I am a Seattle girl to the core. My hometown has my heart – even if it is currently breaking it. But there’s another place (aside from my city-in-law, Detroit) that I’ve managed to make a little room for: my home for most of the 90s: Houston — aka the H, aka H-town, aka City of the Purple Sprite — Texas. I attended college in Houston (go Owls!) and then taught high school there after I graduated.
During my time in college, I worked a lot of odd jobs. Only one of them – photocopying dissertations for physics PhD students – was on campus.
I worked as a summer and after-school nanny, until one father decided to regularly remind me that he was “looking for a mistress.” I sold lingerie and men’s clothing and was equally bad at both. I did general office/clerical work for a woman who ran her own medical billing and transcription business – and who also chain smoked in her windowless office, all day, every day.
I was a waitress at a Bennigan’s that had approximately zero customers, which suited me, except that it is perfectly legal in Texas (and many other states) to pay tipped workers far below minimum wage, and it’s hard to make rent when you earn $2.13 per hour. I worked as a driver for elderly people who lived in expensive, private assisted-living facilities, regularly enduring questions like, “You’re not a n****r, are you, Carla?” from “curious” residents.
Of course, none of these fantastic jobs paid well, and because of school, I wasn’t working many hours. So, for the majority of time I lived in Houston, I either couldn’t afford a car at all, or I drove cars that were only occasionally functional. Sometimes, I was fortunate enough to have a job that was easily accessible by bus, like the brief time I worked in the basement of Hermann Hospital, retrieving supplies ordered by medical staff.
Because Hermann Hospital is in a part of town that is well-served by transit, and because it is expensive to park at or near the hospital, I and most of my coworkers commuted by bus. One of those coworkers was a dapper, fortysomething man whose name I can no longer remember. In fact, I only vaguely recall what he looked like. But I will always remember his gorgeous collection of shoes – distinguishing him as fashion-forward despite the required uniform of blue scrubs — and what I learned from him.
I often say that my spouse was the first person I ever met who did not own a car on purpose, but that’s only because my memory is faulty. My shoe-blessed Houston colleague was proudly carless way back in ’93, long before I met my beloved Bus Nerd. Since, like most of us, Mr. Shoes took the bus to and from work, and since he was single and not dealing with multiple schedules and errands, he didn’t need a car during the week. He saved his running around for the weekends, when he shopped for groceries, went to church, visited friends and family, and partied.
The way Mr. Shoes saw it, it didn’t make sense to him to pay for and maintain a vehicle that would remain parked at his home for over 70% of his waking hours, to say nothing of his sleeping ones. So, instead of buying a car, he rented one every weekend. He would get a weekend deal on a luxury model (usually a Cadillac), buy the insurance, and spend a worry-free two and a half days traveling in style. On Sunday night, he would return the car and hand off the cleaning, maintenance, and responsibility to someone else. The rental car company even provided rides to and from the rental office.
Back then, Mr. Shoes’s way of life seemed revolutionary – and yes, a bit crazy – to me, a person who wanted more than anything to own a reliable vehicle. The idea that you would use a car only when you needed it instead of having one at your disposal was simply beyond anything my 21 years of conditioning (even as a product of a bus-friendly family) had prepared me for.
Now, all these years later, I realize that I am Mr. Shoes — except, sadly, for the shoes. No, I don’t rent a car every weekend (and, as far as I know, Cadillacs aren’t available through carsharing services), but I have embraced the concept of using one only when I need to. On Saturday, we drove a Zipcar to White Center for a fundraiser that lasted late into the evening, far past the time I was willing to wander down rainy, sidewalk-free streets (in heels) looking for a bus stop. Next Sunday, we will ride with my dad to Tacoma for my sweet niece’s third birthday. On the other 29 of this month’s 31 days, we will use our bus passes and feet for travel.
So often, our ideas about money and life and choices are limited by our imaginations. We think things are either/or, yes or no, black or white. What Mr. Shoes’s example reminds us is that sometimes, we have more options than we think we do.
Sometimes, the options include a Cadillac every weekend.