This Sunday, a friend of ours invited us out of the city for brunch and we happily accepted. We were to meet at a restaurant on the Hudson River, about 45 minutes outside of Manhattan, at noon. We debated getting there for a bit: our options were to take the train and have our friends get us at the station, or to rent a Zipcar and drive. Zipcar is almost always a more attractive option. For one, to get to the MetroNorth trains, Michael and I have to get to Grand Central Terminal, which involves TWO subway transfers. And on a Sunday, you never know how long that will take. And for all of that time and effort, Zipcar would cost about the same as the train tickets. Not to mention the freedom that comes with driving a car, an unusual and coveted activity for the vehicle-less. Freedom, but also control: steering, choosing to stop and go, controlling our transportation destiny.
For those unfamiliar with Zipcar, it involves an annual membership and an electronic key; you can reserve a car at an inexpensive hourly rate and choose where to pick up. Cars are parked in lots and garages all over the city. When you reserve a car (many of the Zipcars are Hybrids, yay!) your electronic key will recognize your reservation and unlock the car for you. An EZ Pass and gas card are there for your convenience. You return the car when your reservation is done and lock it, and that’s it. Magic.
On this particular day, we picked up our car and headed north, arriving at Xavier’s On the Hudson at noon. Except we had gone to the wrong Xavier’s. There is another Xavier’s on the other side of the river, where our friends were waiting. Normally this would not be a big deal, but to get to Xavier’s On the Other Side of the Hudson involved an additional 40 minutes in the car and crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge. Our Zipcar reservation was to expire in two hours, so Michael called and tried to extend it, knowing full well we could not be back in Manhattan by 2pm. Unfortunately there are times when Zipcar won’t let you extend your reservation, like when another customer has your car reserved immediately after you. Not really sure what to do, but having already crossed the Tappan Zee, Michael suggested to Zipcar Customer Service that they alert the following customer to think about renting another car, and to fine us for our inevitable late return. After some confusion, being put on hold, holding, and then the call being dropped (twice), we shrugged and joined our friends for a fancy brunch on the Hudson.
I think it was hard for both of us to truly enjoy brunch, knowing that we were being fined for Zipcar lateness as we nibbled away. There was guilt. My thoughts wandered to the people who were waiting for our car, standing in a parking lot, checking watches, pacing, maybe cursing us out. My best hope was that Zipcar had made other arrangements for them. But still I tried to send telepathic messages to these unknown people: I’m sorry! Please understand! Even if we skipped brunch we would still be late retuning the car! You would’ve done the same!
When brunch was over, we thanked our friends and promised to do it again and sped off. Michael instantly called Zipcar to let them know we were again on our way. Zipcar let us know that the 2pm reservation had found another car, but that our car was reserved at 3pm by someone else. It was 3:15, and we were at least an hour from the city. So we would eat another fine, of course, and we had already inconvenienced yet another customer. To top it all off, as we neared the George Washington Bridge, we found ourselves swimming in weekend commuters on their way home from their country and beach houses.
There are few things more agonizing than being stuck in standstill traffic while you’re stuck in your own guilt. That’s where we were that afternoon. My husband and I sat there quietly, thinking of the possible scenarios for when we returned the car. Every once and a while one of us would say something optimistic: “You know, I’m sure Zipcar has a contingency plan for this kind of thing…I mean, they can’t control the drivers or when the cars are actually returned. So they probably offer like a $25 Zipcar gift card or something”… “The thing is, the people waiting have probably figured out some other arrangements and are laughing at the whole situation as we speak”… “I think the best karmic action here is that next time we are waiting for a Zipcar and it’s really really late, we don’t complain or get frustrated, instead we should be compassionate and patient and understanding.”
Maybe it sounds like we were trying to justify ourselves. That’s one way to look at it. But as we inched along toward the bridge, I kept saying to myself, “It’s out of my control. It’s out of my control.” This is a helpful mantra when you’re stuck in traffic. Actually this is a helpful mantra for every single situation in life.
Control is the great illusion, and the Zipcar situation is a perfect example. We chose driving a car because we imagined it would offer us control, therefore, that meant greater freedom. The truth is, control does not lead to freedom. Freedom from trying to control leads to freedom. Freedom leads to freedom. How about that?
Initially, recognizing that the traffic jam was out of my control did not make me feel any better about being late and inconveniencing other people. There was still a lot of guilt. But eventually I just had to forgive myself. Holding onto that guilt is really just another way of trying to have control in a situation that is so clearly not in my control. There’s incredible freedom in self-forgiveness.
So I think the lesson is this: Take responsibility for your choices. Accept what is. Forgive yourself. Move on.
After we dropped off the Zipcar and made a therapeutic stop at Whole Foods, Michael and I took the dogs for an energy-releasing run in East River Park and laid our guilt to rest. It ended up being okay. And next time we’ll take the train.