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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

"You Mean You've Never Driven a Car At All?"

By JAMES KENNEDY

I want to thank Jonathan Harris' JWU class for having me today to speak to them about my experiences as a non-driver, and to talk a bit about Park(ing) Day organizing, the Providence bike plan, and other subjects.

The suburb I grew up in, like Providence, was a place where
most people did drive, but where there was space to decide
not to drive. Car in the foreground is my neighbor's car,
which he's had for at least two decades--his "good" car.
One of the questions that Jonathan asked me to address, starting out, was what it was like to be a person who not only does not drive, but who has never driven. And addressing this question for the presentation brought me to some weird conclusions about my own logic that I hadn't explored for some time.

One reason I never drove was that I saw my parents struggle to own their cars. We were a two car household, but each of the cars that we had was always a junker. We had one car that we called the Flintstonemobile, because the floor of the car had rotted out and there was a plywood board over it to make sure that the driver's foot didn't go through to the street. We had another one, at the same time--the "good" car--that had had its key break off in the ignition. The easiest way for my dad to fix that was to hotwire the car. So every morning, my mom reached below the dashboard and switched a switch on a little doohickey that held all the wires together. It was like magic.

My parents are divorced, and I don't by any stretch think that cars are what made them divorce, but money stress was certainly one of many factors. I grew up in what I considered a "middle class" house, but having to maintain two junky awful cars was a serious money eater. I saw my parents develop debt, I saw them fight, and I saw things get tighter after the divorce. And I think I decided that the only way I was going to avoid their fate was not to own stuff like a car. Who knew? I think I'd partly forgotten that it was the trauma of my own family upbringing that made me hate cars.

On the positive side, there were a lot of things that also influenced me not to own cars. When my dad was younger, my grandparents never bought him a car or helped him get one, so he took the trolley to school. He later got a bike and started biking everywhere. I never knew my dad as a cyclist, because he'd given it up by then, but we would go past hilly, highway-ish expanses of road way out in the suburbs and my mom would point out the window and say, "Your dad used to bike up that hill there." This started the wheels turning in my head that maybe there was the physical possibility of doing such things. 

Several of my aunts didn't drive. My Aunt Dee died young, from type one diabetes, but the warmest memories I have of her were of her stories from the 13 trolley to Yeadon, where she used to live. My favorite of these was this story she had about these two blind men who were walking around at 69th Street, and each of them was headed towards the other, towards eventual collision, with my aunt watching, and wanting to intervene, but not getting to. Then men knocked each onto the ground, swinging canes, yelling, cursing at each other that "Don't you know I'm blind, watch where you're going!" until each of them realized that the other was also blind. The two men hugged.

My other aunt, Jane, still doesn't drive, and although my Aunt Renie picks her up once a week to take her to store to shop, my aunt gets to work without a car, and has done so for decades. Even in the dependence that having to be driven to the store by someone else, I see something nice. My Aunt Jane and my Aunt Maureen maintained a close family tie through their constant, weekly interaction. I think that we have lost something in our culture by not considering carpooling as a serious option.

My mom's dad took the car every morning when she was growing up, and my Nana didn't drive. 69th Street Terminal was still considered a place to go when my mom was a kid, although that was rapidly changing due to white flight, red lining, bad transportation and housing policies, and other influences that destroyed our cities. But my mom used to tell me this story about going in on the bus and getting off to switch to the train to go to Wannamaker's on Broad Street. My Aunt Maureen had a balloon, and my mom was fighting with her over it, and it suddenly popped. Everyone in the place jumped against the wall or onto the floor. My Nana just kept going, unphased. I would ask my mom to tell me this story, over and over again, because it just signaled something magical to me. 

I think by the time I turned 16, the reasons I decided not to drive had changed. I had become really political. September 11th happened just after my 16th birthday, and I was looking at what I considered an oil conflict, and didn't want to be part of it. My life had started to center more and more around people who lived in the city. I didn't want to contribute to pollution. But as I look back on why I didn't drive, for real, I think these early family experiences were something that influenced me.

I couldn't afford to drive if I wanted to. Changes in the economy, decisions I've made about how to live my life, family background, etc., all contribute to this. But I think that even if I could drive, and even if there was no political reason not to, that I would still prefer the culture that is taking public transportation or biking. I think our society grows from having these systems in place.

2 comments:

  1. An elegant argument for the inclusion of a multitude of travel options in our cities. Let us make room for active transportation Statistics show that James is not alone in his transportation choice. Miles driven is trending down for people in their twenties, and nineteen year old's are opting out of driver's licenses at an increasing rate. If our cities want to stay vibrant, if we want to keep the products of our great institutions in our great state, then we need to provide what the citizens demand. We need walkable and bikeable communities.

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  2. Dear Readers,

    You may be interested to know that my mother also had things to say about this story:

    "Jimmy,

    I enjoyed reading your article about why you don't drive. I found it interesting that you remember a lot of fights surrounding the cars and money.

    Do you remember us taking you to the beach when you were just a few years old and the only way we could get there was on the casino bus? [Yes, by the way, I do. And I almost considered a revision of this story to include my memories of my first vacation, in which I sat next to an elderly black man on the bus and talked to him the whole time. I thought this was a really great example of how public transportation creates connections between people. The suburb I grew up in is not a white flight center now, but was one when I was very young, and I think that public transportation users get the serious advantage of not living in a totally segregated world. --James]

    You were the only child on the bus and all the old people thought you were so cute because, well...because you were! You were very well behaved and made friends with one person in particular. I remember you telling him, in your vocalic R laden language..."Werr going to the beach. Werr taking the bus cause my Dad says the cawwr won't make it that fawr." She laughed! They all laughed.

    I guess if our arguing about the goofy cars we owned helped lead you to where you are then that's ok.

    By the way you didn't really get the balloon story right...It was a long balloon like you get at the circus. They used to give them out at the Buster Brown Shoe store when you bought shoes. I wasn't fighting with Renie. She kept blowing it up bigger and bigger and Nana kept turning as we walked through the terminal saying, "It's big enough, now tie it." But Renie just had to blow one more time and that's when it exploded and I mean exploded! It was about 5 feet long and with the echo of the terminal it really was loud! Everyone thought it was a gun and that was in the days before gunfire in 69th street was a problem. [Incidentally, I don't think actual gunfire has ever been a problem at 69th Street, though, granted, there is a reputation problem around that part of town, which is improving--James].

    Your Nana was not unphased....when she realized how everyone was thinking it was a shot, she was bent over laughing so hard she was crossing her legs so as to not pee her pants! That is still one of my funniest memories!

    I love you!"

    Thanks, mom.

    See how urbanism brings families together?

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