Last month I wrote this post, marking my 10-year anniversary of so-called “car freedom.” People who’ve given up cars, or who never had them, often use that word to describe themselves: carfree. Of course, becoming carfree can make one feel more a prisoner of cars than ever, here in a country that practically showers in oil. Rainbows of it appear in the puddles on streets, gathering near storm drains embossed with leaping salmon and the words: “Drains to waterways.”
You might find yourself on your bicycle at a stop light, gazing into the muck wondering things like, “would they let me through the Covid-19 test drive-through on my bike, if I needed a test?”
There’s nothing new about decorated drains—clogged or working as intended—it’s just, from inside a car, their condition goes unseen. A clog may even seem inconsequential. But the history and art of drainage systems, which goes back to truly carfree times, indicates otherwise. Per The Guardian:
These systems existed throughout the Roman empire until its fall in the Middle Ages, after which they fell into disrepair. Centuries of plagues, disease and famine followed the empire’s decline. “A lot of it was related to poor sanitation,” says Schladweiler.
But I didn’t want to talk about drain systems in this post, I want to talk about plagues. And specifically, about something I remembered while writing about my carfree December bus trip: a Christmas Eve postal worker suffering from a terrible cough. He’d placed his bicycle on the bus’s front rack in Tillamook, panting and commenting to the driver how relieved he was he’d made it in time, then walked past my seat to the back of the bus where he coughed the entire hour to Manzanita. I took comfort in the fact that I rarely get very sick. Worst in recent memory was when I caught what was no doubt that swine flu back in ’09, which didn’t even compare to my childhood bout with malaria. Sure, I’ve suffered with periodic bugs since H1N1, but when I catch a cold I go for a run, which usually kills off the virus. I haven’t always succeeded in staying home, but knowing my contagion could still spread even after I feel better, I try not to breathe on or stand too near others in the days following.
I also wash my hands religiously, & have long known to avoid touching my face during transit. I am the daughter of a doctor, after all, and it was engrained in me to wash my hands. It’s basic, but it’s one of the best preventatives, that & drink tons of water. Thus, I worry much less about catching someone else’s bug than about passing one on to them.
Still, that man’s cough was incessant. And since he was in the back of the bus, he passed by my seat twice. I’m sure he delivered hundreds of desperately awaited last-minute packages, just in time for Christmas Day, and biked the rest of his way home feeling he did a job well done. I’d agree; I admire our post offices’ dedication to mail service. Maybe it’s in my DNA. My maternal uncle rode the Commemorative Pony Express for years. I do now wonder, though, what happens if today’s post office workers try to call in sick on Christmas Eve.
My 2020 got off to a slow start. As usual, I began tracking resolutions on New Year’s Day in my journal, but on day two:
Jan 2nd: Ran. Tired; sick; woke up to sore throat
The sore throat lasted about five days beginning January 2nd (nine days after the bus ride with the Tillamook USPS worker). There can be no certainty he was contagious—he might have had a chronic cough like COPD—and by January, I’d forgotten all about him. Whatever I had seemed mild. Gargling in warm salt water & sipping hot drinks relieved the worst of the symptoms, but since I felt feverish at times, I assumed I was contagious. I wrote to a friend that I wouldn’t be attending a Climate Hub meeting on January 4th. I felt unexplained exhaustion. And when I ran, I felt forced to walk. Running didn’t clear the bug up this time. I didn’t write down—& don’t remember—if I had a cough. It seems I’d recall a cough as bad as the one that bus passenger had, but a light cough, perhaps not. Journals are useful for mundane things like tracking what you ate, or symptoms, but being thorough helps. Of course, if back in January I’d heard of “the Coronavirus,” now common vocabulary, I might have written down more details.
I didn’t run again till the 6th, which was when I finally started feeling better. Even then I noticed a strange sensation of not being able to get enough oxygen to my lungs during my run. My maternal grandfather died of smoking-related lung disease two years before I was born, but I’ve never smoked. Lack of breath felt unusual, foreign, and it was the worst part. “What IS this,” I wondered. Sore throat, exhaustion, tired muscles—but no congestion, no stuffy nose. It didn’t seem like a full blown flu, but it also wasn’t a full blown cold.
There’s not yet a way to test for antibodies to this Coronavirus (maybe in Singapore), & I’ll probably never know what I had. But there’s a thought exercise here. In retrospect, if I’d known I might get sick with this nameless bug, would I have skipped the trip? Absolutely not—it just wasn’t that bad. Would I have worn a face mask on the bus? Probably not even that. What I would’ve done, though, is attempt to meet that person during the hour long bus ride, and find out if he had a virus, or if he chronically coughed in wet December weather after long hours delivering mail, or standing in a dusty, or maybe damp and moldy, post office mail sorting room. Maybe he wouldn’t have been game to such chit chat, but let’s face it: now I’m curious.
And that’s a major cure: communication. Not of the virus, but of factual information. Enlightenment. Knowledge can create scary expectations, but it can also alleviate unnecessary worry.
Having grown up in Kajiji, DRC, where my doctor dad (an MD) and my Kajiji dad (PhD in Public Health) teamed up and for years demonstrated to me what real, courageous public health leadership looked like, I can say the public health leadership in this country—America—is in poor health. Leadership isn’t doing its job, from virus spread to car pollution, crash injuries, and transportation-related deaths. There are some municipal, county and state leaders rising to the occasion. But our federal administration? When SUVs are too deadly to be out in public, they aren’t telling us that, because lobbyists have bought them off, just like happened with cigarettes. Party affiliation seems irrelevant. WHO’s 2018 Global status report on road safety says that globally, “annual road traffic deaths has reached 1.35 million.” Imagine if Biden touted saving the cigarette industry.
The so-called “leadership” of such politicians is like hanging out with sick people who won’t cover their cough, and you have no way of knowing if, because of them, you’ll become sick too. Maybe we’ve all been “that guy” once or twice. But the current federal administration is “that guy” always, too obsessed with money to stop spreading his virus. There is more to being Human. Being fallible to viruses is a characteristic of being human; being exceedingly rich is not. Then again, as it turns out, even the stock market gets sick. What about those “certain unalienable Rights,” among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?”
While the federal administration and congress falls over themselves to revive the DOW; as they continue their grotesque plastic surgery on the earth, ripping out environmental protections, cutting into the ground with their dirty instruments, sucking fluids out to burn dry, we can expect more illnesses like Covid-19 to emerge. The earth’s climate is changing in ways humanity’s never experienced, while too many in power trumpet: “save the oil industry! save the auto industry!” They are clearly sick. They need to go home to self-quarantine.
For the rest of us, may I recommend a healing meditation: Close your eyes. See a bicycle of your choice. It’s your favorite color. It fits you perfectly. Imagine your bicycle can adapt to any physical limitation you might have. See yourself getting on, touching one pedal, starting to ride, hear the wind. Now see yourself surrounded by others of all ages and abilities, riding along with you on all kinds of bicycles, adaptive bikes and mobility devices, some towed by others, all to the sound of gentle bells ringing and laughter—you fill the street, no cars to be seen, no loud motors to be heard, no risk of getting hit. Smile as you pass other smiling riders. Everyone rides six or so feet apart, of course.
With everything canceled, there’s no time better than this moment to make this visualization manifest in reality, on our suddenly unbusy streets. What’s great is, it’s not just carfree—it’s practically carbon free.
Oh & by the way, I’m she/her/hers, and bikes aren’t just for “boys” & “men,” like that 100-year old black & white ad making the rounds suggests [insert annoyed emoji here].
Unlike cars, bicycles + transit can give environmentally clean and healthy mobility freedom to everyone.
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