I don’t remember not liking driving so much. I had my own car for about 20 years and was often the designated driver. I drove from my home in Chicago to school in Baltimore, and back, with my car. And I drove from my apartment to the downtown campus daily for my graduate work.
My car was sideswiped one night in winter while parked on a snow-packed street in front of my apartment. And I did have a car accident on tax day one year. I was trapped in a long line of cars waiting to drop off tax forms for hand cancellation (something that might never happen today with the internet). I changed into the moving lane to the left. As I reached the speed limit, a car shot through the stalled line of cars and into my lane.
“You are going to hit this person,” my friend in the passenger seat cried out.
Not a chance of stopping before I hit this car. No one was hurt. The Silverado as I called my car, because it was silver, suffered some minor damage. She was a tank.
I drove my car along the East Coast from Baltimore to Delaware, DC on 495 at night, Virginia and once to a fateful rafting trip in West Virginia. But I took the train to New York City.
I drove my car through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the mist to my postdoc in Nashville. I drove to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina. I drove home to Chicago and to a wedding in Ohio.
Then I drove the rest of the way across the USA to California with three female colleagues. I thought I would be driving alone to my new home on the West Coast. But driving across the West was the dream of not just myself, but many people living east of the Mississippi. Overall, the trip went as planned, with stops at iconic sites along the way in New Mexico and Arizona, and a beautiful bloom in the desert on the border of California. No one was left at any mile marker along any major US thoroughfare.
I had the Silverado in San Francisco, until I got carjacked one year just after midnight, on Christmas Eve, in my own neighborhood. I lived on the southside of Golden Gate Park near the UCSF hospital. It was a safe neighborhood. The carjacking triggered my survival instinct. The dreams where you can’t scream didn’t come true. I screamed loud enough for someone to hear me at that time of the night and call the police.
I’d never had an encounter with the police in anything involving a crime, and definitely not a violent crime. As the adrenalin surge waned, I folded under the questioning by the police and began to sob. I couldn’t explain what had happened to me. I just told them what I saw.
I was five days from getting the payout from the insurance company when the police found my car, with the thief living in it. Dumb. More likely destitute and desperate. When you have something like that happen to you, you never think out of the 8 billion people on the planet that the police are going to find the one person that did that to you. No matter how many police shows you watch.
This experience formulated many of my opinions about the police and the judicial system. For one thing, people who have never been the victim of a violent crime have no idea the determination of a criminal to get what they want, at whatever the cost. I survived, but the authorities have to struggle with people who can break your neck without thinking about it every day. The investigators in charge of my case told me most of the crime in San Francisco involved drugs. Nothing has changed since this incident happened over 20 years ago.
A car is just an object, you would think. But the Silverado had been violated. I felt violated. All of my Christmas presents and clothes were gone – I was on my way to my sister’s place across the bay – except for some of my lingerie which made the whole incident a tad creepier. I looked around for any homeless people wearing my clothes for months afterwards.
The car was a mess inside, and as if to make it more unpleasant for me, random features had been destroyed. The handle was broken on the driver’s side and the steering wheel had been damaged. Some pages were missing in the driver’s manual. I can only imagine what they were used for. My possessions had been traded for the thief’s, which amounted to a pile of mail and a sleeping bag. But the body of the car was not damaged. You can’t go too far without money for gas, so you park it in a spot with a view of the ocean. The totality of the physical damage to the car was cosmetic, some of which could not be repaired due to the age of the car, and meant I had to take it back after it was detailed.
The Silverado was back.
I drove all over the Bay Area in it. I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge more times than I would have ever dreamed of growing up in the Midwest, for hiking, for wine tasting, for the redwoods. I even drove up to Seattle and back in the Silverado. I almost made a complete loop of the country in that car. But after I got the car back, I wasn’t that interested in driving it, and honestly not that interested in driving. A new European friend, after hearing my car story, intensified my fears.
“I don’t think it’s safe to drive with you,” he said.
A freak wind storm in San Francisco shattered the rear windshield due to pressure. The windshield never was right after that, and the rusting in the sea air accelerated. One day it had an electrical problem and I just decided I’m done with it. I donated it to charity as it had a V-8 engine in it. The body, it was the body that was giving out.
I still rented cars when I wanted to go places. Living in San Francisco without a car was easier. I could get around walking or taking public transportation. Giving up my Silverado was the first in an unconscious series of steps to live car-free. Because then I decided to move to Europe, and there I definitely didn’t need a car. Sure, sometimes I didn’t like being tied to the bus schedule – running after the last bus at 1 am to stop when the driver didn’t see me at the dark, isolated stop on an island across from the city where I lived – but getting to the mountains and back after snowboarding was safer. Especially when you just wanted to sleep after an exhilarating day of snowboarding – and struggling with the t-hook to get up the mountain – in the cold.
I took busses, trains, and ferries everywhere in Norway. I got out of the habit of depending on a car and used to figuring out how to get around with public transportation. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was in the mindset of living without a car. The idea to live car-less started out for an economical reason and then became a personal challenge. But then I realized I could manage without a car. Some days are long traveling across the city, but as a freelance writer and editor, I classify it all as an adventure. I try to “breathe in experience and breathe out stories” (Muriel Rukeyser) and maybe more important, I have a view of the city I wouldn’t otherwise have.
So when I decided to meet a friend coming to California for a conference in San Diego, I considered my options and chose the train. I took the metro rail downtown requiring a couple of transfers but taking me right into Union Station. It was straightforward. When I arrived in San Diego, I got off the train and walked the two blocks to the hotel.
I had done it once. When some of my family moved to the San Diego area just a couple miles from the train station, the train became my way of traveling there. Over the years, I discovered an easier way to reach the train station, a commuter bus that stops a block from my home but only within a two-hour time interval in the morning. Same thing on the way back in the afternoon.
The commuter bus inserts a level of civility into my public transportation. I’ve never had an incident on the average metro bus or metro rail in Los Angeles, but there’s a relaxed acceptable level of behavior on public transportation. Some people don’t even feel they should pay for it. So while I am tapping my way across the city with my card, others are jumping over the turn styles or just walking through the gates to get on trains as if to mock me for paying. Once a guy brought a bicycle and a grocery cart filled with garden tools, a rake and a hoe, onto a car of the metro rail.
The Surfliner, the route that goes from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, is another step up from city transportation. You have to pay for your ride, and a conductor checks for tickets. Once I arrive at Union Station, it’s a two-hour train ride that at the half-way point veers out to the beach. My favorite pastime is to take photos from the train. Once in a while I catch something cool, even through the dirty windows, like on a recent trip, a white nondescript building against a dark gray sky. The ride is picturesque, one that could be on a top ten list behind the public bus ride circling Oahu.
My system is reliable. Since I take the bus early and it drives in the HOV lane, I reach the train station in less time than I would in a car, and for $2.50. I don’t have to deal with traffic on the drive down to San Diego. Some of the bottlenecks on the I-5 are unexplainable, while others, like furniture that has dropped off a homemade version of a moving van, require dialing 911. No, the train is predictable, although once a train ahead of us hit an RV (no one was hurt) which slowed the subsequent trains by a couple of hours.
In the last six months, there was a glitch to my system. The typhoon in September that blew up from Baja destabilized the tracks south of San Juan Capistrano to Oceanside. The winter rains, I’m sure, didn’t help. So I had to get off the train and onto a bus at Irvine, then back onto a train at Oceanside to go to San Diego. Sometimes at Irvine, I had to climb up over a two-story bridge with my luggage to reach the other side of the tracks for the train traveling north. OK, it’s a bit more exercise but in the end, only a half hour longer than normal.
Union station is one of the most beautiful buildings in Los Angeles. The building is designed in the style of Mission Moderne, a combination of Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial, and Art Deco. The Oscars took place there in 2021. But it’s a public area, so there are people who spend their days roaming around inside who aren’t taking trains to anywhere. Lately I’ve noticed more security and police, although it’s difficult to say what it is they can do. It’s eye opening for some of the problems plaguing our beloved urban environments. And for our civil servants. People have various tactics to maintain their space, even though it’s not theirs. Or they disturb you through any one of your other senses.
On my last trip in April, a man had commandeered the piano located in the seating area for ticket holders in Union Station. Security approached him several times, because it wasn’t music, but he managed to defend his territory by calling out in profanity to leave him alone.
I left and went out to the platform, which in the aftermath of COVID is a safer place to be anyway. Another man showed up a few minutes later with scraggly strawberry blond hair, gripping his ticket in front of him. But he was clean. He stood near enough to me that I could hear the random words or sounds coming out of his mouth, either out of his control or purposeful to sooth himself. He remained close when it was time to board the train. And he was right behind me when we had to transfer from the train to the bus. I felt he had adopted me as his unofficial guide for navigating the complicated temporary route.
When I got onto the train, about five minutes after sitting down, before we left Los Angeles, a guy rushed in out of nowhere and dropped down in a seat as if the music had stopped while playing musical chairs. The woman in the companion seat shot up, sensing something was about to happen she didn’t want to be in the middle of.
Seconds later, the conductor chasing him caught up and yelled, “I told you to get off the train. You don’t have a ticket!”
This guy didn’t have the look of anyone up to anything nefarious. He was dressed in clean clothes, his hair was cut, he didn’t even have a beard. He behaved more as if he had a performative ritual for boarding trains rather than a deficiency in cash.
I had to ask myself which train I was on and where it was going. And what the others on the train, or in the station, might wonder about me. Like watching the movie The Sixth Sense and realizing you are one of them.
Am I eccentric? Someone cleared that up for me. “Don’t kid yourself Janice,” he said.
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