Freelining with Mike Freeman: Subways and things

The great escape fantasy: avoid high gas prices by riding on the subway?

In the past few weeks, I’ve been dreaming about subways.
Not dreaming in the sense of being asleep at night and finding myself riding a subway while catching zzz’s …. Rather, I mean at times when I’m on the local freeway, stuck behind a slow-poking line of cars. I sit there holding the barely-moving steering wheel and fantasize that I live a few blocks away from the local metro station, and I sold my car ages ago.
In a strange way, it sounds like freedom.
I say strange, because if you really think about it, it wouldn’t represent freedom at all. It would actually represent servitude.
We long to escape from that which we don’t think we can change. These days, that means congested traffic on our highways — always a problem in auto-dependent Central Florida — and soaring gas prices. Stopping at a local gas station near my home the other day, I couldn’t even bring myself to read the prices — that felt like it would be the equivalent of throwing myself in front of a speeding truck. I put $20 into my car and it didn’t even come close to filling the tank.
And if the experts are right, these could be the glory days, as prices soar even higher over the summer months, meaning by Labor Day Weekend we could be sitting around the barbeque saying, “Boy, remember when we could get away with paying $3.84 a gallon? Those were the days!”
Sigh.
Americans don’t like things we feel like we can’t alter or improve. So as I sit in that pokey-pokey traffic jam knowing my super-expensive gas is evaporating as my perfectly still car nevertheless keeps the engine running, it’s hard not to imagine a taste of freedom — post-automobile.
I’ve lived in New York City and Boston, with no car, and done well traveling entirely on their subway system. From the blue-collar Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, I could ride the Red Line into fashionable Harvard Square, or jump off to catch the Blue Line up to Revere Beach. New York City’s subway system is even more extensive, not to mention the commuter trains that take you onto Long Island.
For that matter, I could move to Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington or San Francisco, all cities with subway systems … or ditch the United States altogether and move to Paris or Berlin and ride the subways there, too.
It all sounds so liberating — no car, no gas prices, no pain at the pump, no traffic jams. I imagine myself happily signing over the deed to my car to some poor sucker headed out to pay a zillion dollars at the nearest gas station, who then gets caught in rush hour traffic heading home … while I stroll back to my home, knowing if I need anything, the metro beckons me just a few blocks away.
It’s the ultimate revenge; if you can’t bring the gas prices down, you eliminate them from your life altogether. Who needs Central Florida when I can head back to Boston and take the Green Line to Beacon Hill?
What I conveniently forget in this fantasy — and I say conveniently because when you’ve got a revenge fantasy against big bad gas stations, it helps not to recall the unpleasant stuff — is that subways have their down sides.
Boston doesn’t feel like Orlando in January; neither does New York. The Red Line station in Dorchester was outdoors and above ground, and I can remember many a charmless morning waiting in the frigid, sub-zero temperatures, wondering Will this train ever arrive? I lost count of how many colds I got waiting to ride the subway.
There were other adventures …. the crowds who cram into the subway car, making you feel like a sardine in a thimble … the gang of punks on the Red Line who told me they didn’t like the way I looked so they were going to beat the crap out of me when we reached our stop (they didn’t, but I did believed them at the time) … the oddball standing next to you, talking loudly and angrily to himself, while you hope and pray he took his meds this morning … the empty subway train, save for one lone person inside, so you walk in wondering why no one else is in this car — until the aroma hits you and you understand why no one else is in there ….
…. or the many times the subway would stop, and you’d wait … and wait …
Subways are not liberating. Yes, you don’t pay high gas prices to ride them. But they only take you to a very limited number of places. And the truth is, we all have cars for a reason: they truly do represent freedom.
The car takes you anywhere and everywhere, assuming it’s running properly and has gas in the tank. There’s no problem going from Orlando to Miami, or Orlando to Denver. The subway only gets you from one neighborhood to a handful of others.
With freedom comes convenience. You can pack tons of groceries into your car, but try carrying all those bags home on the subway.
For that matter, try taking your sick cat to the veterinarian on a subway. On days like those, you miss your car.
I hate high gas prices and don’t derive much pleasure from knowing they’re likely to keep going up. But with my car totally subservient to me — it has to take me wherever I want to go, and on my schedule — I don’t gripe about it much. In Orlando, it seems preferable to a bicycle or skateboard.
I’m always surprised that when we discuss gas prices, we always talk about it in a political sense. Will it hurt Obama’s re-election? Will it be the top issue in 2012? Those are the kinds of issued we asked back in 2000, when then Texas-Gov. George W. Bush said it was an outrage that gas prices had gone over $1 a gallon under President Clinton, and it’s what we heard in 2006, when Democrats were attacking President Bush and the Republican Congress for allowing gas prices to peak at $4.11. I don’t quite understand the obsession with the political ramifications of this issue, since neither party appears to have a blessed clue about how to solve the problem.
I’m happier when the press coverage shows something else entirely: stubbornly independent Americans fighting back in the only way they can — a little conservation. I love seeing people in Seattle meeting at particular spots so they can park their car and hitch a ride with a total stranger, cramming four or five into one vehicle, just so they can travel in the high occupancy lane. That’s how we Americans fight back: one trip to the grocery store during the week, rather than multiple trips. Joining friends for a movie, and riding together in one car. Arranging with co-workers to car pool.
It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s better than waiting for the politicos to think of something to do about it.
And in the meantime, I still dream every once in a while that I’m riding the subway home, and I haven’t been to a gas station in ages. Sure, it’s not a realistic fantasy, but it’s a pleasant form of escapism, like a really first class episode of “The Jetsons” that merrily takes you to a distant place you’ve never been to before.

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