Kein Atemholen bleibt der Kultur und am Ende liegt eine tote Menschheit neber ihren Werken, die zu erfinden ihr so viel Geist gekostet had, dass ihr keiner mehr uebrig blieb, sie zu nuetzen.
Wir waren kopliziert genug, die Maschine zu bauen, and wir sind zu pimitiv, uns von ihr bedienen zu lassen. Wir treiben einen Weltverkehr auf schmalspurigen Gehirnbahnen.

Culture cannot catch its breath; in the end, a dead humanity lies next to its works, which cost it so much mental energy to discover that it had none left to use it.
We were complicated enough to build machines, and are too primitive, to use them. We maintain the traffic of the world on narrow gauge brain rails. – Karl Kraus

In the terrible winter of ‘93, LI made one in a series of bad decisions and bought what turned out to be his last car.

I bought a 76 AMC Matador with a V-8 engine. It was an absolute and total lemon. I bought it because I was suddenly seized with 0-60 fantasies of roaring down country roads in New Mexico, one hand on the wheel, one hand on a tall boy. It is a comment on my mental state that I even got the notion that my character was malleable enough to accommodate a V-8 engine. I thought I was made of quicksilver, but I turned out to be just another shitkicking redneck. Oh well.

Since then, my days of driving cars have been reduced to various unpredictable occasions. Usually, a friend wants to be driven to the airport, and I get the friend’s car for a couple of days or a week. This happened Friday: I took S. and her family to the airport, and now have some wheels.

In this way, I have sampled, over the last fifteen years, the traffic system in this country – in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Texas, at least – and I think I can safely say: it is a lot less fun to drive now than it used to be.

I used to love driving, when I had a chance. I can’t think of a pleasanter way of emptying my mind than listening to something loud and fast while I zip down a country road doing 80, watching the fields and trees and shacks and cows and horses and people stream away in the rear view mirror, both windows open. In Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays, there is a famous passage about Maria, the heroine, who dopes herself on the LA freeway system:

“Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.”

Certain long lone trips – the time I contracted to drive this guy’s Cherokee from Salt Lake City to Austin, for instance – still have a strong mental presence for me – I can go back to that trip. I can go back to Santa Fe to Albuquerque. I can definitely go back to Pecos. I can do Atlanta to New Orleans without a problem.

But in the real world, there is a carrying problem. There is only so much road. And on that road, every year, there are more cars. The car drivers want ever more road, but the truth is, mostly, the places where people want to drive are already connected. The way to drive from my place to downtown Austin, for instance, is filled – there are no virtual routes left.

I’ve noticed this more in Atlanta, a city in which I have a long history of driving, than in Austin, where I rarely drive. For instance, right now, to drive on Briarcliff Road in Dekalb county (a street I have a good forty years of memory of, from the time I was a kid in a passenger seat until now) means basically joining a traffic jam – save for a few hours from 1 p.m. until around 3, and from 9 p.m. until the morning. When I was nineteen, working for my J., a former brother in law, doing roof work, Briarcliff was easy – we would zoom around the Virginia Highlands, Inman Park area in a loaded down truck, going for supplies, or to look at a house, or for lunch, and there was not five cars at every stop sign. Now you cannot take your little pickup and make that circuit mostly in fourth. What that means is that driving is much more segmented than it used to be. When I walk or bicycle, my forward motion is rarely stopped because of anything in front of me. But in a car, the very embodiment of forward motion, I seem to be stopping all of the time. The living tension between expectation and reality makes me oddly impatient. It is odd because I am really moving much faster than I normally move. There’s nothing to be impatient about. Yet the constant queuing diminishes the pleasure I get in the power of the car – in the continual flow that I want from the thing, the becoming-liquid. Liquids go with cars – the gas, the ‘flow’ of traffic. Drinking and driving, the great taboo, is also obviously a great temptation, since driving a car is already a form of getting high.

I try to reduce my impatience by really seeing what other drivers are doing. They are doing amazing things, actually. It is an amazing talent, simply to change lanes at sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour on a narrow patch of asphalt where other monstrous metal boxes are also going sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour. This is not the kind of experience our bodies are built for.

I don’t think the car will last – I do think that it will be looked back upon, at some point, as a dream. The highways will be as puzzling as the heads on Easter Island. As evidences of a civilization that couldn’t have happened. Already, though, there are differences in the experience of car history. Quantity does transform quality – I sometimes wonder if the cars aren’t bigger and bulkier as a way of recapturing a time when the roads were less crowded – as if you could carry that less crowded space with you.

My strategy, now, is to drive like an old man, deliberately keeping to the speed limit and pissing off any unfortunate sod with the bad luck to be behind me. But I am thinking of changing strategies this time. And I’m definitely thinking I want to drive up to Lake Buchanan, just to see that country. I think I’ll do that this afternoon.


new york pervert said…
'I sometimes wonder if the cars aren’t bigger and bulkier as a way of recapturing a time when the roads were less crowded'

If so, that is reflected in architecture too-Times Square is perfect example; and the net result is to get the opposite, of course--opacity. Times Square and SUVs are forms of fatness that cause only inelegance to what used to be garish but electric and fun.

What you describe with the traffic jams is much like in the Cronenberg film 'Crash' based on the Ballard novel--you may have seen it, with James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger and others. Obviously, the book is about this, but I haven't read it. It's all about figuring out sexual thrills having to do with traffic and crashing, and it's interesting but sick. Baudrillard wrote up some stuff about it in a 1999 'Angelaki.' (no relation to the 2004 'Crash', which is about racism in LA, mostly. Good, but not great, I thought.)
roger said…
nyp, I didn't much like the Cronenberg film -- it was oddly restrained for Cronenberg -- but I LOVED the Iain Sinclair book about the movie. It is in a series of small books about movies -- Salman Rushdie about the Wizard of Oz, etc. -- and definitely worth reading, if you come across it. I'd recommend it highly. As anything by Sinclair.

The director who should have done crash is Nikos Nikolaidis, who did a bizarre and rotten film, Singapore Sling, a horror film -- I think -- that begins with a mother/daughter team, naked, digging a grave in a rain storm to bury the chauffeur, and decides to be either a parody of Otto Preminger's Laura or a parody of Otto Preminger's Laura done by someone who doesn't quite remember the film and has an encyclopedia worth of sexual neuroses. It includes electroshock sex, erotic vomiting (which sounds worse than what you see, which is more - uh, like people spitting out playdo - - as well as an indescribable dinner scene with a lot of licking of crustaceans, your usual incest and water sports, and makeup out that is liberally applied a la Doctor Caligari.
It is not a film you ever want to see again, but ... if you see it, you've seen it.
new york pervert said…
roger--yes, I saw the Sinclair book and skimmed through the Rushdie book only once when at a bookstore. I very much might get it out of the library, as Sinclair is very amusing.

On the Didion, you probably remember the essay in 'the White Album' where she describes her own narcosis contracted while maneuvering the freeways. Oh well, in even earlier essays she talks about having 'no interest in paradises, real or artificial.' Despite her brilliance, I think this may be her fatal flaw. I have no interest in freeway highs, and never drive when I go to LA; this is the one way I keep my NY identity intact when I'm there. I know the bus system very well, and it is another world, as it is mostly only the poorest who use it there, which is definitely not the case here. I've learned the deep sadness of LA homelessness and Beverly Hills domestics on dozens of these buses; once I even had a drunk bus driver out in the wilds of Wilmington and Lomita--I got out as soon as I could, but it was horrible and the next driver had road rage. Of course, I've got fatal flaws too. Who doesn't? I just don't have anything against paradises (except many artificial ones, because I can't see that they are paradises.)

The Cronenberg was good only in scattered images, but the main thing I was talking about was when, for example, early on in the movie, Holly Hunter (I believe) says something about 'it's gotten worse,' but with some excitement.
Wherever you find it, whether in Atlanta or in a minor film, it does seem to really exist. I know someone in Fort Worth who now won't ever go to Dallas because the traffic has gotten so bad.