Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My (carfree mom's) Love Affair with the Automobile

Today I'm an Active Transportation Activist.  But that wasn't always the case. I loved my Matchbox car collection, visited car museums, enjoyed high speed car chases on TV, toured a car factory or two, and dreamed of driving a fancy car one day.

young me coveting some stranger's Rolls
Reflecting back almost two years after our breakup, I can date my early attachment to the car back to my potty training days.  The tiny bottomless chair would fit amid luggage in the trunk of the ’68 Olds on roadtrips from our Connecticut home to destinations south and west in preparation for emergency stops along the highway (where the roar of vehicles was thunderous enough to scare the crap out of any toddler.)  Shorter journeys north sometimes involved a family convoy of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to Vermont and New Hampshire for fall foliage, maple syrup, hand crafted cheese, and hiking boots.  My personal childhood favorite route ended at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where, wearing the pioneer dress sewn by my grandmother, I journeyed back to a simpler time without modern conveniences such as automobiles.  Needless to say, we wouldn’t have made the 100 mile journey as often without one.

me at the print shop                   the blacksmith's                and the meeting hall
In the fond fogginess of childhood memories I can recall the wide expanse of the back seat, the blackness of the interior, the smell of the heater, the warm vibration of the driveshaft hump in the middle of the floor, and the sticky feel of the vinyl seat against the back of my legs in summer.  As an only child, I was ruler of the back seat.  Without as much public awareness about seatbelts or booster seats in the 1970’s, I could lie across the seat for a nap, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic clickety clack of the highway and the static drone of AM talk radio, only occasionally rolling to the floor upon stopping short.  Or I could find mischievous entertainment kneeling on the seat and alternatively waving or sticking my tongue out at the driver behind.  Sometimes I would keep a list of the different state license plates of our fellow highway travelers.  Since Oregon plate sightings were a rarity, I concluded that the state must but a great place to live since Oregonians didn’t bother traveling to east coast vacation destinations.

not my childhood crush, but a close likeness (click for Oldsmobile's 1968 "Youngmobile" ads)
There were other special adventures that helped me form a close childhood bond with the sky-blue sedan whose dent in the right rear fender (from backing into a tree) I would trace with my finger and whose smiley face scratched into the driver’s side window reflected the artistic genius of my toddlerhood.  Once, out of curiosity, I opened the back door while the car was moving, and was scared out of my wits by the power of the air pushing back against the door.   Another time I thought it would be amusing to play peek-a-boo with the driver (my father) by covering his eyes with the removable lid from the Styrofoam ice chest.  I remember climbing in and out of the crank rolled windows yodeling “yeeeeeehaaaaaw” like Bo and Luke on the Dukes of Hazzard while the car sat in the driveway.  One evening I sneaked out of the house during a driving rainstorm to use the windshield and hood as a high speed (albeit short) waterslide.  When the time came in the 5th grade to trade up to a more practical Datsun station wagon, I was sad to say goodbye.

What in taaaaarnation was I thinkin'? (click to be entertained)
By adolescence, the automobile was transforming from an icon of happy family memories to my sought after means of escape.  In (boarding) high school I didn’t even have a drivers’ license let alone a vehicle, but easily found off-campus misadventures with peers who lived within commuting distance.  My first driving experience occurred shortly before my 16th birthday in a friend’s father’s midlife crisis (red Corvette convertible) with a light tap on the accelerator nearly taking us through a neighbor’s stone wall, which would have been devastating for my babysitting career at the time.  Identifying friends with driving privileges became a top priority for summer vacations at home, where teenage life with the ’rents was feeling ever more oppressive and unbearable.  I didn’t much care about the destination or the driver’s safety record as long as I could get away from home.  I longed for fall, college, freedom, and roadtrips.

again, not the same car, but a good proximity
Truckin! (click for music)
Before leaving for the institution of higher learning, I earned my driver’s license but not the means to pay for a vehicle or insurance.  As an avid user of the Student Union’s rideshare board, however, I could be a virtual hitchhiker from West Philadelphia to almost anywhere I couldn’t reach by foot, mass transit, or Greyhound.   When my roommate wrangled possession of a mechanically functional clunker from her parents to keep near campus, life was good, bringing downtown restaurants and out of town Grateful Dead shows within easy reach.  The fun lasted until the car was stolen off the street, a situation that took the roommate some explaining to her parents, since she had redirected the allowance they gave her for secure garage parking to the college party fund.  With the mastery she exhibited manipulating the truth of that incident, it’s no wonder she became a successful attorney including a stint as Assistant D.A. in Manhattan.

Jaws of Life
On July 14, 1990, I found myself at life’s crossroads on the side of a Rhode Island highway, being extricated from a mangled car by the Jaws of Life.  Actually, I “found myself” about a week later in recovery following a memory-devoid stay in the ICU with only brief intervals of consciousness.  The driver, a “friend” who later admitted he was driving under the influence of prescription drugs (unbeknownst to me), had lost control of the vehicle on Interstate 95 and smashed into an abandoned, hippie sticker covered VW bus in the breakdown lane.  The unwitting Flower Power mobile had contributed to a violent event, pinning me inside with a pneumothorax, broken ribs, lacerated liver, and bilateral concussion that kept me hospitalized for two weeks.  At the time, I didn’t denounce the cars or the driver because I was too busy figuring out how to get back to Philadelphia without a ride and how to pay tuition now that my summer wages had hit the brakes too.

a different VW bus, artful and peaceful outside the library
Long story short, I took a leave of absence from school and moved in with a friend whose parents provided plenty of rent, food, and spending money (in addition to a vehicle) to cover living expenses for two while I got back on my feet.  Nearly dead in the passenger’s seat in July, by August, with just a few scars for evidence, I was in the driver’s seat of a full-size Ford Bronco, learning how to maneuver the massive vehicle through narrow streets, receiving instruction on highway intimidation of smaller vehicles, and reviewing the four-wheel -drive instructions before winter.  Because of the parking hassle, I usually chose walking for downtown destinations and the city bus for uphill trips to Cornell campus (where I transferred in ’91).  Even so, my allegiance to the automobile was stronger than ever, with the big bad black Bronco making me feel far more powerful than my diminutive 5’4” frame, a hero to fellow students struggling through deep snow, and a rock-star to families I worked with in rural areas.

don't miss the ice scraping
After graduation, my car dependence increased.  I commuted from New Haven, CT, to NYC for grad school because fueling the drive was less expensive than paying rent in the City or taking the train.  Even if I had used mass transit to get to class, a vehicle was required for the social work field placement that soon after became my full-time job.  I quickly racked up the miles driving to clients’ homes (families referred by Child Protective Services for Intensive Family Preservation Services), also providing them with transportation as necessary.  My ride, a white VW Jetta with a sunroof and the first vehicle under my own name and credit, was my noble steed, carrying me on a mission to stop child abuse and neglect, my partner in crime-fighting. 

Jetta & me pregnant with #1*
Or so it was until a 3/10/95 car accident brought me to yet another of life’s crossroads.  In the second accident as in the first, I was a victim.  The double rear-ending during rush hour seemed mild in comparison, but the impact left me with post-concussive syndrome (compounding the 1990 TBI) and a worker’s compensation case that didn’t settle until 2001.  In the meantime, I completed a second master’s degree, co-founded Resources for Health with Moses and assistance from Yale Law, and gave birth to four of our five children, bringing us to a mini-van dependent lifestyle.  By this time we had moved from CT to AZ, and other than some local walks with the stroller, could conceive of no other way to travel with little ones in the scorching desert heat than with full air conditioning.  When Moses hurt his back and knee in 2003, we certainly didn’t see any other options.  With his physical mobility severely limited for the next 7+ years, carfree was not in our vocabulary or thinking.  If not previously, we were officially car dependent then.  The minivan – a.k.a. the rolling shitbox – was a necessity.  
ok, sometimes it was a rolling citrus box donating 300 pounds of gleaned fruit in Phoenix
If you're still reading and interested, please stay tuned for the next episode to find out how our Carfree Family migrated from handicapped parking space to bike rack!  Like us and stay in touch on Facebook, too.

* at 2271 Ridge Road in North Haven, former home of Ruth Emerson and "Tommie the Commie," in whose class Hillary and Bill met