In my 18 years in New York City, I relied on the subway every single day of my life just like everyone else. First, it was the G to the L. Then, the G to the 7 or maybe the G to the E. Then, there was the L to the N, the G to the F, the L to the 2 (and that horrible tunnel between them), and finally the 4. Just the 4. Live and work long enough in NYC, and you’ll earn the privilege of a single-train commute.
For years, I traipsed through wind and snow, uphill both ways to the subway — not an old saying in this case, but likely actually true based on NYC Sanitation’s snow removal efforts. I walked in sub-zero temps and felt my eyeballs start to freeze. I plodded through swampy humidity with sweat rolling down my back. I darted around bewildered tourists at the top of the subway stairs. I always got on the train at the exact door that would match my preferred exit at my destination. And I stood on platforms. So many platforms — for so much time — each and every one of them cursed with either hideous odor or the heat of a thousand suns (or sometimes both.)Drive your whole life, and you jump in the car and go without a second thought. Skip 18 years, and you’re acutely aware that cars are death traps.
I’ve seen some shit, too. Chain snatching. A pistol-whipping. A solid right hook to some poor guy’s jaw that knocked him out cold. Mariachi bands. Hip-hop dancers. The battery guy (“Business man. Business man. Duracell. Triple A, double A. Business man…”). Actor Patrick Stewart bringing a finger to his lips so I wouldn’t blow his cover. Boom boxes. Girl fights involving forcible weave removal. Free-form mental illness. A cranky, diminutive Asian man playing “Danny Boy” on an electric saxophone. Panhandlers. A sofa. A million and one manspreaders. Clowns — plural. Don’t worry, kids, none of this is there anymore. Now it’s just a bunch of well-to-do folks and their iPads. Plus this guy who is gonna miss those Beats something fierce.
Much as the daily drama kept me on my toes, in 2012 my number came up — time to get out of New York City. My destination was the verdant Seattle in the upper left hand corner of these United States. I had six weeks to pack and move, and it wasn’t until more than halfway through that process that I turned to my husband and said, “Wait, are we going to have to get a car?” A car! Of all things! In New York, your driver’s license is just an ID. You can rent a car, but it’s an arm and a leg. Then there’s the car-sharing company Zipcar. That helped some. But New Yorkers live without vehicles, barring desperate cab rides when their shoes are killing them. They drag those huge Trader Joe’s purchases home by foot. In fact, climbing tons of stairs with heavy things is step one in the path to becoming a hardened city denizen.
We landed in the Emerald City late one night in early July with nothing but two suitcases and our cats, our belongings on a truck somewhere in between the east and west coasts. In the light of the following morning, after downloading the city’s One Bus Away public transportation app, we learned an uncomfortable truth about public transportation in most American cities: It may be one bus away, but holy shit it is far away. The buses came every half hour and never followed the published schedule. The routes simply wouldn’t get us where we needed to go. My new office was no more than three miles from my house and it required a transfer, for Pete’s sake. Our hand was forced. We’d been in Seattle 12 hours, and we needed to buy a car.
We were as ready as we were going to get. Our research was simply saying to each other, “We should get a Prius. Why would anyone buy a car that’s not a hybrid? Prius is the only way to go.” And with those fatal final words, we went to the Toyota dealership. I can’t emphasize enough how much this transaction was like The Gods Must Be Crazy. We had no idea how to buy a car. You can just walk in and get one? That day? Do we take a ticket and wait? Do I wave my debit card around? Why are there cars inside? They’ll let us try driving one? On faith? Then what?
In the end, buying a Prius in Seattle is as close to taking a number at a deli as it can be. In their location a few blocks from the Amazon campus, they’re essentially taking orders and passing out keys. We got a salesperson and performed a small amount of “negotiation” (mostly based on what we’ve seen on TV and in movies.) They ran our credit. Then we signed lots of papers – no idea what all of them were about, but we signed ‘em. And then they just gave us a car! No kiddin’! We just drove away!
The following weeks were full of more rudimentary realizations. The day after we bought our car, I realized that we didn’t have to return it to the rental car place. We could just keep it indefinitely! We could go anywhere at any time! By the same token, I could not get my head around the idea that you drive this expensive thing to work and then it just sits in the garage all day. How weird — such a waste.
Not to mention that after only rarely driving for two decades, the feeling of driving, especially on the freeway, was nerve-racking. Drive your whole life, and you jump in the car and go without a second thought. Skip 18 years, and you’re acutely aware that cars are death traps. Driving a few miles to work felt like a minefield of potential catastrophe. Left turns without a dedicated turn signal? Oh man. And don’t even mention the freeway. I still avoid the freeway. If I’m forced to use it, I stay at the speed limit, white-knuckling the steering wheel while cars race past me.
I’ll admit, though, that I was a spoiled American in no time. I’d hop in the car and hook up my phone via Bluetooth. I could play my music or listen to podcasts or take conference calls on the way into the office. I was quickly adept at finding shortcuts to avoid traffic and parallel parking like a boss. The Prius is a great car in many ways. We only put gas in the thing every six weeks, which is a miracle by modern car standards.
And yet…three years in, I started to find fault. My true transition to American-ism was underway. We drove to Portland and were aggravated by how noisy the inside of the car was. We went to Vancouver and got out of the car half crippled from being in the uncomfortable seats so long. The car had minimal pickup when I was trying to avoid other drivers or potential accidents. It had a blind spot a mile long. Enough of this mental picking and, before I knew it, I wanted to switch cars. Three years of vehicular convenience only drove me to covet vehicular luxury.
So, I got a BMW. Murdered out in black on black. In three short years, I went from standing on the Hades-hot 4/5 platform at Borough Hall to picking out features like automated navigation, heated seats, more expansive Bluetooth controls, windshield wipers that sense when the windshield is wet and turn on automatically at the right pace, keyless entry, blind spot detection, a rear view camera for easier parallel parking, sheer horsepower and, of course, a sunroof. And that’s the short list.
Driving it is like being in a TV commercial, taking sloping turns at 40 miles an hour and feeling the car expertly adjust its weight on its four-wheel drive. I can hit the freeway ramp and go 0 to 60 in six seconds. The Bang & Olufson speaker system is killer. I slide in, and the seat and steering wheel fit around me like a glove. I can navigate my iPhone from the console. I’m currently enjoying driving it in “Sport” mode. And those heated/ventilated seats – magic.
The transformation is now complete. I’m a driver. And it’s pretty great.