Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
August 2008
by Greg Knepp

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A View from the Porch

Illustration by Greg Knepp

I like the front porch culture of the Short North. It harkens back to a day when watching the world go by in real life was more important than watching virtual life on the box. I spent two decades in Baltimore – a terrific town, very old and well preserved by American standards. The row houses there are great, but they sit smack on the sidewalk and are therefore mostly bereft of front porches. Baltimorons sit on their marble steps, suck cheap beer from cans and commiserate with their neighbors about the day’s events. It’s all very nitty-gritty and quaint but lacks the privacy and comfort afforded to those with a front porch. I’ll take my front porch any day.

I see a great deal from my vantage point on the front porch, and feel that I’m able, at least in a small way, to measure the pulse of society as a whole. It’s evident that there are more bicycles on the street than only a few months ago and that the sputter of moped engines has become more common. Odd vehicles such as motorized push scooters and pedicabs can be spotted from time to time. Even skate boards and inline skates are occasionally being employed for short-distance transportation rather than solely for recreational purposes. I’m a little disappointed that walking doesn’t seem to have caught on yet, as least as a form of serious transportation. But I guess Americans must have their machines. Walking remains largely a physical exercise for the middle-aged gentry of my neighborhood. Automobile traffic is still brisk during the week, but subsides to a trickle on the weekend – especially on Sunday when minutes may elapse without as much as a single vehicle passing in front of my porch – weird!

All these changes are due to the increasing dearness of gasoline brought about by the onset of Peak Oil – a condition first described in 1956 by renowned geologist M. King Hubbert. Hubbert accurately predicted the cresting (or peaking) of oil production and its inevitable decline. He and his protégées also warned of dire consequence for a society unprepared to mitigate the effects of the severe energy shortages certain to follow peak oil. We are at peak right now, and a worldwide crude oil production decline will commence in a year or less. Meanwhile petroleum demand increases along with population. We in the United States are completely unprepared, and there is no ready solution to our dilemma – no way as a society to wean away from petro-addiction without traumatic, perhaps even catastrophic economic and social upheaval. The impending energy crises is simply too huge and the hour too late. The overall problem will, of course, ultimately self correct – nature will not long tolerate imbalance – but the process by which this will be accomplished will be troublesome, and the outcome is anyone’s guess. (Perhaps even the assumption of an outcome, at least in a conventional sense, may need to be dispensed with.)

Still, there are numerous upsides to this whole energy depletion situation. I will describe two that can be easily discerned from the comfort of my front porch, both phenomena notable by their disappearance as well as by their former positions at opposite ends of the cultural and technological spectrums of society.

The first is the Whompa-Thump-Thump Mobile; this is typically an automobile of an older American vintage. It’s always a large gas-guzzler, but almost never an SUV. Most of its rust spots have been leaded-in but remain unpainted. In fact, the standard Whompa-Thump-Thumper seems in a constant state of incomplete repair. No matter – what’s outside is irrelevant; it’s the inner workings that count! The driver of this odd auto is invariably a scruffy young man of low economic status. Sounds like trouble? Actually no, at least not by the standard definition. You see, the driver is neither a rowdy nor a racer – quite the contrary; he’s usually careful to stop at every intersection and to then proceed all too slowly and cautiously down the street. He doesn’t want trouble. He’s oblivious to his peripheral world and couldn’t care less about the outward appearance of his auto. In fact, his car is not a car at all, rather it’s a moving stereo den, and his choice of music involves an ungodly volume of base reverberations that emanate from on-board woofers so powerful as to cause windows in the neighborhood to rattle and pictures on walls to vibrate out of true. The music from the Whompa-Thump-Thump mobile is more felt than heard, and it’s a real pain in the ass. Whompa-Thump-Thump!

I don’t fault the young man on a personal level. In fact, only last week I let my own automobile engine idle as I waited in the car for a good 10 minutes while Beethoven’s Eroica played out. It was a rare – and I might add definitive – 1963 rendering by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by a young Herbert von Karajan well before he’d had time to deteriorate into the egomaniacal hack of his later career. But I don’t indulge in this guilty pleasure often. What’s more, I own a small gas-efficient car equipped with comparatively teeny woofers.

Alas, the Whompa-Thump-Thump Mobile seems to have disappeared entirely – at least from the immediate neighborhood. And since bad taste never goes out of style, I must assume that it has fallen victim to skyrocketing gasoline prices that have hit the poor hard and fast. The mobile stereo den has become an unaffordable luxury.

But the diversions of the lower economic classes aren’t the only losses created by Peak Oil. Another manifestation of modernity in fast decline is the Low Roar. Unlike the Whompa-Thump-Thump, the Low Roar, until very recently, had been virtually continuous, so much so that it went largely unnoticed – just so much background noise. It’s still there but only intermittently (which actually makes it more noticeable). You see, my porch, in fact the entire neighborhood, is directly below the eastern airplane route to Port Columbus. Jets come in over the Short North heading west, take a wide U-turn that must extend nearly to Hilliard, then descend and land nose-east at Port Columbus. Flights returning east take a similar path in their climb, though the turn is tighter and does not arc nearly as far west. Meanwhile, planes on the western route can be seen miles to the north heading straight in and out of the airport. All this jet engine roar and wind turbulence created a never-ending roar that is now broken by periods (sometimes long ones) of silence. The Low Roar is now the exception rather than the rule.

Like the Whompa-Thump-Thump Mobile, the Boeing 747 has become obsolete, a winged anachronism from a bygone age of energy opulence. In fact, the whole airline industry is pretty much of a basket case. I feel bad for airline workers and even for the young man in the Whompa-Thump-Thump Mobile. (Oddly, I feel no pity for airline passengers – they‘re victims of their own harried schedules and goofy priorities.) But I’m not sorry to see these gawdawful machines disappear from the scene. I hate them – I’ve always hated them, and I’m glad to see them go. Monuments to human stupidity – one huge, the other small, but both canaries in the coal mine of tasteless and terminal human excess.

Yes, there’s lots of chaos and kafuffle afoot, but from my front porch things seem OK, at least for the present: a little quieter, a little slower. I can actually hear a fist-sized woodpecker at work on the oversized oak in my postage-stamp front yard. I’ve seen him often, but only lately have things been quiet enough for me to hear him. And a determined old man on his bicycle – God, he must be older than me! He’s now bicycle commuting to work on a regular basis. And that young woman, pedaling a new Schwinn hybrid? She’s finally abandoned the sidewalk and is confidently negotiating the street. All this as I rock gently and sip coffee on my front porch. Things may not be so bad after all. Now if that young woman would only wear a helmet.

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist


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