Reflections On City Living From a Non Nine to Fiver

When your work schedule is no longer Monday through Friday 9 to 5, you find yourself not giving a shit about staying in on a Friday night.  (I’m a musician)  I work tomorrow night, so tonight in the house is fine with me, communicating with my animals.  I also spend my work days/nights in places that other people play, so when I do have time off I find myself not being that drawn to bars or clubs anyway.  If I want to see people drink so much that they are in touch with the spirit world, all I have to do is wait till I play a show.  Whatever I am, I am not a classic extrovert.  I don’t need to be interacting in a crowd to feel energized and happy.  That’s not saying that given the right circumstances I can’t enjoy that, it’s just not what I need to keep going.  However, I do love the art and culture of a city.  When a city is walkable I love walking around at night, seeing what’s going on, even if I’m just observing, as long as it isn’t so crowded that it resembles the movie Blade Runner.

Not only is my playtime not dictated by the usual workweek schedule, but I try, when possible, to avoid rush hour all together.  Now in Austin, driving somewhere at noon on a Tuesday feels like rush hour in many other places, so I can’t avoid traffic all together by any means.  Morning rush hour here is not that bad, but from 3:30 to 7, M-F, stay off the roads if at all possible.  I don’t understand how people that have to drive in that kind of thing aren’t screaming like banshees for some kind of sensible public transportation.  (I did work 9 to 5, or close to it, for many years.)  City dwellers that fetishize their cars are a breed I don’t quite understand.  It’s not freedom.  Having to drive everywhere in a city, especially at normal hours, is like volunteering to be locked in a slow moving box for several hours a day.  Even if the music is great and your seat is comfortable, at some point you are going to pray for The Road Warrior to become a reality.

In this country we have the money and the technology to do whatever we want, if we really wanted to.  Why don’t more people work from home?  Why is our transportation so shitty?  Austin is a pretty forward thinking city compared to some.  We couldn’t even get the populace to approve one train line.  This is when the population of our city, and the world in general, is exploding.  I have a friend that when he used to get baked, and we would talk about traffic, while his eyes were slits, would say about traffic that, “It’s so fucking inefficient!”  If he, in his state of mind, could tell that, what are most people thinking when sober?

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Soul Stealing Traffic

On my days off from music I have been working for a political organization.  Today it took me 45 minutes to get home when I don’t live but just on the other side of town.  Remember that this is a Saturday and I was not in rush hour traffic.  Whenever traffic is that bad I think there must be some kind of accident.  Surely poor city planning couldn’t result in such a clusterfuck could it?  I thought maybe a motorcycle with a side car must have crossed the divide going at tremendous speed and flew right through the side of a propane truck for traffic to be backed up that bad.  At least I hoped so at the time.  Because isn’t it much worse to think that we have created a society that is so ridiculously inefficient that merely crossing town becomes either a soul stealing escapade or dread inducing endeavor.  We could be reading a book on public transportation like they do in Japan or Europe, but instead we are creeping forward inch by inch while ruining our city’s air quality.  But hey, we’re American and cars are an expression of our personal freedom.  USA! USA!

The Rush Hour Rat Race

I often wonder our country is so obsessed with the automobile.  I mean on one hand I get it:  They are part of our myths, our songs, our stories, our movies, etc.  We also have had a very powerful auto-industry, more powerful at certain points than others, that has pumped out an untold amount of money selling us these things. 

I also understand that there is a small portion of the population that happens to be general automobile enthusiasts.  I’m not here to pick on those people today.  Maybe everyone needs their hobby to keep their mind off the oncoming storm of life.  Lord knows I spend a stupid amount of my income on things that are part of my passion.  If you genuinely love cars and love taking them apart, putting them together, or what have you, then have at it.  I’m not talking about someone that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on cars, which in a world of such poverty seems greedy.  I’m talking about people that might have an extra vehicle or two in the backyard that they get some kind of pleasure from.  I know people like this, sometimes of small means, that temporarily escape by day dreaming about cars in one form or another.  Who am I to question such pleasures?  I can easily imagine spending an hour or two looking at expensive guitars, when my $150 dollar bass that I use gets me by just fine. 

However, it seems to me that a large amount of people that buy into our long running fascination with cars for no reason other than it is just part of the status quo.  I wish these people could see the public transportation in Europe or Japan.  It is so efficient, so comfortable, and so much easier than driving.  We don’t even have to get into how much automobiles pollute our world, which is a lot!  Especially if you live in a city you should be all for any politician that wants to increase public transportation.  In Austin, when I was working a day gig, I used to work 12 miles from my home.  This ride in evening rush hour took anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.  No matter how good of a day you had you wanted to drink someone’s blood by the time you got home, or at least I did.  I can only imagine that many people feel similarly when in such a situation.  This is so ridiculously inefficient!  There are thousands of people, in one city no less, sitting in their own vehicles barely moving, getting angry at their fellow travelers, and pumping out pollutants into the air. If you were riding some kind of easily accessible form of public transportation home you could be resting, or reading, or playing games, or getting work done.  And you could be doing any of these things while contributing less to pollution! 

I feel like a lot of people associate the automobile with freedom.  How is it freedom when you are locked in a small barley moving cell for 90 minutes a day?  I just started reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called Landscapes for Politics.  This book talks about how our landscapes influence our society and how we influence our landscapes.  It’s an amazingly fascinating read.  I’m only about two chapters into it and I feel like I have put a book mark on every other page as it is filled with so many interesting ideas.  One idea that was mentioned so far was how cities that have better public spaces and transportation are actually better for democracy.  This is because people aren’t as isolated and can also organize more easily. 

The idea I wish we could really get away from is the idea that what kind of automobile you own defines your identity.  I was recently on tour in Oklahoma and the entire parking lot was filled with pickup trucks. Now I’m sure that some of these people used these trucks for legitimate reasons.  There are people that haul and transport stuff on a regular basis.  But there was clearly something else going on.  These people were clearly on some kind of tribal or clannish trip.  I also remember being in Miami and seeing so many flashy sports cars driving around.  In this country I wish we could get over the idea that you are what you own.  You are not what you own!  You want to be free or you want to be an individual?  You are neither free or an individual if you let some lifestyle marketing tell you what you should drive.  

Anyway, there is so much more that could be said on this topic.  I have been sick with a fever the last few days, which has limited my blogging and possibly made this blog somewhat rambling.  I happened to be at a doctors appointment during rush hour and it took me almost an hour to get home on almost that exact same 12 mile stretch of road I used to travel when I worked.  That is the rat race and there should be so many more people in this country that want to put an end to it. 

 

If any of you know where to find it, Kurt Vonnegut once had a superb bit in one of his books where he told a short science fiction story about automobiles.  He sets it up so that you don’t know that he is talking about automobiles until the very end.  However, he points out how absurd our fascination with this form of transportation is.  If any of you know where to find this story in full, please let me know as I would like to post it.  I have read most of his books and I can’t remember which one it is in.  

The Common Good and Lesser Deities

One of my favorite towns on earth is Bend, Oregon.  I almost don’t want to admit this, because I am greedy and don’t want too many people to discover this place.  The way it is right now is perfect.  Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it is exactly the right size for a town.  It is big enough that things go on here, but small enough that it is built on a human scale.  You can walk to most places.  I have been here on tour about six times, give or take.  I have spent many hours walking the town and the trails just outside of it.  It never ceases to captivate me.
In Europe there are many cities that seem to be designed for actual people.  Even larger cities have adequate public transportation.  A city as large as Rome or Berlin can be crossed with ease, without even speaking the language.
I have an affinity for the people of Houston, Texas, but I doubt anyone from that town would say it is built on a livable scale.  Often you will see a fururistic skyscraper next to a taco shack.  There are no zoning laws.  There are great neighborhoods and great people, but without a car there, you would be doomed.
I wish we would spend more time in this country contemplating our communities and how they are designed.  I wish we would not be so attached to our cars.  Until you have spent time in a beautiful walkable town, or a city that has great public transportation, you really have no idea what you are missing.  Our quality of life could be so much higher.
When I worked my last day job in Austin I lived 12 miles from work.  It would take me an hour or more somedays to get home in rush hour traffic.  You would begin by taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Slowly but surely you would curse other lesser deities as well.  Eventually you would find swear words for the gods all the way back to antiquity.  No matter how easy your day was, you would get home broken and defeated after a commute like that.  A shell of a man.  As one of my friends stated, “How inefficient is that shit?!!!”
As I have stated before, the free market is great for many things.  It is just not good at doing things that are part of the common good.  Parks and other public spaces, good transportation, these things can make a community and not just a city.  Hopefully at some point we can have a smarter national conversation about these things.  If not, please forgive me in advance, if my middle finger makes itself known next time we are in rush hour.  I might be more animal than man by then.  My patience gone and out of gods to curse.