Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Share Someone Else's Car

[Companion piece to the previous post. Note to local lurkers: these are things I know I ought to do, not necessarily things I can always afford to do. I'm sharing them because I do know. One day, when this web page starts making money, you will recover all the gas money I owe some of you.]

1. Should you accept a lift from someone you don’t know well? Most people say no. I say maybe. But don’t just step out in traffic and wave, or sit beside the road with your thumb out. In the United States these behaviors have degrading connotations. If you’re willing to accept a lift, walk as briskly as possible.

2. If you’re a woman, understand the game that is most often played in your community. In Virginia, as Florence King observed, there is an underclass of men who hang out on the streets speaking very politely to female passers-by. If you politely answer their greetings or offers of help, their next remark is likely to be obnoxious, since the possibility now exists, in their minds, that you might be a hooker. Whenever prostitution is driven underground, males always have an excuse for hoping that any woman they meet, who is not their teacher, job supervisor, or close relative, might be a prostitute. This is why many Southern Ladies won’t walk ten yards if they can help it. And that is why many Southern Ladies lose their health, their figures, and their charm at such early ages. And that is why I personally spend a lot of time reminding people of both sexes, and all social strata, that they are our streets.

Or, at least, they’re my streets, and if a guy’s offer to help is genuine and neighborly, they can still be his streets too. I think the best cure for streetcorner pests is prison. I carry at least one immediate alternative around at all times. I also have a few hundred relatives who are bigger than I am and, pound for pound, at least equally mean. Nobody ever seems to have any further questions, but yes, there are some tough urban cops who walk around disguised as women who are younger, and appear to be more naïve, than I am.

However, if you are very young, if you are rich or famous, if you are related to someone who is rich or famous, if a relative of yours has recently stood up to street crime, or if you are easily pushed into fear or anger by obnoxious language, I think you should avoid situations that might involve talking to people you don’t know. You can be brave and tough and take back the streets, too...with your posse. One of the fringe benefits of walking around in a group is that you’ll not be offered lifts by people you don’t know well.

3. I just recommended that drivers offer lifts to “familiar strangers” from the neighborhood. For passengers, I recommend more caution. In my part of the world, drivers who are familiar strangers, who sound slurry or look bleary-eyed, are usually factory employees at the end of a long shift. They may be fine human beings, but that does not alter the effect a twelve-hour shift may have on their driving skills.

Of course, you know better than to get into a car with someone who has been drinking or using drugs. You might be busted too.

And, if your motive for accepting a lift has anything to do with getting somewhere on time, beware of vehicles that seem to be held together with clothespins and duct tape. If the wreck breaks down, you’ll have to help push it, change the tire, carry the gas can, etc., and still probably end up walking.

4. Some people like driving. You might ride with someone for years and never hear the words “your turn to drive.” Other car pools may be planning around your ability to drive while they rest. If you’re car-free because you prefer to spend your money on something other than maintaining a car, this is no problem. If you’re car-free because you lack driving skills, let everyone know.

5. If asked to drive, always adjust the front seat and mirrors. Otherwise, leave the car as you find it. Let the owner of the car invite you to eat, drink, smoke, adjust the windows, adjust the temperature, turn the radio on or off, or even talk.

6. The driver’s policy on eating and smoking is not negotiable. Be careful about your personal odor, too. Unprocessed herbs like mint, cloves, and lavender, as pocket sachets, are less likely to nauseate the driver than heavy perfume.

7. If you plan to sleep in the car during a long trip, wear clothes that won’t embarrss people by sliding up or popping open. Wear sandals, and slip them off before resting your feet on the car’s upholstery.

8. One reason why people form car pools is to allow the passengers to drink as much as they like while only the driver stays sober. If you do this, be sure the designated driver is sober. Compensate this person liberally.

9. Another reason why people form car pools is to guarantee emergency help. Being a passenger in a car whose driver suddenly becomes incapacitated is an experience many people live their whole lives without. The rest of us wish we had. If someone who is normally a competent driver suddenly displays symptoms of fainting,narcolepsy, stroke, heart attack,or some strange state of consciousness you can’t identify, you’ll be glad you have a cell phone. It may be possible to persuade the driver to park the car before you call for help and/or take the wheel. If it’s not, throw the emergency brake before you try to grab the wheel; with luck the car will coast to a slow stop.

It’s also possible that the car may become incapacitated, in a way a passenger may understand better than the driver does. I wrecked my much-hated Renault, which was normally hard to handle, because I knew I was ill and felt weak, hadn't noticed anything wrong with the tires, and assumed that if the car had to be oversteered to turn right it would also have to be oversteered to turn left. If any number of conditions on the road or inside the car had been different, I might not be here today. And if I’d been sharing the car with a passenger who had had the experience of driving on a tire that had been cut, that person might have suggested that we change the tire before proceeding down the road, and we might have had a safe if not pleasant trip, too. The “learner’s permit” is an attempt to mandate what common sense ought to tell all beginning drivers: for the first few years, you always want to have a more experienced driver on board.

10. Remember the old bumper sticker, “Gas, Grass, or [another rhyming word]—Nobody Rides Free.” Avoid cars that still display this antique sticker. Do bear the message in mind. Always offer the driver the cost of as many gallons of gas as were consumed while you were in the car. Don’t wait for the driver to ask. If it’s a one-time trip, as it might be to a special event, you don’t have to insist on paying. If it’s an ongoing car pool, you should insist.

In the United States, non-drivers tend to be perceived as poor people, although rising gas prices and concerns about pollution are making the car-free lifestyle trendy for rich people too. Often drivers feel that they shouldn’t ask you for money at first, but then gradually become resentful because you’re getting the same benefit from their vehicle that they are, and they’re paying all the expenses. Rather than lose friends, say up front, within the first week or so, whenever there’s a consensus that you belong to an ongoing car pool: “You’re paying for the maintenance and insurance, so I’d be delighted to buy the gas.”