was one of them: he could make his point, without resorting to the authority of fatherhood -- to which I would have given scant attention in those days. He pointed out, in sensible terms, why it would be foolhardy for me to carry a gun -- it was just a small .25 caliber automatic made in Spain, very easily stashed in a jacket pocket, and a reasonable measure (as I thought, then) of personal protection, for the prospect of unknown risks that a hitch-hiker necessarily hazards. This would be my first lesson in the protection of Providence, and my Dad put me on the right track of it (though his concerns lay elsewhere).

A Ride with a car-thief

These were the times of gas rationing, with limits established mainly by occupational need, as to the monthly amount of gas a driver could buy. So it made at least a bit of sense, why this guy, who picked me up on the coast highway just beyond its crossing of the summer-shallow Pistol River, south of Gold Beach -- why he was giving away machine tools from the trunk of his car, in order to get extra gas, enough to carry him (and me) all the way down the coast to San Francisco. What made no sense was his sudden nervousness at the prospect of an inspection at the agricultural station, as we crossed into California. He asked me, his schoolkid passenger, what I figured they would do, if he just went on by without stopping.

By this time, I was sure that something was amiss, and I wanted to stay clear of it, so I told him I had no idea what they'd do -- which was true, of course, though I had a good guess. But I didn't want to play any part in his figuring. And sure enough, the Highway Patrol sirened out after us, when he sped on by.

It came out, then, that he had stolen the car, back in mid-state Oregon, and I thanked my lucky stars (and my Dad) when they patted me down and found no weapon. But they wouldn't take my word for it, nor that of their collared car-thief, that I had been no part of the foul deed. So I had to go back with them, all the distance the ride had taken me, to where I could point out the residence where the last driver had let me off -- a solitary home at the roadside, that I fortunately recalled, near the Pistol River bridge. It was 2 o'clock in the morning, by the time they knocked on his door, and he sleepily affirmed the earlier ride, identifying me as the hitch-hiker.

This was the point at which I chose the night in jail, in preference to being let loose out there on the early-morning road -- it was my suggestion, in fact. After all, I had no sleeping bag, and the Gold Beach jail cell offered a cot and a blanket -- a consolation prize for losing the ride that could have taken me all the way home.

There's a curious footnote to this episode. Some 35 years later, and once or twice since, I tried to find a trace of that small frame house by the old highway bridge that spans the aptly named Pistol River. But the very landscape seems to have changed. My memory clearly pictures a long, straight stairway from the roadside, to gain a hillock on which the house stood -- the road, itself, on a gentle grade toward some woods, right from the bridge. But the entire scene is level and barren, today, with no indication that it was ever any different!

That Princely power-trip: Taking the wheel

I was driving on my own before I was out of high school. I learned on a job, and then swiped the keys from my Dad's pocket, one afternoon, because I had to try it on city streets. I can still recapture the edgy, spacy feeling of that ride. And the hell I caught for it when he found out, because I couldn't re-park the car exactly as he'd left it.

I drove whatever old clunker I could get my hands on, in those early days, and had my predictable share of mishaps and miscalculations. I recall brakes going out on me, once, with no serious consequences; and another time that I thought I successfully eluded a police car by swivelling up an alley, only to meet him coming the other way. Memory retains best the misadventures. But all my scrapes were happily only learning experiences. At least, those early ones.

In the late 1940s, with an innocence that I cannot even imagine, today, I borrowed a friend's 1932 Buick for a week-long run down to a mineral hobbyist convention, in the dry and hot Pana-mint Valley desert country. Motorized wheels, even then, gave the illusion of power and control -- never mind that the car was overdue at the scrap heap. It was a dull green sedan, with an alternate gas feed that could be set by hand, to relieve the 'heavy foot' wearies of a long drive, and a windshield that could open full forward . . . so the hot desert air could blow in like a blast furnace.

It got me down there, but not so easily back. In a carefree detour to Los Angeles, on my way home, rolling along the old Cajon Pass road, from the hot plateau down toward San Bernardino, a piston rod went ballistic and rammed right through the crank case -- the motor housing.

This was long before the time of seamless freeways, and down the road a bit was the Blue Sky Garage, with an oldtime mechanic of the sort no longer to be found, who figured he could weld the casing together good enough to get me home, for a mere $65. Which was more than what I had to get home with. So I wired my friend who owned the car, and told him I'd have to otherwise leave it for junk, in the collection that already resided at the Blue Sky. He sent the money, and was eventually reunited with his Buick.

And then the Ultimate: a Chariot of my very own!

A few years later, and possibly prompted by my predilection for such risky ventures, my future father-in-law agreed to sponsor me to the purchase of a new car -- a 1951 Ford. He thought he was doing me a favor, but that wasn't exactly how it turned out. The installments on it set up a payment pressure as severe as trying to keep up with more rent than I could comfortably afford.

I started off okay, employed as an insurance inspector -- a fairly good job, and the only working stability I'd have, as it turned out, during that entire miserable decade of my life. By the end of 1951, however, it went down the tubes. One too many shortcut taken, in doing my inspections -- a whole other story that doesn't belong here. From then on, it was a series of part and fulltime jobs, in and out of the city, as I took anything that came to hand, in order to make the car payments.

Having a car allowed me to take jobs with a good deal of freedom -- out and about in the city, and pretty much on my own. I loved working that way, and it took me a long time to realize why those jobs are so easy to get: because they are not cost-effective to the employee, who sinks far more driving expense into it than is ever returned. But I went overboard on it, in ways not even required by the job: I began collecting parking citations, faster than I was able to pay them off. It all came to a crux, one day, at the teller's window in the Bank of America.

Several months in arrears on my car payments, I finally had a lump sum that could bring me almost up to date on it. But wary of the possibility of a repossession, despite my narrowing the gap, I parked some distance from the bank branch that held my loan account, and went in to deal with the split between their expectations and my limits. The teller asked me to wait a moment while he went off to consult with his bank manager -- that's the way they did it in those days. At least, I thought that's what was happening.

The next thing I knew, there were a couple of police officers beside me, serving a warrant on me for unpaid parking tickets! My own bank (so to speak) had betrayed me -- and now the bank manager was right there, asking for my car keys, while the fellows in blue waited to haul me off.

It all happened so fast, that I could hardly grasp the trend of events. But I still had my wits about me, and I asked the officers if I really had to give up my keys at that point. They shrugged, and said it was entirely between me and the bank, not their concern. So I had the last wry laugh. I forestalled the immediate repossession, and then paid off the traffic fines with what the bank would have gotten.

My car was no longer safe from the threat, however, and I thought it best to get out of town while I worked for the necessary funds. So my winter and spring of 1953 were spent in the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra foothills, including a brief stint as store clerk in the old Woodleaf Inn, where I actually lived in a room once occupied by Black Bart -- following even in his classic thematic footsteps, as I "labored long and hard for bread, for honor and for riches..."

Power lives, and it dies, in the embrace of violence

I finally managed to get the car out of the bank's threatening clutches, and refinanced elsewhere -- and have, to this day, avoided any further dealings with B. of A. But the saga of that 1951 Ford was not yet done with.

Sometime in 1956, if memory serves, it was killed in a car crash. Or 'totalled,' as the vernacular has it. My own life, and that of Viv -- my constant companion of those days, and yet-to-be wife -- was miraculously spared. A flat tire on a San Francisco freeway, in the wee hours, set it off. Instead of walking clear of it, then and there, I urgently jacked the car up and mounted the spare, and had just gotten back into the car, when we were rammed by a drunken driver, before I could start the motor. Rammed at full speed -- it is quite amazing that we survived it. A half-minute later, and I'd have been cleanly out of there; but a half-minute sooner, and I would have been splattered across three lanes of highway.

Viv didn't escape injury, however; she suffered a whiplash that hassled her for years, resulting in surgery, and a personal injury suit that was ultimately bungled by a lawyer who came drunk to court. All part of the legacy of the automobile, that instrument of personal power and freedom.

But it wasn't clear to me, yet. I still subscribed to the notion that there is something inherent-ly life-enhancing about the automobile. How could it be otherwise, when we are surrounded, and daily invaded, by the persistent mystique? And really, now . . . "guns don't kill, people do" -- so why blame the car for any problem we have with it?

My next car was a 1955 Plymouth -- as ugly a motor vehicle as human design could manage to create, and it came to me by an interesting route. I was actually working as a car salesman for some few months before the time of that accident, and I sold this car, new, to my own father, who died about a year later. I am not inferring any connection between the two circumstances (though I may, indeed, have put a curse upon him). What little inheritance he left went entirely to my mother, but she made an effort to share it. My sister, as I recall, received the down payment for a home of her own. And I, now in 'need' of wheels again, was given the ugly automobile.

Taking down the mystique . . . piece by slow piece

By the end of that decade, I was working as a cab driver -- a four-year stint following the devastating onset of colitis in my world. It never did much to improve the colitis, but it cured me, at long last, of that near-fatal attraction to the "wheels of freedom." It is one thing to use the automobile at your entire discretion, but quite another to be imprisoned in one for 8 hours a day. Which is merely an instance of the general rule: to overcome an obsessive fascination, you have but to bathe yourself in it for a sufficient period (not to be ignored, by the way, if you harbor any notion of doing for money anything you've always done for the pure pleasure of it).

Being cured of the attraction did not overcome the dependency I had developed, which continued right on through the '60s. Like everyone else, I believed the car was just a necessary fact of life -- even though it was no longer any fun. My ultimate liberation did not finally arrive until the very end of the decade, when I decamped to Seattle for a respite from the intensity of my unhappy marriage, and the world that revolved around it.

I had to do it without a car. I carefully plotted a life in a livable neighborhood, within walking range of where I'd find work, and near the facilities that mattered most to me. Just another way of living, and I found it could still be done. Of course, I never intended it to be permanent, living without a car. I was making plans for the purchase of a VW wagon, intent on turning it into a mobile home. And I might have done so, had it not been for an equally strong impulse to do a long, solo bicycle ride across Canada. All that finally made the decision for me was the realization that, at age 42, the bike trip had to happen first, if I was ever to do it. It was never meant to be an either/or choice, but that's exactly how it turned out.

In the writing of mine that remains, from that head-shifting year of 1969, it is pretty evident that I saw the crucial part that car ownership plays, in the 'necessary' continuity of living in a ratrace world. The realization was fully explicated in a long article of mine, published in one of the earliest issues of Mother Earth News -- "How to Retire for Six Months of Every Year." The math made it very clear that a full fifth of a normal paycheck goes toward the use and upkeep of an automobile. It was the largest single cutback to be made, in pursuing the vision expressed in the article's title.

Two years later, I made the full break, and never turned back on it. Living without an automobile became the cornerstone for a life of full-time, not half-time, early-age retirement. A life that could not wait until I made my future secure, as is the mode today. A life that accepted the adventure of coping with in-security as a way of life . . . and one I've never had cause to regret.

An old sport becomes a new teacher

Part of what that involved was a return to hitch-hiking, quite a different game since the first round of it in my youth. Now it meant freeway access ramps, and actual 'waiting lines' of hippie competitors. But also a whole subculture of roadside riders and their hosts -- a kind of community that hadn't been around before. It was called the counter-culture, and the fun and sport of hitch-hiking in it held whole new realms of fascination: like the delightful experience of finding myself aboard a truckload of youngsters, many unknown to one another, who grasped the moment, on one hot summer's day, for a quick dip in a well-hidden roadside stream -- a skinny-dip, of course!

But much more marvelously, hitch-hiking became the grand gateway -- or at least, the most easily entered gateway -- into the world of Providence, for it activated a 'purposeful world of chance' that had to register, sooner or later, on an open and observant mind. I mean, it is hardly possible to witness what we tend to call "chance" working to such exquisite, even precisional perfection, as it so often does in hitch-hiking (see Ripening Seasons #26), and not realize that there must be natural laws at work. Spiritual laws that escape our perception when we're pre-occupied with control, and getting things done in our own way.

So that the automobile, itself, has played a vital part in that course of discovery, for me. But not automobile ownership, which would have deprived me of the exposure.

Twenty-eight years have passed, since that major break. Some things have shifted -- hitch-hiking has all but become a memory for me (last year's great foray was the first such since 1992) -- but not my basic stance on automobile ownership, which has been put to the test no fewer than three times during this very decade.

After I returned from Europe, in '92, my brother offered to give me his old car, outright, instead of using it as a trade-in for a newer model. It was a tempting prospect, but more than half of my shallow income was going toward rent, at that time, and I could say "No, thanks" on purely econ-omic grounds. Again, two years ago, after my brother's death, I could have taken over his newer car as part of the estate settlement. And again, it was tempting, heightened by the satisfying use I made of his car, while I was down there during his final illness (see R/S #23). But once more, I declined, even though my financial situation was much improved from that earlier occasion.

On the count of three . . . we've got a Winner!

A final, and very recent, opportunity was the most tempting of all . . . had even all the earmarks of a Providential windfall, together with an awareness that age is slowing me down, which brings the element of simple prudence into the equation: is it wise, in view of my narrowing horizon, to continue rejecting the convenience and greater ease of having wheels of my own?

The way this one shaped up is an interesting tale in its own right . . .

Shortly before my brother's death, Joy had lost a very elderly aunt, and inherited her 'ancient' but little-used 1971 Dodge Demon -- a car in remarkably good condition, with only 31,000 miles on it. But Joy does not drive, never has, and so I became the chauffeur. She would have happily shared the ownership with me, but partly on principle and partly from a horror of insurance rates, I opted for the low-profile resolution. It seemed a reasonable compromise -- her car, in my charge -- but before long it complicated both our lives in strange and unimaginable ways.

Joy somehow found an insurance agent who managed to provide a very special policy coverage that only cost -- you are not going to believe this! -- ten dollars per year. There was a catch, of course: the car was merely kept off the street, and not for general use. We had to notify him before any intended use of it, at which time, he had some sort of agent's binding power . . . don't ask me to explain this, I only know the illusion we were living under. It was a kind of "Don't ask, Don't tell" insurance coverage, with both of us wary of upsetting the applecart by pushing it too hard . . . with the net effect that the car was hardly ever used.

As if that were not complicating enough, it ultimately developed that the agent became harder and harder to get ahold of. We continued to receive the billing statement, every six months, for $5.00, and . . . well, it was easier to just go on believing in it, even though it made no sense. The legal necessity of having insurance was fulfilled, even if we could no longer reach the agent, and were never exactly sure of what we were covered for. [I've tried to tell you, for years, that I live in a very exotic reality.]

We were finally nudged off dead-center when Joy received a notice to have an emissions test for her next registration renewal, in three months. Since we were getting no use at all, from the car, it seemed pointlessly wasteful, and Joy finally decided that maybe she should just GIVE me the car, outright, and let me either take it on, or get rid of it. So the ball was entirely in my court, and I had to deal with it. I couldn't very well refuse the gift, because it would only be refusing to relieve her of a burden she no longer wanted.

There are still vestiges, in me, of that notion that an automobile is a magic carpet. And I ran a couple errands in it, bulging with the rejuvenated old vision of 'hop in, and go' . . . so easy, so swift. Except that it wasn't. Traffic stalled me at practically every corner, the raging noise along every street got to me, the sense of rage, and of growing outrage -- and that familiar sensation which can only be known to the very occasional driver: the tension that takes hold of one's entire body, on moving into a flow of traffic . . . these are the realities of driving, nevermind the vision of it. This is what it is like, at the turn of our century, to have an automobile in your life.

Well, it was no contest. I simply had to get rid of this dumb burden that we had carried for two years, thinking it a blessing sure.

Automobiles or Apples . . . it's the same old Tree

In just a couple weeks of trying, we found someone who really wanted it, for $1750. Joy got back what she had put into it, over the course of her ownership, and I got what was left, enough to get me a new iMac, before this year is out.

So, okay . . . I'm still hooked on technology. But not automobiles!


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