I have owned one car in my life. I bought it used from my older brother in late 1985, when I was twenty-two. The car was a long red Monte Carlo with white trim. In the years before that, after our father died, my brother—who was a man when I was a boy—would show up in that car and drive me, and sometimes my friends, or his friends, or my sister, to sports events in our hometown of Washington, DC, or to Baltimore Orioles baseball games. In the car we would talk and joke and laugh, once in a while even sing. I had good times in that car.
Now it was mine. I had bought it because … I was not really sure why I bought it. At the time I had a job in Georgetown, which I could get to with perfect ease on the Metro. Generally speaking, there were not many places I went that required a car. I suppose I thought that I was now an adult—never mind that, after I graduated from college in Ohio, my bachelor’s degree and I went straight back to live in my mother’s house—and that being an adult meant having a car. Needing or wanting to drive it was secondary.
And deep down, I did not want to drive it. A lot of people love the feel and freedom of driving—certainly our culture celebrates those things—but those were outweighed for me by other factors, chief among them the astounding ease with which I can get lost. I thought about writing that I have the country’s or the world’s worst sense of direction, but that would suggest the presence of said sense. Is there such a thing as the opposite of a superpower? If getting lost were an ability, I would be Captain America, and behind the wheel I am Superman himself, my already phenomenal capabilities increased exponentially, allowing me to travel at the speed of thought from familiar environments to those where my lack of orientation is total, where up may as well be down, left is the same as right. Things are worse at night. Once—once—I drove to work; that was harrowing enough, but then, after the sun had gone down, I set out for home. A wrong turn somewhere, a few minutes of moving in a bad direction much more quickly than humans were built to move, and I could have been in outer space for all that I recognized. I had a moment of absolute and absolutely frightening clarity, the realization that, even as I did not know and could barely see where I was going, my every decision and indecision was determining the path of two speeding tons of metal. I saw one older man, caught in my headlights in that darkness, standing on a divider and starting to cross; then he spotted me and danced back the other direction, his face that of one who has seen death. Somehow, I do not know how, I made it home and did not kill anyone that I know of on the way, and I returned the next day to public transportation, which I began calling “Metro, my buddy.”
I suppose I thought that I was now an adult—never mind that, after I graduated from college in Ohio, my bachelor’s degree and I went straight back to live in my mother’s house—and that being an adult meant having a car. Needing or wanting to drive it was secondary.
I wonder, now, what would have happened if I had remained in D.C. Would I eventually had shed my fears, developed a sense of where I was going, and become comfortable behind the wheel like everyone else? Or would I have simply sold the car and kept riding the Metro? As it happened, a confluence of events set me on a third path. That spring of 1986, when I had turned twenty-three, the bottom fell out of both my plans to obtain an MFA in fiction writing and my long-distance romance with my college girlfriend. In danger of disappearing down a hole of doubt as to whether I could do anything at all, I sold the Monte Carlo and moved—though not for this reason—to perhaps the one place in these United States where no one needs a car.
And so began my three-decades-and-counting relationship with the New York City subway. The rush-hour commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the F train, which soon became routine, was a marvel to me in those early days; if the aim had been not to reach our respective destinations but to find out how many people could be jammed together butt-to-butt in a train car, everybody breathing in what somebody else had just breathed out, the result would have looked exactly the same, each of us straining to hold on to a pole—for mysterious reasons, since the one thing less likely than finding a comfortable position in that human sardine tin was falling down. The magic of the New York subway is that you no sooner get used to one element than it throws another at you, and I use the word “magic” advisedly, because, like a magician, the subway can seemingly produce anything. It is not news that on any given trip you are likely to see a singer, or a saxophonist, or a preacher, or a comedian, or a team of acrobats—some of them pretty good—or some combination of these. Then there are the more unusual sights. The first I remember was on a downtown platform at West Fourth Street, where my eye fell on a man I slowly realized was wearing exactly one article of clothing: the green leather jacket that covered only the upper reaches of the crack in his rear end. And there was what I saw one June day in 1988 on the D train, which continues to amaze me not because it happened but because, despite the great variety and sheer number of people who pour into the subway each day, I have not seen it happen more often. A man was sleeping, his body spread across five seats on a fairly crowded car. The train stopped at a station in Midtown Manhattan, and a man who got on saw the sleeper and slapped his foot. The sleeper sat up and said, groggily and angrily, “What you wake me up for?” The two men got into a shouting match, which quickly turned into a fistfight. The sleeper, who had begun to lose the fight, left the train, which was being held in the station, and the other man took a seat. A few moments later the sleeper returned, holding a glass bottle. “You wanna fight now?” he said to the other man, bringing the bottle with great force down on the man’s head, creating an explosion of glass and blood—especially blood.
Friendships and other relationships began and ended; I worked here, and then I worked there, and then I worked somewhere else; I had an apartment in this neighborhood, then that neighborhood, then another, and then the first again, and through it all, there was, there has been, the subway.
More important for me than the subway’s ability to surprise, though, is another trait, the opposite of that one: its constancy. Friendships and other relationships began and ended; I worked here, and then I worked there, and then I worked somewhere else; I had an apartment in this neighborhood, then that neighborhood, then another, and then the first again, and through it all, there was, there has been, the subway. I rode it every day in the course of discovering that there were, in fact, things I could do, among them thriving at a job, finding a life partner, raising children. And while thriving at a job can be a trap—do one thing well and you may find yourself supervising those who do it less well, your stress mounting until you sing along with David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?”—the subway was there for that, too. These days the subway announcements are automated, but for a time, on the uptown number 4 train, there was a live person telling you where you were and saying to those getting off, somehow accenting the last two words equally, in the same, near-musical tone, “Have a great, daaaayy …” I have no idea what this conductor looked like, and to be honest I do not even know if I was hearing a man or a woman. But I do remember that on those mornings when I was on my way to run my department, maybe facing a tight deadline, or an uncomfortable talk with a staff member, or a meeting that was sure to be provoking, or all three, I would hear “Have a great, daaaayy … ,” and I would be cheered just a little and think, “Okay—sniff—I’ll try!”
But even constancy is not the subway’s greatest gift to me. In 1993, having moved into the Brooklyn home where I still live, I began working in the Bronx, making for a solid forty-five minutes of train time, twice a day. I was struggling for some semblance of success as a writer, another journey on which I felt lost; part of that journey was reading as much as I could, and on those trains to and from the Bronx, as slow a reader as I am, I put away hundreds upon hundreds of books by great writers, from John Cheever to Tolstoy to Ishmael Reed, from Jane Austen to Colson Whitehead to Zadie Smith, feeling each work add muscle to the lean frame of my literary understanding. (At home I read essays and other nonfiction and sometimes poems, but being on a moving train seemed to call for the forward motion of fiction.) One Saturday in the mid-2000s I biked with my older daughter around Prospect Park to her soccer game; as I stood on the sidelines watching, my mind drifted toward my reading life. I was forty-one years old at the time, and the soccer coach, I happened to know, was sixty-one—and watching him run around on the field, twenty years older than I was and still very vital, I thought of how many good years I had ahead of me, and how much time I could spending reading and learning (particularly if I continued to work in the Bronx, which I did for seven more years), and I felt a quiet surge of joy.
• • •
And yet. One day many years ago a co-worker said in my presence that you do not feel like an adult until you have a business card. (At the time I was in my twenties and several years away from having my first business card, and the comment annoyed me greatly.) And I realize now, in a way I somehow could not articulate when I was twenty-two, that a car is a kind of two-ton business card. A card announces to the world that some entity, somewhere, has found you worthy of representing it in a position of ostensible importance, a signifier of your capability; a car announces to the world that you have an adult’s ability to determine your own course, to follow your own plan and carry it out.
My experience with cars did not end with the Monte Carlo, and yet the nature of that experience does not confirm what is supposedly confirmed by sole ownership of a car. In my case a car does not represent independence because, as I like to say, my wife (who has a sense of direction) and I (who somehow have a license) together make up one driver. We have had some good times that way, though. I remember in particular the feeling of driving a rental car in the mountains out West, under that big sky, the sense of possibility as my wife sat in the passenger seat beside me, pregnant with our first child. (About seven years later that same child, our older daughter, looking out of our apartment window at the rental car I had driven home in preparation for a beach vacation, asked me—with no trace of facetiousness but with genuine curiosity and, perhaps, the slightest hint of concern—“Do you know how to drive?” As a young adult she took driving lessons. “Try to remember what your parents do in the car,” the instructor told her.
“You don’t understand,” she replied.)
I realize now, in a way I somehow could not articulate when I was twenty-two, that a car is a kind of two-ton business card. A card announces to the world that some entity, somewhere, has found you worthy of representing it in a position of ostensible importance, a signifier of your capability; a car announces to the world that you have an adult’s ability to determine your own course, to follow your own plan and carry it out.
It is important to realize, of course, that symbols such as cars and business cards are merely that—symbols—and should not be confused with the things they represent. And yet symbols have a certain importance of their own, and so it is also important to understand that there are different ones. Several years ago I began teaching creative nonfiction writing at a college north of New York City. To get there I take the subway to a commuter train. On that train, with a seat to myself, looking out the window at suburbs whizzing by, my briefcase next to me and my fedora in the overhead rack, I feel a bit like a Cheever character; that is to say, I feel—in a way I somehow never have before—like an adult.
I close with two memories. The first is a memory of the climax of one of my favorite movies, The Graduate. A friend of mine once said that every man in America wants to be Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben, as he roars down highways and back roads in his sports car to stop his beloved Elaine from getting married. But then he runs out of gas and has to finish the trip on foot.
The second is a memory from the spring of 1986, when I was twenty-three. I had already seen my college romance and my grad-school plans go south, but I had not yet moved to New York; marriage, children, and a career were all years away. I still owned the long red Monte Carlo, and one Sunday I drove two good friends and the girlfriend of one of them to a Baltimore Orioles game. We had just taken our seats at the stadium when two people, one of them a woman in her early thirties, sat next to us, the woman’s seat adjacent to mine. She struck up a conversation with me. As I discovered later, she also caught the first name of one of my friends as well as a reference to where he worked. The next day, at home, I answered the phone. The caller said, “This is the woman who sat next to you at the baseball game.” A few nights after that, I set out in the Monte Carlo for her apartment in a Virginia suburb. As I made my uncertain way there, I had a dim faith—based on what, I could scarcely tell you now—that I could make it to other places, too.