Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Passing Gas

Five Points Confidential by Don McCallister

I was perambulating down the avenue the other day like the Grateful Dead’s “doo-dah man” icon when who should I run into but raconteur, roustabout and all around rabble-rouser York “Budd” Durden, back from an apparent sojourn in the territories. After we settled in at our favorite watering hole with a couple of frosty Dickens Ciders, I asked about his travels and experiences.
    “Actually,” he said, sheepish, “I was in the pokey the whole time. County lockup.”
    I did a spit-take, which Scotty the barkeep cleaned up with The State newspaper’s Op-Ed page. “For heaven’s sake, Budd! On what charge?”
    “Mopery. They said I was walking without a clear destination.”
    “That’s raw, man.” I took a sip. “Were you guilty?”
    A shrug. “I was actually loitering while walking. There’s a difference, you know. But I wasn’t going to split hairs.”
    I nodded knowingly, even though the distinction had too fine a point on it for me to grasp. “With gas prices what they are, you should have gotten a medal, not incarceration.”
    “True-dat,” he said. “Three hots and a cot, though, ain’t a bad deal in these unsettled economic times of ours.”
    He went on to ask me about the recent imbroglio over 5 Points getting a dedicated parking facility, of whether or not I thought it was a good idea to encourage more driving rather than less.
I told him that, indeed, some of the folks against the garage had expressed similar concerns, which I considered honorable but probably a bit too lofty and utopian to take hold on a practical level. “Unfortunately, the metro area on which the city center relies is too spread out. We have to have people driving into town to sustain our businesses.” It was Saturday, and I gestured out the window at the cars circling a packed and stacked Saluda Avenue.
“But how long can we go on like this? I mean, all of us living so spread out from one another? How can we afford for the trucks to keep rolling, bringing all those California avocados and strawberries all the way from the left coast?”
I thought about the fresh fruit I’d shoved into the juicer that morning, about the guacamole I’d made the other night. “Well—you sort of take things for granted . . . that we’ll figure out a way to keep all this going.” My words felt hollow.
    Durden seemed to sense my growing epiphany, my unease. “Maybe we need to think of a new paradigm—the age of exurbia may be passing, and I don’t mean, like, decades from now. Americans consume 25 percent of the world’s resources . . .”
    “ . . . and you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if it’s sustainable.”
    “Like, on a moral level. Not just in dollars and cents, eh?”
    I couldn’t disagree.
    He went on to describe his idea of a world—an apparent fantasy place, like Candyland or W’s working Texas “ranch”—in which bike lanes and greenways became the norm instead of six-lane blacktop and belching engines. He also made the assertion that the climbing oil prices “are not a bubble—they’re here to stay. Too many people are getting too rich, either directly like Exxon, or just through speculation. And they’ll fight to keep it that way—look at our Iraq occupation. Think about it—we’re prisoners, shackled and bound to our way of life.”
    “But the American character is bound up in the idea of driving—the romanticism, the adventure, like Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise.” I remembered my own halcyon days following the Dead around.
    “But at any cost, including that of leaving a decent world behind not just for our own children, but for all the world’s kids?”
“People don’t think about that sort of long-view stuff, man. It’s tough to change when you’re busy just trying to make a living like I do—like most people. We’re all just following the model we’ve been given.”
    He shook his head. He got up and tossed a fistful of Sacagaweas on the bar. There was more to say, and yet not, so I let him go on his way. “If we really are the beacon of the world, we must be the change,” he said over his shoulder. “We must be the change we wish to see.”
     â€œBut what if we don’t wish it?” He didn’t hear me; he was already gone, just like the old Eagles tune. My point was that making the kind of lifestyle changes my idealistic friend espoused were easier said than done for the legions of otherwise decent Americans who can’t yet see the necessity—or otherwise lack the capacity—for such a shift in thinking.
    I walked outside. The sun was shining, people were shopping and happy and not thinking about the kind of things my boy and me had been discussing. I was glad; my store was doing well, and I looked forward to the day when we got our new parking and retail spaces and places for people to live here in the neighborhood.
    And then I strolled up to a locally owned bike shop and bought a new bike—my first one in over fifteen years. The act felt good; it made sense.

James D. McCallister is a local businessperson and author of the novel King’s Highway, which isn’t about driving. He currently serves as the President of the 5 Points Association.

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