Order Emerges from Chaos in the Big 'D'

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December 4, 2006

I don't know how things work in the other 49 states, but here in southeast Michigan there has spontaneously emerged from chaos a number of orderly, beautiful, free solutions to problems. As Detroit has often earned itself the title of 'Murder Capital, USA ,' it stands to reason that if order can emerge from chaos here, it can happen anywhere.

Our Blossoms

In the metropolitan area of the Motor City , where many families have two, three or more cars, transportation is a priority, and not just for practical reasons. In the more affluent suburbs where tens of millions are spent on new schools, the student sections of parking lots in high schools are overcrowded with vehicles and underclassmen are denied permission to use the limited number of parking places available. It is not unusual for high schools kids here to drive newer and much nicer cars than my husband and I drive, cars which most teens could only dream about a generation ago. Take for instance the Mustang GT Deluxe Convertible with a 300 horsepower V8 engine, MacPherson struts, premium painted cast aluminum wheels, fog lamps and a . . . you get the idea.

There remain few walkers in affluent suburbia. However, those left standing are apparently not all resentful. One can hardly take an average ride of 15 or 20 minutes without seeing a single, errant hubcap, unbeknownst to its owner, having extricated itself from its wheel and three identical others. Rarely have I seen one actually lying on the road. What happens in nearly all cases is that some passing pedestrian, out of the goodness of his own heart, retrieves the hubcap and props it up against the nearest signpost in plain view of the road. Good Samaritans do this in hopes that the loser of it will become the finder, at no gain to himself, other than hope. As this most often occurs on main roads, obviously the property owner where this is happening acts in collusion by leaving it standing. Perhaps this practice of senseless acts of kindness is unique to the Motor City , home of the Woodward Dream Cruise, where cars are king?

Hubcaps used to be a commodity. Only a generation or so ago, people used to steal them. My father-in-law enjoys telling the story about how years ago he threatened one fellow with his shotgun down in the city for attempting to steal his hubcaps. Two weeks later, while attending his niece's wedding, he was introduced to the groom. My father-in-law immediately recognized him as the would-be thief! 'Aren't you the guy who tried to steal my hubcaps?' 'Yeah, you're the guy who almost shot me.' Welcome to the family.

Now we've come full circle. Today people without wheels of their own go to the trouble of stepping into the road, (there is never a shortage of traffic) bending over (something many people won't do even if they are being paid), retrieving the escapee and placing it in plain sight because people tend to travel the same routes repeatedly. This is done as a potential gift to a perfect stranger without tangible reward. Maybe people do this in other cities too, but I call these freestanding hubcaps 'Detroit Blossoms' because they pop up everywhere, in all seasons, and such goodwill is a beautiful thing. It is born of a deeper wisdom, the goodness of a human heart, not the paycheck mentality.

This simple act only happens because no government has yet stooped so low as to attempt to use force to interfere with it. (It could be argued that government is responsible for the unrepaired pot holes that often cause hubcaps to go missing in the first place, but as my Dad used to say, they don't want to talk about that.) Simply put, if retrieving hubcaps were the law, no one would do it. Unfortunately there is no simple means of demonstrating to average people that such natural distrust of and resistance to government force is a virtuous thing and should be encouraged and expanded at any opportunity. People are basically good and government is intrinsically evil. No good can come from the initiation of force, but order can and does emerge from chaos.

Our Path

Passing through some suburbs about a half-hour north of Detroit , there is an old railroad track that has been converted to a hiking and biking trail. (In Detroit we measure distances in travel time.) You can probably guess that the track is about eight feet wide. It is crossed by Paint Creek and surrounded by wild brush, which houses rabbits, deer, foxes and turtles. It's used by the entire spectrum of residents from dog walkers to professional cyclists, and it stretches for miles. Even though it crosses various 'municipalities,' it is in actual practice largely unregulated ' a rarity to be sure. There are signs posted about cleaning up after your dog, but with or without them some people will do so, some won't. In the nuts and bolts of living, order is not imposed from without.

How does it work? It works very well! People generally keep to the right traveling the path in both directions. Speeding cyclists approaching from behind a walker or jogger call out 'on your left' before they pass. Old-timers occasionally ring a bell mounted to the handle bars of their bicycles as a warning, although it's probably an unnecessary courtesy of times past ' they tend to be very slow and trail users are mostly aware that other people exist.

Sometimes walkers out for a leisurely nature stroll meander from one side to the other to peer down at the creek or examine nature more closely and get lost in the moment. They might suddenly step the wrong way when they hear an unfamiliar 'on your left,' registering only the word 'left' in the warning. They are suddenly torn from their meditation and the puzzled look on their faces reveals their disorientation. This is not unexpected to riders. They compensate for it.

Cyclists seem most keenly aware of the potential for pain should there be collision and they adjust their speed and caution when approaching walkers or oncoming traffic. There seems to be a tacit agreement that there is a learning curve. Eventually the daydreamers catch on to the silent but consensual system for their own pleasure and benefit. Absent is the road rage typically found on highly regulated, policed thoroughfares.

Our Freeway

Speaking of thoroughfares, here in Detroit where the automobile is king, speed is the name of the game, both under the hood and under the wheels. When I was a teen in the '70s, construction of a major new freeway cut a swath through my stomping ground. It was the subject of awe, speculation, eminent domain and political posturing. Officially known as the 'Walter P. Reuther,' it was named after the United Auto Workers union giant. Detroit 's long-time mayor Coleman Young fought its construction tooth and nail because it would allow suburbanites heading to Metro Airport and points West to bypass the inner city, cutting Detroit right out of the picture.

And bypass it did! It's the Detroit Autobahn. Michigan shares I-75 and I-94 with other states, but around here 696 (The Reuther) is 'our freeway.' Locals know, and strangers find out quickly, that it is no place for 'little old ladies from Pasadena ,' as the song goes. They don't have the nerve. When you merge onto 696, you'd better hit the ground runnin'. Don't try to pull that weak-kneed stopping-on-the-on-ramp stuff here, because unless you're driving a 1988 Callaway Sledgehammer Vette, you'll likely die of old age waiting for an opening. (Of course, no one driving one of those is waiting for anything.)

I've heard many horror stories from non-natives who attempted to travel at posted speeds on 696, all with raised eyebrows. The fact is, if you 'do' less than 15 mph over the speed limit, you might get killed. You learn to keep up with traffic or find another route. Slow drivers are considered the biggest hazard on 696. Cops seem to get it too, and mostly stay away unless they are also looking for the fastest route East or West. It's just too dangerous to try to pull someone over with all those big cars zooming by--I've never seen it happen on 696.

The usual native Detroiter response to comments about travel speed on 696 is, 'We invented the f%&*ing car, don't tell us how to drive!' This implies that people should be left alone because they know what they are doing, and if they don't, they'll figure it out, or not, as they go along, just like everything else in life. Again, it is unfortunate that this mentality does not translate easily to a broader sense of freedom, individual initiative and independence in this land of the free and home of the brave.

For instance, don't these logically follow? 'Don't tell us what to smoke, they're our lungs.' Or, 'don't tell us what to pay, we work for ourselves.' Or 'don't tell us what to say, we're free freaking people.'

The same people who wear pride about their driving prowess like a badge on their chest will, in the next breath, say something as absurd as 'General Motors did a lot for the government after hurricane Katrina (sold cars at discount), now the government should do something for GM (i.e., bailout.)' Or 'The government should not let jobs go to Mexico and Asia ' on their way home from shopping at WalMart. These are not uneducated people. Too many years in government schools embedded such nonsensical, nanny-state poverty mentality that doesn't even work, but they keep at it anyway.

Yet, where there is chaos there is hope. Where there is government, there is always chaos. If you should, for any reason, decide to visit Detroit , stay off 'our' freeway unless you mean business. We wouldn't want you to get hurt.

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Retta Fontana's picture
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Retta Fontana is an atheist, anarchist, baker, potter and parenting teacher.  Children are her favorite people.