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Peter Smith: I am truly blessed by my carlessness

I am carless. There is no car in my driveway. In fact, there is no driveway.

The last time I checked, I was not alone in my carless state; about 30 percent of households in Buffalo do not have a car.

I have to admit that “the last time I checked” was several years ago. You may remember Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought on New Orleans. You may recall that the mayor of the city issued a mandatory evacuation order. You may recollect that no buses were operating.

It was then that I asked a friend to check the “car population” for the City of Buffalo. If a tsunami headed here across Lake Erie, and Mayor Byron Brown told us we must leave, and we did not have a car to climb into, how many people would be stranded, as thousands in the Superdome were stranded? About three of every 10.

In my case, if a mandatory evacuation order came, I would be taken care of by my son and daughter-in-law – they do have a car. Not everyone is so fortunate.

So I am carless; but I feel blessed by my carlessness. How so? I get to walk more than I otherwise would. But the biggest blessing is riding the bus and subway. I get to wait for the buses and trains, and I get to “meet” people I would otherwise never get to meet.

The first “meet” is in quotes because I very seldom talk to anyone. I am British by birth and grew up knowing that one does not speak to anyone unless one has been introduced. In any case, I am shy. Especially if I forget my dentures.

But I do meet people. At the bus stop I hear snippets of conversation. The most surprising was at the No. 20 stop on Court Street near Niagara Square. It was the day a rally was being held to protest the governor’s gun safety law, and one guy was telling another guy that it wouldn’t work anyway – he himself had brought 30 handguns to the city from Ohio not long ago, with customers guaranteed.

The least surprising interactions, I have found time and again, involve two middle-aged women who happen to be meeting for the first time but instantly recognize some kind of kinship. They exchange remarks about how they’re doing, where they’ve been, what their kids and grandkids are up to. They are weaving the fabric of a society. A Buffalo society.

And on the buses and street-cars underground, I see people helping one another; people whose sadness or emptiness make me reach for my prayer wheel; people thanking the powers-that-be that wheelchairs are now easy to get onto public transport; people wishing the bus would move faster so they won’t be late for work or for class; and some wishing it would move more slowly so they could spend more time together.

Now that I’m in my 80s, I know for sure that every bus driver is a better driver than I am on city streets.

My decision not to buy a car when I came to Buffalo was tentative; I had moved from Vermont to Manhattan in 1987, and I did not need to be told that a car was more a liability than an asset in New York City. But when I retired to Buffalo I figured I would see if I could get along without one here as well. That was 14 years ago.

I may buy a very little car if waiting at bus stops in winter gets to be too much of a misery, but I know I will continue to ride the bus and the Metro Rail. That is the way to keep in touch with neighbors I shall never otherwise see.