Begin the Blog (Part II)

This was supposed to have been written almost three years ago. (Shows you how hard it is to write about it.) I was about to tell you why it mattered if the job was in walking distance.

See, I don’t live in New York or Chicago or one of those big places that has commuter trains. And not a lot of bicycle paths or pedestrian-friendly areas, either. After you get about a mile away from the center of town, even the main drag gives up on sidewalks,  and the shoulders are only a couple feet of eroded gravel between the asphalt and the drop-off of four- to six-foot ditches. Some driver zips by a little too close . . .

And of course, that’s where most of the jobs are. There or the industrial park, which has wider shoulders, and plenty of semis going in and out at all times of the day needing to use the wider shoulders. That’s where the paying jobs are in my town.

And that’s why it’s common in my town for every household to have a car, or two, or three. And while people don’t seem to have that much of a problem with someone who doesn’t drive–either didn’t get a license or can’t afford a car–they aren’t willing to accept that someone might find motor vehicles an unacceptable means of travel. “Don’t have a car? I’ll pick you up. Problem solved.”

I’ve always feared getting stuck. I know I watched a lot of Captain Kangaroo when I was little, but the only thing I remember today is a skit where the Captain ha a jar of glue on the counter, and for some reason, managed to stick first one hand and then the other into it. Then he had to answer the phone (so he couldn’t put down the receiver), and then a visitor stopped by and wanted to shake his hand. The Captain kept shaking his hand. I don’t know how it ended becuase I think I must have changed the channel, having had all I could take of someone being stuck to something.

When I was little, I feared riding with anyone other than my parents. What if they made me wear a seatbelt? I couldn’t wait to grow up and have an adult’s right to say “no.” In the early 1980’s, they started with the child seat laws. I made a morbid game with myself: If they started increasing the maximum age of choice by two years every year, would I make it to adulthood before the mandate? (It never occurred to me that I would be able to mount any kind of legal fight before I reached the age of majority.)

When I was twelve, the game came to an end. Though unpopular in the Wisconsin legislature, enough thought the statistics were more important than individual’s rights to pass That Bill.

Tommy Thompson signed it into a sunset law. And vetoed a measure that would have ended it early. And signed a bill to extend the sunset. And signed the bill that made it a permanent law. And that’s all I know about Tommy Thompson’s time as Governor of Wisconsin.

Not long after the law went innto effect, our band director wanted to take a lot of the jazz band to some event (don’t remember if it was a concert or some kind of workshop) he thought would be good for us. I didn’t ask for a permission slip. He thought so highly of me he put one in my hand and asked me to go. I “lost” the permission slip without ever taking it home.

I wondered how I would deal with the rest of my life. I thought I could tolerate them a few times a year, rent a car when I really needed it and walk the rest of the time, but then the 1990’s came along. Power windows and locks, which I though would always be an option like “leather seats” or “alloy wheels” suddenly became standard on a lot of vehicles, but now they were suddenly becoming standard. Not only that, but the cars were starting to lock the doors without even asking!

Suffice it to say, my interest in ever having a “new car” died in the 1990’s. The 1990’s were also when the PTD generation of seatbelts made their appearance. The first time I heard about pre-tensioning devices, the were described as a system to “pull down” on the seatbelt to prevent ejection from too-loose seatbelts during a rollover. I assumed that mean there was some kind of system, probably between the lab belts and their anchors, that would shorten the length of the lap belt from “confortably snug” to “crash tight.” The system I thought PTD belts were wouldn’t stop you from, say, ducking to avoid a massive object hurtling through your windshield, or leaning forward to get a better vantage if you had to corner hard, even if the system engaged.

Wht PTD belts actually do is reel the spool, pulling UP on the shoulder belt, and by extension, tightening the lap belt. That’s a big difference for two reasons. One, since the belt is fairly free to slide between “lap belt” and “shoulder belt” roles, the lap belt is never at a higher tension than the shoulder belt (unless you’ve got some after-market gadget to keep it cinched). The reverse is not true. Since people thrown forward tend to do so head first, the PTD has to pull the torso back before it can cinch the hips down. So for a brief moment, the shoulders are held back more than the hips. This increases the likelihood of submarining, where the lap belt, instead of acting against the hips bones as it should, ends up acting against the soft abdomen.

Problem number two occurs because the car is making the decision to pull you tight to the seat. If it decides to cinch you while you’re leaning forward for some reason or another, it will disturb your control of the car. I remember a local news station giving advice about what to do if you were caught on the road without visible shelter during a tornado warning. Their advice was to stay in your car, put your seatbelt on, and lean forward so your head was below the level of the windshield/windows. I remember wondering what genius came up with that advice, since if anything happened to cause the car to think it was crashing, the first thing it would immediately cinch you upright.

And it will stay cinched after the car stops moving, if it stops in some position other than “rubber side down.” With manufacturer’s preference for burying the buckles in the seat, you likely won’t be able to reach it with your non-buckle-side hand and there’s a not-insignificant chance that your access to the release will be obstructed. That leaves hoping you 1) haven’t been anywhere that doesn’t allow you to have a pocket knife or remembered to retrieve it from where ever you put it while you were there 2) Haven’t put it in your front pants pocket, where it can slide below the lap belt and be rendered inaccessible 3) Haven’t put i tin your back pocket, which is probably as inaccessible as your front pants pocket 4) haven’t laid it on the dash or had it thrown somewhere you can’t reach with your shoulders as good as glued to the seat.

And now in this brave new millennium, we have cars that not only ding at you on startup, but periodically during the drive if they think there’s a seat with enough weight to be an unbuckled human being.

For me, this was the last straw. I haven’t been in a car since before I started this blog. I couldn’t trust them as shelter from a storm. I certainly couldn’t work any job that put me in a position of daily dependence. So my career is in a death spiral. Instead of leaving college with a starting salary of $30,000-$60,000, probably rising to $60,000+, I started at $10,000 and fell from there.

I used to have dreams of travel. When cars became not-so-nice, I fantasized about bus trips. Now the belts have invaded buses, so those dreams are dead. I’m too young to be regretting all the things I didn’t do, but what’s worse, I can’t imagine any scenario that would have made them possible. And even now, the suffering of getting there would outweigh any enjoyment I might find.

I worry about what’s going to happen to me when cars get worse and less avoidable. Sometimes I pray a heart attack will spare me–I cartainly have enough stress for one, but then I think, “The sooner I die, the sooner I could be reborn as some helpless babe who can’t do anything about being stuffed into a carseat,” and then I get really miserable.

What’s been taken out of my life cannot be returned, and my suffering is unlikely to be compensated. If I knew how to destroy my soul so it could never return to this world, I would. Because thanks to the seatbelt Nazis, hell is a place on Earth.

(If you’ll excuse me, I need to go drink something. My mouth got very dry typing this. And my nose is running.)

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