Portland is rife with Pedestrian Rage. Cyclists in skin-tight jeans and black hoodies tap the windows of SUVs blocking their path. Soggy skateboarders yell at cars that fail to yield properly, playing punk-rock policeman. A silent finger is a common sight. Unfortunately, self-entitlement and youthful urban rebellion have so blurred the line between actual legal right and wrong that to enter the (yelling) dialogue carries a sort of hipster-shame. Look, yelling says, another angsty art-school dropout taking personal frustrations out on anonymous drivers. That's not to say many drivers don't deserve it. People who operate their machines irresponsibly stand to kill or maim those not safely shelled within their own aluminum carapace.
Car-related accidents annually result in some 3 million injuries and 42,000 deaths in the U.S. For Americans under 45, wrecks are the leading cause of death. Not surprisingly, residents of low-density suburban zones face a greater risk; the street hierarchy wasn't developed with our legs in mind. But living is its own punishment: those same suburban residents spend a greater portion of their annual income on transportation costs than residents of high-density areas. Still, that burning thread of social commentary (change-the-world-one-yelling-match-at-a-time) has become so deeply stirred into the mix that to critique driver etiquette and car culture in Portland is to join a global battle for a way of life. "It's us against them!" goes the implicit war cry. "No cars in downtown! Create a growth boundary for motorized vehicles!" Yelling alone is lazy activism. But even when yelling is justified, it's easy to feel too embarrassed to utter a word.
I can't lie: I was a hothead during my Oregon years, yelling and flipping people off, lecturing drivers whose windows were closed. Standard scene: I'm returning to work, my shoes squeaking from saturation, jeans stuck like Saran Wrap to my shivering thighs, when some right-turning jackass comes inching at my ankles while I try to cross the street. "You want me to walk faster?" I think. But we walkers know the deal: For those five to 15 seconds, that is our crosswalk. So you take your stand, smack in the middle of the street. The crosswalk is more than a bridge between sidewalks, it's the intersection of modern technology and a simian propulsion system, of deficient urban planning and corporate oil's greed, of the rushed American lifestyle and countercultural angst, all simmering like Mount St. Helens between those fading white lines. That moment when the bumper closes in on your ankle, its owner impatiently waiting for the chance to squeeze through before the next damn pedestrian arrives, that's the moment when society's ugly auto-dependence laps against the hull of a philosophical Valdez. So, like a Confederate soldier hunkering in a trench, I would turn to face my enemy. "This is as fast as I go," I'd holler, "slow down." As the rain splashed my furrowed brow, I always had to accept that a raised middle finger was the most powerful threat my pedestrian arsenal could muster, because with the slightest tap of the pedal, "the enemy" could end my life. I'd cross the street. He'd turn. I'd take my red-faced frustrations to a coffee shop for an organic herbal tea and do some yogic breathing to calm down.
I yelled a lot, frequently because I was right. Other times, I lashed out because, as I can see now, I just missed my truck.
Last July, I moved back to Phoenix. Six years gone and I'm back behind the wheel.
Things are much too spread out here to solely bus, bike or walk. I live in Cave Creek, a now-suburban town on the metro area's northernmost edge, so if I want to escape my yard and corner shopping plazas and venture into the theoretical heart of the action, I need wheels. I didn't want a car. I liked the extra cash pedestrianism afforded, liked the enviro-karma that oil independence imparted. Not having to pay attention to accident reports, detours and closures is great. But again life whispered: too bad.
My Grandma, 88, voluntarily retired from driving and gave me her 1995 Toyota Camry. While not as low on mileage as those mythical creampuffs little old ladies drive only on Sundays, the Camry had only logged 45,000 miles. Eight months later, the total's 60,000.
I drive everywhere. Twenty-five miles one way to work, 45 minutes back to my cul-de-sac to sleep. And frankly, despite the high costs, I love being lazy again. But when I climb stairs, I notice that my calves have lost much of the strength they accrued from those fancy-free years. A noticeable ring of fat has collected around my once-lean middle. Every week, I pile Trader Joe's groceries in the passenger seat -- all that eco soap and organic salad mix that makes its fossil fuel transport somehow seem less egregious. I spend some $50 a week on gas, but I get to use my floorboard as a mobile office to store books, papers and envelopes, my trunk for hiking boots and backpacking gear. Sometimes -- after completing what might be a two-hour commute by bus -- I kiss my steering wheel after pulling into my driveway at 10 p.m., exhausted. The other day, when I had to leave the car at Big O to get new tires, the walk to a nearby coffee shop felt as bad as I remembered it.
I walked south on Cave Creek Road, then under the 101 Freeway overpass with my head down, careful not to meet the eyes of drivers lined up at the crosswalk waiting for the light. From under squinted lids, I scanned the intersection, anxious for my chance to escape into the comforting we-all-have-cars-here camaraderie of the coffee shop. Then it happened. A face aimed out a rolled down window. A green-eyed, attractive brunette. Her laser gaze met my fumbling glance and the painful implication of her stare left a rumbling in my gut. I'd have felt less ashamed if I had a Styrofoam cup to wave. "Spare change?" I wanted to say, to laugh and make myself feel better. Wanted to sing, "I got legs, but don't want to use them." Instead, my neck snapped left and I looked away.
Thankfully, it took only an hour to put on those new tires.
I can't stand to walk around here.