The Case Against Cars
The look on the receptionist’s face told me I had said something wrong. It was a maternal expression, like that of an elderly woman who has found her grandkid outside in the cold with a runny nose but no jacket. There was genuine concern in her eyes, but her pursed lips suggested a certain annoyed disbelief: Just what were you thinking, if you were thinking at all?
“You don’t have a car?” she asked, accusingly.
“I don’t have a car,” I replied.
It was my first day at a new job, and I had taken the bus that morning. That bus took me to a subway—a futuristic train that goes underneath Los Angeles in order to get from one place to another—so I didn’t need a car, just like I didn’t need the people’s history of the local parking situation she had graciously given me. Seriously, the subway is, like, right over there.
She nodded her head and forced a smile the way tourists do when they don’t understand a word you are saying.
This happens almost daily: We, the car-less of Los Angeles, must confess our lack of an automobile as if it were a character defect on par with betting on dogfighting. You risk being judged not only at your workplace but at the supermarket, where the teenage bagger asks if you need any help carrying those boxes of generic cereal out to your four-wheeled expression of self. Having a car shows that you have the financial means to own a car. Not having a car makes people assume you live at home and have an unhealthy relationship with your mother—and as sexy local singles say, that’s a deal-breaker.
So it’s a bit heretical when I say I like not having a car. It’s actually rather nice to leave the driving to someone else and not have to worry about steering your personal air-conditioned death box at 70 miles an hour on a freeway full of idiots—and hundreds of thousands of people in the LA metro region agree with me on this. Sure, it takes a bit longer to get somewhere—30 minutes instead of 15—but you also don’t have to spend 20 minutes circling the block for parking whenever you go out. And there are buses and trains that go almost anywhere, and by taking them you free yourself from worry about car payments, parking tickets, and DUIs.
You also don’t need to worry about getting mutilated in a horrific car accident. According to the US government, more than 2.3 million people were injured and 33,500 died on America’s roads in 2012. For people in the US between the ages of one and 44, motor vehicles are the leading cause of death. Avoid driving on a freeway and you significantly reduce your chance of being injured or killed on one.
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I Spent an Entire Day on the Beijing Subway
If Beijing’s subway feeds the city’s beating heart, then Line 2 is its circulatory system. Its looped route traces the path once taken by the ancient city walls, but Mao’s disdain for history saw the structure make way for subterranean tunnels and the heaving ring road directly above. A staggering 1.5 million people use the line every day, each one a tiny blood cell that helps keep the great capital alive.
My self-imposed mission is to spend an entire day on Line 2, circling central Beijing from first train to last. Part social observation and part endurance test, there is no better way to sample the cross sections of a city than to watch them change around you from the discomfort of a single subway seat. This is a people-watcher’s paradise.
Andingmen Station at dawn.
4:51 AM – There’s a palpable smog in the air as I descend into the depths of the subway. A kind voice on the PA reminds me to “stand firm and hold the handrail,” which is helpful. It’s reassuring to know that the state cares about my well-being.
5:05 AM – The doors to the first train open. “Welcome to Subway Line Teeooo” declares the automated announcer in a Chinese/American/robot accent that, over the course of the next 24 hours, will come to be my disembodied nemesis.
I take my seat in a clinically-lit car pasted with ads. Video screens above each bank of seats promote insect killer, a dating website, and some kind of cooking oil. Even the windows exist to remind people of their need to consume. As we speed between stations, lines of LCD displays inside the tunnel play yet more ads through the glass.
Taipei Metro – Tao Lin’s iPhone Photos of Taipei
For the past couple of months, in celebration of last week’s release of Tao Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, we have been featuring a weekly selection of photos taken by the author during his recent trip to Taipei, Taiwan. While there, he took thousands of pictures with his iPhone, pictures which he has divided into albums titled things like “Taipei fashion,” “Taipei carbs,” “Taipei babies,” and “Taipei signs,” among others. In the final installment, Tao takes us inside Taipei’s extensive subway system.
Taipei is out now from Vintage and you can buy it here. To read an excerpt from the novel that we published a while back, click here.
Read Gary Indiana’s personal remembrance of Sunando Sen, the man pushed in front of a subway train by a woman who “hated Muslims.”
I can’t tell you much of a personal nature about Sunando Sen. I only knew him as a helpful, pleasant, intelligent person who worked at the NY Copy and Printing Center at the end of my block for many years. A quiet man, heavy-set, handsome in an old school sort of way, who emanated calm and patience. He could solve almost any design problem. He was gifted and smart and good-hearted. For myself and many of my neighbors he was one of the local tradespeople who would gladly keep an emergency set of your keys in the shop, sign for your FedEx and UPS deliveries when you were away from the house, and automatically offer help in a crisis. He was a valued neighbor, one of those people who make living in a city less alienating and isolating.
He was born in 1966 in Calcutta. His parents were from Bangladesh. He graduated in economics from J.N. University in New Delhi and came to the US in the early 90s on a scholarship to NYU. His mother died soon after he finished his Master’s degree. He was unable to finish his Ph.D. thesis for lack of funds. He began working at the copy center in 1995. He educated himself in computer science and graphic design, and continued working toward his Ph.D. When he first came to America he lived in Brooklyn, then moved to Queens in 1998. Last year he suffered a mild stroke, and left his job at the copy center. Then, with a business partner, he opened New Amsterdam Copy Center uptown, near Columbia.
These are, I realize, no more than a handful of dry facts about someone who was, as it happens, well-loved by the people who knew him, and by the loose constituency of New Yorkers who live in my neighborhood and may not all know each other terribly well but count on one another’s presence in the local streets and shops and restaurants to recognize a few city blocks as “home.”
On December 28th, a deranged woman with a history of violence named Erika Menendez pushed Sunando in front of a train at the 40th St.-Lowery elevated station in Queens. She told police that she “hated Muslims.”
It hardly matters that Sunando was Hindu, since Menendez also said that she hates Hindus and Egyptians, in that order. It does matter that the 40th St.-Lowery station is one of many New York subway stations where the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a hate group started by a radical Zionist named Pamela Geller, was allowed several months ago to place ads implicitly equating Islam with “savagery,” thanks to a federal judge who overruled the good sense of the Transit Authority. The ads continue to pollute the subway system. I know the debate about these particular ads is old news. I don’t propose revisiting it, but rather am urging increased, aggressive vandalism of Geller’s posters. If messages as gratuitously hostile as Geller’s are legal to post in a public space that thousands of people use every day to get to work, it should also be legal to deface them, and if it isn’t, so what.
Ordinary sense would suggest that inflammatory messages aimed against particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups don’t belong in the transit system. If they’re placed there, we have a moral right to fuck them up and render them illegible. Many New Yorkers began wittily embellishing Geller’s “Defend Israel, Fight Jihad” screed as soon as it appeared, as Linda Sarsour noted in a City Limits article last September. But as Sarsour noted at the time, “The danger…is that [Geller] still may tip a handful of people into violent outbursts against Muslims and Arabs. Geller will claim she is not responsible, but she will undoubtedly have played a part.” In light of Sunando’s murder, it’s reasonable to suppose that this has turned out true.
Sean Vegezzi photographs New York’s secret hideouts. See more photos + read an interview here.