Our simple little lives changed drastically a few weeks ago. We bought a car. (Similar to this one pictured.)
Both Johnny and I are native New Yorkers. This means we didn't grow up needing a car. Where I lived, you had to worry about alternate side of the street parking and having anything you left in the car, including the radio, the engine, the mirrors, etc., being stolen. I grew up amidst "NO RADIO" signs, Lo-Jack systems, the Club, and alarms that went off so frequently that they soon just became part of the noise of the city that no one paid attention to anymore. My parents have always had a car but they also have a phobia about driving it, so we never used it. Instead it sits, very lonely, on one side of the street, just aging and waiting for someone to come show it some love and move it to the other side of the street. They use it only a handful of times a year and take public transportation everywhere they can and get rides everywhere else.
I took driver's ed when I was in college. I learned on the streets of lower Manhattan where I lived and battled with k-turns, parallel parking, and trying not to get killed by yellow cabs. Then at the recommendation of my instructor, I took the road test on Staten Island. I was completely unfamiliar with the area and I had an absolute Grinch of a tester. I failed on a three-point turn. She just told me to pull over and get out. I wasn't even allowed to finish the exam, which made me so gun shy that I gave up completely until about seven or eight years later when I was living in the Boston area. I was in grad school doing a teaching internship in a suburb, and for the first time in my life I needed a car. My other half at the time tried to teach me how to drive a stick. After one lesson, he gave up, telling me he'd always heard that if you want to save your relationship, don't attempt teach your better half how to drive. So I got lessons. I learned on a manual mint green Toyota Tercel and took the road test in Cambridge in a very suburban area I knew only marginally better than I knew Staten Island and passed on the first try.
Buying a car was a nightmare for a newbie like me. I was on a budget so I was looking for used. I mean really, really used. Being the Germanophile I was then, I had my heart set on a Volkswagen. I bought an '87 Jetta with just over 100,000 miles for $3,000 that was such an unbelievable piece of crap lemon that I probably spent twice that in repairs to the fuel system that did absolutely nothing before I junked it, said "whatever" to my budget, and leased a brand new Saturn. (Though for a new vehicle the base model Saturn I leased back then was as cheap as they came.) I loved driving a stick and a car that was mine, and it felt so special to actually have a car that I could rely on to start every time I wanted it to! That poor little car suffered a pretty miserable end that I won't get into here, but after that I moved abroad and then back to NYC and never got another one. Until now.
When Johnny and I met, he hadn't yet learned to drive. He was 22 then, so that was nothing out of the ordinary for a kid growing up in New York. During our hiatus, he learned to drive. When we got back together and took the occasional road trip, I was impressed with how calm he was behind the wheel and how meditative he found highway driving. We traveled well together, too, so we started taking more and more road trips. We joined Zipcar and Thrifty - the cheapest rental place in NYC that we could find short of "Rent-A-Wreck" - became our BFF.
I know everyone says that having a car in the city is a pain in the ass. But let me tell you, renting cars in NYC is a major pain in the ass too. Especially when you have a kid. We wanted to love Zipcar because their cars are nice and there are a few in the garage under our building, but they were often rented when we needed them, and on top of that, with the membership we had, we couldn't use one for more than 4 days at a time. Thrifty was far away enough that to get there was a major inconvenience. If I made the reservation, Johnny couldn't go pick up the car, and vice versa. If one of us couldn't stay home with the baby, we had to bring the world's biggest and heaviest model of car seat - the Britax Marathon - on the subway with the kid in the stroller to boot, just to bring the car back home to get the rest of our stuff before we could get on the road. Every weekly rental ended up after the rental fee, insurance, and everything else, being about $1,000 a pop. Remembering to gas up right before returning the car, in Manhattan where gas prices are even more astronomical than they are anywhere else was an expense and an inconvenience. And then to top it off if you are looking to save money you cut corners and get the cheapo economy size car which drives like it was made by Fisher-Price and you hope and pray that the insurance package you could afford will be sufficient. Once we got a flat tire and had to wait for roadside assistance on the side of interstate 87, so near our apartment we could practically taste it, with cars whizzing past us at a million miles an hour threatening to shave off the mirror they were so close. Another time we had a car that made a scary whistling sound whenever we drove over 60, which was essentially all the time. Once we had a car that leaned to the right. Once we had a really cool sports car that had such tiny back windows that you couldn't even see over your shoulder to change lanes or park. And of course, every time, you have to schlep and safely install the car seat, which is not as easy as it sounds, especially when there is an unhappy infant stuffed in it.
So we talked and talked and went over the pros and cons of renting vs. owning and decided to take the plunge. We do leave the city often enough that it makes sense to have one, and with our own car we'd leave even more. Plus we have a second child on the way, and if renting cars with one car seat and kid is complicated, we had a hard time imagining what it would be like with two. We hemmed and hawed but then our decision was much easier to arrive at when our good friends announced that they might be selling their 5 year old Subaru sedan with less than 30,000 miles to upgrade to something newer and bigger. We pounced.
Four weeks in, the car is great. It's exactly what we wanted. [Side note: Rather, it is now that we have figured out what the infamous Subaru "parking light" button is, that got turned on accidentally by the detailers the day after we brought it home. We didn't know it was on (we didn't even know it existed) and we came down the next day to a dead battery. Our building's garage jumped it for us with these awesome cables that had their own energy source (i.e., we didn't have to subject some other sucker and their car to providing the juice for us, isn't that neat?) and the mechanic we took it to smiled and shrugged and said "What do you want? It's a Subaru!"] It's small enough to navigate the city streets with all its illegal double parking glory, and large enough for a family of four with two car seats. It's generic looking. New enough to be in solid working order, but not too new to be out of our price range. In great condition, but not so shiny and fancy to call attention to itself. The insurance is affordable. The mother of all car seats finally has a home and we now have most of our hall closet back (good thing we have a double stroller to take its place). And it's starting to feel like ours. It doesn't have an auxiliary plug so we can't use our iPods but we have a stash of mix CDs featuring an awful lot of Sesame Street songs that all three of us can live with. We have quarters for meters, two phone chargers, a box of baby wipes, a small supply garbage bags and rules about keeping the car clean and free of junk. We found a detailer we like and have recommendations for a reputable and affordable local mechanic. It's becoming an extension of our home, an extension of us. The only really bad thing is that Thora seems to get carsick just like her mother, but we aren't sure what triggers it. She'll be whimpering quietly - or not so quietly - and we're singing our theme song which goes something like this: Hang in there baby girl! We know you want to get out and stretch your legs. We do too! Do you need a new diaper? Let's sing Sesame Street, okay? Where's your Big Bird? Where's your book? Want some water? We're almost there! when all of a sudden there's a weird cough from the backseat and an oh shit from the parent in the passenger seat and there's spinach and potatoes or orange juice everywhere. This means we go through a LOT of baby wipes and garbage bags so it's good we have a supply on-hand.
So... the cons of owning a car in Manhattan:
1) You have to have your own reserved parking spot. There's just no way around it. Alternate side of the street parking in Manhattan is a nightmare and I would much rather that my husband take our daughter to the park for an hour and a half twice a week than sit in the car for that much time with an energetic and impatient toddler waiting for a spot on the right side to open up.
And when you live in a neighborhood like ours whose safety seems to vary greatly from block to block, if you manage to get a spot on the right side that's a block away from where you normally park, you won't sleep for worrying what might happen. Reserved spots are really expensive but when they are in a garage that is connected to your building in the cellar, you really can't pass that up. Massage your budget to make it work! For us it meant giving up a monthly cleaning person and a few other things, but we mostly agree it's worth it (except when one of us is on hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom floor, as I was last night, sweating and muttering under my breath about losing our beloved Alicia to a stupid parking space). It means too much to us now: peace of mind knowing the car and everything in it is safe, not looking for a space frantically when one of us has to pee or our kid is crying, being able to drive our babysitter (read, my parents) home after they've watched our sleeping child so we can go to the occasional movie or to dinner with friends, and being able to bring a bunch of crap including the kid(s) and all their junk to the car without having to try to remember where the hell the car is or having to walk a half mile carrying everything and not letting the kid wander out into traffic. Also I am sure this garage space will be worth every penny come January. Who won't have to warm up the car for 20 minutes before going anywhere? Who won't be digging the car out in the first blizzard? Who won't have to worry about salt and rust? Us, that's who!
2) You can't use a car affordably in the city. Not really. I mean, you can use it on a Sunday when there's no alternate side or meters in effect, or to drop someone off or to pick someone up, to take it for servicing or to an outer borough where parking is not such an ordeal, but unless you want to pay for a garage every time you use it (we recently did this for the first time to have dinner with relatives on 23rd street. For 2 hours and 10 minutes of parking we paid $44!!) you absolutely cannot go grocery shopping with your kid or do anything else that involves trying to find a parking space in midtown in the middle of the week during the day. Just forget it. If you want to maintain your sanity, either don't bother going shopping at all ever, make sure you can tag team this with someone who can park while you shop with the kid and then pull up to wherever you are to load up your stuff, or just go ahead and drive out to the 'burbs. The Whole Foods in White Plains has free parking!
3) Gas is really &*%^#*!! expensive no matter where you are, but it seems to be at least $.20 more per gallon here than anywhere else.
4) Try not to be shocked when you get your EZ Pass statements. Those $1.25 tolls (and, okay, $6.50 bridge tolls) really add up fast!
5) Traffic is a bitch and cabbies really are as crazy as they are reputed to be. Count on accidents and other delays for even the shortest of jaunts unless you're going somewhere in the middle of the night (in which case the city is totally gorgeous and easy to navigate). Also plan to share a road with eight million other cars, none of which seem able to stay in their lanes or have working blinkers. If you are out driving late at night, may I recommend blasting music, singing along at the top of your lungs, and driving north up the FDR from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel? The view is second to none and there are no red lights to slow you down or other people on the road to point and laugh as you belt it out.
6) Having such easy access to outside the city makes you wonder why the heck you don't live outside the city. There's something to be said for quieter nabes, greenery, more space and parking lots or driveways!
And... the pros of owning a car in Manhattan:
1) You can leave the city more frequently and with a lot less hassle, since with a stroller even the easiest public transportation system in the world is a challenge, especially if you live, as we do, spitting distance from the interstate highways that take you up and out.
2) Insurance is a LOT cheaper for me than in Boston, somehow. Guess they don't call drivers in Massachusetts "Massholes" for nothing.
3) You can get discounts on homeowners' insurance and umbrella insurance. (Okay, I'm stretching it with this one, but it's true!)
4) You can sometimes get your spouse to drive you to work when you're late.
5) You don't have to pay the $17.95 delivery fee for Trader Joe's or $9.95 for Whole Foods. See? It saves you money!
It might look to you like the cons outweigh the pros, but when it comes to pros all you really need is that #1 and if you're Johnny or me, that outweighs everything. In the weeks we've had the car, we've done some painless but necessary shopping in the 'burbs instead of making 7,569,835 different stops around Manhattan with the stroller and a thousand bags on the subway, we've visited friends in Westchester without the hassle of Metro North or forcing them to pick us up and bring us home, made a last minute unplanned visit to my parents in Queens, driven 1000 miles to Virginia Beach and back, spent an impromptu day in Woodstock and in defense of #4, I've gotten three rides to work when Johnny was using the car for something else. And sometimes you even get balloons!
So far it's worth it. Ask me again in a few years when the car is starting to fall apart and I might be singing a different tune, but for now I'm all over it.