“Can you give me a ride home?”
It took me a second to realize he was talking to me.
I wasn’t a driver. I was a subway rider. A taxi taker. A sometimes bicyclist. Strictly speaking, the last time I gave anyone a ride in anything, Bill Clinton was still president—and not even in trouble yet.
Yet there we stood on a curb in downtown Brooklyn—James, the van’s former owner, with his old license plates in his hand. And me with my shiny new plates freshly screwed onto both bumpers. My new registration sticker stuck to the inside of the windshield. The little piece of paper taped beneath it, promising that I would get the van emission-inspected in the next ten days. We had just survived the New York Department of Motor Vehicles together. (Title transfer, registration, and new plates, all in under an hour—not too bad for Brooklyn on a Monday.) And now he was handing me the keys to the van. My van.
Ever since I was a tiny little kid, I’ve wanted a van. Blame it on all those kickass Hot Wheels toys (The flame-painted 1975 “Super Van” being one of my first and favorites.) Or on my RV-loving grandparents. Or maybe even on my early obsession with the Millenium Falcon—which was, after all, really just a spaced-out version of a custom van, complete with chessboard, “special modifications”, and secret stash spaces. (For more about the history of my personal van obsession, check out my statement on the Don’t Come Knockin’ Web site. )
Three decades later, here I sat behind the wheel of my very own full-size conversion van. And more than anything, at that moment, I felt… shock. The only thing I can compare it to is my little sister’s first Christmas, when, after a good month of buildup, she stepped into the living room, saw that Santa had piled the room with presents, and burst into tears. I didn’t cry when I bought the van. (Wouldn’t that have made for an awkward transaction…) Instead I gripped the steering wheel, turned the ignition, and felt the engine rumble up through my foot on the pedal. Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it was all coming together.
Getting a van is one thing. But learning to drive the damn thing is another. I put it in Drive and cautiously—extremely, hilariously, grandma-style cautiously—eased it out of its parking spot and into the morning traffic. I felt the frantic, urgent push of the cars zooming just past me on both sides. I was aware of every blind spot on the van, and wondered out loud if I was about to scrape into something every time my right side got too close. There was no rearview mirror, so changing lanes in traffic became a guessing game, based on empirical evidence from my side mirrors and a whole lot of impromptu praying. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and use the Force.
Now, lest you think I spend my whole life as a whimpering ball of anxiety, a little bit of explanation is in order:
I hadn’t owned a vehicle, or driven one consistently, in fifteen years. To most people in America, that must sound like blasphemy. But in the places I’ve lived—New York City for the past ten years, and San Francisco for five before that—it’s not that unusual. In fact, in both those towns, having a car can be a real pain in the ass. My daily routine, for nearly half my life now, has revolved around public transportation, or the occasional rental when I was out of town. And every time I rented a car, there was that hilarious first-day-of-driver’s-ed moment when you realize that a ton of rolling, rumbling metal is in your hands, and you’re terrifyingly aware of how fast it’s actually moving. Then all the old muscle memory kicks in, the senses dull, and within a mile you’re steering with no hands, trying to figure out how the stereo works and griping about the lack of pickup. ?But when you haven’t driven in a year or two, those first five minutes can be a real bitch.
I should also explain that, here in New York City, driving is a whole other experience. I learned to drive in Michigan, where—even in the cities—the roads are spacious, there’s always parking, and people do quaint little things like let you into their lane when you’re merging, or slow down for stop signs, or even wave you ahead of them for no good reason except their own innate sense of humility and public good. New York, on the other hand, is just too damn busy for all that. We’ve got just under 4 million cars on the streets, and, at any given time, a good portion of them are hell-bent on getting somewhere else. “Aggressive driving” might be the polite word for it. In most cases, “batshit insane” applies just as well. People go as fast as possible, whenever possible. Cutting off—sometimes the wrong way, across four lanes—is a competitive event. And parking is a fine art. Unless you can shell out $250-$500 a month for your own parking space (No, I’m not making those numbers up), you learn quickly how to park on the street. That means driving around until you find a spot, then figuring out a way to shoehorn your vehicle into the space between two others (no small feat in a full-size van), and then trying to remember what time and day of the week you have to come back and move it before the dreaded Sanitation cops write you a ticket. In the months since getting my van, I’ve learned to roll with this whole process, and even enjoy it a little bit. But that first day was pretty damn rough.
New York City has a reputation for something else: crime. Sure, it’s nothing close to what it was in the fabled bad old days, but there’s a reason they still put bars and a lock on everything in this town. It’s true that, for a city this size, the auto theft rate is shockingly low and doesn’t even make the top ten list. (For the record, the worst offenders are all out West.) But vandalism—particularly the NYC-born sport of spray-paint tagging—is everywhere. And their favorite targets? Plain white vans. Add to that the fact that you’ve got those 4 million crazy drivers all tooling around, waiting to potentially plow into each other, and the chances are pretty good that, even if you’re just parking your van on the streets of New York every night, something less than desirable is probably going to happen to it.
So, when I decided to finally buy a van, I knew that I wanted something used. Not only was it much cheaper, but I had to keep in mind that, at any given moment, one drunk idiot can come careening down the street and destroy my dream vehicle forever. Not to mention the potential for scratches, or theft, or a teenage jackass with a can of Krylon. This also meant that, as much as I would love to own a completely tricked-out, airbrushed show-n-shine quality custom van, the reality would have to be much more humble and street-friendly. My goal, I decided, was to own the ultimate “stealth” van—ragged and innocuous on the outside, but a total luxury pimpmobile within.
It was with all this in mind that I steered my lumbering new baby through the streets of Brooklyn. First, to drop James off. Then to the AutoZone, to pick up various fluids and jumper cables and the all-important coconut air freshener. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent a good half hour in the parking lot, getting a feel for her, practicing how to back her up without killing anybody, figuring out how to scoot her into a parking space without really being able to see much. Cranking the classic rock station and testing the AC. I circled my neighborhood a few times, dodging construction vehicles and managing to squeeze my way, with half an inch to spare, between a dumpster and a parked semi truck. Finally, I found a coveted Wednesday-to-Wednesday parking spot, only 3 blocks from my house. After about five attempts, I managed to back the van successfully into the spot. And then, I put it in park and I sat there. I listened to the engine rumble, low and steady. The Rolling Stones on the radio. I sat back in my green-fabric captain’s chair, rested my hands on the tilt steering wheel, and breathed deep the odor of stripper-grade fake coconut.
This, I realized, is what it feels like to get what you always wanted.