POSTCARD: Practical Knowledge

NEW YORK, NY—Critics of Harvard complain that it offers little in the way of practical education, that its students emerge better equipped to debate the merits of Kant’s categorical imperative or Joyce’s Ulysses than to navigate the real world.  This summer I decided that I would supplement my humanities-laden coursework with something more functional.  I decided that, at age nineteen, I would finally learn to drive.

My roommate, who hails from Nebraska, does not cease to remind me that she has been driving since the age of ten (I do not cease to remind her that that’s easy for her to say, having grown up in a state with more cows than people).  I remind her that I am from New York City, where the majority of families do not own a car.  But even I have started to feel that my inability to drive is a source of embarrassment.

So, the week after I returned home from school, I waited on line for three hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles together with a motley assortment of adolescents and new immigrants.  I successfully completed a multiple choice exam–7 questions out of the 14 required to pass were about drunk driving–and received a slip of paper, my temporary permit.  This timeless American coming-of-age ritual would probably signify a whole lot more if I were a sophomore in high school rather than a sophomore in college.

A few days later, Ron–the driving instructor who my mother’s friend’s daughter’s boyfriend swears is terrific–arrived at my apartment building for our first lesson.  Even he seemed surprised that I had never before sat behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

And so I began my journey learning to drive in a city that even experienced drivers avoid.

Crawling through the streets of Manhattan at 5 miles per hour with a neon “Student Driver” sign, I seem to attract the city’s finest–cab drivers who honk and curse when they have the misfortune of getting stuck behind me, bicyclists who try to cut me off, and tourists who laugh at the audacity of someone learning to drive in the New York pandemonium.  And of course there are the pedestrians who see me coming toward an intersection and decide to sprint across the street, knowing full well that, at the speed I’m driving, they’ll probably be halfway down the next block before I arrive.

After four lessons, things have gotten easier.  I can drive around the block like a champ.  I’ve even hit 25 miles per hour, which, in rush hour traffic, isn’t half bad.  Some of my classmates might be saving the world this summer, but I’m conquering Manhattan–one left turn at a time.

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