Curse of the killer meals on wheels

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The Independent Online
Manhattan is up in arms over "killers on wheels". But the fuss is not about Mafia hitmen, drunken drivers, or even its notorious taxi drivers. The killers are cyclists. "Bicycles are a very big quality-of- life problem," says New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. City councillor Andrew Eristoff calls them "a matter of life and death". Both men say they receive more complaints about them than anything else.

This may seem hard on an environmentally friendly form of transport whose devotees rarely inflict any greater offences than smugness, Lycra shorts and hairy knees. But fast food has made Manhattan different. Two- wheeled take-away delivery men career down the pavements to avoid the traffic. The other day one, from the incongruously named Chirping Chicken restaurant, knocked down and killed a 68- year-old businessman - the second such death this year.

Cyclists protest that this is far fewer than the 256 New Yorkers - including 16 of their number - killed by cars each year. But this does not wash with the police, who have created a special unit of "mounties" - 10 cops astride mountain bikes - to control them. These have been handing out hundreds of tickets a day to "scofflaw" (it means scoffing at the law) riders.

One culprit, Diego Morales - who delivers four to five pizzas an hour - has had enough: "If I'm not fast, I lose customers. Now I must pay a ticket and make no money. I want to quit this job."

LIKE so much else, it all comes down to time. While in New York last week I sat on a UN advisory panel with perhaps the leading US expert on that fast diminishing commodity, Professor Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American (Basic Books). As Sometime Professor (yes, Sometime is in the title!) of Leisure Studies at Harvard, she holds that modern societies have traded time for money. Average working hours have fallen remarkably little since 1945, after plunging precipitously in the previous 70 years: in practice, for many people they have risen. The benefits of increasing production have been taken in cash rather than free time.

Much of this, she adds, is down to the consumer society. As social position depends more and more on visible consumption, people work longer to earn extra to buy more, at the expense of recreation, time with the family, and savings. And the trend is accelerating. Between 1986 and 1994 the level of income to which Americans aspired doubled.

Now there are signs of a backlash. One-third of all US workers say they are overstressed, with too rapid a pace of life, and a similar proportion say they would prefer a smaller income with more free time.

Mind you, anyone considering quitting the rat race to watch the trees grow might be wise to think again. For there seem to be few competitions more cut-throat than the annual race to provide the White House Christmas Tree, which was decided last week.

Growers from all over the US converge on Kansas City for the final decision on who will provide the 18.5ft monster cut to grace the Blue Room.

Each competitor brings a sample tree to the judging, and each has his or her own way of nursing it on the long journey. This year's winner, Debbie Fishel, brought hers the 900 miles from North Carolina in a refrigerated truck. Losers Ed and Cindy Hedlund put theirs in a home-made polythene box which they connected to a van's air-conditioning system with a hose; they sweltered on the 1,500-mile trip from Washington State, but the tree stayed cool and, as Ed says, "we could pet it all the way". One year, a Californian couple hauled their tree into the bath of their hotel room each night.

Al Gore used to insist on having his tree roots and all, so he could plant it out afterwards - but it always died. So now he is having a cut one too, after being told that they are grown and harvested just like corn. "Being a preservationist, Gore never wanted to cut a tree," says Marshall Stacy of Maryland, who is providing the Vice-President with a 12ft Douglas fir this year. "It was a struggle, but we finally convinced him that Christmas trees are like cornflakes."