Little is more American than driving and the open road. Together, they’re the nostalgic twang of country music, “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles, the glory days of radio, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Naturally, then, it came as quite a blow when I realized that I wasn’t a good driver.
Okay, perhaps that’s kind. I was a terrible driver, Godawful in fact.
It’s unclear when that truth finally dawned on me. Maybe it was on the way to my first driving test shortly after my sixteenth birthday, when I asked my mom if pushing down the turn signal meant left or right. Maybe it came after I failed my first driving test when I allegedly “ran” a red light. But I still debate that claim. Or maybe I didn’t admit I was destined for the passenger seat until I failed my second of three driving tests.
That one was actually a little more embarrassing and went something like this:
Grader: “Robert, let’s take a left turn out of the parking lot.... Okay, let’s take a right here...and another right...and another right...and right back into the parking lot.” Apparently, I had almost “hit” someone. I still swear that was a kosher driving maneuver, too.
The realization had certainly hit me by the time of my third driving test. With two embarrassing fails under my belt and driving causing far more anxiety than the SAT ever would, we found the West Covina DMV, which apparently had the highest pass rate in the state.
After waiting for 20 minutes, a middle-aged woman sporting bright red fingernails, heels, and a tight-fitting blouse strolled into my silver car and plopped herself down on the passenger seat. I wondered whether she had confused my driving test with a night out; she announced she would grade my exam. With me nervous as hell, things went fine at first until she grabbed my arm and screamed “Robert!” as I began to “turn” into a treacherous intersection’s oncoming traffic.
Yet somehow, she passed me, though only on the condition that I read an article she handed to me saying no 16 year olds should be allowed to drive. The guilt of throwing it out immediately only lasted until I turned 17.
By the time I slipped through the cracks and the Driving Gods so irresponsibly passed me, I had come to grips with my serious lack of skill and consequently made two vows: 1) I would drive as infrequently as possible, and 2) No matter what, I would avoid freeways. Too fast, too furious—why not stick to surface streets?
It’s unclear to me why my second rule came as a natural outgrowth of the first—I still have suspicions that I was incepted by my mother, ever-critical of my driving skills. Nevertheless, shortly after I became a licensed driver, the freeways were off-limits. Period. Those Steinbeckian fantasies of me (and maybe my dog) cruising the open road and soaking in America had gone the way of the Hindenburg.
By the time I graduated high school, my fear of driving had vanished. I now knew definitively that pushing down the turn signal meant you were going left. Friends no longer recited Ave Marias before stepping into my car. My mom stopped phantom breaking at every red light. But the rule regarding highways remained. Still didn’t do them, still wouldn’t do them. It had become that irrational snowball, starting as a small thought and ultimately gathering enough momentum to become an accepted truth.
In the end, I guess I still didn’t trust myself to navigate alongside 1000-pound hunks of metal flying by at warp speeds. I had tried it once, briefly, early in my driving career—five exits with an instructor to my right—and that had been quite enough, thank you.
The mental block proved as impenetrable as ever until reality kicked in after my sophomore summer, when I landed an internship downtown. After briefly running through other options (Public transportation? Difficult. Carpool? No good.), the choice became clear: I would have to take the freeway.
“Bobby, how are you going to get to work in the morning?” my mom asked as my first day approached.