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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 05/24/2004
Volume 2, #124

People are really driven these days, especially after reading or watching the news. The hell with all of it. How about a short story on the subject?

The Driven Man

I don't drive and I don't own a car. I'm an accountant, and as I see it, car ownership simply doesn't add up. Why should I waste thousands annually of my hard earned money to add to the gigantic automobile rust heaps that spread across the land after having contributed a solid share to the pollution that poisons our atmosphere.? And why should I waste hours of my daily energy supply coaxing a one ton mechanical monster through traffic jams, bumper-to-bumper speedways, as well as the assorted harrowing demands of wintry weather and summer storms? Besides, the arithmetic is all in my favor. I'm financially better off than those many others who share the same income bracket with me.

All because I don't have to support a burdensome driving habit.

Does that inhibit my getting around? Not in the least. I get around a lot better than most. You see, most of my acquaintances regard me as a kind of cripple. Not being able to drive, as they see it, is worse than not being able to walk. Because the way cars are automatized today, even if you can't walk, you can probably drive. Most things people do are too far away to walk to anyway. So everybody worries about me. They call me up and ask me if I need a lift someplace. They see to it that I get picked up and chaufFered to whatever social affair happens to be on in our circle at any given time. I get driven to my bank, to the shopping mall, the drugstore, the dentist. It's a rare day that I get a chance to do things on my own by calling a cab to take me someplace. My friends who drive and own cars actually compete to take me places. What they don't understand is that I live in a world far less stressful than theirs. When they take me someplace and battle their way through traffic, I simply sit there supremely above the battle, free of the whole host of threats, challenges, discomforts and unexpected costs that go with owning and driving a car.

Is it any wonder then that people seek me out to bask in the warmth and sunniness of my temperament? Is it at all strange that my person should be regarded as an island of calm in a world of constant pressure and hassle? I never have to contend with surly repairmen. I don't have to spend time being a nurse and a worrier over the health of my vehicle. I can treat others far more expansively than anyone I know because my wallet is thoroughly sealed off against the leakage of the automobile culture. I can lend money to my friends without worrying when they can pay me back. After all, I understand only too well that their cars come first.

So you might say that people, on the whole, look up to me. They see me as a kind of St Francis, impoverished in my carlessness but with the benign and giving spirit of a saint. And no one seriously believes me when I say I don't want to learn to drive. They all think I'm just one of those rare unfortunates who simply can't learn. Thus I enjoy a special and privileged position in my social circle.

That's how it was up until a time shortly after my thirty-fifth birthday. I had even managed up to that point to avoid the compulsions to marry and raise a family like most others in my social circle. If I managed to enjoy the company and the charms of women without any permanent commitment, it was probably because I did not live in the impermanence of the automobile culture where from one year to the next one never knew what changes were likely to be foisted on one.

A sudden requirement for a new vehicle. An unexpected accident and the attendant costs. The need for a reliable second income to meet the costs of car ownership. Is there any other good reason for getting married? Certainly not children. Nobody's raising families anymore. I think the latest statistics show something like four-fifths of a child per family. Our birthrate is dropping to zero. But marriage, even when it sometimes requires the maintenance of two cars, there's a saving in that only one car needs to be totally reliable. The other can be a cheaper backup.

Or there's the increasingly popular custom of the car-pool built for two. And finally there's simply the need for something permanent in the otherwise transient world of the automobile with its constant model year changes.

I think perhaps there is one other major factor about my carlessness that should be mentioned to explain how I voluntarily came to the point that led me to abandon my privileged position. That factor has no particular name. But it has something to do with space, with geometry. I'm an arithmetic oriented person, so geometry isn't exactly my medium.

Anyway, it all began one Saturday afternoon on my front porch where I sat reading an ingenious and recondite work on the history of money.

I live in a nice middle-income suburb where the houses all have front porches. This is not because they are old fashioned houses, but because the original developer thought that the restoration of this abandoned architectural feature would enrich the area's quality of neighborliness. At some point, I happened to look up and notice that in three different driveways along my street, various neighbors were busily, should I say servilely, washing their cars.

It struck me all at once that this was an operation that most of them performed at least once a week. For some reason, this set me to adding up the actual investment of time required for car ownership. I considered the matter in detail, the way I'd tackle a normal accounting problem. I'd never actually done it this carefully before. I began to consider not merely washing and waxing, but the business of taking one's vehicle in for maintenance, the waiting around garages and repair shops, the semi-annual shopping for a new car, sometimes a matter of weeks, as I once learned to my dismay.

In addition, the amount of time spent in having to chauffeur others and perform errands that naturally and inevitably devolves upon drivers and owners of automobiles. A small matter? Not when I began to add up the oil changes, the tire rotations, the lube jobs, the front-end alignments , the spark-plug changes and tuneups that are inevitable under optimum conditions.. Then I considered the occasional fender bashes, the additional visits to repairmen, the wait for parts, the dickering with insurance companies and lawyers.

Don't forget the legal problems attached to owning a car. And do you think you can drive a car regularly and never have to spend a day in court? And how many visits with the lawyer necessarily precede such an appearance in the halls of justice? Of course, none of this was known to me by experience. These were details that I'd picked up simply from being around other people. They would discuss these things with each other almost endlessly it seemed to me while I simply sat there mutely. After all, what did I have to contribute? But the facts registered. They added up disastrously.

As I proceeded to sort through all the bits and pieces of information I'd acquired, I realized as I began to compile the likely time and cost factors that I was getting into figures that were truly exponential. A third of one's life, perhaps? Hours per day lost to reading, to thinking, to learning and self-development. In that department alone, I was surely years ahead of my car-owning contemporaries. Looking down the street once more as I pursued my calculations, I noted that one of my neighbors had finished his car washing chore, but now a fourth had joined the company a couple of driveways down, and was busily lathering a small taupe colored sedan.

It was clearly one of those days when I was in a more introspective mood than usual, a day for complex personal and social arithmetic. In any case, I felt a need for a deeper understanding. Something, I felt, was missing from the bottom line. What did my neighbors, my fellow creatures, feel like as they continued their apparently slavish attentions to their vehicles?

Did they wear the same expression of joyless subjugation that I'd often see on their faces when they drove to work in the morning? An expression, I might add, that I could only rarely have worn myself since my own daily breadwinning stint as an accountant happened to be but a more specialized extension of my bias for grasping reality through sets of relations among finite quantities.

I strolled from my porch and walked slowly down the street toward the nearest of my neighbors. When I reached his driveway, I stood watching him from the sidewalk as he proceeded to train the hose on his vehicle, washing the lather off the shiny surface. I was no more than twenty feet away, so I was in a position to observe him closely. I noted first of all that he was so concentrated on his task that he seemed hardly aware of me. But what struck me most of all was his expression. His mouth was contracted into a tiny bow, lips tightly closed. His eyes seemed to lie back behind the rampart of his upper and lower lids, while his nostrils were raised slightly, as though trying to draw back from some unpleasant olfactory encounter. He looked like a man who has unexpectedly swallowed a mouthful of sour milk.

"George," I said, unable to keep a note of concern from my voice. "Are you all right?"

He didn't look away from the spot on the hood where he continued to concentrate the full force of the water. "Some of these bugs are murder to wash off," he said. "But you've got to do it. There's some kind of acid in them that damages the paint."

"Is that right?"

"My brother-in-law, he never really wanted to bother. Last month he had to have his whole car repainted."

"That's tough," I commiserated. George was still not looking at me. He was totally fixed on getting that car clean. But there was more to it than that. I suddenly realized that George wasn't just piling up more of those endless hours I had calculated that owners put into their cars. There was a genuine kind of moral anguish that had somehow gotten concentrated on the process of getting that car clean. George was suffering. Or more precisely, the suffering lay in some ineffability connected with his task.

All at once, his expression had opened up to me. I saw not simply a neighbor washing his car. I saw Sisyphus desperately and forever thrusting his gigantic rock up a hill. The relationship between man and the automobile enlarged to mythic proportions. Space took over from arithmetic in my mind. I recognized the eternal essence of man's fate in its modern manifestation. And there I stood, fully out of it.

I had all at once, looking at that sour milk expression on George's mouth, come face to face with something that went beyond all my simple pluses and minuses..

I turned and trudged slowly back to my house without another word. My neighbor was too preoccupied to notice that I had gone. He certainly would never have noticed how diminished that brief encounter between us had left me. I resumed my place on the porch and looked about the neighborhood and tried to realize in what strange ways revelations come upon us.

The next morning, I called my office and said I'd be late. I explained that there was something of great personal importance that I had to take care of.

There was an automobile dealer's showroom about two and a half blocks walk from my house. I presented myself there at nine thirty, just as they were opening for business. When the salesman came over to me, I told him I wanted to buy a car.

"What kind of car?" he asked me.

"I don't know," I confessed. "I never owned one before."

"Well maybe if you told me what you wanted the car for--?"

"Basically," I said, "it's so I can share the experience of my generation."

--Alvin

<< 05/17/2004 | 05/24/2004 | 05/31/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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