Driving me crazy


Next to my house lies a carpet of land not flat enough to resist puddles and not sandy enough to attract cats.

It just sits there. Empty.

“Symbolic,” says a friend, “of the hole in your life.”

He means the car I do not have. Raised amidst the free-flowing highways of the American plains, he cannot fathom how I — another American of similar history — can live my life as an auto-free pedestrian, even given the commuter train blessings of larger Tokyo.

“It’s not natural,” he says. “You have the space. So why not buy a car and fill it up?” With his reasoning perhaps sprung from that time-honored American maxim, which states . . .

“You can take the boy from the Camaro, but you can’t take the Camaro from the boy.”

Not that the spot could hold a Camaro. Unless it was the kind you snapped together with glue. No, my parking space was designed for vehicles of less length, less width and less horsepower. Like maybe a go-cart or a riding mower or one of those mini-sized Japanese kei cars, which do indeed seem to be made from plastic.

I would much rather use the space for an additional room for our mini-sized Japanese house. Yet . . . a parking area, even such a meager one, makes my plot more marketable should I ever decide to sell. And so there the space remains.

As for a car itself . . . I never miss it.

I thought I would. When I moved to Tokyo from rural Kyushu in 1990, I brought my Nissan with me. I needed it in Kyushu and figured it would prove just as valuable in the big city.

Wrong. The traffic snarls, the parking hassles, and the ease of the Tokyo train system soon changed my mind. I dumped the Nissan for a pair of loafers, which now help me get about cheaper, faster and healthier. The only hole in my life is the one in my hairline.

“But,” says my friend, “don’t you ever get the itch? That urge to pin back your ears and just let ‘er rip down the highway?”

Sure. When I’m home. There the rolling terrain would seduce anyone — nothing but horizon and open road. Other cars, if they exist, are nothing but bugs in the distance. Why not push the pedal?

And here? Meaning greater Tokyo?

Here can best be explained by a series of taxicab drivers I once encountered while on a trip to another automotive beehive, Singapore. Each driver offered an identical lament.

“Sorry for our sluggish traffic. The roads in Singapore are so congested.”

While I sat there thinking . . . “What are you doing!? Let ‘er rip, man! Let ‘er rip!” For what is congested in Singapore would be termed “wide open road” in Tokyo. Conversely, what is congested in Tokyo is termed “24-hour parking” anywhere else.

So, no, here I fight no desires to thrust pedal upon metal.

“Well, how about your wife?” he goes on. “Doesn’t she grumble about having to hoof it all the time?”

Now my wife is not without talent when it comes to grumbling. Yet, she has never exercised her skill on transportation.

To start, she grew up with a train station almost in her backyard. And then, in her front yard, her father parked a Mercedes-Benz.

He had no license, but he had a car. This because his small business was booming and friends said a gentleman of his status should own a swanky auto. So he bought the swankiest he could find and parked it in front of his house, as a sort of hood ornament. He figured that sooner or later he would learn to drive. And then he died.

So the first person to slide behind the wheel was his daughter, my future wife. Only she didn’t exactly slide. To peek out over the dashboard, she had to rest upon a pillow.

Whether the pillow contributed to her remarkable record of fender-benders, I do not know. Yet, by the time we married she could care less about cars, whether driving or riding. She gave up the Mercedes — and her license — but kept her pillow.

Now the only time she shows any consternation with driving is when we are overseas and I am at the command of a rental.

“Turn here! Turn now!”

I white-knuckle the wheel. “Why!?”

“Because we just passed a road! Didn’t you see it?!”

She follows her own internal maps, ones she feels all others should obey. For years, we would wrestle over even the simplest directions. Now she saves her remarks for the GPS lady.

“No one can be that calm. She must be lying.”

Yet, within the trains of Tokyo, never have I seen her lose her transportation cool. Not once has she rapped on the window and exhorted the conductor to turn.

“So . . . no car for you?” says my friend.

No car for me. I’d rather have the open space.

A space that stands as the truer reminder of my wide American plains.

All 15 square meters.