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Notes From A Polite New Yorker: The Call of the American Road

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Sure, one can ride the rails and see a good bit of America that way, but a car gives you the power of self determination and destiny that Americans habitually crave.

After nearly 15 years of living without a car, it came time to join most of America in owning an automobile again. I faced the prospect of being a car owner with excitement and apprehension. My past experiences as a car owner were all bad.  

The last vehicle I owned was a 1977 Plymouth Voyager van that I gladly gave away to a charity before driving a U-Haul back to New York. My van was a big, 15-passenger van that was puke-mustard yellow with a beige white stripe. If you looked at the van at the right angle, you could faintly decipher the old lettering on the side from a church that had owned it. I bought it from a redneck in the back woods of rural North Georgia who was shirtless and drinking beer at two o'clock in the afternoon.

It was so large that it was often mistaken for the large taxi vans that were popular in Athens, Georgia at the time. I remember driving down Broad Street at night after the bars closed and crowds of drunken college students trying to hail me. It was embarrassing. 

I was not born into the standard American car culture, growing up mostly in a city. When I first moved to the suburbs, I found it strange that there were no sidewalks. Sidewalks came with civilization, just like paved roads and running water. But car culture rules the suburbs, and I adjusted quickly. I got myself a car at the first opportunity. I was a teenager and there is nothing lamer for a teenager than to be dependent on their parents for a ride (although it remains perfectly acceptable to rely on parents for food, clothing, education, life itself). 

My first car was a 1987 Plymouth Horizon. It broke down a lot. A minor accident had damaged the front end and one of the headlights wobbled, making my car look like it had a lazy eye at night. It eventually was destroyed when the engine caught fire.

When I moved back to New York, I relished the idea of being free from the obligations and troubles of owning an automobile. No more calling tow trucks, no more sitting in traffic or wondering nervously about strange sounds coming from the engine. After years of endless automotive headaches, I yearned to be part of the cosmopolitan class that was free from the shackles that were auto ownership. And I could get as drunk as I wanted to because someone else was always driving me home. 

But things change and now I find myself living in Queens  with a woman who has not only been accustomed to owning a car while living in New York City, she also has a space in our building's parking lot that she waited five years for and intends to keep. It was time for us to have our own. The last of my family left the city several years ago, and asking people to pick you up from the train station gets old when you're pushing 40. 

I also found myself wanting more of the unbounded freedom that comes with an automobile. One time, on a business trip, I picked up a shitty rental car from the airport in Palm Springs, Calif. and set out to find my even shittier motel. Despite the circumstances, it felt great to be behind the wheel of a car again after so much time away. The rap song 'California Love' came on the radio and I felt like I was the coolest pimp in the universe.

America, a large and vast country, is filled with the spirit of travel and adventure that we can tap most easily via the automobile. Sure, one can ride the rails and see a good bit of America that way, but a car gives you the power of self determination and destiny that Americans habitually crave. The auto took the place of the pioneer's wagon as a vehicle of continental exploration and conquest. 

It's true we've become a nation of sloths who would drive ourselves to the bathroom if we could, but it's also true that this freedom of movement made possible by cars became part of our national character long before our disabling gluttony. For better or worse, the car is part of the American way of life. 

The car fits right in with the American spirit of individuality and self reliance. Every time you need to use public transportation, you're rolling the dice on a thousand variables. People get sick on the bus, busses get stuck in traffic, people get hit by trains, signal malfunctions stop trains between stations. Taking public transportation puts a terrible amount of trust in the general public to help you get to work on time. Your best advantage is that most of the other people around you are on the same quest. If you're someone who must work nights and weekends, you're screwed. 

Admittedly, in large cities, public transportation makes sense. I will gladly endure the hell of New York's subway rush hour to avoid the hell of parking in Manhattan. I'll let a million homeless people sneeze on me before I risk getting a car towed and having to pay hundreds of dollars in tickets and fees. But the Byzantine parking laws of New York are not representative of the U.S. as a whole. And, as much as I love New York, I must admit that one needs to frequently leave New York City in order to maintain one's sanity. 

See you on the road. 

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