Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rocking the Suburbs

Long ago in a lifetime far far away I owned a car. It was a cute used 97 black Jetta that I did not name because I am not the car naming type. I did, however, place a small sticker on the rear window proclaiming, “I am a fucking genius” because I am the arrogant geek type; also the tempting fate type who worried from time to time about the irony of someone spotting that sticker among the mangled wreckage of my cute car and (slightly less cute) blood soaked body. Luckily, I avoided that chagrined fate, but just barely. As everyone knows, cars are killing machines. But when you’re living in the Silicon Valley they are a necessary evil without which one could not attend concerts with the cool kids in San Francisco or, you know, get to work. All the same I mostly hated my car.

The worst part about owning a car is the constant fear that it will break down and cost at least $700 to fix (at the time $700 was basically all of the money I could muster if I sold my computer equipment and every single pair of shoes in my closet). The Jetta was theoretically reliable and really didn’t break down hardly at all but you wouldn’t know that from the status of the check engine light. That little bitch was blaring orange and angry for at least 50% of the time that I owned the car. It would snap on at the first sign of reduced tire pressure, the second you were due for an oil change or any time the car got a little chilly. It goes without saying (though I didn’t realize this until months after purchasing the vehicle) that the Jetta is a product made exclusively for bitchy high maintenance sorority girls and it seems the car itself was programmed to adopt the personality of its target customer. I think once or twice the check engine light came on specifically to request that I pour a little Smirnoff Ice on the engine block.

(A brief aside. Expert advice from my genius mechanic brother whose phone would ring every time I saw a flicker of orange on my dash: “For year and years people went without a check engine light and everything was mostly fine. If you don’t hear a noise or have problems driving stop calling me. Its fine.”)

The second worst thing about owning a car is having to park the beast. I suppose this is mostly a non-issue in the country and suburbs but in the San Francisco Bay Area it is a nightmare. You drive around and around the same blocks only to eventually find a spot and then spend 30-40 minutes cursing yourself for proving the “women can’t parallel park” theory thus personally setting back feminism about 75 years. Then, you get out of the car and walk up and down the street 4 times reading every little bit of signage looking for any indication that this is actually a legal spot which is near impossible to believe because certainly if it were legal someone would have parked here already. The rest of the evening is divided equally between the following thoughts, “Gee I wonder if my car has been towed yet,” and “Golly, I imagine my stereo has certainly been stolen by now.”

When I decided to move to New York City I shed a tear as I waved goodbye to uncrowded beaches and fresh produce in February and friends and family but was practically gleeful as I bid bon voyage to the world of cars. I greeted the subway with a grin and have been happily riding all over creation for a mere $2.25 ever since. People in NY complain endlessly about the subway (“not enough trains at 2am.” “crazy expectation that I ride a shuttle bus instead of a train.” “$2.25! That’s insane! I could buy half a bagel for that!” ) but this is mostly because complaining is fun and because, frankly, New Yorkers have no idea how good they have it. I would consider the subway a crazy gift from god even at $5 a ride (but don’t tell that to the MTA).

My one fear about going carless was lost car trip opportunities but I figured that with the amount of money I’d save by not paying for a car or insurance or repairs or parking tickets I could certainly afford to rent a car to drive out of the city from time to time but obviously this rarely ever actually happens. I’m just too cheap. Could I afford the occasional weekend car rental? Sure. But do I really need to spend that money? Couldn’t I just have Fresh Direct deliver my case of $7 wine and vat of nonfat greek yogurt and spend the weekend making Pinot Noir smoothies instead of breathing in the great outdoors? After all, that plan is cheaper AND I don’t have to worry about convincing my boyfriend, Geoff, to be my designated driver. So I mostly stay carless but on the happy occasion when a Chevy Aveo or some other subpar approximation of an automobile should happen upon my curb it is blissful in ways that non New Yorkers should rightfully giggle over.

Just a few weeks ago Geoff was suddenly in possession of a company car for 12 whole hours. He immediately contacted me with the happy news that we could go to Target (!!) or Ikea (!!!) or EVEN a real fucking grocery store (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Glee. Visions of 5 foot wide aisles and bins full to the brim with bulk oatmeal danced in my head. We hightailed it to Fairway which is about 2 miles from our house but somehow also about 8000 miles from a subway station. We bought lots of heavy things that we possibly did not need because we had A CAR, so why not?

Even here in Gotham a car is freedom. You can go anywhere, carry anything. At the jangle of keys my mind reels with the possibility of adventure; and yet the only adventure I come up with is a trip to Target. This is obviously a sort of sad commentary on my own imagination. I blame a childhood of unfulfilled dreams of hanging out at the mall just like every other kid in America.

I grew up in one of the smallest places one can live and moved to the largest and somehow the one place where Bishop California and New York City intersect is in the lack of access to big box stores. As a guilty liberal I of course enjoy snobbishly sauntering down Park Slope’s 5th Avenue (dodging baby carriages all the way) to do my shopping in a myriad of tiny independently owned stores but there is still some magic to the idea of buying milk and goulashes and potting soil all under one roof. The bounty of it all is undeniably appealing even if it’s carbon footprint and forced march towards homogeny should make me turn up my nose. (That last sentence is the pinnacle of hoity-toity blogging, I should quit right now either in embarrassment or because I will never be able to top this moment.).

The suburbs have been maligned to a point where by now we all know that we’re supposed to hate them. And I do! Mostly! I hate getting stuck on the median of some crappy frontage road somewhere between the Hampton Inn that my company stuck me at and the shopping center where my only access to dinner lives simply because suburban road planners never seem to considered the possibility that I would want to walk between two establishments located within 500 feet of one another. I hate that my eventual dinner will certainly be smothered in cheese-food and available unchanged from Mobile Alabama to Enfield Connecticut to Farmers Branch Texas. I hate the repetitive “Home Depot, Walmart, Panera Bread, Best Buy, Home Depot, Walmart....” pattern of the freeway off ramps from town to town to town. But oh, secretly, I love the excess. What can I say? Deep down beyond the part of me that’s a small town daughter of hippies and way past the part that’s a New Yorker, down there, I am still an American. Bring on the super sized vat of butter substitute.

Strangely enough for all my excitement over pushing a gigantic cart through a gigantic store full of so much stuff I often come out almost empty handed. I am forever standing outside of Costco with only three items (toilet paper, black beans and dry pasta) in my rented trunk because really, how could I ever eat my way through a dozen boxes of Mac and Cheese? And in the mean time where would I store them? And even standing in front of a shelf full of low prices I’m still often too cheap to make many purchases, it’s like I stand there thinking, “Oh sure, $5 is probably a good deal for a headband with a huge silk flower glued to it but think how great it would be if headbands were FREE!” And then I go home.

The big box stores, for all of their excess, never seem to stock what I’m looking for. And so at the end of every visit there is a panic moment when I wonder if there is something I missed, something I need, because who knows when I’ll have a car again. So I muse about if I need towels, after all, they’re a fabulous deal, and towels don’t go bad, perhaps I should have a few in reserve? Not to get too melancholy here but one has to wonder what exactly I’m shopping for. If not headbands or towels or Mac and Cheese then must I assume that I’m living the big American cliche -- forever looking to fill a hole unfillable by wheels of cheese or 12 packs of socks?

The truth about the subway is that it goes almost everywhere. Almost. And almost is really everywhere you need to go. It goes to all of the cool concert venues and to offices and playgrounds and beaches and farmers markets and to my house. But every time I reach the end of the line and stare off into the distance or sneak a look at Google Maps and realize just how small my little New York City world is the American in me, car hater or not, yearns for the open road. The truth about the open road, these days at least, is that it mostly goes to places you don’t need at all.