Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why I Don't Drive

I'm a strange bird, not having wheels.  As a kid and a teenager, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't get my license. I just wasn't sure I'd live long enough to get it because my family were such terrible drivers. When I was in grade school, I learned to remove my glasses and assume the crash position when my mom was in one of her moods. Most of our relatives refused to drive with her. They'd drive with my uncle, who drove his Cadillac sedans at a stately, comforting, funeral-procession pace, refusing to speed up when anyone behind him (like my mother) needed to get somewhere NOW.

She loved tearing around in my brother's Chevy convertibles, Camaros, and Corvettes (he went through a lot of cars) when he was in the Army. She called herself the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, and she made the most of every minute behind those high-powered engines.

I was in one serious collision with my mother, which totaled our car and lightly damaged someone else's. My mother hurt her knee, and I was fine, but I still call it "serious" because if a small tree hadn't stopped our car, we'd have flown off a cliff and plunged onto some railroad tracks, about 10 yards away and about three or four stories below. My first instinct was run away as fast as I could, but my mom needed help. By the time I finally looked over the side and saw what we'd just avoided, the police arrived, and they ushered me into the back of their patrol car. I vividly remember sitting there in my new sneakers, feeling shocked and embarrassed at being locked in a cop car like a criminal. I desperately wanted to run for miles and forget my first brush with death.

When I turned 16, instead of taking me out for my permit as was customary in our town, my parents told me that I could use my own savings to buy a car and insurance, or put it toward college. If I even wanted a license, I had to have my own car. I knew that getting "out" to go to college was more important than getting "out" in a car, so I chose college. At least I felt a little less guilty when I went away to an expensive school, Swarthmore.

There, I had a boyfriend with an elderly green Chevy Camaro I helped him pick out. I may not drive, but I knew enough about cars that its engine tap was normal, and told him to ignore the goofy mechanic his mother sent along, who was urging him not to buy some less cool car he was selling.

I learned to drive in that car. It wasn't a great experience because we were not a great couple. There was a considerable amount of screaming and hysteria, but I did take my driver's test. Three times.

The first time, I passed, but they said I seemed too nervous and had to go back a second time. The next time, I pulled up a little past a stop sign for a better view of the intersection without stopping before the sign first. And the third time, I accidentally brushed the curb as I let go of the brake after executing a three-point turn — and the car fell apart on the course. It was an old, fragile car. I had broken a tire-rod, which knocked the front of the car totally out of alignment. I still managed to steer that wiggling, messed-up car off the course safely. The big, unpleasant, loud, terrified cop freaking out next to me was no help at all. By the time we were back in the parking lot, the tires were in bad shape and the center linkage connecting them had bent.

No license for me, although I thought I did an admirable job.

Fast-forwarding to now, I successfully "got out" of my hometown, as my husband likes to say. I've been living in downtown Boston for an embarrassing number of decades. I never needed a license and I have lots of friends who don't drive. I once found myself sitting in a small meeting with five other men and women who didn't drive. I  walk everywhere, take the T every few weeks, and get in the car for an "airing" with my safe-driver husband about once or twice a week.

And maybe it's a good thing I don't drive. I save money. I keep the air clean. And I haven't killed anyone or myself. Did I mention that I actually rammed my bike into a car pulling slowly out of a driveway when I was a teenager? I'm very absent-minded. And I probably inherited my family's driving skills.

When we go to Egypt, we take cabs. Egypt has maybe the worst car-accident, or fatality, record in the world. There aren't a lot of rules or traffic signs. Signs are treated merely as "suggestions." Drivers routinely pull U-turns on roads as busy and big as the Mass. Pike. The traffic and jostling are insane, and sometimes there are donkeys laden with produce in the mix.  Nobody stops when pedestrians cross the street. Drivers expect walkers to keep a steady pace as they swerve to avoid you, honking their horns. Crossing wide, busy streets in Cairo was one of the more thrilling adventures of my life.

Most Americans are frightened or get ill being driven around in these conditions. But I like it. I find myself relaxing, tension melting away as I sink into some dingy, fake-fur-covered cab seat and enjoy the ride. At first I couldn't figure out why. But suddenly I got it: this entire country drives like my family. They tailgate, speed, ignore signs, yell, pass when they shouldn't. It's my childhood in cars all over again. It's the same in Italy, where driving is more like a game, perhaps pinball, and the goal is to tempt but avoid collisions.

I got as far as picking up a Massachusetts driver ed manual back in 2002, when my mother was sick and I was planning to move back home for a few months to help take care of her. In my Pennsylvania hometown, I'm useless without wheels. And everyone drives slowly and graciously compared to Boston, so I think I could get behind the wheel there right now and be fine, even after 30-some years of not driving. As long as my relatives weren't also on the road, it would be easy. But my mother died the same day I got the manual.

If I were a driver, it would make house-hunting beyond Back Bay easier. On the other hand, I really love my walking lifestyle and never want to be dependent on a car. So I'm back to Back Bay. But I still wish I had a license, at least for emergencies.  Maybe when my writing project ends (and see how well I've procrastinated this morning!) I'll be brave and try again.

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