It’s been a busy, crazy year at the Berg household.
Not all of it in a good way. But it’s been one of those things with its upsides.
Due to a variety of issues dating back a few years, I was in a subprime adjustable rate mortgage that I was having a hard time getting out of, last winter. And when I say “subprime”, I mean Slobodan Milosevic could have gotten a better loan that me, at the time. It was pretty bad; it started adjusting about a year and a half ago, and by the time it was done it was eating up about 2/3 of my takehome pay (and I make decent, albeit not spectacular, money). That, along with a few other family crises, made things a wee bit tight around the Berg house.
So along about last Christmas, when my car broke down, I gave it a long, hard think. My employer pays for my “all you can ride” card on Metro Transit. My kids’ schools are nearby. Most of what I needed to do in my life was walking, biking or busing distance away. The upshot; if I absolutely needed to get by without a car (and all of its attendant bills), I could.
And by that point, I absolutely needed it. The savings on repairs, car insurance and gas alone, at that point, made it worth it (and this was back when gas was still at or around a mere $3 a gallon). Not having those bills kept things on the level while I sorted out the rest of the mess.
My “experiment” ended up running about ten months. I bused to work until mid-april, when I started biking – which I am still doing, although it’s getting more and more difficult as it get colder. The kids bused to school. We did a lot of getting around via bus, bike, and good old-fashioned shoe leather.
And boy, do I have stuff to report!
On the upside:
- Pants: I fit into pants 2-4 sizes smaller than I did last winter. My belts are all verging on too big. Everything I own fits better, unless it fit perfectly before, in which case it’s gotten kinda loose and baggy. I like that.
- Money: I can say honestly that I bought not one drop of $4/gallon gas. That aside, I saved enough to help get the family through what was probably the nastiest financial hurdle I’ve had, except for my stretch of un/underemployment back in 2003. In some ways it was worse; when you’ve got little to no income, there’s an ineluctible logic to it all; it just makes sense. You stretch, you scrimp, you do what you have to. When you’re working hard and making decent money and still feeling broke? That sucks.
- Party: When you take the bus or bike to Keegans (or, y’know, wherever) and driving a car is not an option, and you’re one of those guys whose tolerance has dropped from 4.5 to 2.5 beers in the past decade, let’s just say it’s one less thing to worry about.
- Hah: Back when I was an adjunct instructor at a MNSCU university, I had the option of paying my “fair share” for collective bargaing or, for $8 more, joining the union. I joined the union, because most of my liberal, “pro-labor” friends had never been in a union. I figured this gave me bragging rights. In the same way, while I see no empirical reason to believe in man-made global warming, I’ve rather enjoyed being able to hector my “liberal” friends and neighbors about their patrician “carbon footprints” and gas-guzzling Priuses.
- Good: That’s how I feel, these days. I feel better, walking and biking and just being generally more active. My attitude’s better (and believe me, I’ve needed it to be better). And sailing past the Capitol, seeing the High Bridge over the Mississippi in the distance, and zipping into the canyon on Saint Peter between Babani’s and Saint Joe’s is a wonderful way to kick off a work day.
Of course, it’s not all hearts and flowers:
- Expectations: I want to laugh when I see some of the lefties – especially the transit-oriented leftybloggers – yapping about running their lives on transit. I notice that not a single one of them seems to have kids; children are the big clinker in the “transit-oriented lifestyle”. If you have to get kids to an after-school event, it’s a major expedition; if you have to take one to urgent care, it’s either miserable (hauling sick kids on the bus is a rotten feeling, although I never had to do it) or expensive (cabs in the Twin Cities are nothing to write home about).
- Metro Transit Is A Black Hole of Suck: Although the stats show that the Twin Cities’ metro transit system is less of a money suck than many/most other major cities’ transit setups, it is not ready for prime time. The part that bugged me the most? Bus-driver acquaintances tell me that absenteeism is a problem – and when too many drivers call in sick, and they can’t find a replacement in time (which is not at all uncommon), MTC shaves routes. They’ll skip a bus departure on some of the lower-traffic routes – including the one I use to get home. I can’t tell the number of times (usually once or twice a month) where I’ve had to wait the extra half hour for the twenty-minute bus ride home, because the bus never comes. Even the hideously-expensive Ventura Trolley often runs a few minutes late, and if you try to ride it on weekends (as I did on Saturdays for much of this past few months, getting to and from AM1280 on Saturdays when I didn’t have the legs to bike from Fort Snelling all the way down Highway 13), the line is staggeringly likely to be down for maintenance along one part of the route or another, replaced by “55” buses that make the half-hour train ride from downtown to the mall an hour-long ordeal.
- Minnesotans Are Terrible Drivers: Being a bike commuter was a great experience; there is really very little in life better than blasting downhill on Shepard Road or Constitution on a beautiful summer morning; it’s a stunning way to kick off a day. But you can only enjoy it so much, because so many Minnesota drivers are too busy putting on their makeup, changing their IPod settings, or nodding off to Willie and Jay to pay attention to things like, I dunno, bikers.
- Tote That Load: One of the reasons I lost so much weight was because I spent so much time hauling loads of groceries home from Rainbow – about a 3/5 mile walk. Yes, I could have taken the bus, but hauling bags on the bus is a major hassle, and frankly the quiet time was often nice – unless I had to bring a couple of gallons of milk and stuff home. Then, it just got heavy. And no matter how much you haul, you still have to go shopping in a couple of days, again. Which nullifies some of the savings from not paying for gas and such, I thought, muttering to myself as I trudged home more than once. Much more than once.
- Government “Services” Demean and Degrade The Consumer: After a few of those missed buses, and bobbled schedules that left me standing for wasted half-hours at one bus stop or another, I found myself adopting the sullen, angry listlessness that PJ O’Rourke observed among anyone who has to sit and bark on command for government “services”, only to be implicitly told “you’ll take what we give you and you’ll like it”. It’s not the better me.
So this past week or so I got my mortgage squared away. It left me with a few extra bucks I wasn’t used to. I fixed the car, bought insurance, and updated my tabs. For the first time in ten months, I’m driving again. I kinda like it. I do not plan on going car-free again. But then, who plans on these things? And I’ll still be biking (weather permitting) and busing to work, because as long as there’s an option, it’s cheaper, and I just flat-out enjoy it.
It was interesting doing it, and knowing that I can do it. And with that said, I’m more than ready to relegate it to the “ephemeral anecdote” drawer.
Really, really ready.