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The Parable of the Mopeds
July 10, 2005
The first sign that spring is coming is the lengthening of days that begins about ten days after the winter solstice. The next heralds, the snowdrops and crocuses, had some trouble getting through this year: they are small and the snow was still pretty deep. The trilling of the pinkletinks was duly heard in the land, though these days I don't hang out in pinkletink territory. To walk through a forest of pinkletinks is to be gradually overcome by surround-sound tinnitus: abruptly you realize that you can't hear anything else, but you have no idea how it happened. Across the water pinkletinks are known as spring peepers. Vineyarders cling to the island name, perhaps as a safeguard against the time when there's no other way to tell us from them. Finally comes the yellow season, when daffodils, forsythia, and dandelions herald the beginning of green. Spring is here and all's right with the world.
Me, I don't believe spring has really arrived till I've sighted my first moped of the season. Mopeds are bigger than a scooter, smaller than a motorcycle, louder than a chainsaw. Their appearance on island roads means that the day-trippers are back. Nearly everyone on Martha's Vineyard has an opinion about mopeds, and nearly all of those opinions are negative. Previous anti-moped campaigns have left residue: bumper stickers, white print on red background, that say BAN MOPED RENTALS and feature the international "no" symbol superimposed on a panicked rider flying off a moped.
At first I didn't get it: Why do people get so fired up about mopeds when other problems are surely more pressing? Back then I, along with an estimated 20 percent of the island's year-round population, was moving twice a year because I couldn't find an affordable year-round rental. Surely the housing situation was more important than mopeds? Of course it was, but . . .
Banning mopeds is a perfect political issue. Consider:
Moped riders are day-trippers. They don't vote or pay taxes here. They don't even spend much money here: mopeds are cheap transportation, and moped riders are cheap.
The owners of moped rental agencies do vote and pay taxes here, but they are few and (when the first big anti-moped campaign arose, in 1988) not very well liked.
Banning mopeds was for the moped riders' own good. Statistics about moped accidents were printed in the papers, along with accounts of the more serious accidents. Both the reporting and public opinion had a couple of notable subtexts. One was "if the hospital's emergency room is so busy with moped casualties, who will take care of your grandpa when he has a heart attack?" The other was "moped riders are too stupid to take care of themselves." And while we're at it, wouldn't moped riders be better off if they rented bicycles? Most of them are so out of shape.
Mopeds are a nuisance. Most island roads, even the main thoroughfares, are narrow and winding. Getting past a long line of mopeds ("Sheesh, they're too stupid to even leave space in between") can take at least five minutes.
Mopeds have taught me much about island politics, and about politics in general. Mopeds are a symbolic issue. Be wary of symbolic issues. They make large numbers of people feel good and involved and united, but in most cases they function like whitewash, distracting the eye from a structure in serious need of attention.