Maggie Mertens is a writer in Seattle. Her essays and reporting have appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Deadspin, The Cut, The Billfold, Glamour, Pacific Standard and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
Compared to the subway I was used to, driving in Seattle was freeing—but it was also lonely.
This essay is the second in a series called “Finding My Place,” which explores how people make cities feel like home. Read the first installment here.
“I’m going to miss the subway so much,” I told the group at my going away party before my move from Brooklyn to Seattle.
“Really?” a friend responded. I could tell from the look on her face she was thinking about the unique suffocation of a subway station on a humid day in August, like a sauna full of garbage.
But for me, the subway wasn’t an inconvenience—it was a miracle. I grew up in a Seattle suburb where driving was the only way to get around. As a teen, I’d been excited to learn. When my Dad took me on a summer trip to Idaho shortly after I got my learner’s permit, he had me drive almost the whole way home. Navigating the car along a two-lane highway for hundreds of miles, I learned the total freedom of driving. From then on, I was in charge of where I could go.
When I was a teenager, my home life was uncertain. My brothers and I were often left on our own. Driving meant I could seek the things I lacked, like camaraderie at the beach with my friends on summer days, the windows down and the radio up, or stability, at my high school boyfriend’s house, where dinner was always on the table at 5:30 p.m.
I went to college on the other side of the country, without a car on a campus in a small town—Northampton, Massachusetts—where I didn’t need one. After graduation, in the depths of the recession, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I took the Metro to multiple odd jobs. If I’d needed a car, I’d never have been able to afford that first step. In New York for grad school, I began to take the subway for granted.
I always worried in New York that someone would notice that I was an interloper, a suburban girl, a Westerner, who would never make money, or be published, or wear the right thing. But on the subway, I belonged.
I depended on the train, and so did everyone else: the construction worker with a tool belt at his feet, trying to rest his eyes after a long shift; the high school kids on their way to school in the mornings who spoke too loudly for the work commuters; the woman in the skirt-suit and Louboutins holding takeout dinner on her lap. With a book or a magazine under my nose and a canvas tote-bag on my shoulder, I usually welcomed sitting next to a stranger so I could listen to parts of their conversation or take a peek at what they were reading. We had the train in common.
I never missed driving.
The month before I moved back to Seattle, my grandmother was killed, along with four of her friends, when the van they were riding in turned onto a highway too close to an oncoming truck. I was no longer just sad to leave behind the public transportation system—driving was suddenly terrifying.
Even so, when we got to Seattle, my boyfriend bought a 1999 Toyota Corolla from his parents, because we now lived in a place where driving was necessary. Just being in a car gave me panic attacks. In the front seat, I gasped and squeezed my eyes shut every time my boyfriend came to a stop a little too quickly or merged onto a freeway. I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandmother. And I couldn’t understand why people here acted like this method of transport, dangerous, isolating and resulting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic every day, was inevitable. All of these cars crowded in on the same freeways going the same direction day after day, their drivers honking and yelling and competing for space, seemed like such a waste of energy and emotion.
Freelancing from home meant I didn’t have to go many places, but if I wanted to get out, I had to get creative. Seattle started a rail system too late, too haphazardly, so the bus is still the primary form of public transit. Early on, I took the bus to an office job where I did some contract work, and I thought it might be OK. Then, in mid-winter, I waited nearly two hours in the drizzling rain for a connecting bus to get to my brother’s house across town only to realize the stop was actually below ground, in a tunnel. And I regularly sat on a bus for an hour to get to my friend’s house nine miles away. Even though I could still get some reading and people-watching in, the bus in Seattle was not the egalitarian, efficient way of getting around that the subway had been. Instead of feeling connected to my fellow bus riders, I felt like all of us would rather be anywhere else.
I sometimes hitched a ride from my brothers or friends, but I felt stuck. I wanted to get around this city—one that thought of itself as so progressive and environmentally-conscious—without depending on them.
Then, one day, I was helping a friend recover from surgery, and she asked me to drive over to a store. It wasn’t far.
“Are you sure? I haven’t driven in more than a year,” I told her.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said.
This friend and I had learned to drive together as teenagers more than a decade earlier. To her it must have seemed like a skill you couldn’t lose. Her faith gave me a boost.
I put her SUV in reverse, and drove—slowly—the few residential blocks to the parking lot. My feet remembered how to move smoothly from brake to gas and my hands flipped naturally to hit the blinker and the lights, as though I’d done it a million times before. Because I had. Being behind the wheel, I immediately felt back in control.
Now, a year later, I drive when the bus route would be inconvenient and the walk too long, or to roadtrip down I-5 to Portland for the weekend. I no longer hyperventilate in the front seat. But I miss that feeling of boarding a train and plugging into a community.
Last month, Seattle’s light rail system opened two more stops, a huge transit advance for the underserved city. The line is still far from my neighborhood and limited to fifteen stops—a fraction of the New York subway, or even the D.C. Metro, but it’s a start toward a big change.
Between here and there, Seattle and New York, teenager and adult, I’ve learned that freedom means different things. Sometimes you find it on your own, by getting in the driver’s seat when things seem uncertain, and sometimes you find it in ceding some control for a thing that works for everybody, and joining them for the ride.