It has been more than five years since Yoo-Mi and I have owned a car, and that time has been far more an exercise in freedom than of inconvenience. So, when we found ourselves without a vehicle last week, our reaction – disappointment, if not anxiety – was curious. It illustrates how car-depended even we seemingly car-liberated really are. We are socialized to develop a strong emotional bond with the automobile; and we never really lose it, hard as we may try.
I got my first car at age 17, a 1955 English Ford Anglia, gifted to me by my father. Give a five-year-old kid a blue crayon and tell them to draw a car, and they will draw that car. It had four tiny cylinders, three unsynchromeshed forward gears, and practically had to do “bicycle switchbacks” to get over Donner Summit. I loved that car with the special passion Americans can feel only for their first car. If the ancient Greeks had cars, they would have coined a word for this kind of love, to join eros, philos, and agape in their taxonomy of adoration.
Over the ensuing 25 years, I owned dozens of cars, never new. Generally, very not new. For more than 20 of those years, one of my cars was the lovely red 1967 Alfa Romeo Duetto, pictured above. But most of my rides were not so glamorous.
As a young associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm in the late 1980’s, I took to driving a well-rusted (ostensibly tan) 1972 VW Squareback I bought for $25. One of the firm’s partners took me aside and, in the avuncular manner of the obliviously patronizing, advised me that driving such a wreck could create a negative impression and politically damage my long-range prospects at the firm. I thanked him for the counsel and reminded him that his responsibility ended at authorizing my paychecks, not helping me spend them.
People (albeit a different kind of people) can also bond over shabby cars. When Yoo-Mi and I moved to San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980’s – back when it was still el barrio, more than a decade before it would gentrify to become Multi-Media Gulch — one of our first acts of neighborliness was to replace the engine of our $200 Subaru station wagon on the sidewalk in front of the old electrical contractor’s warehouse we called home. This immediately endeared us to the local toughs who, of course, worked on their cars on the sidewalks too.
That Subaru busted a fan belt several years later on the way home from a weekend of whitewater paddling. Luckily for us, the breakdown occurred in proximity to the shop of a mechanic named Bo. While installing the new belt, Bo commented that he’d wanted to buy an old Subaru wagon to cut off the top and make a convertible of sorts. I told him I’d sell him this one, but I needed a replacement. He mentioned that he was selling a 1970 Ford Courrier pick-up for $1,500. I made him a deal on the spot: I’ll trade him the Subara plus $1,000 for his pick-up. He handed me the keys and told me to I could find the truck parked in the back to inspect and test-drive. I said I had no interest in seeing or driving the truck; my only interest was in swapping with him. We went into what passed for Bo’s office to exchange “pink slips.” As Bo ran my credit card – “Quantity: 1, Item: truck, Cost: $1,000” – he gave me a cockeyed look and said, “I’d feel much better if you at least looked at the truck before doing this.” “I know,” I replied, “But it would ruin the story.” (And now I’ve actually had a chance to tell it!)
The best car I’ve ever owned (aside from the fabulous Duetto): the 1980 Toyota Landcrusier which, in the 250,000 miles I owned it (following the 160,000 miles the previous owner had put on it), delivered many a kayaker to many a far-flung river and provided more than 100 nights of peaceful, safe-from-the-elements sleep with it’s rear seat folded down.
The most humbling car I owned, albeit briefly: an old metalic green Ford Torino (with textured vinyl “Landau” roof!) gifted to me by one of my law firm colleagues on the condition that I get rid of the Squareback. It had been owned by her dearly departed grandmother, and neither she, nor her husband had the humility to drive this special bequest in public. “It is utter crap,” she told me, “which makes it a huge improvement over what you are currently driving.”
Every car has a story. Most have more than one. Mercifully, I will not tell them all.
Ultimately, Yoo-Mi and I came to realize that car ownership was, for us, an inessential waste of resources. (Not personal resources, mind you; we were quite affluent at the time.) We lived in a city with reasonable public transportation; I had used my bicycle as my commute vehicle and primary mode of intra-city transportation for almost 15 years; Yoo-Mi’s main ride was an old Yamaha scooter; and I still owned a motorcycle for nights-out and trips to Berkeley or the Silicon Valley. What’s more, all our friends and family members owned cars. If we needed a car, we could simply borrow one.
Around that time, City Car Share commenced operation in San Francisco. We joined, although we found we had little need for it over the years. On the rare occasions we required a car, there was generally one available from friends or family.
In fact, it was from the borrowed four-wheel comfort of my mother’s truck that our present carlessness arose. While crossing the border late Friday night, I was unceremoniously schooled in a subtlety of Canadian customs regulations: Canadian residents are not permitted to operate U.S.-plated vehicles in Canada. This is why the truck now sits in-wait across the border in Washington, while Yoo-Mi and I are in Vancouver, Shank’s mare once again.
We have a couple plane-loads of guests coming next week, over the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. We wondered how we would cope with a houseful of people and no wheels. How would we even arrange airport pick-ups? Doubt set in. While we live within the city of Vancouver, our neighborhood is on the outskirts, not terribly well served by public transportation.
Eventually, we came to our senses and the momentary anxiety vanished. We joined ZipCar, the recently imported car-share service, in case the need should arise; and we can always rent a car for a few days if the group wants to make any grand excursions. In the meanwhile, we ride our bikes to run our daily errands. The weather is a bit damp and chilly these days; but the distances are not great, and two-wheel travel definitely taps into the general spirit of Vancouver.
Fortunately the pleasures of being car-free can still compete with the intense seduction of driving.