Carless in Chicago

I am in a window seat on the CTA Red Line that is traveling towards Howard. When I reach that stop, I will transfer to the Purple Line that will take me to Main. From there, I will walk about six short blocks to my friend Ruth's house.

As I look out the window at the high rise buildings and landscapes skimming by, I contemplate my new role as someone without a car. I do not feel deprived. In fact, I am enjoying a new sense of calm, relief.

Being carless is a fresh experience for me, for I have been a licensed driver since the age of 16. With learner's permit in hand, my dad took me for my first lesson. I don't remember the exact details, but I can easily see me in the driver's seat of his Buick, propped up on at least two cushions to have a view over the steering wheel. My dad, Irving, is in the passenger's seat. A Camel he is smoking is dropping ashes on his shirt, but he is unperturbed. He brushes them to the car's floor with his left hand, while his right maintains steady drags on the cigarette.

"You're going too slow!" he is shouting at me. I am cautious, because Dad was the opposite. I had no intention of emulating his speed, or his habit of weaving in and out of cars like a NASCAR competitor.

We both survived those early lessons, and I emerged with his perfect method for parallel parking. It is a skill I taught my daughters, my recently deceased husband, and my grandson.

I'm enjoying this musing as an El train passenger. "It's my meditation," I had told my daughter after the first of my carless trips. She worries about my anxiety level, certain it will topple me one day.  "I study the view, the people entering and exiting. I eavesdrop on conversations. I can feel my blood pressure dropping."

"Okay," she says, mollified for the moment. My child is worried that I gave up my Honda Fit hastily.

"Couldn't you have held onto it until you moved downtown?" she had asked. "Why now, when you're still in your house?"

I knew my explanation would just reinforce her picture of me sizzling like someone receiving electroshock therapy. But, I gave it a shot: "I had an entire year left on my car lease,” I said. “If I couldn't return it to a dealer, I'd owe $3,000. The only way to get a manager to accept it was to be sure it was in perfect condition."

I revealed how my rides in the Fit had turned into episodes of angst. I was terrified backing out of supermarket lots, certain I would ding a fender. I was convinced my bumper would become a victim at a yellow light when I’ve stopped and the cabbie behind me doesn't.

"Okay, I understand that," she said. "But, what about grocery shopping? I don't see you shlepping paper bags on the bus."

"Peapod home delivery!" I said. "They shop at Mariano's, the produce and groceries are terrific, they carry the Intelligentsia coffee I love, and they even have the Alstroemeria flowers I've been using to perk up the house for showings."

"Sounds like you've got it covered, Mom."  

"Just think of it," I went on. "I'm reducing my expenses, getting exercise by walking stairs to the platform, and protecting the environment." As I recited these benefits, I was heroic, altruistic, deserving of a medal.

“Good for you, Mom,” she said.

My reflection of this mother-daughter conversation was coming to an end as I alighted from the Purple Line at my Evanston stop and walked to Ruth’s house.

“You made it,” my friend said as she stood at her open door. She led me in and waited as I unzipped my boots and removed each layer of my wardrobe.

“No problem.” I said, dropping into the nearest arm chair. “Water, please.”

Ruth looked at me, and from her seat on a facing couch, said, “Marshall will drive you home later.”

Although I’m certain I would’ve rallied and successfully tip-toed the treacherous icy blocks to the Purple Line stop. And, heavily layered, I could have handled waiting on the windy platform for the Red Line. Knowing me, after carefully descending the slippery steps at Sheridan, I would’ve been fine sharing seats or aisles with bulky-coated rush hour passengers. But, I didn’t want to be rude.

“If you insist,” I said.