Sunday, March 11, 2012

Car Free in DC

DC is not New York. I like it that way. New York is a great place to visit. It's a lot of fun. But I find it overwhelming. The buildings are too tall. There are too many people. After a couple of days, it becomes too much.

DC is small. The height restrictions (which have nothing to do with the height of the Capitol, by the way) keep buildings shorter. There are a lot of people, but the sidewalks aren't ridiculously crowded. Things are closer together.

But one place New York has us beat is mass transit. It's convenient — even easy — to live car-free in New York. In DC, it's doable but more difficult. Metro, for all of its shortcomings, is a pretty decent subway system, and mastering the buses isn't too bad. But there are places even in the city that are really inconvenient to get to without a car. And the suburbs? Forget it. (Obviously, this isn't universally true, but there are wide swaths of the 'burbs that are incredibly difficult to get to by mass transit.)

I've been carless for a week. Not so long in the grand scheme of things, but enough to change my routines and habits considerably. I've been getting up earlier to catch the Metro to work. I've been walking to the grocery store and therefore buying a lot less at a time. And going anywhere outside the Beltway is pretty much off limits.

In a lot of ways, I like it. It's better in terms of willpower as far as shopping. I haven't had fast food in a week, because I can't run through the drive-thru on the way to or from work. I have to be more purposeful in my outings and plan ahead more, which is always a plus for me. And I'm getting a lot more exercise.

There are downsides, though. Thursday at work I was in desperate need of a couple of nine-volt batteries to power a cordless microphone. The closest place to buy them was a CVS a mile away, which is too far to run out at lunchtime if I'm walking. Luckily my incredibly awesome volunteer, A., hopped in her car and picked them up.

This past week I had to cancel a visit to Let's Dish in Columbia with my friend J, because getting to Columbia by bus and Metro would have taken four hours. Then, there was no information for a return trip. We rescheduled for tomorrow. I still don't have a car, so I'm renting one at a not inconsiderable expense.

I've toyed off and on with the idea of giving up my car. It's ancient, it's ugly and I will use it if I have the opportunity. Being without it has forced me to make changes that I've actually wanted to make. But at the same time I don't necessarily live a lifestyle that is conducive to not having access to a car. Of course, Zipcar is an option, and if this little experiment were going to go on longer I would have signed up for a membership, but paying the $25 application fee, the $60 annual fee and the hourly rental fee for one trip to Columbia seemed a little ridiculous.

I'm trying to make the determination as to whether or not mass transit plus Zipcar is at all reasonable and financially sensible. Since it's so old, my car doesn't cost much to insure. Before this recent spate of repairs, it's been incredibly reliable. Gas is pretty expensive, but I also don't tend to drive that far-one tank of gas almost always lasts me more than two weeks. I don't have to pay to park, and street parking is plentiful in my neighborhood.

But if the car is there, I will always sleep the extra twenty minutes instead of getting up for the bus, I will not walk as much and I will eat more crappy fast food.

I've got two more weeks to try this out. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Car Talk: Part 2

When I got home to PA on Friday night, my Dad told me that he didn't think he'd be able to get my car finished that weekend. He had a couple of other projects, and he had a few things he need to do on my mom's car to make it pass inspection. Not a problem-I would take the station wagon home, he'd have plenty of time, and we'd switch back later.

He started taking my car apart Saturday morning, shortly before my mother and I left in her car to pick up my grandfather to take my grandmother to lunch. Four minutes down the road: deer. Six of them. We hit the first one, skidded across the road and ended up in a farmer's field. We were still on the phone with 911 when a young guy rolled up in a tractor. (We called 911 because the deer was not dead; by the time the officer arrived, it was.) My dad drove down in the station wagon and got Mom's car home. The police arrived and made a report; the guy in the tractor took the deer. Mom and I drove back home in the station wagon.

And here we had the first problem. Mom's car was out of commission. She would have to drive the station wagon until it was fixed. And with all of the cars my parents have around them, they had nothing to send me home in.

It's not as crazy as it sounds. Mom's car was wrecked. Dad needed his truck. The station wagon would be Mom's transportation for the time being. The Beetle hasn't worked in years. The new (to Dad) Ford truck is neither registered nor tagged yet. And Grandpa's truck...well, I've driven Grandpa's truck before.

It maneuvers like a tank. I'm up for a lot of things, but piloting that behemoth through the streets of DC is possibly a bit too much. Plus, my feet barely reach the pedals. I have to drive sitting on the edge of the seat.

When Mom and I walked into the garage, Dad looked at me and said drily, "Well, you've just moved up the priority list."

He spent the rest of the day working on my car, only to find that he didn't quite have the part that he needed. His response? "I can work something out."

An aside: My sister's girlfriend has coined the term "Chuck it up" to describe my Dad's way of fixing things. It does not mean fuck it up. On the contrary, it refers to the MacGuyver-like ability that he has to fix anything regardless of whether or not he has the tools or materials to do so. When something breaks, he's exactly the guy you want around.

By Saturday night, he was confident that I'd be able to drive my car home.

Sunday morning he was still working when my sister called. I don't think I can adequately describe the look on his face when my mom handed him the phone-even before he knew what it was. It was this mix of "Why me," and "Oh, shit."

Short story: Plumbing problem. Reeeally big plumbing problem. I got bumped.

My mom drove me home. I've been sans car all week.

I don't really mind all that much. Thoughts on that later...

To close, this is the status update my sister posted on Facebook after Dad rode to her rescue. I couldn't agree more.
Why my father has earned his nickname of Saint Chuck: After spending the weekend working on my sister's car, I called him about a problem I was having at my house and he came right over to look at it. Half an hour after he left, I looked outside and there he was helping one of my neighbors (a total stranger) fix their car. I'm sure that there are a million and one things that he wanted to do this weekend, but he's always there when you need him, whether you're family or a total stranger. Love my dad!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Car Talk: Part 1

I had the most ridiculous weekend. It was one of those weekends where you just have to laugh, because if you don't, you'll cry.

It all started with my car. Those who know me know that my cars have always been...elderly. If my car were a person, it would be old enough to vote, and it's coming up on drinking age. And what I'm going to say next is going to make me sound like a total snot, but it's true. Cars have never been either a major possession or a major purchase for me. For that, I have my father to thank.

Some people collect butterflies. Some collect baseball cards. My father collects cars. Not classic cars. Not expensive cars. Cheap, ugly, serviceable cars. And for years, we had a swap plan in place. Dad would acquire a new car. My mom got first dibs. If she didn't want it, my sister or I could have it. In return, we would give our car to Dad, and he would sell it and keep the money. If Mom did want the "new" car, her old car would be available for me or Clare.

In the sixteen years I've been driving, I have paid money for exactly one car. It was $400. I bought it from my aunt. Again, I know it makes me sound like a spoiled brat, but I've never had a car that was fewer than ten years old. And as image-conscious as I can be about certain things, that has never bothered me. (With one exception. I refuse to valet park a 1992 Camry. If I'm going somewhere with valet parking, someone else has to drive or I'll Metro it.)

Things have changed a bit. Dad no longer works for a car dealership. His access has dried up a bit. This is not to say that they're lacking for cars at my parents' house. My mom has her mini SUV, my dad has his truck. The extra car du jour is a 1993 Corolla station wagon. Dad has a Beetle (old kind, not new) that is his fun car when it's working. (Not currently.) My grandfather's ancient truck is somewhere in the mix. And Dad just bought a Ford pickup truck, as a backup when his truck, which he uses for work, finally bites the big one. But the days of the great Dad trade-in program are over.

That hit home to me just over four years ago, when my mom totaled her car on an icy November morning. I was with her, headed to the grocery store to buy supplies for Thanksgiving. A car coming around a hairpin turn had to stop suddenly, hit a patch of ice, and hit us three or four times before it was over. It was frightening, but not nearly as sobering as what happened next.

She had to go to a dealer to buy her next car.

Suddenly, a car looked like a much more daunting purchase.

Luckily, my car is a tank. I kid you not, I have lost count of the number of accidents I've been in with this car. (Not my fault. Mostly. For awhile, I seemed to have a "please rear-end me" sign on my back bumper. You'd never be able to tell by looking at it.) I hit 300,000 miles a couple of months ago and according to Dad it will probably go for another couple of years.

But, with a car this old things go wrong, and for the last several months I've had a terrible problem with the windows fogging up. If there was any moisture in the air at all it would look like a couple of teenagers were making out in the back seat. This is a problem when you're driving to work in the morning. Or anywhere else. I needed a new heater coil, so Dad told me to bring it home and he'd put a new one in. Piece of cake.

Then this weekend happened, and I ended up back home in DC without a car because he didn't have one to give me. If you don't know why that's hilarious, take another look at the list of cars my parents have.

The rest of the story tomorrow.