I am flat-out ashamed of how much of my life is spent in the car. I arrived in this city 11 years ago on a Greyhound bus, walked up and down the CounterBalance to work, and cleared my head by going on a good long walk. Now I road trip in the car, drive figure eights around the city, and clear my head by going for a good long drive.
It happens when you become a parent. Standing at a bus stop for 30 minutes isn’t as appealing when you can’t tune out your company with a novel and a set of headphones – because your company now are actually little folks you are quite endeared to and whom could easily jump out into the road. My kids LOVE the bus, but I happen to live on a route where you have to bust out the Jackie Chan moves to get a seat. Twenty-somethings sitting in the front seats look at me with one kid strapped on the back and another in tow as if I went ahead and bred just to guilt them out of their comfortable sitting state.
Seattle isn’t known for its winning transit system, nor is it famed for effective driving routes. Floating bridges, a major roadway along the waterfront, and lakes every which way sound like they might make for an interesting drive, but they are misshapen pieces in an urban puzzle of a town trying to connect citizens in disparate neighborhoods. Many end up driving in the absence of a cohesive rapid transit system.
We start telling ourselves that the store three blocks down is really too far to drive to, and start nestling into that second home of ours – the family car. You have the vehicles with free Trader Joe’s stickers covering the back seat windows and Cheesies ground into the carpet. You have the ultra-detailed cars that show little evidence of juvenile presence at all. And then you have my family car – a stroller awkwardly caging in all the rabble in the trunk, Band-Aid packs, Arnica gel, blankets, and toys for the kids in the back seat.
Sometimes, I am even so delusional to think that I can sit between the car seats while my husband and I offer someone else a ride. The last time I tried this, my hips made it but I tipped over my son’s car seat. My hips wouldn’t be this wide if I walked the eight mile round trip to my next dental appointment or put my son in the Ergo and walked three miles to the nearest decent grocery store. The problem is that there is a creeping sense of entitlement that grows once you consider yourself a driver. Walking seems cruel, like a threat you might make if people in House #2 start misbehaving.
The truth is that when I was a die-hard pedestrian, I understood that I wouldn’t get everything done in one day. Shopping was an adventure, as was tomorrow’s hardware store run. Errands were paced. Schedules were planned, but the essence of riding the bus or walking is that it put me face-to-face with strangers frequently.
Children can make friends easily. Heck, they are likely the only ones without their Zombie GameFaces on. My son chooses a middle-age woman and starts batting his eyes at her until she melts and says hello, and that is when he promptly becomes Mr. Shy Guy and tucks his head into my shoulder. My daughter strikes up conversations about bus drivers or falling leaves at the bus stop. She is getting to this marvelous age where she appreciates the kindness of strangers that introduce themselves to her. “I made a new friend today!”
So riding the bus and walking have become sweet field trips for us. We see details that we would otherwise speed right past. Strangers offer my daughter candy right in front of me. A police horse stands guard near the bus stop downtown. Some people beg, some ask for directions, others tell me all about their children who are now grown. Life is happening right there all around us. And that teaches the kids more than any NPR radio segment ever could during our car commute.