Highway clumping

This weekend, while driving, as I am wont, five miles per hour below the speed limit, as imperturbably as I can manage, I turned over in my head a “human math” problem that has puzzled me for years, namely: Do automobile drivers clump? In other words, do drivers unconsciously (or consciously) bunch up on the highway, instead of spreading out to take the full rational advantage of the available timespace on the road?

From my vantage, consistently and irksomely five mph slow, it seems as if they do. For five or even ten minutes, our car will be more or less alone, the only vehicle in the stretch of road visible before and behind us. Then we’ll be overtaken by a group, who will spend some time maneuvering around pokey me, until, having overcome the impediment, they zoom off, and there is peace again.

My first question is, Are the cars really bunched up, or do I merely perceive them to be? Perhaps the cars are randomly spaced, and it is my mind that groups them. Presumably this question could be answered with time-lapse aerial photography and some undergraduate statistics.

My second question is, If the cars are bunched up, why? Is the cause traffic lights? They gather cars up and then release them en masse, and maybe they leave a residual “groupiness” in traffic even miles down the road. Or is bunching a way to dodge speeding tickets? Maybe drivers feel that in a group they are less likely to be singled out by a state policeman.

Or is the cause some vestige of evolutionary programming within drivers? Maybe humans like to drive in groups, because they share a bit of mental code with birds that fly in V-formation and wolves that hunt in packs. In that case people may speed up or slow down until they are travelling in a configuration that feels right to them. And perhaps within that configuration they position themselves — in the high-testosterone avant-garde, in the safe middle, or straggling behind — in a way that corresponds to the social role they believe they inhabit.

Urban fruit snacks, 1851

Strawberries in the nineteenth century were “an almost indispensable luxury on the tables of all classes,” according to the New York Herald, and the spring of 1851 was an unusually good season. On 13 June, the newspaper estimated that at least a hundred thousand gallons had been sold in New York City’s four major markets—Centre, Washington, Fulton, and Catherine.

“Strawberry girls” and “cart hucksters” also sold the fruit throughout Manhattan. As the Herald explained, they

carry them round to the groceries, the saloons, the private houses, and every other place where a pint basket can be sold. These strawberry dealers can be met with at almost every corner with their baskets and covered carts; and many of those little girls, dressed in their simple calico frocks and calico sun bonnets, command a quick sale by their modest expressions of, “please to buy my strawberries.”

The fruit cost between four and seven cents per pint. Probably in response to the Herald‘s article, a Staten Island farmer sent to the newspaper samples of four strawberry varieties: British Queen, Turner’s Pine, Black Prince, and Judge Buel. “They were of delicious flavor,” the paper reported on 14 June 1851, “and several of them measured five inches in circumference.”

The trendy dog of 1850

In the classified ads of the mid-19th-century New York Herald, I’ve spotted terriers, poodles, and setters. But most often I see Newfoundlands. On 19 June 1851: “FOUND—YESTERDAY, A NEWFOUNDLAND DOG.—Apply at 10 Wall street, room 14, between 12 and 2.” (Evidently the dog was free to visit the office of the lawyer or broker who had found him.) On 18 May 1851: “THE MAMMOTH NEWFOUNDLAND ST. BERNARD Dog, 16 months old—For sale at 205 Water street.”

The New York Tribune critic Margaret Fuller had a Newfoundland. Her would-be lover James Nathan left her the puppy (and a symbolic white veil) when he went off to England with another woman-friend. “I have a fine Newfoundland dog, who is my companion on the rocks; he is as much to me as the willow,” Fuller wrote to a friend (Letters 4:132). To Nathan himself, she reported, “I take Josey out with me; he is very gay, but does not mind me well. I cannot get him into the water at all; last night I had to ask some boys to throw him in” (4:114).

While in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the New Yorker Herman Melville may also have owned a Newfoundland. According to Julian Hawthorne, the less than fully reliably son of the novelist Nathaniel, Melville had “a black Newfoundland dog, shaggy like himself, good natured and simple” (qtd. in Parker, Herman Melville 1:813).

Scalia paves the way for gay marriage in U.S.

In his dissent from today’s Supreme Court ruling, Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, which strikes down the sodomy laws of Texas and overturns Bowers v. Hardwick, Justice Scalia writes that the decision has much broader legal implications. Of course Scalia regrets everything about the decision, but according to him,

Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest” for purposes of proscribing that conduct; and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), “when sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring”; what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising “the liberty protected by the Constitution”? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry. This case “does not involve” the issue of homosexual marriage only if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this Court.

It’s nice to know that on the grounds of logic and principle, not to mention stare decisis, Scalia will be inclined to support gay marriage, should the issue reach the Supreme Court. I’m not quite sure, however, how I feel about the tonal quality of “coos,” as a word choice.


“Did you ever see a whale?” the New York Herald asked on 12 April 1851, in an editorial probably written by the newspaper’s editor, James Gordon Bennett. In Boston a week earlier, a black man named Thomas Sims had been seized as a fugitive slave, and the New York politicians John Van Buren and William H. Seward had written letters denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law, which were read aloud at a Boston protest meeting advocating Sims’ release. The letters were news, and as an editor, Bennett had to reprint them, but he thought that abolitionists like Van Buren and Seward were dooming the United States to civil war, and he couldn’t bring himself to reprint their letters without saying so. He chose a striking metaphor to convey his message:

Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling in the turbulent ocean? Did you ever see two very mighty whales, or other monster of the deep, in the terrible current of the boundless ocean, that was hurrying everything above and beneath it, onward and onward, in its tremendous career, to some final but awful catastrophe? In the midst of the current, in such a scene, you might see the skiffs, covered with canvass, endeavoring to stem the tide unavailingly; while, at the same time, the very monsters of the deep would be struggling against the current, to avoid, if possible, the awful fate which seemed to be impending over them, and over every living thing that, peradventure, got into this current, rolling on and rolling on, boisterous, furious, and boiling, to an awful but unknown eternity.

This sucking down of whales into a whirlpool, Bennett argued, was an emblem of “the present condition of this mighty republic.” As it happens, the judge who ruled that Sims had to return to his owner in the South was Lemuel Shaw, father-in-law of Herman Melville. According to biographer Hershel Parker, Melville was in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on the day that Bennett’s editorial was published. Melville’s novel Moby-Dick was mostly written—he would hire a typesetter just a few weeks later—but he hadn’t yet written the final chapters, in which the Pequod sinks into a whale-induced vortex, and “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Might the editorial have reached Melville, and might its imagery have lodged in his mind? I know that there are many essays about Moby-Dick and the Civil War, and I bet that someone has already quoted Bennett’s editorial in this context. But since this is just a blog, I’m going to post this item without checking the critical archive first. (Corrections happily accepted.)