Monday, December 17, 2007

Car Celibacy: A Year End Review

I was that kid who was forbidden to go anyplace or do anything until I could drive myself there. Upon turning 15, I discovered that freedom had a four-cylinder engine and all-season tires. Having a car seemed natural to me; I hadn’t seen buses sans the eerie black lettering that foretold of prison and schools as their destinations until I came to Marlboro.

Last winter, I decided that I wanted to understand a new way to live, and I renounced my most beloved possession. Though I had many motives, it’s hard to trace my rationale for the decision to live a year without the only thing I really own. There was some sense of adventure in it, and a lot of moral posturing. It was political: I was mildly concerned about the environment, whole-heartedly inspired by radical anti-capitalism, and righteously boycotting rampant inequality of petrostates. It was personal: I felt I needed to learn how to trust my own capacity to deal with whatever situations arose and embrace a more interdependent mindset. It was spiritual: there is a long-standing Buddhist tradition of giving things up in order to learn how to let them go.

On one level, I was glad to see the damn thing go. Every since winter began, I had been tallying up the hours I spent scraping ice off of my windshield and shoveling out snow wedged in my tailpipe. I was tired of being nervous about black ice or waiting to leave campus until the plows came. Car insurance was becoming a burden, and the fact that the car wasn’t working as well as it did when I bought it made me feel old.

It didn’t take me long to figure-out that not having a car is just as stressful as having a car ever was; I exchanged road maps and oil changes for transit schedules and bus fares. Being at Marlboro was pretty normal because I hardly ever had any reason to leave the hill, but when I left for summer, unsure of where I was heading, it became problematic.

After finding a job in Colorado, I hopped onto a dingy greyhound (I may have been engaging in money exchange but at least I wasn’t flying) for 56 hours to get there. It turned-out that I love long bus rides.

Not having a car gave me the opportunity to see more of the places, thoughts, and people between where I am and where I’m going. I met the first Spanish-speaking person I had ever encountered in America as I helped translate signs in the bus depo for her trip from New York to California. I met construction workers and prison guards, foreign-exchange students and recovering alcoholics. It helped me remember how different the texture people’s lives are. Moved by a renewed curiosity, I left the bus station in each major city where I had layovers to explore. Maryland. St. Louis. Cleveland. Chicago. Denver. After being left by the bus at a rest stop barefoot and without any of my belongings, I spent a day in New York City waiting for the next bus to Vermont. I managed to acquire new shoes, get over all of the stuff that I lost, and stumble upon a crowd of immigrants clad in green and yellow soccer jerseys jamming out at the largest Brazilian street festival in the United States.

Now that I’m back, it’s pretty easy to settle back into a routine. I regularly hitchhike to school and to Brattleboro. Sometimes people share personal stories about the struggles they face, about their families, about their dreams. I’ve had a homeless man brag about his new job and a middle-aged mother confess her worries about her teenager. I once was picked-up by a man in a van with a tie-dyed sarong draped over a dilapidated couch that substituted for a backseat and a waist-high cooler set-up as a coffee table. When I realized he had invited me into his home for a few miles, it was humbling.

I’ve had more than a hundred micro-conversations with acquaintances (student, faculty, and staff) who I got to know better in the 7 minute drive down South Road than in the year and a half of rushing around the hill. I’ve learned that Carol has gloves made of Jim’s dog’s hair and that people are more likely to pick me up when they’re running late than when they’re on time. Mostly, I’ve learned more about why I chose to come here.

I feel less in control of my life than ever, but I can see value in that. Trust had become a major theme as I feel more integrated into the Marlboro community and more connected to everywhere else.

As the end of the year approaches, I’m a subtle nostalgic is creeping over me for the days of wandering that helped prove to me that people are more generous than I ever thought. But I’m also excited. I’m excited to be able to go places on my own schedule, to take road trips on my own, and most of all, I’m excited to offer rides to people I don’t know. So remember: you haven’t experienced a snowy Vermont morning until you’ve ridden a few miles in a truck bed wearing only a windbreaker, and you don’t need everything that you thought you did.

1 comment:

Monica said...

Shoeless and possession-less in NYC? So this was the big adventure home you never did explain. Sounds wonderful! How was th street festival?

The joys and pains of car ownership seem to be quite a unique part of American culture. I can commisserate. I have a car, but due to the logitics of parking, I usually bicycle or take the buss. Being in the city rather precludes hitchhiking. Plus, I'm a little too scared to try that just yet!