Thursday, January 17, 2008

Car-less in the Transit Village

A tow truck came Wednesday and took away the 1991 Ford Escort that had been sitting around here since November 2006, when it was declared beyond repair.

Click here for my January 2007 post on becoming a pedestrian while I pondered whether or not to get another car.

I guess you could say I have voted with my feet, because I could never decide on a new car. I kept up my insurance payments for a long time, thinking it would be easier to transfer the policy if I got a new car than to cancel and start over. But when yet another renewal bill came late last year, I had to admit there was no new car on the horizon.

I made a few feeble stabs at checking out cars , but my dread of the car sale process took over. I recalled the guy with the diamond pinkie ring on Route 22 who told me a noise in the car he just sold me was the carburetor. Never mind that the car didn't have one. That car also had bad tires, a broken windshield wiper and other faults that only came out after I took possession of it. It was not the first time that I suspected parts had been swapped out in sort of a reverse detailing after the sale.

My failed attempt years ago to get a new Geo Metro came after promises by a car saleman in Westfield who, after receiving a large down payment, pulled a bait-and-switch trick on me. He dramtically unfurled a long computer printout that, he said, showed the car I wanted could not be had. Then he tried to foist off on me a used car from his lot.

To thwart the well-known custom of car dealers to take advantage of women buyers, I once enlisted my daughter's boyfriend to come with me to a dealership. Unfortunately, he showed up in Birkenstocks and shorts that made him seem no match for the ruthless salesman. Once, I even asked my ex-husband to be the symbolic male in another transaction.

Having aged into the little old lady who mainly used a car for weekly grocery shopping, the thought of car payments, insurance, repairs and gas bills tended to make me agree with the proposition that taking public transportation or even using taxis will never cost as much as owning a car.

Perhaps the most chilling factor was my experience soon after I retired when I took my car to my trusty mechanics here in Plainfield for an inspection. I got a call that "something happened" and I needed a new transmission. Luckily, they knew where I could get one for $1,700. But the process took 18 days and when I got the car back, it shuddered mightily when I braked for left turns and stop lights. Turns out it needed three motor mounts for another $300. Or maybe it was something else. So much for trust in my mechanics.

Over the past year, even without a car, I was able to do just about everything necessary to do freelance reporting in addition to blogging. From Park & Seventh, it's easy to get around to the post office, library, school board and council meetings, train and bus routes and places to shop.

The car that most intrigues me is the Smart Car, but I want to see how it fares on the street in the USA. Locally, I see more and more SUVs and even big trucks being used for travel around town. And then there are those noisy racing cars that speed at 60 miles an hour on city streets. Will there be a place for the sensible but tiny Smart Car and its automotive kin? I will be watching from the sidewalk to see how things work out on the road in 2008.

--Bernice Paglia


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