Automotive affairs

My affair with the car-free lifestyle came to an abrupt end last month. I cared passionately for it, but my patience thinned over the years as I dated people, made new friends, and got busy with volunteer work—all of which were inhibited by my lack of vehicular mobility. Even running simple errands required planning and scheduling a thick cushion of time for transportation. However, because I’m a tolerant person who doesn’t mind living at a slower pace, I had tentatively planned to stay car-free until I had children (a possibility that’s still a long way from happening).

In the meantime, I started relying on Zipcar more and more to support my three “kids”: two cats that need to be taken to the vet, and a seven-year-old mentee who needs to be picked and dropped off several times a month. I discovered that a personal schedule becomes harder to maintain when you have kids. Zipcars seem less handy when you can barely manage to return them on time. Buses are extremely unattractive when you have two cat carriers, or when you’d have to take a 30-minute ride to your mentee’s house for the purpose of getting her away from her neighborhood for a while.

Still, I’d never thought seriously about getting a car until early November. When the thoughts started, they quickly ran their course and told me definitively, confidently, that it was time to start car-shopping. And I did shop … at one dealership, for one car. That was the car I test-drove and took home on the same day. It’s used, it’s compact, it’s efficient, and it’s what I’ve always wanted: a VW Jetta. As far as I remember, the only time I longed for a different kind of car was in the third grade, when I wanted a Porsche because my Barbie had one.

My Jetta is great. During the first week or two, I couldn’t believe how odd it felt to be at work a mere 20 minutes after leaving my apartment in the morning. The convenience was a shock to my system; it was also a source of some guilt, as I had spent more than two-and-a-half years feeling righteous for not being part of any congested commute (disregarding the fact that behemoth buses stop every two blocks, idling and letting regular traffic build behind them). But until the weather turns and I start cycling to work again, it’s hard to imagine willfully tripling my commute time for the sake of letting my car rest for a day. Frankly, I love driving to work.

I wonder, though, how my relationship with Portland is going to change. The city and I have become close friends mainly because I’ve explored it up-close and un-caged. I’ve been able to ignore the scant availability of parking in crowded neighborhoods, admiring their walkability instead. I’ve been able to ignore some of the transportation network’s uglier sides, like the evening traffic jam approaching the Ross Island Bridge, and residential streets that are so narrow they might as well be labeled One Way. These are all superficialities to which I’ll have to adjust, but that won’t ultimately affect my feelings about the city, even as I gripe about them while sitting behind the wheel.

My concern is that Portland will, irreversibly, become less special to me. Already I’ve used my car to visit every part of town that I formerly reached by bus: sometimes multiple neighborhoods in one day or even in one night, which was recently unthinkable. This is no cause for complaint, but it represents a big departure from the way I’d been living. Rather than seeing my favorite destinations as rare gems, I’ve begun to think of them as a constantly available, and absurdly broad, array of choices. When too many options exist, the distinctions between them become meaningless. I’m certain that one day soon I’ll find myself sitting at home discontentedly, thinking, “Well, I could drive to this place or that place, or drive to the other place for a milkshake, or just go to Target and shop for things I don’t need.” For a person who struggles with depression, having a car facilitates some bad habits.

Luckily, I already have a remedy in mind. When that first day of discontented paralysis arrives, I’m going to bundle up, put on my walking shoes, and stroll to any coffee shop that’s at least a mile away from my apartment. A body never feels so healthy as when it leaves the car to get some exercise, and a latte never tastes so good as when it’s been earned.

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