So there I am in the kitchen one night, making guacamole, when I realize it simply must have more pulp, which is to say more avocado. But I don’t have another avocado; I bought only three. Do I really want to go back to the store for one more avocado?
Yes, sir! Because I can hop in the elevator and practically arrive in produce.
That’s the beauty of living above a full-service grocery.
It wasn’t always this embarrassingly easy. For most of my life in New Haven, though I’ve always lived near the city center and liked to walk, buying groceries meant a trip in the car: There was no central grocery to walk to, a sad but common circumstance in small-city America. With the November opening of Elm City Market, life in New Haven improved for many of us.
For me, the opening of the market coincided (more or less) with the start of a new job, also downtown. These two developments brought a fantasy into focus – ditching my car. With food at hand and my desk nearby, the geography of my daily life shrank to a decidedly human scale.
God knows, the car was a liability. Crown Towing, Columbus Towing, Lombard Motors, Fountain’s Garage, York Service Center – they’d all towed the ’03 silver Jetta, some more than once. How many times had I made my way to their forlorn junkyards to pay grudging ransom?
But that’s all behind me now. One morning this winter a tow truck made off with my Jetta for the last time.
This tow truck, emissary of a future owner, had Rhode Island plates. Pulling to the curb at Chapel and Orange, the driver, a friendly fellow called Brian, hopped out and shook my hand. Peppering me with small talk as he unscrewed the plates, he reminded me DMV would want them back. He handed me a receipt, hauled the car off the street and drove off. That was it. After nearly eight years, I was carless and carefree.
I set off, afoot.
During earlier periods of city living, in Boston, San Francisco and New York, I took for granted the pleasure of getting around on my own steam. For five glorious years, I never needed a car for daily life and didn’t own one. I walked or rode my bicycle.
If it was critical not to arrive in a sweat, I took the bus, subway or streetcar. It was a simple, humane lifestyle, and an interesting one: On foot and bike alike, you’re exposed, part of your surroundings, hyper alert and open to serendipity.
The blissful days of self-propulsion came to an end when I moved back to New England, first to Cape Cod, then to Connecticut. These geographies lack meaningful mass transit. The carless life was over.
Connecticut at least had New Haven, and that’s where I eagerly settled. Fair criticisms are made of the Elm City, but it is indisputably the state’s most fully evolved metropolis – lively, cultured, walkable. Especially if you live downtown, there’s easy access to restaurants, museums and watering holes, a classy movie theater, a good public library, drug stores, dry cleaners, train stations. The Ecuadorians among us even have a consulate to visit.
The main wrinkle for me was that, until recently, I worked outside the city, in Hartford and Middletown. So, I lived a compromise: I drove a lot for work in order to walk more (if not enough) at home.
As with all compromises, there were costs. At 80 round-trip minutes per day for the commute to Hartford, I spent about 1,500 hours in the car over a four-and-a-half-year period – the equivalent of 62 days. That’s a lot of time unavailable for other pursuits, and a depressing load of resources for gas,insurance, maintenance, repairs, parking, parking tickets and towing fees. Also, I wasn’t exactly living green.
Eventually I decided I’d had enough. This was not a sustainable routine, for me or for the Jetta. I’d worked that car hard – 199,000 miles hard. Things were about to get ugly.
I saw two palatable options: Find interesting work in New Haven or decamp to another city offering both a good job and a good life, which is to say the carless life.
It took time, perseverance and luck, but it worked out – I’m happily employed in New Haven, living downtown, and getting almost everywhere on foot. This isn’t practical for everybody. But it’s increasingly so as developers add housing units near the Green and the trains, which can carry people to jobs up and down the shoreline. More mass transit would make the carless life possible, and appealing, for more people.
Walking or biking, I like the feel of sunshine on my face, glimpses of lancet windows and herringbone brick patterns, the smell of fresh-baked doughnuts, the sounds of Metro North rushing people into the city, unexpected sidewalk encounters with friends and acquaintances. It’s life experienced directly.
Distant places are as far away as ever, of course, and harder to reach. When it rains, I get wet. But the avocados are always close. And I never get towed.