Note: This is a draft I was working on before having a car in America meant things like getting a drive-thru virus test or lining up in a car for the local food bank (or living in your car with all your former co-workers). While I considered abandoning this piece for the time being, it occurs to me that we could all use a dose of normal weirdness right now, so I’m dishing it up as usual.
There are plenty of city people who never drive a car. I am not one of them, or at least, I wasn’t until a couple of months ago. Now I am car free for the first time since I was seventeen years old and it’s been a peculiar transition.
I dearly loved driving, and I guess I still do. Very few experiences provide the same thrill as driving unimpeded with the radio blaring. I remember the first time I ever did that, realizing that no one knew or cared where I was. Stomping on the exhilarator in celebration, I sped up until the car started to shake in the way only an antique car can.
It’s dangerous and wasteful and I used to worry about the idea that its danger and wastefulness was exactly what made it so much fun. People are so strange, aren’t we?
Without a vehicle, you have to form strategies about the weather and daylight. Not long ago, I bolted from a nice coffeehouse chat when I realized the sun was setting and I couldn’t get home before dark if I didn’t bolt. Sure, I carry pepper spray all the time now, but pepper spray doesn’t help at all when you don’t see the borked up sidewalks.
There are a lot of borked up sidewalks. The county sidewalk expert told me that they do not actually build or maintain most of the sidewalks in the county. Sure, they do it for schools, and prisons, and other handsome county buildings, but most of the sidewalks “belong” to the property they border. That’s why you can be clomping along on the sidewalk and suddenly, in the middle of a block–nope–no more sidewalk for you.
Most of the apartments here have sidewalks, but some of the communities are pretty old. I can imagine some dude in the 1960s drawing up the plans and thinking, Sidewalks? Cars and hover craft will make them ridiculous before we’re done here. That dude was wrong about that among so many other things.
The county really tried to make some of the cross walks safe, but unless a pedestrian is both wearing very bright colors and watching and listening with squirrel-like intensity, it is not very safe to cross the streets here. Cars that are turning right on red are not interested in looking for folks on foot. They have places to be and at least one of those places is where you are.
When you are walking everywhere, this is a great topic of conversation with the other pedestrians you meet. Puddles and peril are always worth a bit of commiseration. If you weren’t walking, you might never have the opportunity to chat with your other neighbors who are car-free and possibly home-free.
The younger walkers are more difficult to converse with, because they don’t look up at anyone. The trend of avoiding eye-contact with strangers has intensified in my lifetime. These college kids are experts. One day, one of them will look up and I’ll just hand her a pair of sunglasses without a word. They are also eye shields for shy people, after all.
When you walk everywhere, you only shop for the things you really need, and that you can carry. You need to really think things over. Are you willing to call a cab for that concrete bird bath? I know it looks like that wrestlemania person, but seriously? Without serious muscle, the commitment to transporting it is an actual decision now.
You also have to think about your equipment and comfort in a new way. If it’s suddenly raining and you don’t chose the correct coat, you’ll get wet and cold. You could walk to a yoga class but then you have to walk home sweaty, carrying your mat. Also the studios don’t safeguard your stuff, and recommend you leave valuables in the car you don’t have. It’s a yogi’s dilemma to be sure.
I could bike, but since I’m uncertain of navigating on foot, it seems like a leap of stakes. On a bike everything would happen at least twice as fast. Drivers don’t see bikes any more than they see the plump lady in the neon yellow coat. For now, I just mull over how much of a spectacle I actually want to make of myself. Hazard lights are not ruled out.
Renting cars is always an option, but you can’t load an eighty-pound dog in a Zipcar without breaking the rules, so that eliminates 50% of my remaining reasons for needing a car. Also, I learned you cannot return a Zipcar late without paying a hefty fine. I figured it would be like daycare, maybe a buck a minute, but no it was like fifty bucks for the first minute. They promised a refund of my fine when I phoned in a confession of being a dumbass, so that was nice.
Without a car, you find out how many people are willing to come and pick you up or drive you home from other places. I was pleasantly surprised how many kind volunteer chauffeurs I didn’t know I knew.
People assume you want a ride or have a ride. People assume you want a car, whether you do or not. I’m beginning to realize that I don’t want one. I have loved me some cars, but the idea that they represent some kind of freedom seems exactly backwards now.
I am deeply enjoying giving no thought to gas, repairs, parking, insurance, bird poop, car washing, road conditions, keys, and car alarms–none of it. As long as I live and work where everything I need is within walking distance, this seems difficult and also very much worth doing.
The dog misses jaunts to the big park, but honestly, we didn’t do that very often anyway. He lunges at other dogs in ways that are apparently very rude in dog language. He and I can just be rude locally from now on.
Walk on, kids!!
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