Monday, June 11, 2012

State of Disrepair

In the Washington, DC, area, gridlocks begins at 2 p.m. and lasts until 8 p.m. or so, as hundreds of thousands of commuters leave the city and head north towards Maryland and south to Virginia. The major roads have High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes but not enough drivers pay attention, and after a while you know exactly at which exit ramps the cops will be waiting, so you avoid these by detouring through residential neighborhoods to the great displeasure of the folks living there.

Recently, driving through rush hour traffic was unavoidable, and I started noticing the commercial vehicles around me. A lot of vans owned by plumbers, electricians, and heating and cooling companies. Tow trucks and roofers in pick ups festooned with ladders. Computer repair guys in spiffy little Toyotas or Smart cars; engine parts delivery people, and on both sides of the road, garages specializing in foreign cars, radiator repair, bodywork, electricals. It seemed as if two out of three commercial vehicles on the road were involved in repairs of some sort. There were so many garage and gas stations that I stopped counting.

Then, on a particularly rutted and pot-holed section of the highway, traffic stopped dead. Within minutes, there was a cacophony of horns, and drivers leaned out of their windows to see what the problem was. Two hundred yards down the road and overlooking a major intersection, a traffic light had broken down, the signal stuck on blinking red. At that very moment, it struck me that we’re a nation that has accepted disrepair and shoddy original construction as a fact of life. No burning bush there—this is a nation of conspicuous consumption and even more conspicuous waste. We routinely discard stuff that has stopped working—televisions, computers, washing machines, dryers, cars and trucks—because it’s easier to replace than it is to repair, and most of us are incapable of tinkering with stuff as our fathers and grandfathers did. But when did this particular philosophy take hold? When did we come to allow and expect the things bought with our hard-earned cash to break down and become unusable?

I’m as guilty as the next person—I recently put a perfectly working TV out on the curb because I bought a new flat screen. I’m not a born re-cycler, and I always wonder how it came to be that we are now buying stuff which we know won’t last. Houses too, if you look at the cheaply built townhouse developments that dot the landscape and are never meant to outlive their mortgages, much less be passed on to future generations. Pretty much everything is temporary, and often in need of repairs.

That’s weird to me. I have more than my fair share of crap in my home, and I’ve been working diligently over the last few years to rid myself of the cheap stuff. My place, if unassuming, is pretty sturdy. It was built in 1964 when it sold for $29,000. It has brick and mortar, steel windows, a poured concrete driveway. When I bought it in the 90s, I re-shingled the roof, changed the furnace and air conditioner, and put in new appliances in the avocado green kitchen.  A few years later I put in double-paned windows the replace the un-insulated steel ones. Cross my fingers, but everything still works.

I haven’t owned a new car in more than two decades partially because I think the gadget-laden automobiles sold today don’t have an acceptable life-span. I have furniture that has lasted centuries and is still usable; the clunky stereo system through which I play my music is antiquated: big speakers, components for the radio, cassettes and CDs.

More and more it bothers me that we have come to associate new with better and old with unsatisfactory.

I don’t want stuff I have to repair, I want stuff that lasts.

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