Urban Cowgirl


Most of my life, I’ve lived in a car. That’s because I grew up in West Texas and got my driver’s license in 1964, when I was 14. What else are you going to do when you’re that age and your face is blossoming in pimples and your smile glints silver with braces and you live in Abilene? You drive, circling some of the popular hangouts, lurking slowly past your boyfriend’s house and your best friend’s boyfriend’s house (who, in fact, have no idea they are your boyfriends, which is part of your problem).

The other problem is that you’re driving a massive, two-door 1958 Plymouth with gaping holes in the floor and a passenger’s door that flies open if you turn left too quickly. If you believe, as most teens do, that you are what you drive, then you’re in deep trouble. Which doesn’t even address another glitch: The Plymouth belongs to your father, who checks the odometer obsessively and grumbles when you don’t bring it home on time. Like the boyfriend, this mortifying excuse for a car isn’t even yours.

So, that’s the beginning of my automotive relationships—which morphed over the years into a rickety VW bug during graduate school years, a more grownup Toyota when employment was secured, a Volvo station wagon for the carpool decade, and most recently, a nice Asian sedan that looks snappy but gets deplorable mileage. This is Texas: Stages of your life are marked by the cars you drive.

But then, two Texans like my husband and me get the bright idea of spending the academic year in New York City. We leave our two cars behind in Austin. Stripped of those thousands of pounds of metal, I have to wonder: Who are we if we’re not physically attached to an automobile? Do we even exist?

The truth is, it’s been a lot easier than I expected. You could not pay me enough in unmarked bills to drive or insure or park a car in Manhattan. Instead, we’ve become enthusiastic pedestrians and Metro Card holders who leap onto subways and buses. (Well, the leaping part is a gross exaggeration; I don’t think I’ve leapt in 20 years and don’t intend to start any time soon. But we are, I have to admit, highly, even goofily enthusiastic about mass transit.)

Here, we’re adapting to an alternate transportation universe. For decades, we’ve lived through and in our cars, driving even pathetically short distances to run errands and pick up items we could easily carry. In Texas, you just don’t walk places—unless you’re officially walking for exercise, in which case you’re supposed to be dressed in a certain semi-athletic way. In New York, everybody seems to walk everywhere, dressed in every conceivable fashion, which might be one reason their obesity level is a lot lower than ours.

That’s all well and good, but it isn’t what inspires me. What inspires me are New York pedestrians. I think of them as the cowboys and cowgirls of the Atlantic seaboard—unbroken, unbowed and a little crazy.

Walking around, I watch them, I worship them, I want to be just like them. I follow them as they step onto the street. No matter what color the light is, no matter whether it’s a Greyhound bus or some hybrid toy car or a delivery bicyclist, they don’t give a damn. They don’t look, they don’t flinch, they only move forward in any direction they want to go. When they come face-to-grill with a car and driver, they show total disdain and the purest scorn. Have they ever, in their lives, learned to cringe? I don’t think so.

The thing is, it works. Pedestrians own this town, as far as I can tell. I walk along with them, mimicking their sang-froid, their hauteur, their mastery and ownership of horizontal concrete surfaces. When I see people lingering on the sidewalk, waiting for the walk signal to light up, I shake my head sadly. Tourists!

“I thumped a car’s trunk the other day,” my formerly mild-mannered husband commented proudly last week. “It was trying to crowd me. I needed to let them know their behavior was completely inappropriate.”

“Would you do something like that in Texas?” I asked.

“Hell, no,” he said. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

Well, no. It’s just that I live with the uneasy knowledge that once we return to Texas, a pedestrian with a New York attitude is begging to end up squashed like a hood ornament on the front grill of a pickup truck. Can we turn it off as quickly and easily as we’ve turned it on?

But then I realize that, once we return to Texas, we’ll be behind the wheel again, urban pedestrians no longer. So what the hell difference will it make? Ride ’em, cowgirl.

Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker normally lives in Austin. She blogs at www.geezersisters.com.