Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Another One Rides the Bus

Miller: I think a lot about this kind of stuff. I do my best thinking on the bus. That's how come I don't drive, see.
Otto: You don't even know how to drive.
Miller: I don't want to know how. I don't want to learn. See? The more you drive the less intelligent you are.”  - Repo Man (1984)

So several days ago my 12-year old Toyota Corolla's engine suffered a serious engine malfunction just as I pulled into work.  So that started my journey on the public bus system for the first time in maybe 5 years (at least in this country).

As you might be thinking, anyone who is perfectly fine with driving a beater car like my old Toyota isn't too snobbish or picky.  So after having the car towed to the auto shop and needing a way to get home some 20 miles away, I had no problem with the idea of taking the bus.  It's not my preference and I could easily afford a cab, but paying $50+ bucks for a cab ride versus a couple bucks for the bus seemed frivolous (at least when not being pressed for time).

Taking the bus is not glamorous, but it isn't something to avoid like the plague either.  Sure there are some areas in some cities I wouldn't choose to do so, but my ride through a big chunk of the Denver area was pretty uneventful and was actually a nice change of pace.  It certainly was nice not having to deal with the circus of ass-clowns that represent a sizable chunk of Denver's drivers.  And I suppose there is a little bit of truth to the above quote from the movie Repo Man, in that riding on the bus (or train) is conducive to daydreaming and getting lost in thought.  I think seeing the scenery passing by is a key part of it somehow; riding in an airplane miles up in the air usually doesn’t have the same effect.  Of course me being me, once the bus started filling up on the latter half of the trip I felt I had quit daydreaming and pay closer attention to the fellow riders (it’s not paranoia; it’s situational awareness).  Still it was nice just being able to spend 40 minutes or so getting lost in thought while still making way to my destination.  I kind of wonder what the other riders think of as they ride the bus.  Though in the case of the 40-ish guy with the dyed mullet, some odd style of muttonchops, and ill-fitting t-shirt revealing some sort of tattoo highlighting the word “BEER” on his very ample stomach, I’m betting he was thinking “how come it’s so hard for me to get a date?”

Anyway, one of the things I thought about during this time was why do so many of us spend so much of our time, money, and attention on the cars we drive?  Of course I understand that in many parts of the US our cities and housing locations aren’t very conducive to mass transit, so on some level many of us need a car as a means to get to work, run errands, and generally make a living.  And many times it's just really convenient.  But more specifically, why is it that so many of us spend so much compared to what we make on expensive cars and trucks?  

The traditional American answer to that would be that the car is a symbol of personal freedom, allowing us to go many places on a whim.  I personally get that, because I’ve done many, many road trips for purely recreational purposes to see and visit new places.  But if ‘personal freedom’ is the answer, why on earth do so many of us get cars that stretch our budgets and/or require big loans?  Tying yourself down to a loan payment for 4 to 6 years?  And now 7 and 8 year loans are becoming more popular.  Sure you’ve now got that spiffy new car that can take you almost anywhere in the country… oh, except now you can’t do that because you need to go to keep going to work to make the car payment.  That’s almost the opposite of personal freedom.  Not to mention that borrowing so much money for a depreciating and (in most cases) non-productive asset is a financially boneheaded move. 

I suspect the real reason for it is that most of us are victims of the consumer culture and the need to show status and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. To paraphrase The Survival Podcast’s Jack Spirko, going into huge debt for such reasons like shackling shiny chains to our own wrists, and then bragging to everyone and saying, “see how shiny and expensive my chains are!”.  I’ve driven some nice luxury cars and even owned a couple (an Acura and a Lexus), so I do understand they are nice to drive.  But I never could see the point in borrowing heavily just so you can have a sweet ride.  In my pizza-delivering college days, I had a fair number of coworkers that got part-time delivery jobs, in addition to their existing full-time occupations, in part because they had to make the payments on the big expensive trucks they were driving (this was in Alaska, so the automotive status symbols tended to be big trucks).  It is insanity.  My car at the time may have been not much to look at, but it worked well and not being chained to a loan gave me the freedom to take multiple two-week and six-week vacations… and that was without the luxury of a job that had ‘vacation hours’.

So bringing this back around to the subject of the bus and mass transit, one thing I noticed was the number of 20-somethings riding the bus for work.  It’d be a bit hasty on my part to base my whole opinion on one long bus trip, but it is looking like the mainstream media isn't too far off when they say the Millenials/Gen-Y crowd really do treat cars more as an option rather than a necessity.  If so then good for them, and I hope they continue to move a little bit further away from the consumer culture.  Quite a few hipsters of various ages on the bus too…. I have about as much in common with most hipsters as I do with a Tibetan yak-herder, but if in their hipster-ness they happen to reject at least some aspects of consumerism, then what the hell, more power to 'em. 

So what about me; am I willing to give up my car?  Well as of yesterday the auto shop has declared the engine a loss, which I had suspected was the case from the noises it was making as I was pulling into work.  And the cost of replacing the engine or taking a chance on an engine rebuild is more than that 12-year old Corolla is probably worth, so that the next stop for that car is whatever junkyard is willing to pay the most.  Does that mean I’m going to start taking the bus to/from work?  If it was convenient I probably would, but the distance and the hours I work don’t allow for it.  Yet I don’t think I’ll be getting a new car anytime soon either.  It’s not a matter of affordability; I just think that getting a new car now would limit our options for next year’s planned move and foray into entrepreneurship.  We still have one car between my wife and me, and with us having different work hours now we can make it work.  Yet even if things were different and I needed my own car for work or what not, you’d still find me cruising Craigslist and online ads for a cheap car.  At this stage I’d rather free more of my money to invest more in productive assets now that will produce some sort of return over time.  As for that nice Tesla, it will still be waiting for me to buy when the time comes...

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