Although I was born and raised in the United States, I did not learn how to drive until I was 30.
This was possible because I grew up in Manhattan, where cars are not only a significant expense, they are a hindrance. I mastered other skills instead: My taxi-hailing is unparalleled. I learned that certain subway lines could be ridden at 3am, even in a semi-sober state, because the cars were full of other passengers, most of them Polish cleaning ladies.
Of course, there are places that the subway doesn’t go, or the cost of a taxi ride is prohibitively high, but here’s the thing: if you’re a young woman, you can usually find a date with a car who will drive you pretty much anywhere else. You’ll want to be careful with that one, of course, and sometimes you might want to bring a friend. If you should ever do this, here is what you will talk about on the drive: How it is possible for a well educated American adult to get through life with no driver’s license.
I finally learned to drive only because I had to, when at the age of 30, I left the city and moved to the suburbs. I enjoy driving, at times – I drive little, sporty cars, so country roads are fun. Mostly, I find it stressful in a way that riding in a cab just isn’t, usually. True, there was that one time I got into a stolen cab and spent the ride clutching pepper spray and hoping there wouldn’t be a lot of rats wherever he dumped my body. But, I only made that mistake once, and driving, now that I live in the suburbs, I have to do every day.
Last weekend, I hosted a dinner downtown for area alumni of my high school. There are a surprising number of us in Seattle, mostly of whom are men because the school didn’t admit girls for the first sixty years of its existence. One of the guys, who lives near me, offers me a ride, which I decline because, as the organizer, I have to get there early, but also, I know a lot about his failing marriage, don’t have a girl friend to invite along, and am not sure what we’ll discuss now that I have a driver’s license.
We’re a rowdy table, and when I stand up to address the group, I notice two things: first, the table next to ours appears a bit perturbed by all the noise, so I apologize for our New York manners; second, it’s snowing. The last time it snowed here was right before Christmas. We got a half inch and all the schools closed – Snowpocalypse, Seattle style.
We glance at the snow, but we’re having fun, and its not late by any definition, so we linger until we’re all really, truly done, and have the next event planned, too.
I head out, and realize there’s not much in the way of visibility – the big fluffy flakes are pretty, but also pretty hard to see through. I drive slowly, keeping to the right and hoping I’m actually in a lane because the markings aren’t visible. Everyone is driving slowly, though: Seattle is a city of little old ladies when ever there’s weather involved.
I get off the freeway at my usual exit, head up the hill to my house, and start to get annoyed at the driver ahead of me, who is driving slower than everyone else I’ve encountered en route, which doesn’t actually seem possible. I think, how annoying – I’ll pass him when I get closer.
It doesn’t take me long to realize that I’m not getting any closer. Also, the traction control light on my dash is flashing. I’m not sure exactly what that light is supposed to tell me, but at just that moment it’s serving as a helpful reminder that this car, unlike the other two cars I’ve owned during my brief tenure as a licensed driver, doesn’t have all wheel drive.
I’m not even a quarter of the way up the hill, but my car is, at best, inching along in the snow, no matter how I try to apply the gas. It’s just not getting anywhere. The car ahead of me pulls to the right, and sure enough, I am going to pass him after all, in a sense – he’s backing slowly down the hill.
That’s when I remember that if I’d taken the exit just before my usual one, I could have driven home on route that is blissfully hill-free.
I decide to turn around: If I can get the car down the hill, I can go home another way. The car turns, and I’m in the correct lane, and I begin to slide slowly down the hill.
The brakes don’t work. I try to steer, but the effect of this effort is simply to change the angle of the car as it descends. I’m skidding downhill but also slightly to the right, heading straight for a fire hydrant. My phone starts ringing and ringing, and I can see it’s The Child, who’s probably worried, and if could pull the car over and stop it and safely talk to her, I would, but at just this moment I can’t do any of these things. I’m trying to remember if I learned anything in Drivers’ Ed that might be useful in this situation, but all I can come up with is how to execute a K turn, and that if I hit the curb while parking it’s an automatic driver’s test failure.
But hitting the curb is probably better than hitting a fire hydrant, so I nudge the wheel again and the car cooperates by skidding even more to the right, coming to a stop against the curb, just before the entrance to a condo complex. Three women stand there in the snow, smoking and watching the evening’s entertainment. I turn on my flashers, and get out, and try to breathe and figure out what to do next. The other car has finished backing down the other side of the street, and the driver locks it and starts trudging up the hill.
I grew up in a city; I know how walking works. I can do this.
One of the smokers suggests I park in the condos’ guest spot, and though I’m a bit wary of restarting my car now that it’s stopped, it does seem like a bit of a target in its current location, so I get back in and let it drift just a bit further down and to the right, and somehow skid it into the spot.
The smokers applaud. I take a bow.
The child calls again, anxious and worried. I tell her the car is stuck, and I’m walking home, and she wants to help. She’s coming to get me, she says, and she’ll bring the Red Dog. I suggest that what would really help me is to be warm, and calm, so while I walk up the hill, in the snow, in boots that weren’t made for either, The Child makes a cup of tea and sets it out on the counter to await my arrival.