An automotive tale of two cities

WHICH came first, the city or the car? When I lived in Houston, I believed cars did. But I moved to Boston. Up here, I learned, not only did cars come second, they're treated like second-class citizens. ``Space City'' became Houston's nickname after LBJ put NASA headquarters there. The name is still apt. Not because of the space program; not because ``Baghdad on the Bayou,'' a newer brag, was hushed by the Fall of Oil. Merely because space is Houston's overriding attribute.

When I visit, I find my Southern birthplace preposterously vacant-looking. Broad boulevards. Ample elbowroom between buildings, each with off street parking! The innumerable, enormous shrines to St. Augustine known as lawns. By Boston standards, the distance in Houston from where one is to where one is going seems interstellar. Fortunately, Houstonians have four-wheeled spaceships to make the trip.

By virtue of indispensability, Houston cars live a pampered life. Their day is spent in private, often covered, parking. At night they rest in what in my house was the largest room. Or, if the garage has been converted into a family room, at least Houston autos relax in their own private driveways.

It's no secret how Texans feel about cars. If the nation's Constitution were redrafted today, the Lone Star delegation would stick driving next to bearing arms in the Bill of Rights. The Massachusetts bunch would just as likely equate not having to drive with not having troops quartered in private homes. For Bostonians, car ownership is an evil to be avoided, the desperate act of a cornered creature.

Cars are Boston's homeless. With street-life stoicism they accept blizzards, police harassment, snatched radios, and corroding attacks of salt. Cars huddle silently around parking meters or stretch out surreptitiously in alleys. If they spend two nights consecutively in the same place, it's because a city vehicle has plowed a wall of snow into them while clearing the streets. Then the cars are trapped for weeks.

When Boston cars do abandon the rented-by-the-minute security of a metered parking space, they can expect only ``No Vacancy'' at other curbsides. Every trip ends when a space - always too small - is acquired by battering aside the vehicles in front and behind. The first time I witnessed one of these traffic non-accidents, I wondered if I should call the police. No, I was assured by the Bostonian who watched with me. If the maneuver isn't legal, it's at least accepted.

The low status of cars here is a function of the city's compactness. Boston was designed for man, not machines. Space was the first natural resource to be hoarded, conserved, and maximized.

What a switch.

That's why, now that I'm here, many have recommended that I sell my car.

Gee. I just made the last payment.

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