This isn't a big deal if you’re from New York City or Boston, or even San Francisco. Actually, I have friends who don’t drive because they live in places where owning a vehicle is more bother than necessity.
I’m a native of Southern California.
So, for folks like me—baby boomers in Los Angeles in the 1960s—a car was essential.
Getting to Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm or Universal Studios was nearly impossible without a car. You also couldn’t go to Malibu or Zuma, where those glorious beach party movies were filmed. On a mundane note, taking mass transit to my orthodontist for an early morning appointment, or arriving at Sunday school on time, was out of the question. And movies were the worst; we went on weekends, when buses ran only once an hour. This meant is that we always arrived at the theatre 20 minutes after the film had started.
My brother and I were told there wasn’t money for a car.
I accepted this fact when I was small.
As I grew, though, I saw that every kid in our working class neighborhood had at least one car in his driveway, and at least one parent who drove. Sure, these vehicles were older than what we saw on television, and had more dents, but at least the families who had them didn’t have to take the bus everywhere.
Later, I learned that years before I was born, my father had attempted to drive.
This was back in the day when there were tricky gear shifts and clutches and chokes. The family story is that after my dad crashed into a mailbox, he was done trying. My mother never wanted to drive, so our carless fate was sealed.
Thus, and in A Very Large Way, our lives revolved around buses.
Indeed, I think one big reason my parents bought the house we lived in was because it was half a block from a city bus stop. The route here also stopped in front of my father’s workplace; another bus would take us downtown to shop. In high school, a yellow school bus picked us up at the same corner.
When a bus couldn’t get us to our destination, my mother got creative.
A family friend on his way to work dropped us off at the orthodontist; from there, we could catch a city bus to school. My mother did grocery shopping with a neighbor; once a week, she’d climb into the woman’s station wagon, armed with coupons and ads, and buy enough food to last us until the next trip. Another acquaintance had a son who attended synagogue with us, so she would provide our way there.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was determined to master driving.
But probably because my parents didn’t know how to drive, getting behind the wheel didn’t come easily.
An uncle gave me my first lessons in a car with a stick shift. That ended when I couldn’t figure out how to steer, and nearly careened onto a front yard lawn. I also braked too hard; didn’t always look in the mirrors I was supposed to look in, and couldn’t change lanes smoothly. I failed my first driving test. But after more lessons from my best friend’s father, I passed on the second try.
It was then that my parents bought their first car, a sensible copper-colored compact. It was just for me, and they allowed me to take it to school, or to use it to run errands for them.
After that car died, a cousin gave me his, which I used to travel across the country in when I was a circus clown. And then I bought another, and then another. Except for the years I lived in New York City, I have always had wheels.
I like to think that having to take a bus nearly everywhere in car-crazy Los Angeles left no scars.
But it did.
I began encouraging my daughter to drive a full year before she decided she was confident enough to learn. I get to movies at least 15 minutes early. I always get the oil changed on time, because I never want my car to break down. When it is in the shop for more than one day, I’ve made sure, well in advance, that The Hubster or a handful of neighbors will help me get around.
And occasionally, whenever I see a child or an older woman at a bus stop, alone and looking worried, I give them a ride.