If you learned to drive as a teenager, you are lucky. It’s probably not a big deal to you, it’s just another thing you do. Learning to drive at age 32, on the other hand, is a lesson in abject humiliation, as an otherwise competent and accomplished grown-assed person.
I identify with this Arcade Fire song a lot, because it’s all about not wanting to drive. Especially the part where she sings “I’ve been learning to drive my whole life.” No kidding, the first time I got behind the wheel was my Grandma’s stick shift when I was 14 years old, and I’m 32 now. Since then I’ve had five learners permits, one destroyed fence, some 30-odd hours of driving practice supervised by my parents and a 60 year old white rastafarian driving instructor, and two failed road tests. That makes almost two decades of “learning to drive.”
No song better captures my driving phobia than Radiohead’s “Killer Cars,” however:
Too hard on the brakes again
What if these brakes just give in?
What if they don’t get out of the way?
What if there’s someone overtaking?
I’m going out for a little drive
And it could be the last time you see me alive
There could be an idiot on the road
The only kick in life is pumping his steel
Thom Yorke’s elegantly expressed neurosis perfectly captures the phobia that has kept me from driving for many years. What if I KILL somebody? I mean, what else do I do on a daily basis that has A VERY REAL POTENTIAL FOR ACCIDENTAL MURDER? I admit that I have been secretly hoping that we’d run out of fossil fuels by 2012 so I could put this ordeal off forever. But alas, tis not to be. Driving may be a disgusting, long-term unsustainable habit, but cars rule the rule for the foreseeable future.
I was raised by a single mom who did not have the time, money or resources to teach me as a teenager. I spent my twenties living in Tokyo and Chicago, big cities where driving was impractical, and the only feasible way to learn to drive would be to hire an instructor, which ain’t cheap. I eventually went the driving school route last summer, which set me back about $500, but I was lucky enough to work with an amazing old rasta guy that made me listen to his Jah Metal band’s CDs in the car, forcing me to drive up and down the Wilmette Ravines and Devon St. (Little Bombay) to sharpen my defensive driving skills. I loved my teacher, and was stoked to take the test. Unfortunately I was paired with a mean, condescending examiner, panicked, and was failed for driving less than 5 miles below the speed limit, even though I did everything else right. My instructor charged $120 to go to the driving test with me, and there was no way I could afford to take my chances a second time at that rate. I cried inconsolably in the car ride home, and my instructor felt so bad that he bought me chinese food for lunch, while insisting that my driving looked perfect and the examiner was just having a bad day. The ego stroking alone was probably worth the $120 I paid.
I decided to try again in California, and I’ve spent the better part of my winter break practicing with my parents. I took the test again Wednesday with a jovial elderly Black man who kept saying stuff like “Why are you so nervous? We’re just going for a little drive!” He tried to be encouraging, but I was failed instantly because my wheel touched the curb while backing up.
I am not a great driver, but I am a competent driver, and given the idiots I’ve encountered on the road, I am not looking forward to possibly failing again in a week. It’s exhausting. I am actually jealous of teenage drivers and their mandatory 50 hours of practice. I wish I had that leisurely pace. It’s not a big deal when you suck at driving as a teenager, because you’re a teenager. Instead I feel like I’m rushing to pull it together, and being made to feel not good enough, over and over again.
It’s embarrassing that I’m not better at this. I speak fluent Japanese. I’m a grad student. I’m a generally successful and highly intelligent human being. Unfortunately driving is not one of those things I can effortlessly master in a week. Truly, impressively stupid people have drivers licenses (Snooki?) and I don’t, and that’s hard on my ego. I don’t even really care about driving or owning a car, I just want the fucking license to prove that I am a fully functional “adult.” The longer I wait, the more humiliating my deficiency becomes.
The thing about learning to drive in your thirties is it really makes you wonder why the fuck driving is considered a normative part of society in the first place. It’s expensive, dangerous, and faintly barbaric. It’s a huge waste of resources, especially when you consider the lengths the auto industry have gone to to shut down public transit initiatives. It’s hard for me to imagine driving being fun when all I can envision is sudden death, dismemberment and losing control in horrible, bloody ways. But it’s normal! They let teenagers do it!!!
My saving grace right now is that my best friend from high school is also learning to drive at age 32, and sends me lots of encouraging, sympathetic text messages that make me feel less alone in what is honestly a kind of incredibly isolating and shameful experience for me. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do. I know that someday driving will seem effortless, and maybe even pleasurable, but for now, I still feel like the 32 year old (driving) virgin.
So, for now I’ll practice more, and take the test again next Thursday. I’ll leave you with a clip that actually sort of makes me feel excited about driving.