Purple Line

Cheapskate, Environmentalist, or Chicken

I had my choice of a Ford Focus Hatchback or a Honda Insight Hybrid. Either would cost $47.04 for the four-hour rental I would use to drive to Old Orchard where I'd meet my friend, Ruth, for lunch.

            This online search was prompted by the absence of my own Honda Fit, which I had returned to the leaseholder prior to moving downtown.

            "Don't worry," I had told friends who worried the absence of a vehicle would curb my weekly visits. "I'll join a car-sharing service -- they're parked in my high-rise's garage -- so there won't be any interruption."

            Immediately after unpacking, I signed up with Zipcar, paid a $60 annual membership fee, plus $9 per month for a complete damage waiver. But, in the 365 days I've had the plastic card in my wallet, I've never used it.

            At first, I blamed my reluctance to the lack of available vehicles in my garage. Oh, there was a sampling several blocks away, but the trek eroded some of the ease I had envisioned.

            Part of the problem is my four-feet-nine-inches and need for visibility. In order to lift me above the steering wheel, I must use two pillows. The thought of schlepping those booster seats to a far away car lot is unappealing.

            My hesitation with Zipcar hasn't interrupted my promise to friends. Instead, I opt for the CTA, or Uber and Lyft ride-sharing apps with their private drivers.

            But, with a one-and-a-half hour Purple Line Linden train to Central St. in Evanston, then a #201 bus to the shopping center on my calendar, I decided to finally reserve a car for the 16-mile trip. I'd still have to walk elsewhere to get a car, but I was willing.

            As I perused my vehicle options, a trio of voices barged into my brain. First was the stingy sidekick. "If you take the train and bus, it'll only cost $2.50 roundtrip," she said, her demeanor mirroring a sensible accountant's. "Compare that to the $47.04 rental."

            Then, another voice interrupted; this one with a righteous tone, "Well, I agree that ditching a car is smart, but more important than cost is the effect on the environment." She was the same noodge who berated me for leaving at home canvas bags when I shop at Whole Foods. "Air pollution, global warming," she droned.

            The third voice chimed in -- timid, shaky. "Please don't drive," she said. "I'm scared. Remember what happened the last time, with the Prius and iGo?"

            How could I forget? At the time, I was still living on the northwest side, and wanted to try car sharing before my move. With vehicles across the street in Independence Park; I thought it'd be a breeze.

            But on the day of my experiment, no cars were available, so I walked nearly a mile to the nearest location. I followed instructions to unlock the door and start the ignition. I placed my two cushions on the driver's seat. Then, after lifting, stretching, and twisting to view the rear window, I slowly backed out.

            I braked as I spotted a four-door parked at an angle just behind me. Was that a dent in its rear fender? My heart hammered; I started perspiring, I felt weak, faint. Had I already maimed a vehicle? Instead of exiting to find out, I continued on, still shaking but believing that if I interrupted my trial, I'd never gain the shared-ride experience. As soon as I arrived at my destination, I checked for damage on the Prius -- none. Then, I called iGo.

            "I think I hit a parked car," I said, trembling as if I were confessing a murder. I provided all required information, then returned to the original lot. I took out my iPhone to capture the damage on the still-parked vehicle. But, I couldn't find any. The dent I had imagined was instead the fender's sloping design. I circled the car several times to make sure the two fenders matched. They did!

            I called iGo again and reported my happy findings. "Great," the staffer said, "but we'll send you an accident report just in case." I filled it out and waited days, weeks, months, a year, but nothing more came of the incident. Still, it traumatized me. Ever since, I've been reluctant to drive an unfamiliar car.

            So, I'll travel to Old Orchard via CTA. When Ruth praises my pluck, I'll tell her "saving money and the environment." But I'll confess to you: I'm a chicken -- a pint-sized hen that needs two booster seats to see over a steering wheel. Cluck. Cluck.

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.