I have spent many years traveling on a graduate student’s budget. Travel was – and is – my preferred way of handling the Christmas holidays, which would rank second after the week-that-shall-not-be-named (aka this one) on my list of least favorite times of the year, except for the fact that my travel tradition actually makes it one of my favorites. (At least, in those years when I can afford to travel.)
Traveling for mental health is my way of flipping the script on what would otherwise be a traumatic time of year, but given that I spent years making an income as a graduate student that didn’t quite leave me destitute – but also didn’t qualify as “comfortable” either – I never got used to the luxury of rental cars. I have never rented a car in any city that had viable public transit. I’ve had my fair share of ridiculous moments trying to navigate unfamiliar transit as a result, but I can’t at this point imagine ever renting a car in a transit city after so long getting by without one. Why pay eighty bucks for parking when I can pay ten dollars for a day transit pass?
I certainly can’t imagine renting one in my own city. I never learned to drive here. We had a car when we first moved, but the lack of street parking, the prospect of “parallel parking” if we ever did find parking, the feet of snow dumped on cars in the winter, and the extortionary private garage parking fees required to avoid dealing with any of the former quickly led to us giving it up. Even for the brief period that had a vehicle, we never drove to any popular tourist locations.
My Partner’s grandparents were traveling with childhood friends who had moved to another Southern state as part of an annual get-together tradition, and their stop in our city was one among several on the East Coast. (I continue to be amazed that there are people in this world who have maintained friendships for more decades than I have been alive, but this, like young marriage, seems to be the norm in the South.) Their hotel was outside the city because hotel costs are possibly the only thing more disproportionate than parking (or rent) in our city. They asked us to show them around, and we (naively) assumed they meant by subway. However, they were not comfortable using public transit, even with locals to personally shepherd them from Point A to Point B. They seemed convinced that the subway would be unsafe, dirty, and unreliable.
Now, in fairness, they aren’t entirely wrong, as evidenced by my Partner’s experience on the subway this past New Year’s Eve at the tail end of one of those years when travel was financially out of reach. However, they wouldn’t have been taking the subway at any of those times – or in any of the sketchier locations – where even a local might look twice. Thus, it irked my Partner that they responded to our choice not to own a car – and associated recommendation that they would find their day much more enjoyable if they took the subway – with the kind of Southern sensibility that suggested there was a “bless your heart” lurking unsaid behind their insistence on driving.
My Partner’s grandparents and friends genuinely did not seem to believe that a) they would go broke trying to park in the city and b) that we legitimately could not facilitate even if we wanted to, as we don’t know anything about driving in the city. My Partner tried everything he could think of – including suggesting they park at a lot near us on the more affordable city outskirts and hire drivers to take us into the city – to spare them (and us!) the hassle. However, they seemed to view these recommendations as a sort of hidden liberal agenda rather than genuine concern for their financial interests.
My Partner loves his family, but he is nothing like them. He alternated between quiet fury at some of their comments (such as that Trump was good for the region) and panic attacks after we had returned home at night and were trying to plan what we could say to them the next day during our tour-guiding that wouldn’t lead to political arguments or where we could all eat. I made the mistake the first night of recommending a spot I often eat at for my Partner to take them to while I was at my “very early” show call time. They were less than impressed. Fortunately, since I had taken the advice of other readers and had gone straight to said “very early” call time, my Partner was able to deflect his own anxiety at being judged for our restaurant choice by just claiming that he doesn’t eat in this area as often as I do, and that he probably mixed up the name of the restaurant I had recommended. They seemed satisfied by that. He was, however, always the tenser of the two of us throughout the visit and the more relieved when it was finally over because he felt compelled to not repeat that mistake and to cater to tastes too different from his own to truly be able to play concierge for adequately.
As my Partner is also a male, he was additionally alternately panicky and quietly furious about the fact that he was, by default, expected to navigate the city for his guests and to find them reasonable, cheap and close parking for their touring. (I kept my name when we married. This was not because I particularly cared to continue to be affiliated with the name of my family of origin, but rather because it is much easier to deal with guardianship in the similarly regressive 9th Circle of Hell when I share my last name with my sibling. My Partner’s grandparents still gave us an engraved “Mr. and Mrs. Partner’s Last Name” gift. That probably says all that needs to be said about their conception of gender roles…)
The engineer’s choice triangle is said to be, “fast, cheap, good: pick two.” By engineering (and East Coast) standards, my Partner succeeded wildly as navigator. He always managed at least two of those characteristics in
Google’s his final recommendation for parking. He felt the lack of the third mentally, though, in his grandparents’ implicitly judgmental statements about our decision to live in a location where there isn’t space for everyone to own three cars to accommodate 2.5 kids in 2,000+ sq. ft. of generic tract housing. We both felt the lack of the third physically when the option most often sacrificed was “good,” and we squeezed our rented van into a compact car parking spot. It was assumed that my Partner and I would always be the ones to squeeze into the jump seats in the back and contort ourselves to get out of said tight back seat through the equally tight space between our Southern-sized car and the more typical compacts next to us because, in the words of his grandparents’ friends, “we’re young and that should be no problem for us.” (Apparently the fact my Partner is big and tall, and I was using a cane were secondary to biological age in terms of our needs for parking accommodation.)
On the one hand, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is that rare chronic illness wherein I am simultaneously so bendy that I can fold myself up and sit between the single back jump seat and the normal-sized seat in front of it while my Partner occupies the jump seat. On the other hand, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is that not-so-rare chronic illness that makes me also need to use a cane to walk around all day without subluxing my ankle and falling over or fainting from low blood pressure. (I’m also pretty sure my PT would have a fit if he knew how many EDS party tricks I resorted to getting into and out of that van. We zebras can do party tricks, but we shouldn’t. We pay for them in the long run…)
But, we made it work in the end. His grandparents had a good time. My Partner borrowed my TENS machine after each day in that rented van and learned the glory that is electrical pain relief after long days had drained his physical and mental spoons. He even got the last laugh in the end. He tasted victory when – after those first few days – his grandparents and their friends finally consented to our plan of parking on the city outskirts and taking the subway. They finally agreed that it would probably have been faster, more convenient, and cheaper to have done that from the beginning. My Partner’s anxiety and feelings of being the “weird one” among his family lessened in intensity, and – though I was reminded that even in families that generally care about each other visitors, like fish, only keep for about three days – we ultimately got through more than three days without any blow-ups (or joint blowouts.)
So what, you might ask, makes this a Subway Sociology entry, given that my Partner proved his point and successfully convinced his Southern grandparents and their equally Southern friends to take an East Coast subway?
The fact that, in the end, I’m still my irony magnet self. While my Partner’s reputation was on the line, the subway gods were kind to us. Nothing untoward – or even vaguely unusual – happened. Once they left, my usual luck took over and provided one additional data point in favor of our personal “weird” line. (Which, I will note, we did not take his grandparents on at any point during the visit!)
As we were heading home from our very last day showing his grandparents and their friends around – after hours of successful subway riding that ultimately resulted in them getting in their car at their park-and-ride and driving the rest of the way to their hotel – our fellow passenger decided it was the perfect day to light up a joint on the subway and smoke out the car. He also felt it was perfectly acceptable to continue to smoke while blatantly ignoring the very vocal complaints of the entire car’s worth of passengers. We fellow passengers were ultimately forced to all simultaneously get up and switch cars at the next stop as our only viable option. The particular blend he was smoking was so pungent I ended up having to do laundry and wash my hair twice in one day – as I’d already suffered through both that morning to impress the grandparents-in-law – which was a special kind of torture.
My Partner looked at me as we followed the herd switching subway cars to avoid the stench and simply stated, “You are allowed to post about this on your blog, but if you ever tell my grandparents about this, it will be grounds for divorce. They must never know.” His secret is safe with me.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms.