I was going to call this post 'On Freedom', but I was worried that that might not adequately convey the seriousness of the topic. I'll get back to freedom in due time, but what I wanted to write about was, as I said, eating and walking, and also going to convenience stores, balancing huge cups of weak American coffee in my lap while driving, throwing empty 20-oz. bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper over my shoulder and into the back seat, and related activities.
I grew up on a county road, without sidewalks, surrounded by pastures. There was a Shortstop convenience store at the next intersection, but that was about a mile away and there were reckless drivers and feral white teenage boys in pick-up trucks with Skoal stickers, Bocephus insignias, and Confederate flags in the windows, and so it was not until I was of a certain age, 11 or so, that I was permitted to make the expedition myself. And to make it there and back, and to have enough money for a thing of Big League Chew and an outsized fountain drink, the sort that is now prohibited in Manhattan: that illustrated for me, and continues to this day to illustrate, without the slightest reduction in force, the concept, much discussed by philosophers, of freedom.
Later I began to ride a bike. I wanted, or claimed to want, to be the next Greg LeMond. I did have a 12-speed Peugeot, and in the summers of 1985 and '86 on a typical day I would put 40 or so miles on it, tooling around the splendid bike lanes along the Sacramento and American Rivers. But in fact my principal purpose was to discover all of the AM/PM minimarkets (the snacks-and-beverages arm of Arco gas stations) in Sacramento County, and to plot them on a map of said county with gold stars of the sort ordinarily reserved for exemplary homework (of which I produced none). I would buy up their dismal little burgers from under the heat lamps, and would dispense for myself a so-called 'Super Tanker', which is to say a 44 oz., or 1.33 liter, container of soda. I would sit up straight on my Peugeot and ride along, resting my Super Tanker on my belly, still fat from infancy, sipping from it as I pedalled, thinking about God knows what (not school, not the Tour de France), feeling free. Once my rêverie was rudely broken when a Jaguar convertible, if I recall correctly, pulled all too suddenly out of a parking lot and slammed into me and my drink. I went flying one way, the Super Tanker went straight into the air and landed in the passenger seat of the luxury car. The bike folded in half like a taco. The woman driving was Mrs. Tognotti, wife of the local auto-parts magnate. She was terrified, of course, at what had just happened; I was somewhat regretful about the condition of my bike, but delighted to see that, as if by the grace of God, the plastic lid had stayed in place on my beverage, which, after some awkward expressions of concern and of reassurance, I soon resumed sipping.
Not so many years later I would find myself loafing around Europe, a continent and a civilization that differs from my own, I learned, principally in this, that Europeans are only able to consume food and drink while stationary. Or perhaps they know that there are Greek shepherds and caravans of Gitanes --strictly speaking, Europeans-- who are off on the peripheries, with black bread and tomatoes in their pockets, wandering, gnawing. They know this, and so they manifest their difference from the nomads and pastoralists by stopping to eat. (They don't mind standing while they're doing it, either, like horses in stables; the important thing is that during the period of chewing and swallowing there be a complete cessation of what the ancients called locomotion.) They are also aware of a place called America, where the ordinary rules of civility are overturned, and people walk down the sidewalk devouring knishes and corn-dogs, yet not as a manifestation of backwardness exactly, of the sort they see in their own nomadic ancestors and cousins, but as a manifestation of freedom. They admire this, and even tell stories of how, perhaps on a trip along Route 66, they themselves once ate grease out of bags while gawking at the passing Joshua trees. I for my part have succeeded at the latter-day version of the test that French colonial administrators once made the local African chiefs endure, inviting them to the government villa and watching how they manipulated their argenterie: fluent know-how as to which fork is deployed when could even result in instant French citizenship. I've passed my own version of the test, as I say, but for me the greasy slop in a bag, to be eaten while in motion, is no romantic kick. It's my culture and my deepest identity.
It's been years since I had my own car, but when from time to time I rent one, and hit the road, my favorite part is, still, to stop at a gas-station mini-mart. I no longer eat burgers or any of what are called the 'empty carbs'; I don't smoke. There is not much for me at mini-marts these days, other than the 20-oz. bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper, which, I'm told, are giving me cancer and brain damage (the warning to phenylketonurics is particularly bold on this product, but I am not, so I have reassured myself, a phenylketonuric), and are actually making me fatter than the non-diet version would. I know all of this, but here's the thing: the freedom that I have associated with convenience stores since I walked to Shortstop by myself 29 years ago has by now, and by none of my own choice, concentrated itself into that horrible brown fluid, and when I stop in Upstate New York, just south of Plattsburgh but before I've hit the Adirondacks, and I buy myself a bottle of it and hit the road again, and it makes my eyes water, it makes me belch, and I shout along to some shitty music: when all this happens, in just the right balance, I am assured, in spite of what I have generally come to think in this greatly reduced adult life of mine, that I am in fact, metaphysically and for real, free.
I do not like the dépanneurs of Montreal. They are shabby, stuffy, and uncertain of the social niche they mean to occupy. They are there principally, I gather, for the purveyance of beer, and I can count on one hand the number of times in the past decade that I have found Diet Dr. Pepper in such a setting. (These days the taste is for 'energy drinks', which I have never so much as sampled, and the kids are losing their taste for old-fashioned soda pop.) Not unrelatedly, I confess I have never felt all that free in this place. But I do what I can, and each time I am walking back from the supermarket, to which --the humiliation!-- I am coerced into carrying my own reusable polypropylene sac (a defiant friend of mine used to say, in response to the inevitable 'voulez-vous un sac?': 'No, thanks, I'd prefer to cradle the groceries in my arms'): each time I am walking back, I say, I eat a bit of the food I have just purchased, not the sort of food that is supposed to be consumed while perambulating, nothing a European could imagine ambulatorily eating even in his wildest fantasies of American freedom, but rather food that practically lists sedentariness as its main ingredient: a cold veggie dog, a handful of still-frozen corn kernels, some kimchi pulled from its jar, which now bubbles over with sour effervescent juice. As I've suggested, I value my freedom.
I expect when I am ninety (as if I'm ever going to be ninety) I will continue to manifest my freedom with occasional requests that my nurse wheel me down to the convenience store at the corner. And as long as I have some pocket change and the physical ability to relish, if ever so slightly, the bounty of these expeditions, then I will continue to feel, fleetingly and silently, that the universe is not aligned entirely against me.
Spinoza said that freedom is not so much the state where there is no impediment between you and the thing you desire, as rather a certain agreeable sensation that sometimes accompanies the determined unfolding of things. I don't know. It is, certainly, a feeling: for me it is an irrational, childish feeling associated with an activity that for others (indeed, for others who are close to me) has nothing at all to do with freedom. Convenience stores are for many people loci of pure necessity, and to eat while walking would be for them only a last resort under duress. Different circumstances trigger the agreeable sensation in different people, but it is the same sensation, and I am happy to call this sensation 'freedom'. But place an impediment between me and the convenience store, a wall or an international border, or take away my money or my physical ability to maneuver down to the corner store, and my theory of freedom will revert straightaway to the Hobbesian: the world comes between me and my desire, and I am suddenly, thoroughly unfree.
I suspect, to be honest, that others who do not know the pleasure of eating while walking, or of inhaling fries out of a bag while driving, have never truly experienced freedom. Europeans experience it briefly on their adventure trips to the wild west, but are quickly drawn back into the order of necessity. I don't know what experiences triggered the sensation that Spinoza called freedom, but I can't imagine they were ever quite as intense as mine. This is a stupid thing to think, of course, but I think the fact that such a stupid thing can be thought about freedom might take us some way toward understanding the concept in question.