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L.A. without wheels

April 25, 2008|Carolyn See | Carolyn See is the author of "Golden Days" and "The Handyman."

I JUST DIDN'T WANT to be like that chubby lady in graduate school, the one who always needed to be driven home across the city. She still shows up in aggrieved self-published memoirs of our former classmates. She was smart, but she was immobile; she refused to drive and strongly felt that all of us owed her a ride. She stood as an enormous rock between the rest of us and a good time. A few months ago, when I knew that my driver's license wouldn't be renewed because of my macular degeneration, that I'd be moving to Santa Monica near the Promenade so that I could "walk to everything," my only resolution was not to be like her. I would walk to everything. In theory.

So after 32 years in Topanga Canyon, nine years in Pacific Palisades, I came back down to the flats. I'm over 70 now, and though perky overall, my eyesight is iffy, my knees creaky, my breath short. Walking to everything might simply be wishful fiction. But two days after I moved, my birthday came, my driver's license expired. I sold my car.

I discovered that walking to everything first means having good places to walk to. Second, for me, it's all about trash. For others, it may be about missing their car -- I'd had a succession of VW Bugs and, for a slice of time, a beautiful silver Porsche -- but I didn't miss my car. I became obsessed with trash.

When you have a family and a car, you make huge lists of stuff and you go out to shop and you buy it and cart it to the car and bring it into the house and use some of it and save some of it and your garage fills up with stuff and so does your spare room and then your kids move out but they won't take along their stuff. It goes on like that until you die or you "downsize." I downsized once and then downsized again, getting rid of acres of stuff -- books, art objects, linens, furniture, dishes. I decided I would take, to this new place, only my absolute favorite stuff. I would live -- again, in theory -- without detritus.

For the first time in my life, maybe, I understood that what comes into the place you live must either stay there or go out. For me, the most daunting part of walking everywhere turned out to be taking out the trash. My condo, though utterly charming in most respects, is in an old-fashioned building. You can't drop trash down a handy chute -- you walk, puffing, with your trash, down a flight of stairs, through a scary oubliette of a room with no windows and a burned-out light bulb, then past the postage-stamp size pool, along the side of the building, then through the security gate and finally into the alley, where you heave your trash into a huge bin. Then, using your security key, which every so often doesn't work, you retrace your steps. This is the reason I'll never buy a rotisserie chicken again. Or anything with bones. Because I put off taking out the trash as long as I can, and I can't have the place where I live smelling like a used coffin.

As for dealing with necessities -- there's a nice sushi place, three blocks away. Michael's restaurant, two. The mail drop, three. My pharmacy delivers. I found a grocery store that delivers, thank God! No dry cleaners that deliver, so in the first three months I lived here, clothes went out to the cleaners only once. If you can't get there, you don't go there! When a delivery man comes, I flash him a sappy smile and ask, "Are you a kind man?" What is he going to say, "NO?!" "Yes," he says, and I say, "Would you mind taking away this empty carton for me?" (Never any bones, though.)

But here's where the peace of mind, even smugness, comes in. Every TV ad with a stupid car driving across a stupid salt flat is corporate money wasted on me. As are all those awful car insurance ads. And the dreadful stories about the price of gas. I don't drive, thank you very much.

I haven't taken a bus yet, though I suppose I will. And I don't mind being picked up by friends (they don't seem to mind either) if our destination is only seven or eight blocks from here. I figure that's their contribution to the larger good and they ought to be happy about it.

Yes, sometimes I have to go farther. I take a cab, with one of two alternating Muslim drivers who tend to take a dim view of my social life -- I don't know if that's because I'm a woman alone, or an old woman, or because they don't like the kind of parties I go to. (Writers are a rowdy bunch.) Often they talk to me about God, and that's interesting. And sometimes several of us old ladies get together and splurge on a professional driver and Town Car. The trick is to go somewhere having to do with your career. That way, it's tax-deductible.

Living without a car in L.A. is living by your wits. You have to think of the ramifications. Who would have thought that rotisserie chicken would have brought so much unpleasantness into my life? Who would have thought you could live without dry cleaning for weeks and just wear T-shirts, that the new watchband could wait because that store is 10 blocks in the wrong direction? Or that instead of jumping into your car to do 11 boring errands in four hours, you do one errand, or two, and it takes as long as it takes, and you only buy what you can carry, or push, in a cute little cart.

No more malls. Very, very few trips across the city. No junk bought on impulse. Fewer trips down the stairs and through the windowless room. More fresh air. Better knees. I loved my Bugs and smile when I remember the Porsche with the Targa top. But I'm here on the ground, walking past flowers, and I don't miss those cars at all.

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