As a citizen of Martha’s Vineyard, I live car-free. I avoid the term car-less because that implies a lack. Homeless, brainless, like that. Ever since the fall of 2001, when my yellow Dodge Dart died and I put it on the barge of defunct junk that leaves the Packer wharf, I have cycled and ridden the buses, and I walk. I walk a lot.
It helps that I don’t go out much. Tell me about a wonderful potluck supper in Chilmark with Venetian maskmakers and Tanzanian giraffe wranglers, and I’ll suddenly recall I’ve got to read Chapter 7 of “The Brothers Karamazov,” a book I’ve been meaning to revisit since my sophomore year in college, and that I’ll probably re-finish during my last gasps at Windemere.
So when my mother comes to stay for her month of sea breezes after the scorched-earth policy of a Palm Desert August, she mostly falls in with my plan of living la vie sans voiture. But alas, this 94-year-old woman still lusts after a car, specifically a car with herself in the driver’s seat, so she can chew up the macadam like the little old lady from Pasadena — cue the Beach Boys: She drives real fast and she drives real hard, she’s the terror of Colorado Boulevard.
The only reason she’s spared speeding tickets is that cops are beguiled by the date of birth itemized on her license. “This can’t be your age!” they guffaw, forgetting she just whizzed through a stop sign, and moreover, clunked it hard enough to turn it the wrong way.
During our first few summers together, my mom begged, borrowed, and even rented cars from people hoping to sell but willing instead to take the short money.
But now that I live smack in the middle of Oak Bluffs, it’s easy to walk everywhere, and to catch the bus below Ocean Park, and be driven to worlds beyond worlds. For a while now my mother has bided her vacation time without any car whatsoever, until —
Until last weekend when her grandson Charlie, now living in New York, proposed a 23-hour furlough to come see her. Suddenly we had to rent a car. A car you could hug — my own stipulation — a Smart car, a Mini Cooper, a go-cart. My mom paid a call to that rental place at Five Corners and came up with — ta dah! — a Fiat Cinquecento.
We knew these cars from 1960 when our family lived in Rome and everyone-but-everyone had a Cinquecento. Think of an automobile smaller than a VW Bug. Now picture 9 million of these things buzzing around the Piazza del Popolo at one o’clock in the afternoon. And what happened if you crossed over to the next piazza — the one with the fettucine Alfredo joint? Same thing; another 9 million Cinquecenti.
Once, as we entered a tiny cobbled lane in the ancient city, a gray Cinquecento swooped past us close enough to flatten our toes. My dad lifted his right foot and kicked a hole in the rear flank of the car. The driver screeched to a stop, got out, and made the customary death threats. My dad hustled us into a shop of Florentine leather goods, down the basement steps, up a ladder, and into the safety of an alley with drifts of people’s laundry.
So what did we do this past weekend with this white Cinquecento, with a top that peeled down, insuring a cannoli-sized tan on our heads? Also on the funky side, the drive gear gave us an illusory frisson of wielding a stick shift: As the car rolled, the engine whined like a manual transmission’s, so we tapped the gear. The engine smoothed, until five seconds later it required another tappity-tap-tap. (Later, when Charlie arrived, he demonstrated a place where the drive gear could hang out on full automatic.)
Italian engineering! Cue “Volare”: Nel blu dipinto di blu tap tap!
So what did we do? Errands! A run to the Tisbury Farm Market for Marvin Jones’s guacamole! A dash to the library to return books! Come night, we scanned the paper for a movie: nothing of interest to anyone who’d made it by hook or by crook out of the ninth grade. But what’s this? A Buddhist speaker at the Yoga Barn in Chilmark?!
Off we went. My mom tried to bluster her way out of removing her shoes. I blew my cool by revealing to all and sundry that we decided on this talk for lack of a good movie.
By Day Two, car ownership — however temporary — lost its magic. We drove to Edgartown to dine at the Seafood Shanty, found NOT ONE parking spot, not even way-the-heck down on South Water Street, nor under the shaggy magnolia of an unused church parking lot. Back we circled to the edge of town. We enjoyed a stop ‘n shop at the — golly! what a coincidence — Stop ‘n Shop, before looping up to the airport to collect Charlie (I could swear my mom negotiated the roundabout with her eyes closed).
It was, admittedly, a treat to drive to Vineyard Haven for our last-ever dinner at the soon-to-be-closing Le Grenier. The next morning we “wasted” our car by walking to breakfast at Beetlebung in Oak Bluffs. After that we drove Signore CinqueC. to East Chop to pay respects to our past which includes, over the fence from our old house, the burial spot for our old trusty cocker spaniel.
We dropped Charlie at the ferry, where I restrained myself from wrapping my arms around his ankle as he shuffled off to the boat.
Our final pilgrimage took us to the sweeping view beyond the West Chop Lighthouse where my mom and dad, when they used to visit in the fall, renting both a Tashmoo condo and some clunker car, came to sit and stare at the Sound, the whole time discussing what they’d have for lunch.
Was it worth it? The use of a car that enabled us to do a gazillion things in 48 hours? You bet! But once the novelty wore off, the nuisance factor kicked in: parking, gas, traffic, parking. Two days of driving every 12 months is really all you need to feel truly alive.
Now where did I put “The Brothers Karamazov”?