Posted by: facetothewind | October 5, 2007

Carfree Living

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Ever notice how when you come to a new level of understanding about something that you then begin to notice how much everyone else seems so behind the times? It’s like when you finally discovered cotton sheets really were superior to the poly-cotton blends your mother raised you on – then you became an insufferable pill when you were whoring at someone else’s house. While they’re in the bathroom cleaning up their post-coital mess, you’re in the bedroom examining the greasy sheets that began their lives as light sweet crude and you’re thinking, “I just can’t wait to get home to my 400-count 100% Pima cotton sheets.” You know it. You’ve done it. There’s some place in you that is 100% snob.

Today I became an eco-snob.

It was this very morning that I finally took the leap I had contemplated making for nearly a year now. I gave up my car in one more slash at being a carefree, well-outfitted American. In a sprawling, hot desert city, I am now officially carless. To many Americans this means I have begun my spiral into being a loser. You will now find me on my bike at 43; on the train reading my used books; waiting for the bus wearing a big straw hat sustainably made in Ecuador, slugging down my distilled water in my reusable plastic bottle.

I confess I didn’t come to this newfound eco (I had to pause for a moment to remember what eco was short for – was it economy?) enlightenment. Ecological enlightenment. Ecological connoisseurship. I could get a hybrid after all. I could get an electric car. I could get an old Mercedes diesel and run it on vegetable oil. Instead I opted out entirely. I called my local public radio station and donated the car formerly known as Jeff to them. My life just became infinitely simpler.

As I was handing over the title of the 17-year old Honda to the truck driver, my neighbor Jimmy came out of his courtyard with a hose, watering down the front bricks. I like to conserve water here in Tucson. I flush my toilets once a day. I save my gray water in the kitchen and feed it to my thirsty basil plant out back. I even drip dry and squeegee myself with my hands at the edge of the pool taking care to make sure every drop lifted out by my hairy limbs is sent back into the pool. (It’s a community pool, in case you’re curious.) It is the precious snowmelt of the Rockies, after all, delivered magically to us here in the Sonoran Desert – a place where we would be living without had we not dug a series of canals that siphoned off the last of the Colorado River.

As Americans, living without has become akin to being a loser.

Jimmy likes to water his bricks. He spritzes the garden, waving the hose in the air with a childlike glee making sure that the desert trees and succulents are good and wet, even though the drip irrigation is taking care of their deep watering needs. The more I conserve water, the more it bugs the shit out of me that he wastes about 200 gallons of water each day on those bricks. He probably flushes his toilet before peeing, during peeing and once again after. He probably stands at the sink with hot water running down the drain while watching his giant TV screen washing his martini glasses by hand.

After giving the bricks a nice thorough soaking, Jimmy comes over to me with one of those classic suburban smiles that looks like he just hooked lips over his ears. These are the suburbs, we share a common wall in our townhouse complex and we need to make nice.

“Car won’t start, huh?” he asks me. He knows it hasn’t started for four months as cobwebs have grown over the tires while I was away.

“Well, no it won’t. And I’m finally getting rid of it. I’m going carless and committing to biking everywhere. It’s my commitment to the environment.” I told him. It registered with him like I had just said it in Chinese or something. He watched as the tow truck backed toward my Honda to take it away. He watched me today just as he watched me install my solar panels on my roof last winter.

“Oh I have seven cars if I count my wife’s and my daughter’s cars that I pay for. I pay $750 a month in car insurance alone.” He tells me with a little male breadwinner pride.

Jimmy has 4 cars here at the complex – all of them gas pigs: Two classic BMW sedans, one brand new Lexus SUV and one giant old Mercedes diesel. All of them are kept spotless, the tires coated with Armorall. They look like they’re ready for sale at a dealership.

“Hell, I’ve got $80,000 worth of iron sitting in this parking lot alone.” He has four cars and only two spaces. I knew he was salivating for my newly liberated parking space.

“Tell you what Jimmy,” I said cupping my chin with my hand, “If you get an alternative fuel vehicle, you can have my parking space. Get your Mercedes on bio-diesel and that covered space is all yours.”

The tow truck guy hitched the chains to Jeff the Honda and pulled his dead car body up onto the flatbed. Jimmy turned back to continue watering the bricks. I called after him.

“You know I can buy a lot of clothes and take a lot of trips on what I save from not having a car — the insurance, the registration, the maintenance. Hell, I could go to Thailand every month on what you pay for your car insurance each month.” He laughed and continued waging his war on dust and leaves with his garden hose like it was his M16.

My neighbor on the other side, Nancy, came by as she was finishing her morning walk in the desert. “Getting rid of the car, huh?” She took off her sunglasses in the shade. I noticed that her left eye was completely glazed over with white, like a blind dog’s eye. She had been stung in her sleep by a brown recluse spider. The venom spread to her eye and destroyed her cornea.

“How’s your eye, Nancy?” I asked.

“Oh it’s basically blind. I can see shadows. I can see that you’re there. But I’m managing just fine.” She smiled slowly, seemingly at peace with her one-eyed vision.

“Have you thought any more about going to Thailand for a cornea transplant?” I inquired, recalling a conversation we had months ago.

“Yeah, well, I think I’m just going to manage with it as it is. I don’t want to have to do drops the rest of my life. I can still do my work. I just have to get close in.”

Our attention turned back to the car. “I’m a little nervous about giving up the car. But I think hardship is sometimes a good thing. It forces you to slow down and have a real experience of life.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Think about how free you are now.” She consoled me in her quiet, almost Buddha-like way.

Free as a butterfly, I thought. I told her about when I was biking along the boulevard yesterday, a gorgeous yellow and black swallowtail butterfly had been hit by a car and was flopping on the roadside as SUVs and sports sedans whizzed past on their way to the foothills. The wind from the speeding cars was causing it to flip end over end on the shoulder.

I stopped my bicycle to pick it up, admiring the fuzzy silk of the leaves, so fragile and ornate. I held it in my hand and took its picture. I knew it would not survive having been whipped by the windshield of a car. I placed it gently in a napkin and put it in my backpack and brought it home on my bike with me.

It was still alive when we arrived home. I opened the napkin and placed it on the dining table. I talked briefly to it telling it I would admire its beautiful body with my collection of run-over bugs and butterflies. When it finally stopped responding to my little tickles on its legs, I went upstairs and got my soapstone box and placed its splendid dead body on top of a pile of colorful broken wings.

Jeff the Honda went away for the last time today. I’m free as a butterfly.

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