Letter from Charlotte: Moms in Big Cars



Neighborhood: Upper West Side

I am connected on Facebook to a fairly prominent writer whose Facebook page often feels like a Manhattan dinner party, full of witty, passionate discussions about art and politics among his many friends. I have never met him so I don’t usually join in but I like to watch. From his posts, I have learned that though he was a resident of Manhattan for many years, he now lives in Westchester.

One day last summer, he posted an angry bark decrying all the giant SUVs that hog that road in his suburban town. “Nothing is stupider than a luxury SUV,” he wrote, and he singled out the solitary women who drive them. “Twelve mpg, 4-wheel drive, tires the size of a tree house, the smoothest streets in the US…”

 It was a rant. He made valid points (the post garnered 60 “likes”) but I felt attacked. You see, I am one of these women going around in a giant SUV. Mine isn’t a luxury brand, though it is a big tank of a car – a black, 2012 Dodge Durango Crew. It has a 3rd row of seats (the car seats 7) that fold down into a capacious cargo area. It has all-wheel drive, a V6 cylinder engine and gets 16 miles per gallon, 22 on the highway.

I became a car owner fairly late in life. I lived in Manhattan and didn’t need a car. I walked, took the subway, rode the bus – like every other New Yorker. But four years ago, my husband’s employer transferred him to Charlotte, North Carolina and we had to pack up our two kids and move. We bought a house in Davidson, a pretty, lakeside, college town, fairly wealthy, overwhelmingly white, located 20 miles north of Charlotte.

At first, I resisted moving to the suburbs. I wanted to live in a city. I didn’t want to drive – I was used to public transportation. I liked being able to walk to a corner bodega at night and get a container of cut-up mango. I liked seeing so many different-looking people on the streets. I liked city sounds. I liked being able to hear my neighbor’s TV – it made me feel safe. I wanted to go shopping for groceries with my handcart at the gourmet market on the next block. I wanted to go jogging down sidewalks busy with pedestrians while listening to music on my earbuds.

But “Uptown” Charlotte, I learned, is very different from Manhattan. There is no subway and bus service is minimal – everyone has a car. Its traffic-clogged streets are mostly lined with banks, office buildings, and restaurant chains, not gourmet shops and boutiques. And it slows down a lot after 5 pm – the people in offices there drive home after work to suburban houses. There isn’t the same sort of after-work hustle on the street that you see in Manhattan, with stops at the gym, the wine shop, and the market for vegetables and cheese. There is only the echoing, collective ‘beep’ in parking garages of thousands of people remotely unlocking their cars. This wasn’t the sort of city-life we were after, so we Googled “college towns near Charlotte” and wound up in Davidson.

Before we knew it, we were the owners of a house in the suburbs and two cars, a mid-sized sedan for my husband, for his daily commute to Charlotte, and an SUV for me. I was, at first, afraid to drive my car. I approached it the way one would approach the friendly Great Dane that lives next door – with a thin smile and a wary outstretched hand to pet its huge flank. I remember the first time I climbed into the driver’s seat. It felt so high up like I was driving a bus. The back of the car felt so far away – how would I parallel park? I felt enormous gratitude to whoever invented the backup camera. It wasn’t something our parents’ cars had when we were growing up. The amount of metal I was moving down the road – was it really just my foot that was powering this thing? No wonder it requires so much gas. I felt like I was driving a tractor.

Perhaps, this is why women, supposedly, love SUVs.

You sit high in them, getting a better view of the road. You feel safe in them. You feel your kids are safer, all that metallic heft acting as armor. When I first started driving regularly, I became alarmed by how many accidents I passed on the road – as many as three or four per week. Around the same time, I started having strange, arresting daydreams, morbid fantasies, about getting into car accidents myself. They usually happened at night, when I was trying to get to sleep and my mind had nothing better to do than to scare me. I would imagine head-on collisions, trucks plowing into the side of my car. The daydreams weren’t that burdensome – they lasted a few seconds and I would fall asleep quickly afterward. After about a year of driving, though I continued to pass accidents on the street, the morbid fantasies stopped altogether.

My car has many buttons and levers that allow me to adjust the radio, lights, air control, mirrors and seats to my exact requirements. Once I had them all figured out, I realized I had a new problem – how would I find my way? I remember sitting in our realtor’s car when we first went looking for houses – I was aghast at the dizzying tangle of looping highways. The roads all looked the same. I would get lost just going for a gallon of milk. GPS, of course, made this a non-problem ages ago but I did not know this at the time. That’s how oblivious I was to the world of driving. GPS – what an invention! It will talk to me from my phone? Are you kidding me? The fear I felt vanished within a few days of regular driving. GPS made me brave, invincible. I could find my way anywhere.

So, yes, we have an SUV, purchased used, and not a luxury brand, but it’s still a damn big car that requires more gas to move than other cars. I am not proud of it. I can’t say I knew enough about cars to have made a better, more moral, choice in terms of my carbon footprint. But the choice we made is actually a very common one. This is evident to anyone with eyes – it seems like 1 out of every 3 cars on the road today is an SUV. Lower oil prices, better mileage, every combination of specs you could possibly want, at wildly different price points – this is why, over the past decade, SUVs have outpaced sedans in sales.  (https://www.cnbc.com/2014/07/17/suvs-crossovers-outselling-sedans.html)  Sedans may handle better because they’re lower to the ground but you don’t get the leg room or the headroom you get with an SUV. My husband learned this the hard way – he bought a sedan (a 2010 Lincoln MKZ) second-hand, over the internet, without test-driving it first. The car rides really nice – my husband was happy at first. But then he realized that his short hair was brushing against the ceiling every time he moved, tickling his head in an annoying way. So now he has to wear a baseball cap every time he drives his car.

One of the most attractive features of the SUV is all-wheel drive, which becomes important when navigating twisting country roads in inclement weather. Even when the weather is nice, the roads down here are no joke.


Last summer, a Davidson fire engine, while responding to a call, presumably driving fast down a winding road, flipped over, injuring two people who were on board. Down South, our driving is more at the mercy of weather than up North. In winter and early spring, the temperature, often warm during the day, drops precipitously in the evening, freezing whatever moisture exists and making black ice on the roads a recurring and real threat. It doesn’t snow enough for towns to invest in salting and snow-clearing machines. Property taxes are much lower down here – there is no cash for such machines. I still remember struggling over 3 foot snow drifts along Manhattan streets with my daughter’s stroller to pick up my son from school. That would never happen in North Carolina – half an inch of wet snow is enough to prompt widespread school closures for days; they would re-open only when the school bus parking lots were dry as a bone. I was unhappy about all the school closures at first. But, if you’ve skidded on black ice, as I have, it becomes more understandable. Still, people around here will venture out in bad weather because, with our big cars, with all-wheel drive, we feel we can.

About the prevalence of space in the South – it is stunning the first time you experience it. Mile after mile of beautiful, sun-lit fields, blue skies, clouds white and thick as clotted cream, and churches everywhere, with one appearing every two miles. How strange it all seemed to me at first! Now I am used to it. A few weeks ago, an old man charged with giving me a ride home from the car repair shop that employed him, while the shop worked on my car, grumbled about all the newcomers to the area.

“Someone should put a sign-up – North Carolina is closed!” But then you leave town and drive and you see so much space, so many dry, little towns with main streets full of vacant buildings. Why so much crying these days about immigrants and refugees? There is so much damn room for them! So many places that need development. What is so scary about a kabob shop or a Mexican grocery in a town where 3/4 of the storefronts are boarded up?

When we first started looking for houses, we thought we wanted a big house on a big piece of land, something with a rural feel. They were cheaper than the houses that were close to town and – who doesn’t like land? So our realtor made up a list and started driving us around. In every 3rd or 4th house we visited, there was a gun closet. This was shocking to me, even frightening. Whenever I came across one, I gave it a wide berth, as though it wouldn’t take much for the guns to jump from their mounts and shoot me. I didn’t know anything about guns, had never held one. But the more we looked at houses, the more I started to understand something I had not understood before. I would wander the rooms and hear – nothing. Maybe birds, insects – nothing else. The neighbors were far away – too far to hear me scream. The nearest police station was a 15 or 20-minute drive away. I would be scared to live in one of these houses, I realized. Unless I had a gun. And I had no plans on getting a gun. So we started looking at houses that were closer to the center of town, where the plots of land were a little smaller, and the neighbors could see you when you went out to get your mail.

Driving away from the center of Davidson, there are green farms that stretch on endlessly. There are fields of wild grasses and infinite highways lined with knotty woods. The closest store is often 15 minutes away by car. The closest Walmart to our house is 6 expressway exits away. So, to get anything, any sort of provisions, to leave your house for the usual reasons, you wind up living part-time in your car. I calculated that going to and from my kids’ school and work, I spend a minimum of three to four hours every day in my car. The car ride to school for drop-off, and then to work, averages out to at least an hour. On the way home, it’s at least another 1 – 1 ½ hours, due to traffic. Then there is the time spent commuting to soccer or ballet or Cub Scouts or art class or swim team or chess camp. Then there are the 45 minutes I spend every day on the car-rider line at my kids’ school waiting for them to be released for the day.

With so much time spent in the car, it starts to need to feel like an apartment on wheels. I see the prevalence of SUVs among suburban women as an expression of our do-it-all, cram-it-all-in days and the over-scheduling of our kids and the fact that moms-with-kids (often working moms) spend so many hours of their lives in them. I am usually alone in front when driving (with the kids in back) but my passenger seat is always cluttered with things – my handbag, a package of wipes, a bag of snacks that I throw to the kids when they are whiny and hungry, my water bottle, the case for my sunglasses (the glare while driving around here is brutal) and my expensive travel mug (which keeps the coffee I brew at home and at work hot for hours). I have my laptop, my iPad, books for the kids, as well as whiteboards and markers so my daughter can practice her spelling and my son can practice his multiplication facts. I have a portable file with documents I need for work (I’m a freelance legal writer) and a clipboard which allows me to edit briefs while waiting for my kids to be released from school. I keep also in the passenger seat a small bag with makeup and a hairbrush. In the mornings, when running late, as I often am, I often just wash my face and throw something on before running out. Traffic is always at a standstill between exits 25 and 19 on the I-77 – this is when I run a brush through my hair and put on a little makeup, including an undereye stick to hide the bags I have under my eyes. My daughter, at age 7, finally has her own room (she shared a room with her brother when we were living in Manhattan) but she’s scared to sleep in it alone so she comes to find me at 2 am every night, every single damn night!

Our household would be handicapped without the 3rd row of seats in my SUV. It holds grandma and grandpa when they visit, and extra kids when my kids have play dates. That’s right, my kids can’t see their friends without a car. In Manhattan, if you need a playmate for your child, you go to the playground on the corner where you will find 15 or 20 kids. This is not the case in North Carolina. Down here, there are playgrounds but they are often empty. Kids down here have backyards, often with playsets, trampolines and/or sandboxes, all of which can be found cheaply on Craigslist, and moms don’t always feel like driving 20 minutes to get to an empty playground.

The most valuable aspect of my 3rd row of seats is the fact that you can fold it down into a spacious cargo area. What would I do without it? Where would I put my kids’ overstuffed backpacks for school? Their pillows and blankets on road trips, the bin of used DVDs I collect to keep them from killing each other during long car rides, their toys and stuffed animals. My son’s bike when he has Triathlon camp. Beach bags with towels, bathing suits and sunblock for swimming at the YMCA. A cooler with drinks and sandwiches for driving into the mountains. A tent and camping gear in the fall, ski gear in the winter. The duffle bag that holds baseball bats, water bottles, mitts and cleats during baseball season, and soccer balls, shin guards and cleats during soccer season. The piles of picture books I get out of the library every few weeks.

And then there is food shopping. When we first moved out of Manhattan, I missed dearly Fresh Direct, the delivery of cold produce in cardboard boxes to my front door by strong young men. Here – a tip for you, friend! I missed popping into the corner market to buy a few cute things – a box of pasta, a glossy pepper – to make dinner for my cute family in our cute apartment that night. We have huge refrigerators in the suburbs, I’m convinced because food shopping is always such a hellish experience. Popping into the supermarket down here for 2 lbs of raw chicken and a tomato means circling endlessly for a free parking space, then dragging 2 or 3 fighting kids through a mile-long superstore. So grocery shopping in my house happens once every two weeks. I go in, drop $300, ferry the 20 – 30 bags out to my car in a shopping cart, then go home and freeze the shit out of everything in my giant fridge. Some women I know even keep an extra freezer in the garage, allowing them to go longer between shopping trips. Note to self – buy freezer. Another reason to have an SUV – to bring home large appliances purchased from Home Depot.

Now, in the digital era, the SUV, an enormous, pollution-causing machine that uses precious expendable natural resources, seems like a modern-day dinosaur on the verge of extinction. One of these days, probably sooner rather than later, the car industry is going to catch up to the technological speed of other aspects of our lives and develop big cars that run on little gas, or no gas at all. These cars will probably be too expensive for me to afford at first, but then they will become affordable – that’s when I will get in line to get one. Until then, I will continue to be – out of necessity, I feel – one of those women hogging the road in my giant, gas-guzzling car, even if it means being judged by a writer I respect, whose job it is (I know) to assess and judge what he sees.


Claudette Bakhtiar is a freelance writer and part-time lawyer based in Davidson, NC. In 2004,  she was awarded a NYFA Fellowship in Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Huff Post, American Book ReviewGigantic, The Rumpus, The L Magazine, Time Out New York, and Two Serious Ladies.  Follow her on Twitter @oh_claudette



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