On a bright October morning, I was walking out of my daughter’s elementary school when I heard a voice behind me: “You’re not from around here, are you?” It was a mother I recognized from after-school pick-up.
“No,” I replied. “I’m from New York, but I’ve lived in San Antonio for four years.”
“Ah, that makes sense,” she said. “No one here drives a Subaru.”
So true. In my old Brooklyn neighborhood, a Subaru is what you get if you can’t afford a Volvo, and the streets are jammed with Outbacks and Foresters. But out here in the exburbs of San Antonio, Subarus are as scarce as undeveloped tracts along Loop 1604. And when you occasionally do see one, you can pretty much bet the driver hails from parts East (or Denver or Des Moines — anywhere but here).
Turned out that this mom is a fellow New York City expat, so we bonded about the surprising longevity of culture shock as we headed into the parking lot. And then I had to fess up: “Actually, as of today, I don’t drive a Subaru anymore. I got a Toyota Highlander. It’s … you know … an SUV.” I hung my head, wanting to add, “It’s not even the hybrid version — couldn’t afford it. But check out my Obama decal! And you know those KEEP TEXAS WILD license plates with the horny toad on them? I’m totally getting those!”
If she disapproved of my choice to drive a gas-guzzling, ozone-depleting monster truck — if she considered it another example of the shortsighted supersizing of suburban America, as my cronies back in Brooklyn doubtless would — she didn’t let on. She’s got two kids and lives in the same car-centric neighborhood I do, which puts her smack in the same boat as me. It just happens that her boat is a sensible minivan while I’ve sacrificed my little Outback — along with a bit of my former identity as the sort of person who cares about the environment — for a seven-passenger crossover SUV.
Clearly, I’ve prioritized short-term concerns about my own comfort (I really coveted that fold-down third row) over big-picture concerns about the future of the planet. But I’ve also come to realize that it’s a lot easier to demonize SUVs and mock minivans when you don’t have kids or a car or even a driver’s license, which is how you could have described me five years ago. Back then, I didn’t understand why so many American families felt compelled to drive massive Suburbans or sad, style-deprived vans. Back then, I didn’t know about car seats.
Ah, car seats. Every day I give thanks to the genius who invented these wonderful life-saving devices — even while I’m humping two 20-pound Britax Marathoners across an airport — but they’re indisputably a pain in the ass and the reason my modest family of four had to upsize the Outback.
By state law, a child under the age of 5 and less than 3 feet tall must ride in a car seat, but it’s recommended that they use a booster till they’re at least 8. Who’s going to argue for convenience at the expense of a child’s safety? Not me. So here’s how we squeezed into the Subaru: My husband and I rode in front, our two daughters in the back, while dogs, strollers, and estate-sale booty jockeyed for position in the rear. Whenever we had an extra passenger, we’d rent a van or convoy with two cars. Now a “great big convoy” may be a “beautiful sight” but it’s not terribly fuel-efficient. Unlike, say, carpooling — which is about as green as you can get in a city with little in the way of public transportation — but you can’t carpool with young kids … unless you drive an SUV or minivan.
I’ve no good excuse for getting an SUV instead of the more virtuous minivan. It’s not like they’re so much more aesthetically palatable (though they are, kinda) or that the SUV-driving suburban hausfrau is any less a cliché I was trying to avoid than the minivan-driving variety. I suppose part of me still clings to my five-years-ago self — the footloose rider of subways who believed if I ever did learn to drive, my ride would be a Karmann Ghia. Or, if I ever got in a family way, maybe a rad vintage Volkswagen Bus.
Here’s an idea: Volkswagen should design a new version of their ’60s van — preferably a hybrid, but only if it’s in my budget. It shouldn’t be all goofy-futuristic but look exactly like the old-school model, right down to the adorable curtains. Instead of a CB hookup, it’ll have an iPod interface, as well as a LATCH system for the car seats. Now that’s a minivan this (former) East Coast freak would be psyched to drive. •