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Flashmobs and Dipsticks
...in which Ashley goes footloose and Camry free
Meine Deutsche Frau and I had one of our regular International Incidents today, the usual culture spat between us whereby the noble and refined German way of life is proclaimed superior to the American barbarism I brought with me to Europe. This was during our weekly grocery shopping trek, which, unlike in our car-owning past, now involves hustling a trolley full of foodstuffs through city streets, into busses, and up hills and stairways. You faithful followers of my fascinating adventures will recall that our car was sold just days prior to flying off to make Germany our Forever Home, forcing my transition from Kerouacian road warrior to train station loiterer.
On the whole, I have embraced this change. I chuckle smugly to myself watching drivers circle the block in the desperate search for parking, knowing the stress that this, the fuel costs, the faulty ignition switch, the insurance rates, the leaky crankcase, and the bald tires can cause. I never had any money (shocking as this may seem to most of you), so the automobiles of my driving life went into steady decline. There’s an entertaining level of sadness in the car that’s being driven to death, its numerous failings not quite attaining “emergency expense” status. The car still runs, but you have to climb through the passenger-side window to get in. You have to bang on the dashboard a few times to get the AC to quit making that noise. Keep it in neutral while I give it a push-start through this intersection. Better put a towel over that before you sit down.
I’m happy to live without these irritations. Like my father before me, I have the ambition to systematically reduce life’s worrying practicalities until my days consist only of naps and occasional snack cakes. Car ownership is a bundle of annoying responsibilities which will upset this plan.
Being carless means I am now a card-carrying pedestrian (the card being my bus pass), and that means, according to my very German wife, that I am now in a more entitled class of urbanites. To wit, the question of proper etiquette when pulling our grocery load through the crosswalk in city traffic. Hailing from Cowtown, USA as I do, I’m the sort who likes to trod with a distinct hustle through a crosswalk, wave of gratitude at full mast, so as not to inconvenience drivers any more than necessary. The Heike, who, I hasten to add, has never had a driver’s license, argues that such brisk jogging is unwarranted, even embarrassing, because, “as pedestrians, we have the right-of-way.” And once again I must counter that having adhered to the social contract of traffic law will be of small comfort when the standoff between two-ton hulks of motorized steel and our soft bags of meat invariably ends with our staining the pavement with human frailty. This is a turf war we have already lost. They have the tanks, we have a family-sized pack of toilet paper.
(I should mention here that I recommend this purchase to any vacationer who doesn’t want to look like a tourist in a foreign land. You can always spot the locals in any sidewalk swarm by their family-sized pack of toilet paper.)
But I will concede that Frau Holt correctly identifies a notable difference in Deutschland’s street traffic hierarchy. Here, the pedestrians, sauntering and stumbling through the neighborhood, radiate a sense of entitlement, a pride of ownership in their consecrated right-of-way, while car drivers creep timidly along in humble reverence to their stepping betters. (Mind you, this is strictly a residential, inner-city state of affairs – the legendary autobahn inspires a quite different, kill-or-be-killed, Vin Diesel frenzy in the German driver better left for future discussion.) The carless own these city streets. Drivers hesitate obediently, gingerly negotiating our obvious dominance. This is the power dynamic which may reveal key differences in our respective bratwurst and corndog nation states.
While things may play out differently in the cab-hailing metropoli of Big City America, the Appalachian Hixville of my upbringin’ operates according to one strict tenant: You must have a car or you will die. There will be no insulin refills, dogfood for Mr. Pickles, or drive-thru tator tots unless you or your nephew, Skeeter, owns a functioning automobile. Taxis are for millionaires, subways are science fiction, and there is no bus route through Hubcap County.
This being the case, anyone seen walking on foot, with or without a pack of toilet paper, is not considered a respectable taxpayer going about the business of daily citizenry, but someone who has fucked up his life. A rural Southerner walking down the road surely has a sad story to tell, of abuse, substance and/or spousal, with resulting DUI and Buick repossession. Prosperity – indeed, basic sufficiency is measured by speedometer.
During our years together in the US, once Heike had concluded that our redneck highway system was not designed with them commie bicycle riders in mind, my being the Car Owning Driver was the one claim to superior status I now had in the relationship. Any and all trips outside the house, whether for meals, potting soil, or those little clips for the back of the blouse, were only possible by the grace and generosity of my lady’s chauffeur. “There is no way to Arby’s but through me.” The sheer helplessness in being a carless citizen of Bubbaburg, South Carolina, was in sharp relief.
And yes, I miss the four-wheeled sovereignty that is my birthright. I miss commanding the road from my climate-controlled pilot’s cabin, thick with the soundtrack of top-40 hits, with no bus connections or frigid railway platform delays to hinder my trip to Foot Locker. I miss ruling the road. I even miss the road rage, freeing us as it does to shout vulgar condemnations of humanity from our soundproof Toyota Celicas. Out of my way, you goddamned pedestrians! Look at that one, shirtless and deranged. Get a car, loser!
All power steering corrupts, and this is certainly true in my home country. Acknowledging as we must that the US is engaged in a cultural civil war, and knowing that all wars are, first and foremost, propaganda wars, it is fitting that Americans flex their political muscle via automobile. Hybrids at the Whole Foods, VelociRaptors at Golden Corral. Rambo Trump flag on the Hummer H1, RBG bobblehead in the Fiat 500. One’s choice of personal land craft to steer, and which color-coded flag magnets to attach to it, is a political act as clearly defined as choosing Rupaul’s Drag Race over Duck Dynasty. There can be no more apt expression of modern ideological loyalty than the practice of “rolling coal,” a cloud of diesel smoke from a modified Ford truck, which informs the passing Prius driver, “My political position is I hope you die.” This is the tribe, after all, who consider Nascar drivers athletes.
And the Europeans certainly aren’t off the hook in this regard. Consider that, unlike in America, where the populous currently owns two guns for every car, the Euros have greater difficulty getting their hands on military-grade weapons. So one of the primary modes of political terrorism in the EU these days is plowing a motor vehicle into a crowd of undesirables. They’re easy pickings, strutting around at the Christmas markets and park festivals like they own the sidewalks. This is something I think about quite a bit when pondering the issue of pedestrian right-of-way. On foot, we are completely vulnerable to vehicular homicide. Because the only way to stop a bad guy with a car…
So yes, I will gallop quickly through the crosswalk, grateful not to be grill squish. I will abdicate my alleged pedestrian privileges because I know how the crosstown hierarchy plays out in the real world. In this and so many other ways in my new home country, I am powerless. Worse, I am in the way. Thank you, merciful motorist, for not killing me. Let me know if you need a push-start through this intersection.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, firstname.lastname@example.org, where he longs to hear from you.)
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