Illuminating

A life lived in a car is a life of distance–not just traveled, but felt. It’s a life of streets, highways, parking lots, signage; these are the things that create the texture of your world. Buildings are mostly inconsequential and people simply cease to exist, transformed instead into the inhuman abstraction of traffic. There’s a superficiality to an automotive life, because you don’t really live in car cities, you live on them. If you aren’t soaring above them on a highway, you’re gliding on “surface” streets, a name that unintentionally reveals a truth about life in these places. In contrast, being a pedestrian is a more intimate relationship with the place you live. Unburdened by the serious responsibility of piloting a mobile bomb, you’re free to look around, to see. It’s living micro instead of macro; things your tires wouldn’t notice, your feet trip over. Things you would never see at 30mph capture your attention at 3mph.

One such thing has become an almost daily fixture for me: a dashboard ornament in a neighbor’s car. Sitting proudly atop the dash, a gilded tchotchke amid a sea of drab plastic, it seems to be a small shrine with some Eastern religious aesthetic, shiny gold and cylindrical, slightly larger than a D-cell battery, with embossed symbols all around it. I don’t know what the ornament represents, if it actually has religious or cultural value, or if asking that kind of question is as nonsensical as asking about the significance of a pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror. Still, I walk by it every day and can never resist a glance. But the best thing? It spins, seemingly day and night, a flurry of motion in a stationary car. Well, it used to.

A few months ago, on an immiserating November day in Scotland, I was walking by, anticipating the mood boost this twirling totem grants me, desperate for any amount of color and life I could find. Shoulders hunched, squinting from the freezing rain, I looked into the car, but my spinning shrine was still; another joyful light snuffed out by the wet blanket that is a Scottish winter.

A dead battery, what a shame. I quickly dreamt up some Good Neighbor fantasy where I would leave a battery and a note in an envelope under the windshield wiper, telling my neighbor how much I enjoyed their trinket and that I’d be happy to subsidise its power needs. My neighbor would love this. It would make their day–no, their week, this small gesture of humanity, this pleasant reminder that real people are living real lives all around them. It would be the kind of sincere, anonymous connection with another human being that is all too rare in our atomized world.

My fantasy had obvious issues. For one, I had no idea what type of batteries the shrine used, or how well my neighbor reads English, if at all, in this predominantly Chinese immigrant neighborhood. And you can see the folly in leaving paper and ink outdoors in Scotland. I thought about leaving a few pounds in coins in an envelope in the hope my neighbor would intuit their purpose, or perhaps I would garnish the coins with a crude drawing of the shrine, just to make sure. But that raised the worry that they’d laugh at my earnest stupidity, pocket the money, even remove the shrine just to spite whichever rube believed their pathetic plan could work. Or the money would simply be stolen by a passer-by.

I eventually abandoned any idea of resurrecting the shrine and added this saga to the list of minor cruelties and petty disappointments that life flings at you. It could be worse, I thought; I still get to see it every day, and even stationary it’s pretty and nice. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe so much movement inside of a parked car created an uneasy incongruence after all. Or hey, maybe the neighbor would eventually take time out of their busy, stressful life and replace the batteries.

I missed the spinning shrine.

A few days ago the winter broke like a fever and the sun shone weakly but satisfyingly. I was walking to fetch whatever unhealthy convenience I’d decided upon for lunch that day and turned onto the street where the car is parked, now facing directly into the sun. Squinting, I caught an old, familiar glint: the shrine, in all its kitschy splendor, spinning like it hadn’t spun in months, maybe ever, like it was about to break free from its mount and fly through the windshield. My heart leapt, but then I realized.

For months I’d walked by lamenting the dead batteries inside of a solar-powered shrine. For months I’d softly cursed my negligent neighbor for failing to provide the simple maintenance that wasn’t needed. For months I’d failed to understand that, like the human spirit, the shrine just died during the sunless winter.

Until my move to Glasgow two years ago, I had driven to any place that was further away than I could spit. Now, as a full-time pedestrian, I’m grateful to be able to walk everywhere, to enjoy the rhythms of the city, to rejoice in the small things, and to notice what an idiot I am.

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