Kerb Your Enthusiasm

Originally published in Idler 54.

Owning a car is just about the stupidest thing you can do. Driving may be lazier than walking but it certainly isn’t idler.

Cars, it won’t be news to you, are extremely expensive. A useful website called whatprice.co.uk calculates the typical running cost of a Renault Clio as £208 per month. This excludes the cost of buying it (£11,215 or £234 per month over four years) so the total monthly cost is £442, less any parking or speeding penalties. For comparison, my frugal Bohemian life costs £476 per month, which includes rent, energy, food, broadband, and beer.

But enough vulgar money talk. As well as the hours of wage slavery required to pay for it, think of the tedious effort of car ownership. Before you can even use a car, there are the humiliating driving lessons, anxiety-producing tests, and expeditions to boring car dealerships. When you finally get the car, you’re pumping fuel, inflating tires, changing oil, feeding meters, getting tickets, driving around town centres in search of a space, and trying to decide whether you should worry more about “the rattly noise” or “the clanky noise.” Worse, your Sunday mornings are spent washing the damn thing when you could be taking a leisurely breakfast or playing the trumpet in the bath. It’s the reason so many poor souls will never get around to blowing their first smoke ring or trying kedgeree.

But how to get around? Walk, silly. A single walk may take longer than a drive, but walking as a policy will save a lot of time overall. A perpetual pedestrian, you’ll never catch me in a place called “Jiffy Lube” or waiting in line to buy something called a flange compactor. Admittedly, you might find me in a place with a name like Jiffy Lube and buying something with a name like flange compactor, but that’s my own business.

When walking, you see things you wouldn’t see from a car. You notice masonry and statues at the tops of buildings, leaving you with questions like “Why is there a statue of Aristotle in Wolverhampton?”. You see clouds forming and reforming in the sky. You see people putting on gloves to pick up their dog’s poo, and suddenly your problems don’t look so bad. Walking in Montreal, I once saw a hawk plummet from above, seize a starling in its talons and fly off again into the night. Nobody saw it but me. If that doesn’t impress you, in London, I saw Scroobius Pip eating a Twix.

Walking and idling are bound together. It’s the only mode of transit for the gentleperson of leisure, the congenitally unhurried, the flaneur who takes things at her own pace. It keeps you sane: Solvitur Ambulando is Latin for “it is solved by walking.” Probably.

Walking is a way to take exercise without it being a big event. I never suffer the spandex indignity of the gym. On a regular Friday walk, I happen to pass a gym window through which I see people on treadmills, sweating hard but going nowhere. I feel like a wild bird must feel when spotting a canary in a cage, perched on his trapeze like a little yellow dolt.

The only downside to an urban stroll is exposure to the noise and emissions caused by cars. Even in parks, the roar of the traffic can still be heard and exhaust fumes felt in the lungs. Drivers tear up the environment for their own personal convenience. Everyone complains about carbon emissions from airplanes, but they only contribute 18% compared to the 40% from cars. Airplanes don’t tend to run over people’s dogs, cats and kids either.

Have you ever tried to have sex in a car? It’s supposed to be exciting or something, but it makes me think of that Harlan Ellison story where the characters are trapped in the unnatural stomach of a robot. The upholstery has a distracting “1982” smell and there’s the fear that you might fall backwards and be impaled on a gear stick.

Why be responsible for another violent heap of metal on the streets when you can disappear into the urban jungle on foot? Why contribute to congestion problems or pollute the already acrid air? Why be responsible for consuming our rapidly diminishing oil supplies so America has to go to war again?

I’ve never needed a car. I struggle to envision a case where I might. When shifting furniture, I’ve hired a man-with-a-van for £15 an hour, a very minor cost and incredibly convenient. Cars, like sandwich toasters, electric toothbrushes, and mobile phones (see this column in Idler 49) are a complicated marketable commodity, detrimentally pushing out simpler pleasures; another purchasable replacement for personality.

Final word against cars? Try “Clarkson.” Wit of a carburetor. Escape the imprisoning bubble of the car, idle pleasure-seeker. Walk and be free.

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