Failure #1: Successfully Drive a Car

Note: Essays are not written in order of the previously published list.

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Thinking back on my early life, I don’t recall ever possessing a real desire to drive. I wasn’t constantly daydreaming about all the places I’d go in my car. I did sort of expect that I would join the wheeled masses. Driving is just one of those skills that people assume everyone has—like the ability to tie a shoe or use the toilet. You just do it and don’t think about it.

The interest I developed as a teenager arose mostly out of peer pressure and envy. And, if we’re honest, to get a teensy taste of freedom that driving might allow. Didn’t I want to join the kids in the parking lot who were sitting on car hoods and smoking questionable substances? Didn’t I want to cruise the main strip in my small town? Well…The call of the open road came from an unlisted number, so I didn’t pick up.

My father received the call of the road early in his life and spent most of his life as a mechanic and cross-country truck driver. He dedicated so much time to his vocation that it actually led to his demise. While out on a call with his towing service, he was struck down by a drunk driver. My father was also seduced away from my mother and they had been apart for most of my young life. I was 14 at the time of his death and had very little contact with him. Tragic all the way around, but less painful than you might expect from such a loss. My father’s death, and to a lesser extent his career, did have some impact on my decision to resist driving. In my explanations to strangers bewildered by my license-free existence, I have given his death more credit than it actually deserves. I missed out on sitting on my daddy’s lap and helping him steer his semi cab. He didn’t give me a rusty old clunker that I could bang into a couple of lampposts. But through his death, I was afforded other opportunities. Had my parental units made different decisions and life gone a different way, I might be compiling a list of 30 different failures.

My mother didn’t drive–or own a car–until her late 20s. My sister was 30 with a newborn when she finally got her license. My maternal grandmother relied on the kindness of strangers and relatives to ferry her around town. My maternal great-grandmother would hire a taxi to visit the liquor store and deliver her booze order to her door. So, it wasn’t entirely expected that I would jump behind the wheel on my 16th birthday. However, out of obligation I took driver’s ed and through youthful optimism I bought a car.

My most memorable driving experience involves the test drive of my green 1996 Dodge Neon. Whoever had the bright idea to put an unlicensed 16-year-old in the driver’s seat of a brand new car and take it off the lot should’ve been fired that day. My mother and I took it out into the neighbourhood behind the dealership. I tried to make as many right hand turns as possible as I hadn’t quite mastered the art of steering and right turns were easier than left turns. Returning to the lot, I was so focused on trying to park the car between the lines of the space that I drove up onto the sidewalk, managing to stop mere inches from the showroom entrance. We bought the car I would call Raymond a few weeks later, probably from a different dealership, but I couldn’t get motivated to take him out for a spin.

The number of times I’ve operated a vehicle is far outranked by the number of boyfriends I’ve had. Three of these boyfriends had the pleasure of driving Raymond and the displeasure of experiencing my freak outs in the driver’s seat. I struggled to find a co-pilot who could be kind and patient and non-judgmental as I fiddled with all the dashboard doodads. Eventually I gave up, content with the notion of being a life-long passenger. The Volkwagen ad was right–there are passengers and there are drivers. And I call shotgun.

I gave up my car long ago. For all the freedom driving supposedly gives you, I think I have just a bit more. I’m free of insurance premiums and maintenance costs. I don’t worry about my car getting stolen or damaged. I am not on the quest of the perfect parking space. On road trips I am the designated navigator and snack dispenser. The rising cost of gasoline has no direct impact on my pocketbook. Since moving out of rural Alabama, I’ve chosen locations based on walkability and public transit. My general rule is if a destination unreachable by bus or by foot, it’s not my destiny to visit. This is probably a smarter way to live now, what with efforts to be eco-friendly and reducing the carbon footprint or whatever planet-saving buzzword you’re using these days. Maybe I’m not a failure but a genius, way ahead of my time. Uh-huh.

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