A year ago today, I got my first driver’s license at age 25. I know it was exactly a year ago because everyone so knew me as a nondriver that I had to go around disclaiming: I know you’re going to think this is an April Fool’s joke, but I got my license. You wish it was an April Fool’s joke. Really, I’ll show you the damn thing if you want! In my license photo, I am grinning ear to ear.
Most people get taught to drive when they’re a teenager. I did not. I lived in the Chicago area a couple of blocks from an El stop at the time, so I did alright. In fact, taking public transit was the norm for many of the people I knew. In dense, busy Chicago, a car can easily be as much of a liability as it is an asset–just ask anyone who’s ever had their vehicle towed by the city.
When I moved back to St. Louis, I found transit that ran much less frequently than what I’d become accustomed to in Chicago. Distances were much shorter, though, and I always lived and worked in the inner city, so I did alright. I bussed, I trained, I got rides, I took cabs, I biked, and I walked and walked and walked and walked. I got where I was going. I practiced patience on a daily basis. I carried reading matter, a bus schedule, and a snack on my person at all times.
I grew to develop a love for the transit/pedestrian way of getting around. Because I traveled slowly, I got to know parts of the city on an intimate level that many of my car-bound colleagues did not. My landlady commented on several occasions that I could have been the St. Louis equivalent of a London cab driver, if only I knew how to operate a motor vehicle.
On transit, I had time to read, nap, crochet, text, sleep, plot, space out, or peoplewatch. In a world where we spend more and more of our time in privatized places, I experienced the public sphere twice daily and often had anecdotes and overhears to go with it. I had bus buddies. While my commute took longer than many of my friends’ commutes did, it connected me more deeply to the place where I lived.
Still, I knew I needed to learn to drive. It takes a village to teach a broke 25 year old to drive, and friends and neighbors patiently gave me lessons. My landlady helped me the most, at first letting me rattle around town in her amazingly hole-ridden van, known alternately as the Death Van and the Scaravan. The third time I ever drove in my entire life, my landlady and I rescued a fallen pressed-tin cornice that storm winds had knocked off a building owned by Paul McKee, to keep it safe from the scrappers. She made me drive. Driving the Scaravan was great, because between its noisy roar and the letters peeling off its sides in big curls, that other drivers instinctively moved away from me on the road. Later, my landlady let me drive and even borrow her own car. If not for her, I really don’t know that I’d be driving today.
In 2008, St. Louis County* residents voted on Proposition M, a ballot measure regarding raising sales tax to fund public transit in St. Louis. Had it passed, existing service would have been sustained and express buses would have been added. Sadly, it failed, meaning a devastating 55% of the region’s public transit service was eliminated. Trains and buses alike ran less frequently. Entire routes were eliminated. Many disabled passengers were completely stranded in their homes. Bus service was removed from Downtown. The cuts took effect on March 30, 2009. And so, yes, on April 1, 2009, I got my first driver’s license.
Two days after that, I got plates for the used car that I had acquired. It took a marathon of car repairs, emissions tests and retests, and a frantic rainy drive to meet my landlady at City Hall, but at fourfiftysomething PM I got ‘em. My landlady and I agreed to reconvene at our building in two hours, and then we left for Detroit. We drove (really, she drove) up here over the course of two days, and I spent the subsequent month living in Indian Village, exploring and deciding whether to move here.
The East Side of Detroit was a pretty good place to practice driving by myself. The low population density meant I usually didn’t have to contend with a lot of traffic. Michigan’s highly aggressive drivers meant that if people could not deal with my slow, terrified meandering, they’d just pass me (usually on the right) and then it wouldn’t be their problem anymore. My first week or so was filled with false starts, but later in the month I even managed to drive out to historic Eloise Hospital twice.
On May 1, I drove on the interstate by myself for the first time. I had printed out directions many pages long, hoping to get back to St. Louis on side streets and two-lane highways. After an hour or two of struggling along poorly signed, potholed streets at rush hour and turning down hitchhikers, I gave up and got on 75. My knuckles were neon white, but I did okay. The adrenaline got me all the way to Casey, Illinois, that day. The next day I got home, threw on a dress and heels, and made it to my friend’s wedding in St. Louis on time.
I can’t pretend to hate driving. It still scares the crap out of me, but I love the independence that comes with it. I remember the moment a couple of weeks after I got the license when I opened up an atlas and realized that I could go anywhere on the map. Yeah yeah, it was all money and rattly old car dependent, but still, any town those lines went to I could visit. Big cities, town squares, cornfield ruts, limestone mines, chirping crickets: All I had to do was grab the camera, get in the car, and go. At my leisure, by myself. After years of traveling via train, bus, and “I’ll pay half the gas and give you a tour of an abandoned hospital if you let me ride with you!” it was almost overwhelming to think about.
But as much as I love the way that my car enables my chronic wanderlust, the daily convenience of it may well be the best part. When I don’t know how long it’ll take us to close up at the end of a workday, I don’t have to nervously check my watch and my set of bus schedules every five minutes anymore. When I have a sick pet (or a sick self) on my hands, it’s no longer a big deal to go get the requisite care.** If I run out of something that I need, cashflow may be a barrier but the simple ability to go out and get it is not.
I am getting to know Detroit as someone who gets around primarily by automobile. I can feel the difference. Okay, I’ve only been here a few months, but nonetheless getting around via highway really hasn’t helped me get any sense of where things actually are in relation to each other. I miss that daily time in the public sphere–all the best gossip and the worst smells are on the bus. And I miss the serendipitous little discoveries that come with carlessness. When you don’t have the luxury of the instant gratification of a car, you had better believe you will know every service and product in every out-of-the-way small business near your house inside and out. You will be the one who knows that you can buy toothpaste and laundry soap at the hardware store, and the one who has braved all the sketchiest laundromats. You will have tried the pancakes at every diner, and the greens at every soul food restaurant. I do miss those experiences.
Still, though, I will keep driving. One morning two weeks ago, my car refused to start, and the life I have built for myself here in Detroit flashed before my eyes: I can get everything I need except Mexican groceries here in Hamtramck, but I had no idea how I’d get to work or see the St. Clair Shores and Detroit residents in my life. Two jumps (thanks, friends) and a trip to the mechanic fixed the car, but it was a scary reality check about how automobile dependent I am these days. Partially, I fault my own habits. However, I really don’t know how I would have found a job in the Motor City in 2010 without a car. I don’t know how the 30% of Detroiters who don’t have cars do it, particularly those who live in resource ghettoes. I guess when I relied on the bus in a city with transit challenges, and I myself lived in resource ghetto, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how. I just did it, because I had somewhere to be. But nonetheless, I don’t know how I would have ever found a job here in Detroit without the ol’ subcompact.
Looking forward to my second year of driving, well, I hope my ancient car continues to hang on. And I hope to keep building my skill set. I see worse drivers than myself every time I leave the house in Hamtramck, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t stand to improve. A lot.
Most of all, though, I’m planning to get out and take some nice, slow, thinky walks around Detroit. I love my car and I love the way it has transformed the entire atlas into a sea of near-immediate possibilities, but there is nothing quite like the unfiltered, direct experience of sun-on-skin and shoe-on-pavement when you’re getting to know a new place.
* For my Michigan readers, all three of you: St. Louis is an independent city, meaning it is separate from St. Louis County and has been since the 1870s. In the St. Louis area, the word county is synonymous and interchangeable with suburbs.
** Nine times out of ten, it is way easier to take a sick self than a sick pet on a city bus.