Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cassandra on the street

I've never been a huge risk-taker, but when I was younger I used to ride bikes and roller skates in traffic, for miles, on a regular basis. I did this on the country roads of New Hampshire, on the stroads of Westchester and Long Island, and on the streets of Manhattan, New York, Chicago and other cities. I crashed more than once on country roads when I was a teenager. I knew that I could get hurt badly, even killed. But I practiced defensive cycling and skating, keeping my eyes open, going slow when I needed to.

I also drove occasionally. I owned a car once when I was a teenager, but couldn't afford to maintain it. I like to think I was careful, but only relative to other teens. No way I could afford a car phone, but I did let myself get distracted by eating and listening to tapes. Sometimes I sped, but usually when everyone else was speeding too. I was already aware of many of the problems with cars, but I still enjoyed driving them, and I liked the idea of long drives.

That all changed several years ago when I saw a cyclist get killed by an inattentive driver. I stood there and watched the life drain out of the man, knowing that I and those around me had done all we could do to stop it. A few days later I found out that he had a wife and kids who would never see him come through their door again. The main thing I did after that was to move back to the city where I would never need to own a car, but my experience was not over.

In Greek mythology we hear the legend of Cassandra, the princess of Troy. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but then out of jealousy cursed her that she would never be believed. She spent the rest of her life foretelling the Trojan War, the horse that the Greeks used to enter the city, and the sack of the city. One disaster after another she saw coming, but she could do nothing to stop them.

Since I saw that man die, I have been sensitive to the dangers of cars. When I see objects of a certain weight moving at a certain speed, that sensitivity activates knowledge from the physics courses I took way back in college, and I can predict what their impact would be. Often they don't collide, because one stops or the other one swerves, but the impact is narrowly missed. I am also aware of the dangers posed by cars driving on sidewalks, even at low speeds, and by cars parked on sidewalks forcing pedestrians out into traffic.

You could call this the gift of prophecy. But when I try to tell people, they don't believe. Who can blame them, really? As Upton Sinclair used to say, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Many of these people have built their whole lives around their cars. How are they going to get to work? How will they get the kids to school? How will they get milk, and underwear, and sheet rock? How will they ever get laid? So they deny that there is a problem.

That is my curse. For years I tried to tell people when they were doing something that would put me or others in danger. Nobody wanted to hear it. I gave that up long ago, but still I see crashes that could happen. I keep them to myself, and just hope that this time will be more like other times, and that the cars will miss. That curse isolates me from people. When they're having a good time together in their cars, I stand by wailing about the destruction to come.

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