Driving course | The New Yorker


It was in 1960. I was twenty years old. It has been suggested that it is time to learn to drive. Driving skills were not considered essential then as they are today – people, especially young people, did not automatically have cars. However, knowing how to drive could be useful. My father would teach me, he said.

Easier said than done. After taking the accelerator pedal for the brake and almost ramming his car into a stone wall, this driving plan was quietly scrapped. No tears shed by me: I had other things in mind, like existentialism, moon goddesses, and writing tortured poetry.

My next attempt was in 1964. This time the future heroic driving teacher was a very good boyfriend. His father was a used car dealer known as Frank the Pirate, so this boyfriend had a special Frank the Pirate to drive. (The car later exploded.)

After three sessions, enjoyed by me with gleeful glee, endured by the kind boyfriend with white knuckles and clenched teeth, he gave up. – I can’t teach you, he said. “You’re not afraid.”

It was news to me. I thought I had a lot of fears — thunderstorms, forest fires, bears — but these weren’t the right kind of fears for driving. I wasn’t afraid of other drivers, of roadsides, or of the huge chunks of steel slipping towards me at breakneck speeds.

Again, no tears were shed. I didn’t have enough money to own a car, not even a Frank the Pirate special, so why bother?

Skip thirteen years old until 1977. I had a life partner, Graeme Gibson, and a baby. We lived on a farm, shared with a Noah’s ark of animals and birds. The animals included Finn the Dog, an awesome Irish Wolfhound. One day Finn the dog tried to jump over a wire fence and got his hind legs caught in the wire. Graeme came out with the wire pliers to untie it, and a panicked Finn grabbed the nearest support element, which was Graeme’s head. He did it with his teeth, because dogs lack hands. Graeme finished cutting some thread, freed Finn, then went to the hospital – twenty miles away – with the blood flowing. Finn had missed his chin strap by a few inches.

– That’s it, I say. “I am learning to drive. This time, I hired a professional with nerves of steel. When I was testing these nerves, he chewed gum really fast. When I was well, the chewing gum slowed down. I took the whole menu: defensive driving, skidding in snow, ice. There were a few episodes that didn’t calm the family down, like me in our truck, speeding down to the house with my two teenage step-sons shouting, “Emergency brake!” For some reason I was unable to locate the regular brake. But, despite these setbacks, I got my license. I was happy with myself: it seemed to me that I now had the right kind of fears. I was a responsible adult.

For years, I have had an accident-free record. According to my sister, I was so careful that I was a danger, as I was slowing down in strange places, on the lookout for crazy people ready to run into me. But then we moved to a city and there was less need to drive, and someone took my driver’s license from a locker room at Macy’s, and I never replaced it.

Learning to drive made me feel more adult, as long as it lasted. But what about unlearning it? have I regressed? I can still drive a motor boat, a skill I learned as a teenager, and recently added a four-wheel electric scooter to my repertoire, so all is not lost. These days, I direct my inappropriate fearlessness in other frightening directions, such as the chainsaw and writing my memoirs. ♦


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