This post was written by Christine Borne Nickras and originally appeared on her blog, Queen of the Bondo.
“Mike doesn’t understand how you can do it,” says my friend Ruth, of her fiancé. Our companions at the bar are a retired surgeon and his wife. The bartender admires my gumption or lack of pretension or both when I ask the piano player to play “Stairway to Heaven,” which he then does, reluctantly.
“Well, I’m a crazy person,” I tell her. “And trying to do this for the last five years has made me crazier.”
She orders a second glass of riesling. “Why don’t you just get a Smart Car?”
This is the moment in the script that I always dread. The moment where I have to explain that my foolhardy commitment to public transit in the Rust Belt has nothing to do with the environment, and has everything to do with my deep-seated resentment that we’ve arranged modern American life in such a way that all but forces you to own something you probably can’t afford.
It might be doubly uncomfortable to explain to this to Ruth, who grew up in nearly identical middle class circumstances as me. Our respective sets of parents were both tight-fisted with cash, and we grew up in a size of house that kids don’t seem to grow up in anymore: the size where you have to move out at eighteen because if you don’t, you and your parents are going to drive each other to homicide. We took the same classes, got similar degrees. But Ruth became a young professional and I became…I didn’t become anything. I stayed the same person I was at 19, eating canned beans and granola bars and obsessing about loose change I found in the street. Middle class in income, yes, but without the trappings.
Five years later, the plausibility of living in Cleveland without a car turns out to have been the biggest thing I was kidding myself about when I decided to move back here from New York. It’s possible, yes. What isn’t possible, however, when you depend on public transit in a shrinking city, is something that is easy to do in New York: you can’t turn a blind eye to human suffering.
Cleveland is a city built for a million but which is now home to about a third of that. A third of the people left in the city proper live in poverty. It has a public transit system that was used by the middle class at one time but is now largely used only by the poor, except when the Indians or Browns or Cavs are playing. I now live sans car in the neighborhood where I lived fifteen years ago as a college student, sans car. Fifteen years ago the bus ran every eight to twelve minutes. Now it runs once an hour and not at all on the weekends. It’s hard to depend on a bus that only runs once an hour. One time, the bus broke down near the beginning of the route, and I waited an hour and half for the next one. It was 20 degrees. I was suitably dressed, but teenage girls who live in Section 8 housing aren’t always, and picking up a ride from a stranger can seem like an attractive option. That’s a problem in a city where 11 women can disappear into one man’s house and never be heard from again.
I am in the middle class, and I do not have a single friend who does not own a car. I don’t go to Young Professionals networking events because getting around at night is difficult and oftentimes dicey. I don’t hang out with my friends much at all, because it’s inconvenient for me to get to where they are, and I feel like a burden asking them to pick me up and drop me off. I haven’t been to most of the trendy places the blogs and glossy magazines talk about, because I can’t get there. I go to the Bi-Rite that is three blocks from my house, where the green peppers are packaged on styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic, and not Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods like everyone else who shares my skin color and educational background.
It occurred to me once as I was riding to work on a Saturday morning, on a nearly empty bus through a neighborhood that always makes me think of the Tom Waits song “God’s Away On Business,” that the whole reason I was having such a struggle with living in Cleveland this time around, why everyone was suddenly accusing me of being so negative, was that I was expecting to have a normal and typical city experience in a place that wasn’t a normal and typical city anymore. It occurred to me that the Cleveland seen by people who I was supposed to have turned out like was not the Cleveland I was seeing at all: I had watched Peter Weir’s film The Last Wave on television the night before, a film in which a white lawyer (played by Richard Chamberlain) takes on a case where four Aborigines are wrongly accused of murder. He forms a strange bond with one of the defendants, a bond which allows him access to the Dreamtime, the eternal, parallel world where you lived before you were born and where you go after you die. As I watched a drug deal happen on a street corner under sunny blue skies, not far from where my grandfather’s mother once lived, I wondered if I lived in a parallel Cleveland from the ones my should-have-been cohorts did.
(At the end of the film, Richard Chamberlain dies in a watery apocalypse.)
All it would take, really, for me to be #happyinCLE would be to just forget about this bus nonsense and do what a good samaritan suggested to me from their passing vehicle as I walked down Van Aken Boulevard: get a car. Presto change-o, Cleveland would become easy to love. I could forget all about the young woman with the stroller who has to wait on a dark, empty corner for a bus that comes every 45 minutes, in the kind of neighborhood where the roadside memorials don’t memorialize victims of traffic accidents or accidents of any kind, except maybe birth. I could forget about the dad in transit worker coveralls who’s falling asleep with his daughter on his lap. I would never have to think about what it must be like to be a young black transexual surrounded by a crowd of people who in one breath are threatening to beat the fucking shit out of you, faggot, and in the next breath are talking about God.
I am afraid that if I had a car, I would do that: I would never see these people, so I would forget about them. It would be easy to. And I can’t.
Instead, here’s a plea to car-having readers who do not wish to live as I do: understand that your car is a luxury. Understand that when you get in your car to run a ten-minute errand, the same errand might take someone without a car two hours on the bus. When you turn your key in the ignition, please feel the same sense of wonder and good fortune that I feel every time I take my dirty clothes down to the basement instead of hauling them to the laundromat: what a lucky person I am to not only live in a world where someone was smart enough to invent this thing that makes my life easier, but that I, by some additional happenstance of good fortune, can have one.
I can’t remember if I tell any of this to Ruth at the bar. It sounds like the kind of thing I’m likely to say while drunk, so I probably do. When she goes to the bathroom I steal her iPhone out of her purse and page through the dozens of people we grew up with who she is friends with on Facebook and I am not. At the end of the evening she offers to drive me home but the whole reason I asked her to this particular locale was because the train station is twenty feet away, so I take my leave. When I switch trains downtown I realize I am drunker than I’d thought. A Cavs game has just let out and the train, which is only two cars long, is jammed with middle class white people who don’t realize they’re not supposed to clog the doors, and who don’t realize there’s such a thing as a public transit voice. Is this the real Cleveland, then, or the Dreamtime Cleveland? If I close my eyes and fall asleep, I’ll end up at the end of the line, which is the airport, where I can buy a one-way ticket back to New York, a city that never compels me to ask myself such questions.
But I don’t fall asleep and I don’t buy that ticket. I never do.