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Sunday Late Night: Getting Around

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I grew up on the Eastern Seaboard and spent every summer at my grandparents on Cape Cod. We drove everywhere! Then my Dad took a promotion and moved our family to Northern Virginia. Cars were always really, really important to me; I drove up and down my folks’ driveway a LOT when they were out for the day/evening/weekend. At 8, I think I pretty much ruined the clutch on my Dad’s Nash Metropolitan and I know I prematurely ground down the brakes on his Rambler American 440 convertible when I was 12. I never did confess how that AMC convertible top motor could have burned out so early: up, down, up, down, up, down. All afternoon.

And then, when I could drive with a license, well it was “Katy bar the door.” I never had my very own car in high school or college, but my mom broke both her ankles just as my senior year started at Langley High School. That pretty much ceded me her Catalina Safari wagon for my senior year. Dad was traveling a LOT for work, and I was the family hauler.

So to speak.

If you don’t think you can get up too much trouble in a nine-passenger 22-foot long station wagon with a four-barrel V-8 and a long, um, load floor, let me tell you some tales…

Graduating from college and getting a job at a Beltway bandit consulting firm, I pestered my Dad until he co-signed a note for me to buy a red MGB (pre-rubber-bumpers) with a four-speed, drum brakes and two wee batteries that sat behind the seats, practically in the road — those batteries remain the source of my continuing back pain in my mid-fifties.

OK — late fifties. I guess I have to ‘fess up as I leave my Heinz year (57!) in the rear view mirror.

Managing a statewide US Senate campaign in Virginia made me realize that big, reliable transport was key. I know this is hard for the i-Pad generation to grasp, but I had two four-drawer filing cabinets full of information about every local Democratic committeeman and -woman, every little town and hamlet official in Southside, Tidewater, Richmond (the “fightin’ Third!“), Southwestern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley — set into the very, very commodious trunk of my 1973 gold Lincoln Continental four-door sedan with white leather upholstery and a white vinyl top. We worked hard in that campaign to win the hearts and minds of disaffected Richmond African-Americans, and they worked hard to elect our guy, so I never heard my car called a ‘pimpmobile,’ if that word was even in use then.

But it was a popular ride: when I’d arrive in Richmond, my driver, Jimmy Walker, who was also the doorman at the Virginia State House of Delegates (oyez, oyez!), would commandeer my car. He would call in regularly to see if I needed to go anywhere. He’d come right away, with the car washed and gassed up, and drive me anywhere I wanted. Otherwise I never saw my car; if I wanted to go up to Northern Virginia for a change of clothes or a strategy meeting or to beg another campaign account deposit from the candidate, Jimmy would drive me up I-95 from Richmond, wait for me, and drive us back to Richmond.

I thought he was doing us both a favor; of course I later found out that my car was the largest floating craps game and mobile football betting parlor Richmond ever saw.

Cars, getting around in them, getting in them, driving them, partying in them, and other fun times in them whether stopped or moving, have always been a big part of my life on the East Coast.

But that’s changed. Visiting Northern Virginia now, pressed for time and operating on multiple projects at the same time, and sharing the road with other drivers who are also, apparently, pressed for time and multitasking (if eating a scone, brushing your hair, sipping a VentiBux, chatting on a cellphone, yelling at your kids, changing lanes without signaling and then panic braking can be considered multitasking) has shown me that either driving is not as fun any more or I’m not as good at it as I used to be.

Beltway and Tysons Corner and McLean Safeway and hardward store errands — all of which require driving a car, a way I no longer Get Around in my personal, regular life: all these take a surprising amount of my energy now. Driving from place to place, which one cane spend literally all day doing, isn’t fun. Used to be, I would find being behind the wheel all day a perfectly valid way to spend the day.

But moving to a city (Alexandria, then DC, then SF, and now Portland) and then deciding to be carless by choice for about ten years until I bought a zippy Mazda RX-7 roadster, kept it about three years, and then went ZipCar all the time — it’s changed me. I no longer like driving.

I no longer like other drivers.

I no longer look forward to a day in the car (or while visiting Mom, a day in a Giant Red Chrysler mini-van).

I long to walk to the corner store, I long to walk out for a coffee at Peet’s or Sisters Coffee. I miss walking across the Willamette, or walking up into the park.

I miss walking, period. I miss it!

I’m a city boy now; if I need a car for a big Safeway run, I ZipCar. If I need to go to IKEA, I ZipTruck it. And if go to Seattle to see friends or spend the day at the Seattle Art Museum (reciprocal members’ privileges for the Portland art Museum, yay!) I take a BoltBus (fare between $1 and $25) or the train.

“Personal transportation” no longer means a Gran Prix or a Thunderbird or a Lincoln Continental to me, as it did when I was a pesky youngster going from car dealer to car dealer, snagging brochures about the new models whenever each fall — “But, mister, my dad might buy a car this year, and I advise him. Also: it’s my birthday!

Getting around is different now. Is it only I who’ve changed, or has the actual getting around changed for you as well?

The floor is yours.

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