Silent Springs or, Los Angeles is Anywhere
Chapter 1 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles
If, from time to time, this book is outrageous, extravagant, and inconsistent, I will only be acknowledging the influence of the auto-huckster, whose claims pollute the newspapers and magazines I read daily. He claims without embarrassment that his product will do anything from curing athlete's foot to restoring sexual prowess. By the time the customer learns that it has restored his athlete's foot and cured his sexual prowess, the seller has moved down the river to deliver a new pitch about a new model that replaces hair and eliminates piles.
It's time the auto-huckster got a whiff of his own effluence. A few years ago, when a naïve publisher asked me to prospect a book on mass transit, I began to collect such memorabilia as National Academy of Science and National Research Council reports on motor vehicle emissions along with mind-boggling full-page ads from the leading car manufacturers of Europe and America. I call the publisher naïve because he was premature. One can miss the boat just by turning up too soon. Eutrophication had not yet become a dirty fourteen-letter word, the environment was not yet the protégé of Atlantic Richfield and Standard Oil of New Jersey. I was just as naïve as he was. I went looking for support (read money) from various places on the strength of encouragement from a nice fellow in the Department of Transportation in Washington. His encouragement was hearty but mostly verbal; he seldom answered my letters. He just would not commit himself. When we talked in his office, he kept looking up as if at a much higher power. Only later did I learn what was bothering him. I came across an interview with his boss, John Volpe, then Secretary of the department and former Governor of Massachusetts. The Governor jogs on the roof of the Department of Transportation building in Washington, so I learned. He also rides an electric bicycle at home. He seemed to be a firm believer in exercise but not as a way to get somewhere. A quick workout on the electric bike, down to the office in the car, then up on the roof for a few laps. Governor, pull the plug on that bike, take it onto the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal; the wilderness is almost at your door.
It was the publisher's original idea that I should ride transit systems, old and new, from San Francisco to New York, from BART to IRT, then talk to everyone closely or remotely concerned with the problem of mass transportation. I was to go from Lewis Mumford to Marshall McLuhan, from the cable car to the individualized personalized conveyor belt running from bedside to deskside on cheap convenient microwave energy beamed down from a satellite in stationary orbit. I had to study systems, said the nice fellow in his office at the Department of Transportation, old systems and new systems, all systems, trains, buses, cars.
The car a transit system? The more I looked at this system, the more it looked like an airline that was qualifying its people on Piper Cubs, then giving 747s and Concordes to pilots if they happened to be rich enough to buy them. From oilwell (whether troubling the oiled waters off Santa Barbara or deflating the earth when the crude is pumped out from underneath Colorado) to pipeline (try it on tundra) to refinery (especially downwind and, sooner or later, the wind always changes) to gas tank to exhaust pipe, it works as if it were designed as a pollution system, a form of chemical warfare we wage to defoliate our cities then our suburbs and our countryside, to interdict them all to the human race.
What's left over from the crude after the gasoline has been refined out is used to provide more boons at a cost the competition has no chance of meeting. DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons, for example. Our engines may be noisy but our springs are silent. Diesel oil, for another example. Trolleys go clang-clang-clang no more, instead we have the gas blast as the great GM bus roars off on its fifty-yard mission. We have the thirty-tonners racketing by everybody's front porch, putting everybody on the wrong side of the tracks; we have the diesel taxis in European cities that spread the choking blue haze of the open road into the most intimate urban nooks, where it stagnates, piling up like waste in an unflushed toilet. I will not get sentimental; I will say nothing of the living steam locomotives driven from the railroads by the oil-driven diesels, of the days when travel was a breath-taking adventure, when we needed only a ticket to take a trip, not a prescription. No, let us be practical and count the crumbs that the car gives us from the leavings of its table. Let us not forget petrochemicals, petrified chemicals, plastics in all their eternal forms. When they are new and bright, they drive out living materials; wood and leather, cotton and wool; when they are old and worn, they drive out life. Throw them away and they cover the countryside, the beaches, and the bottom of the sea. They neatly line the continental shelf. Burn them and they generate instant poison gas; chemical warfare all over again and within easy reach, no further away than the neighborhood dump.
And to what do we owe all these benefits, where should we direct our thanks? Why, to the car, of course. It oils the economy of the Western world. According to a providential article by Richard A. Rice, professor of transportation at Carnegie-Mellon University, who wrote it for MIT's Technology Review, transportation accounted for more than half of the 174 billion gallons of petroleum that the United States was using every year during the latter part of the Sixties. Private automobiles alone were burning about 60 billion gallons of petroleum a year. They may not have been carrying a full load of passengers, but they were certainly carrying the oil industry on their backs.
It is the car that puts the profit into drilling oil wells in such outlandish places as Alaska's North Slope or Europe's North Sea. It is the car that makes it worthwhile to air-condition the desert so that the oilmen can take their families with them to Araby. It is the car that makes it pay to build tankers a quarter of a mile long and send them around the Cape of Good Hope. The plastics and the insecticides, the fuel oil and the synthetic fabrics, they all get a free ride around the Cape. The cotton-grower and the cabinetmaker, the tanner and the sheep-raiser, they are all up against Ari.
Oil wins every time. Oil, cars, highways: that's where the winnings are. There is no need to break yet another lance against the depletion allowance or the top-heavy structure of American business with oil sitting on top. It is the richest industry in the United States; 91 leading oil corporations earned themselves $50 billion in 1969. It doesn't make much difference what Derby year one picks, the oil business always comes in first. It's bigger then automobiles, even though it is linked to them---one of a pair of inoperable Siamese twins.
It is no wonder that the oil industry gets the brightest people. At meetings of marine geologists---the kind of affairs of which I have some firsthand knowledge---you can always tell the oil company men. They are the ones with the pressed suits and the tape recorders, the first to pick up a check and the last to publish their research results. They have infinite good humor---one of them is still on speaking terms with me after I told him he could be proud to work for BP---British Pollution. They may have sold their souls, but they got a good price.
I cannot see any great point in frothing at the mouth about the oil industry's position. At irregular intervals, the New Republic reaches me by sea mail in my Montparnasse quarters in Paris and tries to bring me to a boil about the monopoly of the oil barons or the tax loopholes that they enjoy. I do not boil. What does the New Republic want? Cheaper oil for the people, more smog for the masses? Nationalization of the oil emperors and their auto satrapies?
About three miles down the Seine from where I live there's the home plant of the biggest automobile manufacturer in France: Renault. It was nationalized nearly thirty years ago because Louis Renault collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War as a premature Common Marketeer. I don't know if any nationalized Renaults ever got recalled, but I do know that there's no chance of getting city hall to do anything about it. City hall is Renault. Don't expect to hear about dirty Renault exhausts on French television. City hall is television. Through what is known as "mixed" ownership (so mixed that no one can tell who owns what) the French government has a sizeable piece of oil exploration and production in the Sahara and various other places. So lead in the gas is not a problem, and emission is a French word meaning a radio or TV broadcast, and just try to cut that down.
An unbelievable Paris paper, Le Journal du Dimanche (Le Monde is the only believable Paris paper) ran a story in 1970 about carbon monoxide pollution and concluded that "the situation is less perilous than one might have feared." It seems that cars put out the most carbon monoxide in Paris when they are idling. So there's really no problem, just set the carburetor so that the engine ticks at a clean idle... or race the motor all day long. "This method, applicable to all models, does not diminish the performance of vehicles and it costs nothing," says Le Journal du Dimanche. At least, this method cost Renault nothing in pollution-control expenses.
Apparently the sweet Parisian air (enriched by unfiltered exhausts) cleanses American cigarettes to the point where, just like the government-made Gauloises, they need carry no health warnings. The trouble with well-meaning socialism and nationalization is that it gets the state into evil businesses, which it costs too much to get out of, once the evil is discovered. The French government, according to another Paris paper, France-Soir (this one doesn't even believe itself, it changes is mind between editions), made almost a billion dollars making and selling tobacco in 1969 and about twice as much from taxes on gasoline and other petroleum products. That is why there is no Ralph Nader dubbed into French. When Nader gave a press conference in Paris and announced that about fifty thousand Renaults, Peugeots, and Simcas had failed to meet American safety requirements, he was simply ignored by the serious press. How do I know he announced it? It was reported in the Canard Enchainé, a comic paper that runs the prime minister's income-tax returns as a regular feature, easily as funny as Peanuts, hardly distinguishable from Pogo.
This should be a lesson to the New Republic and others. All power to the people can make for an awful tangle when it comes to a separation of powers. There is only a smooth front, not a handhold can be seen in the monolithic face of the nationalized corporation. There is no way to scale it. What's good for Renault is good for the country because Renault is the country. Neither the German occupiers nor the American liberators touched a fraction of the precious stones of Paris that would be destroyed in a plan to put a mini-urban freeway along the Left Bank of the Seine. No need to look for the oil lobby or the highway lobby here. President Pompidou himself has been quoted as saying, "Paris must adapt to the automobile."
He is right. When it comes to moving people inside cities, the car must come first. The other entrants---subways, railroads, trolley cars, trolley buses, even that fourth cousin, the diesel bus---are in the transit business, the car is in the consuming business. That is why it is always ahead. Traffic jams use more gasoline and use up more cars, they must be preserved as living monuments of the free world. Free to do what? To build freeways and spread the jam around, to flatted the lumps into a smooth spread. The more freeways, the more cars; the more cars, the more jams; the more jams, the more freeways; and, not even paradoxically, the more subways, busways, and commuter railways.
There is a symbiosis here, though it cannot be detected at first. I got the scent of it when I came across an item in the New York Times to the effect that something like 115,000 cars come into Manhattan every day from Long Island and 25,000 from Westchester. Call it 200,000 people---each car is estimated to carry 1.3 persons (the .3 is the one that drives). Then what are we talking about? From the Bronx, from Brooklyn, from Queens, from uptown, they pour by the millions into Manhattan every morning on the subways. And 25,000 from Westchester... on the Major Deegan Expressway, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Connecticut Turnpike the Sawmill River Parkway, the Merritt Parkway, the New York thruway. Twenty-five thousand cars, 25 1,000-passenger subway trains, half an hour's work for two tracks. That is what all the bother and the pother is about... 25,000 cars from Westchester. This is not mass transit, friend, this is class transit.
Everybody has a car, everybody talks about his car, not everybody's going there by car. At least, not in the cities I know best, New York and Paris. Only when the subways and the Metro stop does the great beast crawl out of its burrow to blink its eyes, then unsheathe its rubber-clawed paws to mangle the thruways and the autoroutes (both words are in italics because they are foreign to the English language). Nothing moves, not even if it comes from Larchmont or Montfor-l'Amaury. It is then that the hubbub starts, ground is broken, the Second Avenue Subway rides again, the new Regional Métro flashes in from Saint-Germain-en-Laye to what used to be Place de l'Etoile, resting place of the Unknown soldier, until it was renamed Place de Gaulle in honor of a well-known general.
Too little transit and the old cars come out of hiding and into use, the Edsels and the Packards, the Simca Arondes and the Dyna Panhards, wheels for the people. When the motormen on the Paris Métro go on strike, the motors go to work. The buzzing smoking inching junk oozes through the gates of Paris, freezes during the day, thaws in the evening, and oozes out again. Every day, the brown stain over the city gets thicker, another layer is added, it is visible another ten miles out on clear sunny days. The Métro motormen only strike on clear sunny days, they never get their weather forecasts wrong, they must keep the pedestrians on their side. So it is the good weather that is bad, it is the bad weather that is good. The west wind that brings rain in from the coast of Normandy flushes the brown stain from the city's sky, it washes the carbon monoxide from the streets, it is an emergency whiff of oxygen. There is something to breathe until the wind reverses again and the air grows still over the valley of the Seine, trapped by the low hills that mount in the west toward Versailles. One need only to look at the Impressionists to see what has happened to the air of Paris. They were able to get the dappling of light on the city when steam from the first trains out of Saint-Lazare station shuttered the sun so that it striped them in gold. Not any more, Monet, not any more. The sun turns Paris gray, Paris turns the sun into an over-cooked fried egg, brown and sickly. The Eiffel Tower might be rising to infinity, no one can see where it ends.
Paris might as well be Los Angeles. Thank God for Los Angeles; no matter how crudded a city may be, there is always Los Angeles and its peculiar inversion, easily seen in local mores and clothes. Everyone is always better off than the Angelinos. Serves them right, too, all those movie stars and sunshine, it was too good to be true, retribution was bound to find Los Angeles. A scare lead in a British paper, the Sunday Times of London: " 'She has not lived in Los Angeles long,' said a coroner, reporting on a recently found body. 'Her lungs are barely damaged.' Los Angeles in unique---its cars poison more people than do those of any other city."
Further along in the text that went with the Englishman's Sunday roast:
Because British towns are generally gloomy as well as draughty, the unburnt hydrocarbons in the exhaust gas are relatively unimportant... Exhaust gases always contain partially burnt hydrocarbons. Sunshine turns these into a mixture that damages the lungs and causes weeping, and sunny California, in particular, suffers this way. This is the principal reason why cars for export to the United States must no be fitted with devices to complete the combustion of the exhaust gases.
Tommyrot... balderdash... waffle. Is this the Sunday Times or Le Journal du Dimanche? Perhaps it's Le Times du Dimanche. Smog must be a foreign disease, an extrainsular affliction that strikes down all those, and it is not greatly to their credit, who are not Englishmen. Nothing good ever comes from abroad, the rain on the French Riviera arrives on "the wind from Italy," the Spanish disease struck down Casanovas everywhere except in Spain, smog is as alien and un-British as sunshine. Oh, is it? A quote from another London Sunday read, The Observer---a story dated February 20, 1972, and trumpeted by Jeremy Bugler, their Environment Correspondent:
Widespread repercussions are expected from the disclosure that Los Angeles-type photochemical smog was found in the South of England last summer.
Three scientists from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Berkshire, have proved for the first time that photochemical smog as occurred in Britain's atmosphere. The report of their finding appears in the current issue of Nature.
"These are most important results," said John Reay, head of the air pollution division of Warren Springs, Stevenage, the Government pollution laboratories, "We shall now have to take seriously the smog problem in Britain."
The smog occurs when car exhaust fumes are exposed to strong sunlight, setting off a chemical reaction. At one stroke, the scientists, Dr. Dick Atkins, Dr. Tony Cox and R. Alan Eggleton, have destroyed the widely held view that photochemical smog could not occur here because Britain has less sunlight than, for example, California.
The scientists set up their instruments in a first-floor Harwell laboratory. They measured the concentration of ozone over a period of 35 days. The presence of certain levels of ozone is considered by United States Government experts to be evidence of photochemical smog.
On six days they found ozone levels that reached or exceeded the safety levels recommended in the U.S. "On two of these days, we found the ozone above the level at which smog is known to cause eyes to smart," said D. Eggleton, "and this was out in the countryside, not in the towns."
So Los Angeles is anywhere. No airport rush, no reservations, as soon as the cars and the sun come out together, instant Los Angeles, Even on the sidewalks of New York.
A dip into my clips and up comes an interview with Dr. Robert N. Rickles, Commissioner of Air Resources (both of them) for the city. He was recorded by The New Yorker as saying: "There is evidence that people living near freeways in Los Angeles accumulate lead in their tissues, and we know that the levels of lead that have been measured out there are lower than those on some of our streets. Our levels are really pretty high."
Here we are being preposterous, we are mixing photochemical smog and lead poisoning. So let's be outrageous and throw some oil in as well. Dr. Rickles was also worried by a city bus garage on Staten Island.
"Apparently, they have inadequate space over there for all their old diesel-engined buses, and they've been afraid to leave them out at night for fear the engines won't start in the morning so they've been running them---as many as seventy-five of them, by our count---all night long. We know of fifty families who live in private houses just fifty to sixty feet from those buses, and we can document cases of kids who haven't been able to go to school because they've been made sick by those exhausts. Now just how long are we supposed to tolerate this sort of insult to our people?"
Until the horse cars come back, no doubt, Commissioner, and there will always be an oil flak to shed a tear for the poor kids who will be kept awake all night by the neighing. If the lead doesn't get you, then the diesels must. Anything that doesn't run on oil gets run out. Cars run on oil, but they run better on lead. Between 1946 and 1968, according to a figure that Barry Commoner left lying around loose in The Closing Circle, the amount of lead cars needed to run 1,000,000 miles went up from 280 to 500 pounds and the total that went up into the air from 50,000 to 260,000 tons every year. As my friend from British Petroleum once put it to me, people must decide whether or not they want high-performance cars. Or low-performance people.
Or growth. The effect of the car on the economy is read most easily perhaps in the pollution indices. The most conservative estimate I ever saw, courtesy of U.S. Public Health, blames 60 percent of the air pollution in the country on the car, with industry providing 17 percent and electric power plants 14 percent. But what is industry making most of? Cars. Where does an unidentified but certainly large chunk of the electric power go? Automobile plants, for one. For another, air conditioning; the smoggier the air, the more it needs conditioning.
Come and wander with me along the motor trail. Let your imagination go, don't just stick your nose up in the air, get it down near the water. Salt water first. The fish off southern California are swimming around with twice as much lead as the fish off Peru. Fresh (ha!) water next. Bugler, our Environment Correspondent in the Observer of London, took a stroll along the River Irwell that fumes through Manchester, among other places in industrial Lancashire. "If you fall in the Irwell, you will be rushed to hospital and stomach-pumped." What does the poor automobile have to do with the Irwell? Directly, nothing. Indirectly, draw your own conclusions. Lancashire Steel is on the river; if they're not producing for the car industry, they probably wish they were. Right on the other bank of the Irwell, enters the Mersey with a load of oil and chemical waste from Shell Chemicals. Let's amble downstream with Bugler. To your left, the Berry Wiggins refinery and oil waste, to the right the Burmah Oil refinery and more you-know-what. Some oil spillage from an Esso tank farm a little further on and here we are at Electric Power Storage, producing Exide batteries and lead pollution. No one is making sexy Minis (Morris or Austin) on the banks of the Irwell, but that is why the refineries and the battery plant are there.
And the jobs. Drive the automobile into a corner and it will always reverse out. Sure we're dirty, but look at all the good we do, the millions we support. Knock out the prop of the car and the whole country falls flat on its face. Or if you prefer, more polite language by Earl Cook in Scientific American: "We could not now make any major move toward a lower per capita energy consumption without severe economic dislocation."
At the risk of being un-American, I shall be unscientific. What have we been going through during the past few years if not severe economic dislocation? What kind of jobs do oil and cars provide? What about quantity? A figure comes to mind; the French want to spend 600 million francs (about $132 million the last I looked at a paper) to put in a big refinery complex on the coast near Brest and bring jobs to Brittany. Six hundred, to be precise, $220,000 per job; the interest alone would be enough to give each man a handsome annuity without lousing up the Bay of Brest. Or else the money could be used to subsidize those underdeveloped Western European countries that do not make cars. The French could send food packages to Switzerland and warm clothes to Norway and Denmark. Belgium could come in for a share of the aid, so could Sweden and Holland with their relatively small-sized car factories. With the money, the Swiss could then build expressways in the Alps and close down outmoded electric railroads running at all hours of the day and night, even through snow and ice, when people should be sitting home and planning their next year's vacations. The Danes would widen their roads to engulf the bicycle paths that now run alongside them, they could reduce their ridiculous taxes on cars so that drivers would change them more often instead of nursing along Plymouths or Opels old enough to vote.
As for the kind of jobs that the car business provides, it's high time we talked about the quality of work along with all of our blather about the quality of life. People like to identify with their work, it is the way they have always defined themselves, the Millers and the Wainwrights, the Smiths and the Carters. They don't seem to be able to identify with making automobiles, they would rather not be concerned with the crafting of the 6,700,000 Chevrolets that came out between 1965 and 1969 with defective engine mounts or the Volkswagens that teeter in a high wind of the Morris Marina of a Mr. Derek Pope that, in the space of nine months, required a new gearbox, exhaust system, alternator, front brake linings and drums, two front seats, four door locks, glove comparment lock, steering column lock... no need to continue, but I could.
Automobile plants are much better at making a fuss. This is the industry where mass production of heavy consumer goods began; it was in the automobile plants that the CIO and industrial unionism got their start. Coming down from ancient to more current history, it was in a Renault plant in Normandy that the tragic farce of May 1968 began when some young Maoists on the line decided to occupy the factory. Renault pays the best wages in the French auto industry, it has the newest plants, they probably are nices places to live in as long as no one has to work there. The Renault hands lived in their plants for over a month in 1968, not even their union could get them out.
Closer to the present, there is the spate of what the New York Times has called "blue collar blues," heard mainly in the automobile plants. At Ford, GM, and Chrysler, Agis Salpukas said in an article in the Times, absenteeism went up from between 2 and 3 percent in 1965 to 5 to 6 percent at present, and it can go as high as 15 percent on Fridays and Mondays, thereby making for a four-day or even a three-day week. We are supposed to keep driving automobiles because they create jobs, but who wants the jobs? Not too many people at Chrysler in 1969; almost half of them couldn't get through their first three months. that was the year that 8 percent of Oldsmobile's Wixom plant near Detroit was quitting every month. "This meant that 4,300 workers had to be hired every year to maintain a work force of 5,000." The Times reporter went out into the field and interviewed hands who were getting through the day by bringing bottled lunches, whiskey or wine. The reporter listened. "I don't know what it is they can do, but they have to change these jobs. If you don't get a break off that line, you can go crazy... Each year, I felt like I accomplished something. Suddenly I realized that I'm at a dead end and I'll probably be hacking on the line for 30 years." Suddenly, the Times reader learns that making cars can be as boring, dull, and deadening a way to pass time as driving them. there is not much hope of a change. He reads on: "Proposals such as having teams of workers build one car or a large unit, or having workers follow one car along the assembly line are considered iimpractical by auto executives and even some union leaders. Douglas Fraser, the head of the UAW's Chrysler department, said: 'If you tripled plant capacity and would be willing to pay $10,000 per year, then you could have teams build cars.' " The production line really came into being in automobile plants; first it got the worker, then it got the customer; it has got all of us who are around cars, we all lead production-line lives.
Not necessarily. There is a way out without spending $10,000 for a car. About twelve years ago, I spent $10 for a used bike in Paris. Never buy a used bike from anyone; the model has not changed since 1903, there is no plausible reason why anyone should get rid of a good bike. The one I bought was ageless; the seat quickly gave way to reveal that it had been concocted of rubber painted to look like leather. That bike had gone through the Occupation, but I was not ready to make a proper investment. I only needed a bike to pedal around the Bois de Boulogne. The man who used to rent bikes outside the Bois had given up, he had converted his shop into a service station. So I acquired my venerable black bike. I didn't dare ride it in the streets of Paris, I stuffed it into the back of the car and drove it, like an invalid, to the Bois de Boulogne where we could take the air together on a bike path all of a mile and a half long. I was a secret cyclist; no one in the quartier knew of my old black bike.
Then the Métro went on strike. As usual, the nationalized electric-power workers went out at the same time. The traffic lights went off. At every intersection, the French rules of the road applied: driver on the right has the right of way, he has top priorité going into the intersection and none at all getting out. He comes in like a lion, he goes out on tiptoes... if he is lucky, if the Métro is not on strike and people he would never dream of associating with are not using their cars. If they are out, then he does not go out at all. Cars clog the crossing concentrically like tree rings until they reach the sidewalk, they mount the curb, now they swirl more slowly as in a sink with a plugged drain, they overflow to the building line, the swirl stops.
That was how I found Carrefour Vavin on the morning of the Métro strike when I took my car from the garage and set out to work. There is a painting of Carrefour Vavin in the Montparnasse of the Twenties; people are dancing on the fourteenth of July there where Boulevard du Montparnasse meets Boulevard Raspail, where Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner met on the terrace of the Dôme after the First World War, where American students in Paris on the GI Bill of Rights used to sit after the Second World War, one of them mounting guard to spot the big Ford of the Veterans Administration attaché at the embassy who drove around checking attendance in the cafés because the French refused to check it in the classrooms.
The morning of the Métro strike, the steel and rubber flood had washed away all traces of Hemingway and Faulkner, of the table at the Coupole where we used to take a café liegèois, letting my infant son lap up the whipped cream, of the table at the Dôme that caught the sun at breakfast time in the empty Paris of August.
I backed the car into the garage and took the rusty black bike out of a corner where it was gathering dust. I walked it through Carrefour Vavin, I swung into the saddle, the springs squeaked, my muscles creaked. I was not used to such violent exercise with a charcoal suit, a black raincoat, and a briefcase, the accoutrement that I favored in my attempt to pass unnoticed among the Parisians who go around all year long as if they were going to a funeral, their brows frowning, their eyes set on the thin blue line of the Vosges standing between them and their next vacations, the vacations that stand between them and retirement.
Beyond Carrefour Vavin, the road was clear. There were no cars to be seen on Boulevard du Montparnasse, Carrefour Vavin was clinging to them like an Auvergnat to a gold louis. I had the road all to myself right to Montparnasse station, where Charybdis had been at work again, another whirlpool that had to be skirted high and on the outside, then it was all downhill to my destination at the Organization, the captor of my labors. Ten minutes from start to stop, a mile and a half from door to door, the wrought-iron door of my apartment house near the Luxembourge Gardens, the plate-glass door of the Organization. Six minutes with the best I had ever done by car and that was only coming home for a late lunch when I was alone on the street and everyone else was putting down a second apéritif prior to starting on the wine. Three-quarters of an hour my my worst time, it was at six o'clock on a Friday night just prior to one of these big neap rides when the city of Paris ebbs to the provinces, when everyone takes his car, not just those who can afford to drive. Then the trip had to be planned all day long; gas, water, and battery checked; alternate routes memorized; food, drink, and reading matter taken aboard.
On the bike, I was above it all. I surveyed everything from my high perch as I used to look down on New York from the open top deck of a Fifth Avenue bus. The old black bike wasn't as high as a double-decker bus, but cars had gotten a lot flatter since I was young. From my crown's nest, I could see the village-sized Paris I had known right after the war, when there was only one car to be seen for a mile around and it was mine. The city shrank, my perspective lengthened, my world was no longer limited to the runways where I could land my car.
My romance with the automobile was ending, that great American love story was almost over. I had been first smitten at innocent seventeen when I got a Michigan driver's license that I could display in New York when I came home on school vacations, a pseudo-farm boy. I have had New York driver's licenses now for long past thirty years, never a black mark to my name and no wonder; I do all my driving in France. As for the French driver's license, I got it in 1948 for life. It never needs to be renewed, there are no physical examinations, I can go on driving with it after death into the great beyond.
The first car I ever owned was a '47 Chevrolet, light tan, two-door sedan. The next year, I came to Europe; the Chevy paid our passage with enough left for a black Citroën when we got here. It was the first of a series of Citroëns, part of my ludicrous attempt to blend into the landscape, a black Citroën and brown Gauloises. Every Parisian I met in those days was trying to get his hands on a Plymouth and a pack of Chesterfields.
I still own a '69 Citroën; it stays in a garage for weeks on end. It comes out only to serve as a bike carrier, a first-stage bike launcher. I use it as the eleventh speed (eighty miles per hour) on a ten-speed bicycle to get out of the foul-air zone around Paris while admittedly fouling the air some more in the process. I take the bike out in the car as a last resort, when I have had all that I can stand of the imitation countryside of city parks and squares with their varnish of unburnt hydrocarbons and their day-long Muzak from the passing mufflers. Then the bike goes into the trunk of the car; the Citroën looks like it is trying to swallow it all except for an indigestible front wheel, and I roll out to the forest of Fontainebleau or Rambouillet. I stop the car. I break out the bike, and I am off through the woods, a wheeled deer, the brakes jutting out like antler branches from the racing handlebars. The air bites, the oxygen gets into blood and brain, the wheels sing on the narrow strip of a tarred forest lane, an idea comes to mind.
And that is how I have done this writing: I get on my bike and I get mad. This piece is written as much in passion as in reason. I am an old hand at science writing, I know how to check a fact to a frazzle and weasel my words to the satisfaction of the most worrisome source. But not this time, for once let the burden of proof be on the other side.
Chapter 2, The Deadly Mustang-Cougar-Jaguar-Tiger GT Wheelchair
TOP OF PAGE