MIAMI — Just as BP’s oil rig blew up, killing 11 people and slicking sea turtles and gannets, I was thinking, “Now I’ve become the enemy.”

I bought my very first car.

For three decades I refused to own a car. Not having enough money was one reason. Fear was another: A friend deep in her Tahoe got distracted one Sunday and killed a man biking on the side of the road; I didn’t trust myself, either, in a huge speeding weapon.

My pure principle was lit during the energy crisis of the 1970s and burned brighter as emissions rose and cities sprawled. I would limit my fuel intake, by god. I’d go by bus, by train, by shoes on the sidewalk.

In cities like Washington or New York, it was easy. But as I moved, people — normal ones, drivers — would say, How can you live without a car? Does anyone even ride the bus?

Of course, I’d say. You just have to know schedules, wear proper shoes, and carry change and an umbrella. And build in an extra hour for travel. And never buy more than you can carry. But really, public transit works fine!

Public transit is awful, said people who hadn’t used it. You’ll never be able to get anywhere.

I dug in deeper. In Providence, R.I., I’d march from the bus uphill, into icy wind; in New Orleans I’d step from the St. Charles streetcar into puddles and splash home. I’ve stood wrapped in plastic bags waiting for the bus in a monsoon. Public transit worked fine!

It isn’t even safe, people said.

It is, I’d insist. Look at what you drivers put up with: Every day the roads are snarled by crashed cars or overturned trucks. Drivers expect this danger, but we don’t have such problems on Metro!

You just have to plan, I’d say. Avoid parties, late meetings or jobs far from a bus. Don’t take your cat to the vet unless he seems really sick. Don’t go to the doctor yourself unless you’re just about dying. If you can help it, don’t have children.

And pray hard, in a hurricane, that someone with a car will save you.

But then, as I waited recently in Miami for a bus that arrived 23 minutes late, the sun seemed actually to be melting my head. I grew increasingly limp as I gasped the fumes of cars zipping by. And I suddenly thought: To hell with this. I’m 48! Enough waiting for buses, then standing in a hot stable of people with loud iPods, coughing with cigarette breath. I want to be one of those people whizzing by! I want freedom and speed and insulation — to be a real American at last.

So I bought a car. Online.

The last day that I would take public transit to work, waiting on a breezy platform, I looked out at Miami, at shadows dancing on the sidewalk below, at gulls soaring among high-rises. Then I looked at the latest riders. A black man, a white boy and a Latino woman — who’d probably never see each other again — were talking vehemently about the Haitian earthquake and whether Africans were guilty for their own enslavement. A drunken sailor was spooling out a tale of ships and captains to a little boy. Two German tourists with pink knees and sandals stared at this America, the one leaving its moist prints on the hand rail.

This suddenly felt so human. I remembered other moments in transit: when an old woman at a stop in Washington scolded me for smoking at 16. Or when a tiny Latin man in a toreador jacket glared at a giant in droopy pants, pointed sharply at the man’s feet — and, a minute later, the huge man was crouching, tying his shoelaces. Little human moments that happen on buses.

You move through a chain of still spots among people, spots you remember. It’s social. Not the linear motion as you drive in your car, hands clutching the wheel behind the windshield, alone.

But public-transit life is so hard in this country. Even for someone with no kids and the luxury to cling to old principles. People got cash for their clunkers — but not for umbrellas or shoes.

Part of me is glad about my new Mini. Yet I also mourn what I’ve done. It’s a surrender, a loss of something public that matters.

And as soon as I have the nerve, or need milk, I’ll pick up the key and join the America on the other side of the windshield. I’ve given up.

 

Jane Alison, a novelist, teaches creative writing at the University of Miami. Her Web site is www.janealison.com.