Twenty-One Car-Free Years

Over the weekend, thanks to traveling up to Albany to meet an old friend, I was unable to make note of an especially important anniversary: March 30th marked twenty-one years of blessed freedom from car ownership.

On March 30th, 1993, I sold my Toyota pickup truck, purchased a mere eighteen months previously, at a drastically marked-down price. My reasons were simple and numerous: I was headed out of the US for an indefinite period; if I returned, it would be to New York City, where I did not expect to own a car; and lastly, most significantly, my insurance premium–in New Jersey–had climbed to an astronomical four thousand dollars a year.

Cars had always been an expensive headache for me. My first car, a Toyota Corolla with over hundred thousand miles on it, had flamed out spectacularly on a New Jersey highway; it had minimal resale value and I was only too happy to dispose of it in a junkyard. My second, a Volkswagen Jetta, had niggling problems with its fuel pump, and spent too much time in the repair shop. And while I owned it, my insurance climbed into the stratosphere.

My troubles began a few minutes after I had picked up the Jetta from the used-car dealer. As I drove down the Garden State Parkway, already late for work, I failed to notice I was speeding. A state trooper pulled me over, informed me I was driving at 78mph in a 55mph zone and gave me a ticket. That meant four points on my license and a thousand dollar increase in my annual  premium. A few months later, after I had skidded on a wet road and hit the kerbside, I filed a damage claim, which the insurance company honored. But in exchange for this thousand-dollar payment, they raised my premium by a thousand dollars a year. And then, finally, thanks to another wet road, I rear-ended a truck, filed a damage claim again and was treated to the same sequence of claim-payment-followed-by-premium-increase.

By late 1992, I could not afford to drive a car any more. But I still had to commute to work. So I persisted for a few months, all the while actively plotting my escape from New Jersey to New York City. When my move looked imminently possible, I put up my truck–purchased after my Jetta’s fuel-pump troubles had become intolerable–for sale.

Twenty-one years on, I remain relieved to be free of the hassles of parking, gas prices, speeding tickets, towing, worries about blood alcohol content, traffic, and all of the rest.  Public transportation, with all its frustrations, works well enough for me. New York City’s magnificently flawed subway system takes me where I need to go; on rare occasions, I rent or borrow a car. That limited and circumscribed ownership is all I can handle.

I do not know if I will ever move out of New York City. If I do, I know one of my most profound regrets will be the leaving behind of this blessedly car-free life.

Ode to a Beloved Clunker

MPA 4634 and DIA 8499. Those strings of alphanumeric characters, as might be surmised, are licence plate identifiers. More precisely, they were the licence plates for the same car, a Fiat 1100D that was our family car for over twenty years. Over those years, I graduated from the back of the car to the front, to riding in the back with my brother (a sometimes quarrelsome existence), to driving in the front. (Sadly, I never was able to use the car on a real date.) In it, we–my parents and my brother and I–drove distances as short as those to the local vegetable market, and as long as to the Kashmir Valley. It broke down many times: most terrifyingly, on a deserted stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, a mishap which sent my father hitchhiking looking for help, and brought two Good Samaritans to our rescue. But it also surprised me by making its way through long, winding, twisted roads in the Himalayas, with steep falls down to deep river gorges on one side. It had no air-conditioning, no power windows or steering, but it still managed to seem luxurious. When I missed its attainment of the 100,000 kilometer mark, I was heartbroken, and all attempts at consolation–‘it just became zeroes all over again’–failed.

My father, of course, was its most skilled driver. He drove with aplomb, nowhere better exemplified than in his mysterious ability to open a pack of cigarettes and light up with a match even as he continued down the highway or around a bend. But he was never reckless; indeed, when I felt compelled to ask him to drive faster, his answer was a laconic ‘This is fast enough.’ Perhaps it was all the ‘ol Fiat could handle.

I was told, as I grew up, that the car had been purchased ‘for me on my birthday.’ That was an exaggeration, of course.  More likely, something significant in its history with my family had occurred close to my birthday, and my parents elevated that event to make me feel the car was somehow mine. It worked: I regarded it as a sibling of sorts, and couldn’t wait till the day would come when I would drive it myself. One night, during my early teen-aged years, as my mother drove us home from a family gathering, I asked her when I could start driving. She stopped the car, got out, came around to the passenger’s seat and told me to move over to the driver’s side. I received a quick two-minute lesson on changing gears and releasing clutches, and then, I was off. I did crash the car once in my learning career, but that was the only time I subjected it to such indignity. Thereafter, I grew to master Delhi’s traffic, and most awe-inspiringly of all, drive a non-airconditioned car in its 115-degree summer heat.

In 1987, when I left India for the US, my mother drove me to the airport in DIA 8499. When I returned to India in 1989, it was gone, traded in for a new car. The bills had piled up; maintenance had no longer been feasible; a new car was necessary. I didn’t grieve, but I did wish I had been around when the time came to bid it farewell.

I’ve owned a Toyota Corolla, a VW Jetta, and a Toyota pickup truck since then, and have now been car-free for almost twenty years. In those years, I’ve grown to disdain automobiles, and to hope that I never have to own a car. Still, that dislike won’t diminish my affection for that family jalopy, now transformed, perhaps via the junk-yard and scrap heap into some Chinese-manufactured items, pressed into service as household appliances or tools of convenience.

I never had a nickname for the car, so all I can say is: RIP MPA 4634 AKA DIA 8499.