A little over seven months ago, I moved from New York City, my lifelong home and utter sense of identity, to Los Angeles. Yes, I went willingly into that dark night--I needed a change of scenery, my skin was starting to turn into an inverse form of white that happens when you actually take in negative amounts of sunlight, and I was afraid if I didn't move away from the Lower East side I might be at risk of being stopped on the street, bulldozed, and instantly turned into a shiny new thirty-story high-rise.
But it meant one thing: I had to learn how to drive.
Not having a license had always been Smug New Yorker Reason # 4 (in my list of all things Smug New Yorker, I probably had about approximately 59 and a half, which included never living in a borough, bagels, "being an island off the coast of Europe," and "yes, my high school really was just like Gossip Girl!").
I'd always liked holding that I-don't-drive smugness over everyone, even more than I liked my New-Yorker smugness. Working for several years with inspiring green chefs and eco-conscious companies, not contributing to the mass amount of carbon mayhem that just one driver can produce was a nice badge of honor. Now, in one move West, I'd have to become a part of the Car Problem.
So I did what any self-respecting, environmentally conscious ex-New Yorker would do: bought a Prius. Shiny, black, energy-efficient, perfect for accidentally backing up into things (walls, other people's cars, trees--remember, I'm a first time driver). And I with that purchase, I quickly discovered a fun by-product of buying everyone's favorite hybrid: smugness! Oh, how I missed thee.
A search on Google of the terms "smug" and "Prius" brings up about 32,800 hits. Score.
I realized quickly the view of non-Prius owners onto us "Pius" people. Although it seems like about one in every ten cars in Los Angeles is a Prius, the rest of the ten is made up of mostly giant SUVs of all shapes and sizes.
This conversation has happened more than once:
RANDOM PERSON: So, you just started driving?
ME: Yep! Only ran over three things today. It's a good day.
RANDOM PERSON: What car did you buy?
ME: A Prius.
RANSOM PERSON: Oh. Think you're special huh?
The rest of the conversation progresses with them telling me things like, "See, I had to buy an SUV since I carry a lot of stuff around," or, "I am short and like to feel like I am above traffic in my big car," or, "The Iraq war will actually result in oil being two dollars a barrel, so who cares?"
How the Prius became the Smug Liberal product du jour is easy to see: it started with Larry David and has spiraled into a pop culture phenomenon with everyone from Cameron Diaz to South Park either driving one or parodying one.
Take this example: my first month or two in Los Angeles, I went to an exclusive, green-sponsored Oscar Party. Of course, I drive up in my Prius (black, with tinted windows). As I approached the valet, a swarm of paparazzi circled around my car, flashing bulbs. Did they mistake me for Evangeline Lilly?
Nope. I quickly realized that the cause for panic was the fact that I was in a Prius--and aiming your camera at a Prius at an event yields about the same chances of capturing a celebrity as does parking outside the Ivy. The Prius is the new black. Limo, that is. Hello, smug!
As gas prices soar, there are reasons to be smug about owning a Prius, many of which are the coolness and "it" factors, the cost savings. But then there is the most importantly the one, core reason in that I'm so proud to own mine: in an age of excess consumption and unending carbon output, anything I can do to help counts. And whether or not the Prius is the perfect solution--it's not--dismissing owning one as a simple liberal smug choice and ignoring the overarching problem is a lot worse than feeling like a victim of a celebrity-driven trend.
Until we can make concrete changes, like the National Low Carbon Fuel Standard that Barack Obama promises to initiate if elected president, a green trend should be a good trend, smug and all.
I still call myself a New Yorker and now, a Prius owner. Call me smug all you want, I can take it.
Besides, smug is better than smog. And a crappy bagel.