Another semi-autobiographical aspect to Family & Other Catastrophes: the fact that Emily can’t drive. This wasn’t even intentional, but during the editing process, someone asked me why Emily is constantly being shuttled around in all the scenes and never driving herself anywhere. My first thought was, well, she flew in to New York from San Francisco, so she wouldn’t be able to bring her car. But then I realized that there are rental cars, or the option of driving her parents’ car. At a certain point I realized that the book would actually be funnier if Emily (like me) literally couldn’t drive, so I went with that.
Here is my story. (cue Law and Order music.)
Occasionally, when chit-chatting with fellow adults, something will come up that prompts me to inform them that I can’t drive: a vacation recommendation that requires the rental of a car, an adulty-sounding gripe about car insurance, a party with no valid CTA route (lol just kidding nobody invites me to parties).
And at that point, I have to say “Oh, actually, I can’t drive.”
People’s thoughts, after that point, follow this structure:
- By “can’t drive” she actually means that she’s just a bad driver.
- Oh, like CAN’T drive? So she can drive, but sold her car and doesn’t want to get another one?
- Oh, like, never actually had a car? So she has some kind of disability that prevents her from driving? So she’s never driven?
- Oh, she HAS driven, and has taken driver’s ed, but never passed her driver’s test, doesn’t have a functioning driver’s license and literally doesn’t know how to drive?
Ding ding ding.
Look, I didn’t think I’d end up like this. I always assumed I’d learn how to drive at sixteen like everyone else. But for some reason that just didn’t happen. On the surface, the reasons seem purely logistical–I “grew up in New York City” (I actually didn’t, but close enough), I went to boarding school, I never had the need to drive, so it just didn’t happen. More realistically, I have a very intense but latent fear of driving, and to an extent I even fear being in cars when other people are driving. But to be clear, that didn’t immediately stop me from trying to learn how to drive. It just delayed me, and slowed me down to a point where I was like “Why bother now?”
It started when my boarding school began hosting driver’s ed classes for students. My mom asked me if she should sign me up. I had a weird, but totally believable-for-a-teenager, excuse for why I didn’t want to sign up: there were no more cute straight boys in my school who I hadn’t already dated (or more realistically, who hadn’t already rejected me) so I did want to take driver’s ed, but I wanted to take it at the local public school so I could expand my social circle of perspective dating options. (This sounds super weird to people who went to a large school, but by the time I was in my junior year, the available pool of boys was literally almost zero. You might accuse me of “only noticing the super hot ones” but my high school dating history shows that being super hot was not a requirement. We were literally out of boys. Any female classmate of mine is encouraged to confirm this.)
My mom thought this was incredibly weird, but presumably had other things to worry about so she didn’t press the issue. Only problem? I had no idea how to sign up for driver’s ed anywhere, so I just never signed up. And because I was in boarding school, I rarely had the need for a car anyway. By the time I was in my senior year, I figured I’d just take driver’s ed the summer before college.
This is where I have to give myself some credit. Between the ages of 17 and 19, I technically did take driver’s lessons. The first ones were just in my family’s driveway, usually with some terrified family member in the passenger seat. Once I knew enough about driving to take my written test (the one that gets you a learner’s permit), I went to the DMV, which is just as terrible of a place as every movie makes it out to be, and waited for three hours to take a disturbingly easy test (about half the questions were something like, “True or False: it’s a great idea to do meth while driving!”)
I got my learner’s permit, but I still felt horribly underqualified to be driving. I mean, only someone currently high on bath salts would have failed that written test. And I still hadn’t really driven outside my driveway! Slowly I started driving with family members into town, but usually not far enough to actually have much trouble. Eventually I started taking driver’s lessons with a friendly middle-aged man named Bill.
This is something I tend not to admit to people, although I guess now I’m admitting it to everyone, but once I figured out how to drive, I loved it. At one point my mom sent a driver to pick me up from the airport, and I somehow convinced him to let me drive the black car around for a bit by JFK (I didn’t crash it, btw.) Any opportunity to show off my new driving skills, I would take.
Then college started again. I started taking driver’s classes when I wasn’t busy with schoolwork or trolling Internet message boards, but the cadence wasn’t what it should have been. I went to school in Utica, so there weren’t that many available instructors and the ones who were available were quite busy. But I tried. One day, I decided enough was enough, and I was just going to take my road test.
Now, here’s one thing that totally sucks about doing your road test: you need to bring your own car. This is easy enough if you’re sixteen and your parents are letting you borrow theirs, but when you’re not living with your parents, you need to somehow supply your own. What’s customary is that you schedule your road test in conjunction with a driving class, so you have about an hour to “warm up” with an instructor, then you take the test using that instructor’s car, and hopefully you pass. This means, however, that you need to make sure an instructor is available at the exact time as your road test.
Unfortunately, my go-to instructor, Frank, was all booked. The only available car belonged to an eggplant-shaped woman in her early sixties who appeared to hate me as soon as I got into her car. I believe this had little to do with me, and more to do with a long-standing feud with Frank’s Driving School (she knew that I had come from his school.) She told me as soon as I got in the car “You can’t fail this test. Unlike Frank, I have a perfect record for my students passing the road test.” During our lesson, I made one mistake–nothing that could have killed anyone, but a mistake nonetheless. In response, she decided the best way to drive for the next forty-five minutes would be to drape her body over my arms and steer for me.
Every time I told her to please stop steering my wheel for me, she’d back off for five minutes, grumbling “This is typical Frank. He actually told you that you were ready for the road test? What a moron. No wonder he has such a terrible pass rate. If you fail, my business will literally be ruined. Frank did this on purpose. And by the way, you will fail.”
I suggested that if I failed, she could just pretend it never happened, and not tell anyone, but apparently that wasn’t an option.
After about an hour of her berating me, I finally pulled over (correctly, I might add!) and burst into tears. I told her that I was fine with constructive criticism, but she was literally just insulting me repeatedly and I couldn’t take it anymore. Her response was to roll her eyes and say “Well I don’t know what you expected me to do–just tell you how great you are all the time?”
I practically wanted to fail, just because at that point I was totally Team Frank.
However, I was determined to pass because I was already twenty, and it was getting a little ridiculous that I couldn’t drive (haha, little did I know.) I eventually got myself together, and Frank’s Nemesis left the car, only to be replaced by a chic fortysomething blonde woman in aviator sunglasses, who would be my proctor for the road test.
Everything seemed to be going well (I mean, except the fact that I was still technically crying about my earlier confrontation) until I eventually found myself at a four-way intersection. For some reason I didn’t know that I was supposed to actually drive into THE LITERAL MIDDLE OF THE INTERSECTION. Call me crazy, but that sounds like just asking for another car to hit you. Instead, I stayed frozen at the traffic light, waiting for all the other cars to disappear so I could safely take a left turn with nobody in my way.
Even though this mistake wasn’t actually dangerous, it apparently tanked my entire score. At the end of the test, the proctor informed me that she couldn’t approve me for a license. I asked her by how much had I failed, assuming that my four-way intersection gaffe had been the only mark against me. She said “Well, I don’t want you to dwell on this number but you failed by thirty-three points.” I didn’t even know there were thirty-three points in the test, let alone thirty-three points by which I could fail. So what was my score, in school grade terms? An F minus?
I realized that I probably needed a lot more practice before I took the test again, but I had already done so many lessons. And they cost so much. I figured I’d focus on graduating from college and maybe then I’d finally get my license.
Well, at the age of twenty-two, I graduated and moved out to San Francisco (possibly one of the worst cities in which to learn driving, by the way). My learner’s permit had either expired, or wasn’t valid out of state, so I had to take the written test again. And I did. But what I had forgotten was that they would take a photo of me immediately after I passed the test.
I wasn’t wearing makeup. The photo they took of me could have passed for a photo of Howard Stern or Severus Snape. I decided I would just wait for this permit to expire before taking any real road tests again. I mean, I couldn’t seriously ever show this horrible photo to anyone, even a road test proctor.
And here I am, six years later, and I haven’t done anything else to learn how to drive. My husband is banking on self-driving cars, whereas I just plan to walk or subway everywhere for the rest of my life. On the bright side, I have an exceptionally dainty carbon footprint.