Fed up with soaring gas prices? Try following in Mencken's footsteps

May 22, 2007|By Roger Friskey

Anticipating the privations of Prohibition, Baltimore's most celebrated journalist and critic sold his automobile and used the cash to stock up on the best wines and liquors he could find. H. L. Mencken then protected his cache in a homemade vault in the basement of his Hollins Street home. On the vault's door was a sign with a skull and crossbones and this dire warning: "This vault is protected by a device releasing chlorine gas under 200 pounds pressure. Enter it at your own risk."

While Mr. Mencken's enthusiasm for alcohol-based fuels seems decidedly retro in our abstemious age, his decision to voluntarily give up his car had some solid logic behind it (and some useful implications for us today).

One of Baltimore's underappreciated glories is its scale. With a little planning and a decent pair of shoes, you could obtain just about whatever you might need within the city limits. I know, because I did it for almost three years. From my home, it's an easy walk to two fine grocery stores, a superb wine shop, and two Starbucks - all of life's necessities readily at hand. Whether for business or pleasure, it was only a short walk to the corner, where I could catch a bus that carried me downtown or to Penn Station and the light rail to BWI Marshall Airport and the wide world beyond. Those few times that weather and distance ruled out walking, I used cabs, a sedan service and rental cars.

Over the course of my primarily pedestrian years, I saved a fortune, I was in the best shape of my life, and I attained a state of serene equanimity that regrettably dissipated when I rejoined the driving hordes.

It's worth recalling Mr. Mencken's defiant pedestrianism now that we are once again experiencing our collective attack of the fainting vapors as gasoline pump prices climb above $3 per gallon. Significant alternatives to gasoline shimmer like a mirage in the desert, achingly beyond our reach. For today, tomorrow, the rest of the summer and beyond, we're dependent on the unlovable oil companies to fill our tanks and charge us what they will.

If you're not able to follow Mr. Mencken's example and sell your car, why not try walking rather than driving one day a week? How about joining a militant grass-roots campaign to sell Baltimore as the most pedestrian-friendly big city in America?

Imagine the urban transformation that would follow! A thousand new sidewalk cafes would blossom, and no urban corner would be without a flower vendor. The air would be infinitely sweeter and the citizenry more polite. And should you, following H. L. Mencken's example, decide to enjoy an after-work tincture, you could freely do so without worrying about being a menace behind the wheel, since you'd be walking guiltlessly home - and leaving a much smaller carbon footprint along the way.

Roger Friskey, principal of a strategic communications firm, is on the faculty of the University of Baltimore's School of Communications Design. His e-mail is rfriskey@ubalt.edu.

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