During the entire time I lived abroad—nearly two decades—I never once had to own a car. Today, in San Antonio, my wife and have two. It’s not that we want to live this way; it’s that we have no other choice. There is certainly a bus system in San Antonio, and I have done research about how I might use it to get to work, but it’s not practically possible given where the stops are located, the number of bus changes I’d have to make, and the infrequency of these multi-passenger vehicles. When I lived in Poland, in the city of Tarnow, a place with a tiny fraction of the population of the Alamo City, there was a more sophisticated public transportation system than what I find in this monstrously large metropolitan area.
So Europe kicks America’s butt when it comes to having figured out transportation. I have lived on the continent and been a tourist in just about every European country and can provide firsthand experience to bolster such a claim. Americans like to think that they live in the freest country in the world, but how much freedom do they actually have when it comes to daily travel? Freedom is about having choices, and the average American has almost none when it comes to how he or she gets to and from work and such. We have the automobile and that’s it. The car industry, along with its buddy Big Oil and Gas, seem to own the country and have disproportionate power in determining how we live our lives. We all know these powerhouses have played a pivotal historical role in having prevented America from developing a European-style public transportation system.
So my wife and I own two cars. Of course, we have to insure these vehicles and register them and pay yearly inspection fees. We have to fill their bellies with gasoline. This means we literally spend hundreds of dollars, if not more, on a yearly basis to keep these two machines legal and in working order because we have no other choice. This is money we could save or spend in much more meaningful ways on our home or on travel or what have you. Of course, every American is in the same boat. That’s one of the reasons the middle-class is being squeezed to death. How much richer would Americans and America be if we could invest in affordable public transportation and ween the nation off the automobile?
Because of everything I’ve said in the previous paragraphs, I don’t think it would be strange for me to conclude that we don’t actually own these cars. Instead, they own us.
I don’t especially like being owned by two high-maintenance mechanical divas. Their moodiness drives me bonkers. Not long ago, for example, I went to our garage and tried to start our Nissan. I inserted the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. I tried again and again but the thing wouldn’t fire up. I eventually ended up having to have my wife take me work. As it turns out, there was something very minor having to do with the battery. The mechanic looked at it for a few seconds, made the tiniest of adjustments, and the thing started up and purred like a contented kitten.
Because I am an American, I have had to learn a lot about how to find a good auto mechanic. I have also learned that they speak their own indecipherable language, have their collection of secret code words. They are the mystics we mere mortals turn to when our garage beasts get sick or simply want to make our lives a bit more complicated than they already are.