What’s Left of our National Conversation?


I was going to write something else.

I was going to write about 2016 as my tenth year of living without a car, and how I managed to navigate my day-to-day life in a world filled with motor vehicles. I spent some time compiling the data in the travel journal I kept, and I can tell you that out of 366 days (remember, it was a leap year), I drove a car on 45 of them. Once was to move a car some 200 feet to load it up after a musical party. “You gonna blog about that?” my host joked.

But I can’t bring myself to laugh today. I got a ride to the University of Maine this Friday morning from my son, who is visiting from California, in a rental car he picked up at Logan Airport. I’m taking the bus back to Bangor, which makes me feel a little better. But as I’ve stated here often enough, I’m not a purist.

When I started this experiment in car-free living, I was ten years younger than I am now. I was married to a woman who owned a car, and I had parted with my last vehicle, a Ford Escort I bought from the same son, who had headed off a few months earlier for his first semester of college. The car blew a head gasket six weeks after he sold it to me, and I had it hauled away as junk.

I haven’t owned a vehicle since. But I have renewed my driver’s license twice in those ten years, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For three of those ten years I lived alone, but I still occasionally found myself behind the wheel. Friends hired me to take care of their pets while they were on vacation and left the car for me to use. I sometimes rented a car to travel on magazine assignments, or to visit relatives in rural areas. But I have never been tempted to buy one.

Now, once again, I live with a car owner. Sometimes I’ll use the car to go grocery shopping or to meet my son at the bus station. When Lisa and I went to San Diego last March, he rented us a car for the week, perhaps to atone for selling me the Escort. He’s a good son, and I didn’t turn him down (though we did spend a day riding the trolley).

Critics can contend that I’m not really living without a car, that I enjoy the benefits of a motorized culture without buying into it. But they would be missing the point. If I were to take the position that cars are evil and that every car owner is contributing to the destruction of the environment, I would not be able to sell many readers on the more subtle idea that diversifying our transportation system is good for all of us.

And that’s what saddens me about the contentious political year just past. I’ve always considered myself a thoughtful person, and I find myself living in a culture that does not value nuanced thought. I know a good number of people across the political spectrum. I try not to let politics get in the way of personal friendship. The people I have the hardest time with are the true believers, those so convinced of the rightness of their cause or candidate that they are unwilling to budge or listen.

Americans preferred politicians who offered simplistic solutions to complex problems. Build a wall! College for free! Those who advanced more thoughtful approaches found themselves vilified and marginalized.

It’s also why I refuse to use Twitter, because it’s the antithesis of thoughtful. It’s a sucker-punch way of communicating, reactive and reductive, and it does great harm to what’s left of our national conversation.

I don’t want to uninvent the automobile, or stigmatize people who continue to own cars. But neither do I want to turn every available open space into a parking lot. The dominance of the automobile over every other transportation option is shortsighted and ultimately detrimental. Walking communities and robust public transportation make life better for everyone. I want to use my own experience as an example, to illustrate that we all can re-examine our relationship with cars. I want a public policy that honors pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders, and gives them an equal say amid all the traffic noise.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.