Friday, April 01, 2005


There are some basic criteria for being a real, red-blooded American, and we could probably argue at some length about what those are, but I think it’s pretty clear that driving a car is one of the very most fundamental. (This is one of the reasons that true New Yorkers are not actually Americans but a kind of interior multi-ethnic ethnicity unto themselves.) And so it happens that although I was born in Wisconsin to American parents and have lived in the US nearly all my life (and never in New York City), it wasn’t until I was 37 ½ years old that I felt like I really fulfilled the criteria of citizenship and became a proper American: on November 25, 2003, I got my first driver’s license.

I truly didn’t set out to be a non-driver. It happened insidiously, small step by small step. I never felt that weird. It always felt reasonable given my circumstances at any given moment not to learn to drive, and I kept assuming that the time was just around the corner when suddenly it would happen. After all, who doesn’t drive? Eco-freaks and hard-core neurotics? Sympathetic as I might be, that wasn’t really me. So any time now, something in my life would move a bit, and then it would all fall readily into place. I’d get my license just as it was supposed to happen—easily, inevitably, like falling off a log. Certainly by the time I was 25… certainly by the time I was 30… certainly by the time I was a mom… And as time went on, little by little I became a real outlier.

Of course, we’re all supposed to learn to drive while we’re in high school, as soon as we turn 16 and can legally do so. I went to a suburban public high school that offered Driver’s Ed as a matter of course, and it should certainly have been then that I automatically, almost effortlessly, joined the ranks of the driving. There was a tiny glitch, one that seemed all but insignificant at the time: I was young for my grade and so didn’t turn 16 until March of my junior year. I would have to wait until my senior year to take Driver’s Ed, even as all of my friends were taking it junior year and then getting their licenses. As it turned out, that very fact would play a large role in my undoing.

My social life bloomed as my friends all attained wheel-worthiness. Financial realities in our little piece of the world dictated that we wouldn’t be getting our own cars, but parental vehicles were the next best thing. Franz drove his mom’s VW Rabbit. Sharon and Phil drove their parents’ behemoth white station wagon. Michael’s recently widowed mother owned a pristine Monte Carlo that at first she hesitated to let him drive, but the fact was that she had stopped driving herself, and finally she couldn’t justify just keeping it in the garage anymore, and he took it over (and, as she no doubt knew he would, drove it utterly into the ground over the course of the next couple years). Since we always seemed to drive around in packs anyway, my being able to take the wheel really wouldn’t have added much. Besides which, my mom was divorced, active, and relatively young—between her work and social life, her Honda Accord was plenty busy already, and it wasn’t really clear when, if ever, I might use it. I probably would have felt embarrassed even to ask.

And then there was the matter of the maths. For some reason, I felt the need to take pre-calculus, calculus, and a class they called “computer math” (in which we learned to do simple programming in BASIC on the school’s mainframe) concurrently my senior year. I think I had some vague notion that I’d be “behind” once I got to college if I didn’t. I don’t know. Maybe I was just a geek. At any rate, incorporating all three maths into my senior year schedule was a challenge, and ate up the slot that would have gone to Driver’s Ed. Had I had ready access to a car, and had I needed to drive to be with my friends, I might have been able to bring myself to drop one academic course to obtain the necessary credentials. But as it was, the incentive just wasn’t great enough, and so computer math it was.

Once I got out of high school, learning to drive got to be a bit more of a hurdle than I’d quite realized it would be. When I was in college, few people had cars anyway, and practically my whole world was contained on campus. I took Greyhound home for holidays. Then, in the couple of years after I graduated, I was ill and depressed, working miserable little low-paying jobs, barely able to pay my rent (for my scroungy little closetless room on the top floor of a group house), with no money for things like insurance and gas, much less the actual purchase of a junker from the want-ads. And the pattern for my non-driving adult life was set.

Psychoanalyzing my failure to attain my true driving destiny is understandably difficult to resist. At one point some years ago, I went to an “Employee Assistance Program” counselor provided through my employer, to talk about my concerns relating to a partner’s drinking. She took a history from me and gleefully pounced all over the fact that I didn’t drive, pleased with herself for having made a clever deduction: I was resisting learning to drive in order to maintain my own dependence on my partner and to force him to take care of me. Others have adopted a tone of mournful concern, assuming that I’m phobic or at least morbidly skittish. Sensible as these explanations might be, they just never rang true for me. I did feel some apprehension about learning to drive—I wasn’t looking forward to it or anything crazy like that—but I really didn’t think that I was terrified. I had had a few scattered driving lessons here and there, never enough to add up to full preparation for a driving test, but enough to know that behind the wheel, I tended toward the tense but phlegmatic. I wasn’t a dizzy hysteric, shrieking when cars came by in the opposite lane or driving into ditches to avoid being tailgated. Both my parents are Minnesotans, and I find that under stress, I hew pretty closely to my birthrights of pressed-lip stolidity and a fundamental belief in my own basic competence. And as for the dependency hypothesis, that would hold a lot more water if I didn’t walk or take public transportation nearly everywhere I went. There were occasions when I’d go in the car with my partner, but only if we were already going together (grocery shopping, or to a party). He didn’t just give me rides places, nor would I ever have expected him to.

The psychological reasons for my aberrant failure to drive a car, and certainly a strong case can be made that such reasons must have existed, likely had more to do with an unwillingness to impose on people, and a profound discomfort with feeling beholden in ways that could not easily be repaid. I was broke and sick (with mild to moderate chronic fatigue syndrome) for much of the decade after I graduated from college. I couldn’t pay for driving lessons, and with my health problems, I couldn’t barter my services, either. Just going to work and getting my own laundry and grocery shopping done pretty much took what energy I had.

It wasn't until I was well into my 30s that I managed to pull together the resources in my life to address my absurd inability to drive. Living in a geographically spread out city, my daily commute took nearly an hour and a half each way on public transportation. This was nuts. I was also starting to make a relatively decent salary, so it seemed like the time. I sprang for six lessons from a driving school.

The instructor, a middle-aged stoner with white-guy dreads tucked into a rasta hat, picked me up at home in a scruffy purple Pontiac with velour-covered seats that smelled of stale cigarette smoke. It was first thing in the morning, so after he got out so I could slip into the driver's seat (this suddenly was feeling like a really bad idea--maybe I really didn't want to drive, after all...), he slapped the "Student Driver" sign onto the car. Okay. Here we go. He had me drive around some little residential streets in my neighborhood, just to get me started and a bit more confident. And it really was not so bad.

The driving instructor knew my age, so he was clearly a little surprised when I didn't turn out to be a screaming, fainting, phobic mess. After a couple times out, he told me with a kind of "what-do-you-know" tone that he thought I'd be a really good driver once I got some experience. And one Sunday morning, he took me onto the Expressway without warning me first ("why don't you take a right up here, just over this rise and after that pole..."), and I found it exhilarating and fine.

Then the paid-for six 90-minute sessions were over. I should have had more practice before taking my driver's test, but our family car (which of course only Pete drove) had a manual transmission, and learning to drive stick in addition to learning to drive, in our urban neighborhood, just felt like too much. I couldn't face it. And prevailing on someone else to babysit me while I drove their automatic car around aimlessly seemed a bit much. Besides which, who drives an automatic? All of my closest friends, the ones I could have asked for help without it being weird, drove stick. But I did finally find a friendly acquaintance, the pretty and stylish Alfred (consummate party-giver, artist, editor, and young man-about-town), who drove an automatic--an aesthetically satisfying and unimpeachably bohemian '69 Volvo wagon. Alfred generously offered to take a half-day off of work to drive with me way the hell up to the far north side DMV (where my driving instructor had taken me through the test course a couple times, so I'd feel more comfortable) and let me take the driver's test in his car.

I try always to take my birthday off of work. Since the DMV was closed on weekends, I needed to take some time off anyway, and I somehow decided that it was a brilliant idea to combine the two. So it was that I took my first driver's test on my 35th birthday.

We arranged that I would get to Alfred's around 8:30, in order to be there early enough to drive around a bit and acclimate to the Volvo before heading up to the DMV to wait in the line of cars. He had to be back to his office around one, in time to prepare for a meeting with a photographer who was coming at two. It didn't feel very birthday-ish, getting up earlier than usual to go do something I sort of dreaded, but it was what I'd signed up for. On the bus that was the last leg of my public transportation sojourn to Alfred's, I began to settle into a cozy self-pity. The sky was low and gray, and a wet snow was falling intermittently. I hoped that at least that would mean that the line at the DMV would be short. Who in their right mind would choose to take their driver's test today?

Alfred wasn't quite ready when I got there, so I cooled my heels and tried to be out of the way in his tiny apartment as he got papers together and put on a sweater and stuffed things into his bag. It was cozy, if a bit overheated and stale, in his room, and NPR was reporting on increasing violence in East Timor. I felt all blank in the middle, with a shimmer of anxiety just at the edges of my field of vision. It's funny, in a way, that I remember any details at all of that morning. At the time, the day felt entirely defined as a yes-no question. Will I pass the driver's test or not? A whole birthday, reducible to 1 or 0.

We went out into the wet, white day. Although it was snowing, and had accumulated enough to make Alfred's university neighborhood look very picturesque, the air had that moist smell that means that spring is coming.

It still felt really weird to get in on the driver's side. After so many years of being a passenger, it had come to feel as if my riding shotgun were the natural order of things. Alfred warned me that the ancient windshield wipers would sometimes quit without warning, but that all I had to do was to turn them off and then on again. We stopped for coffee and a paper for Alfred. The car needed a bit of repositioning, which I managed to do by myself while he was in waiting in line. We drove around the neighborhood a bit, spent a little time practicing maneuvering in a parking lot by the lake, and then, with me beginning to feel somewhat emboldened, we headed up north to the DMV.

Even on the big, main arteries, the Volvo and I both did fine. Its wipers, apparently a bit put out by Alfred's lack of confidence in them, defiantly worked perfectly. I kept up my speed (resisting the timid new driver's inclination to creep along at 20 mph to avoid doing anything wrong) and even did a bit of my own navigating, and was starting to feel substantially more on top of things. The snow kept coming in dribs and drabs, but although the sidewalks and grass were white, the streets themselves were blessedly only wet. We pulled into the DMV parking lot, and I went inside to fill out the necessary paperwork. Alfred stayed in the car to work on an article. I filled in what I had to fill in, and then stood in a short line (hooray for the snow) and handed in my forms to a motherly lady, who chatted amiably with me about her lazy teenage sons and not being a morning person and how she was trying to quit smoking, then finished stamping and checking all that needed to be stamped and checked, wished me good luck, and sent me out to wait in the line of cars for my road test.

Well, I don't know what the road test line looks like on a sunny day in June, say, but even on this miserable slushfest of a morning in late winter, it was by no means a brief and breezy wait. As we rolled forward one lousy car length at a time, then sat still for another 10 or 15 minutes, I started to realize that maybe we didn't actually have all the time in the world. 11:15 became 11:30, and then it was 12:00, and we weren't yet at the front of the line. With two cars still ahead of us around 12:15, Alfred got out and went to call his office from the payphone in the non-testee waiting area. I felt sheepish and crummy and apologetic. With Alfred out at the phone, I wondered fleetingly whether they'd disqualify me for driving (inching the car forward in line) without a licensed driver in the car. Alfred came back and hung out in the passenger seat for a few minutes, but then it was finally my turn to be tested, so he got out again and went back inside to sit on an orange vinyl chair near his payphone. The tester had me demonstrate the vehicle's turn signals and brake lights and horn, which for some reason all made me very anxious. Then he got in, and we started off.

We followed the course I'd known we would, and I found myself chattering away somewhat manically--as if he were a friend's uncle at a party or something--being cheerful and disarming and vivacious and social. The driving tester looked at me as if he didn't know whether my brand of crazy was dangerous or not. He gave me terse, standard directions--left into this slanted street, right up here at the light. It was going more or less okay. Once I stopped at a stop-sign a bit over the stop line, but I guessed that even if I lost points for it, it wouldn't be enough to sink me. Then the windshield wipers apparently noticed that Alfred had gotten out of the car, and they no longer had to keep up their perfect act. With the snow coming down as hard as it had all day (and with a bit of slush finally starting to accumulate on the roadways), they stopped dead. Damn. "Oh, the guy who owns this car told me that might happen!" I chirped brightly. It was getting hard to see. Feeling slightly panicky, I flailed blindly at the wiper control and finally did manage to get it to turn off and then on again. But now I was wondering whether I could get dinged for, you know, the "safety features of the vehicle not being in working condition" or something like that. Maybe that was it. Maybe I'd already failed. Don't get flustered, don't get flustered, don't get flustered, I told myself, counterproductively.

But at least we were coming to the end of the course. I was continuing to chatter away about how now I'd have to learn to drive stick, because my husband and I only had one car, and dit dit dit dit dit dit dit. "Turn left up here," the tester guy said. But wait--where? There were three possible places I could turn in. No, that first one seemed to lead to the auto parts store parking lot, so it had to be one of the other two... And then I recognized it. It was the middle one! Whew. I was halfway through the intersection when I looked up and realized that what I had just done was to make a left turn through a red light. F**k. The realization hit hard. If I'd been standing, my knees might have buckled. I managed to pause for only a fraction of a second, though, before going ahead and finishing my deeply ill-considered maneuver, to get out of the intersection and out of the way, though not before I got roundly honked at from behind.

Mr. Tester Guy didn't have me do the 3-point turn that was supposed to finish the test, just had me pull in to an empty space.

"I have to fail you," he said in a tone that actually had a trace of kindness in it.

"I know," I said.

"Do you know why?" he asked.

"I ran a red light," I said. "I'm so, so sorry!"

"We were never in any danger," he said. "There wasn't anybody coming. But I do have to fail you."

"Of course," I said. "Of course, absolutely. I understand."

He filled out the form for me to take back into the building, with the code for "FAIL" scrawled in the result box, and handed it to me.

"You can't take the test again for a week," he told me. (Um, yeah. No problemo there, bub. I'll be lucky if it takes me less than a decade to decompress from this little episode of trauma and humiliation.) Then he reached over and grabbed the door handle and lifted it to get out of the car. No go. He lifted it again. He jiggled it. He tried to force it. I got out and went around and tried to open it from the outside. Impossible. The door was jammed shut. Finally, Mr. Tester Guy had to scramble out the driver's side. This indignity seemed to completely exhaust any small cache of goodwill he might have built up toward me, and he stalked away from the car without another word.

Now I had to go tell Alfred that despite his sacrificing an ever-increasing portion of his workday and driving through the snow with a new driver and waiting for more than an hour in the road test car queue, I still didn't have a license. And what's more, his passenger side door was stuck. He was very nice about it all and offered to drop me at home on his way back to the office. I was starting to feel extremely antsy about his missing his meeting with the photographer (now he was going to make it back just in time for the guy to show up, if that, with no time to prepare), and anyway, I had to go back inside to submit my FAILURE paperwork. So I begged him to leave, and I would take the bus home. He finally did, and I made my sorry way inside.

I chanced to get the motherly lady's window again, and wailed, "I went through a red light!" She made nice, sympathetic noises and told me I'd pass next time, and told me where I needed to go sit and wait for my name to be called. From the waiting area, I could see people getting their pictures taken for their licenses, and I felt so sorry for myself and so stupid at the same time, that it was hard not to cry just sitting there. Finally they called me and gave me a slip and told me again that I had to wait at least a week to retest. I stuffed the slip in my pocket and headed out to find a bus stop.

The wet snow was falling hard now, and it had been too long since I'd waterproofed my boots, so my feet were cold and wet. And I was 35, and I still wasn't pregnant and maybe I never would be, and my face was just starting to sag in such a way that it was clear that I'd have massive jowls by the time I was 60, and the Supreme Court had recently installed a jaw-droppingly unprepared buffoon in the White House, and my husband hadn't gotten tenure, and I had FAILED MY DRIVER'S TEST. It was a bad moment.

Not much happened on the driving front for months afterward. I just didn't feel ready to face the process again. Besides which, I wasn't going to ask Alfred to waste any more of his time, for heaven's sake, which left me again with no unpaid options for practicing on an automatic. And besides that, I'd just gotten a bit distracted, because I finally got pregnant. Then I miscarried. Then I got pregnant again. Then I dragged around nauseated for a couple months. It was all pretty absorbing, really. It was that fall, in my 2nd trimester, that I really should have ponied up for some more driving lessons and just powered through and done it. That year was freakishly warm all through the autumn--I remember seeing pink roses in somebody's yard in early December--and it would have been the perfect opportunity. But I didn't do it. Maybe the September 11 attacks threw me off. Maybe that had nothing to do with it. But then it was finally winter, and I was hugely pregnant (oh boy was I big), and taking Bradley childbirth classes and trying to figure out which baby stuff we really needed (and which was ridiculous) and painting the baby's room, and it just really didn't seem like the time.

My driving finally got cooking again when we moved for Pete to take a new tenure-track job partway across the country. Now we were living in a suburb (a suburb with relatively decent access to public transportation, but still) and had a toddler in day care, and it was starting to seem a lot more important to have two drivers in the family. My mom bought an automatic 1990 Camry from the mother of somebody she worked with. She drove it up herself and then flew back. I had understood that the Camry would belong to her, and I'd just borrow it for a couple months while I was learning to drive, but then she said no, she'd thought about it, and it was mine to keep.

I named my new car "Constance." An ex-girlfriend of mine had told me about getting a kitten and naming her Kali Ma, and living to regret it when the cat grew ever more to embody her name, wreaking destruction and chaos in all directions and ultimately having to be put to sleep because she was just plain dangerous. Meanwhile, my cat Ennui lived up to both the French and English meanings of her name, being first a bothersome pain in the neck (as in, "oh, que j'ai des ennuis!") and then, later, a languid black presence dripping with weltschmerz. So I thought that naming a used car "Constance" might be useful in encouraging reliability. Plus I really liked the name, but had reluctantly concluded that it might be a bit too pretentious to hang on an actual child.

It still wasn't easy to learn to drive, since any practice outing necessitated the involvement of at least 3 adults--me, a licensed driver to ride with me, and somebody to stay with Cassie. But it was certainly easier than before Constance, and I made fairly steady progress. I got myself a book called Drive Without Fear: The Insecure Driver's Guide to Independence and Anxiety-Free Driving and, reading through the examples and anecdotes, was gratified to realize that I barely qualified as an "insecure driver." Not that I didn't find the reassurances and helpful tips comforting. Finally, in mid-September, Pete said it was getting to be kind of boring to drive with me because I wasn't doing much of anything wrong anymore, and we decided maybe it was time to schedule my test. I called the main DMV number and navigated through their menus to an automated road test scheduling function, and got assigned a date four weeks in the future. Jeez. I hadn't quite expected that kind of wait. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

The day of my scheduled test finally came. It was raining, and Pete and I were bickering. He was missing a faculty meeting so that he could accompany me to the DMV. We had a last-minute flail about the insurance paperwork, which involved getting something faxed from the state where my mom had bought the car (and insured it in her name). Pete did the phone calling. We received the fax just in time, and then hurried out the door so as not to be late to the DMV. Then, as we were on the way there, Pete made a withering comment about my not knowing how to turn my headlights on, and as I pulled into the parking lot, we were both fuming. We stalked into the building, him walking on ahead without waiting for me, me thinking "fine" and purposely lagging 20 feet behind him.

I filled out the paperwork; we waited on the benches. Finally, our number was called, and we gathered with a small knot of people whose road tests had been scheduled in the same time slot. In this state, the testee was required to bring a "sponsor" along, to ride along in the back seat during the actual road test. So Pete would be going with me in the car. We went out and brought the Camry around and got in the short line of cars out behind the DMV building. State troopers did the testing here, and now they were going up and down the line of cars, the big buff Black guy and the thin little white woman in their matching khaki uniforms and tall black boots and sunglasses. The big buff Black guy motioned for me to open my window. He verified that Pete was a licensed driver and qualified to be my sponsor and then suggested that Pete get in the back seat, so we'd be ready for the tester to get in. We waited a while. The combination of anxiety about the test and crankiness with my husband were making me pretty miserable, and it felt as if there must be a visible black cloud over my head. Finally it was our turn, and the thin little white woman got into the passenger seat. She asked to see my learner's permit, and then the registration and proof of insurance. I handed it all over. She looked through the documents, and held up the fax from the out-of-state insurance company we'd just scrambled to get before we left the house.

"Um, what's this?" she asked.

"That's the proof of insurance," I said, and managed to use a statement intonation rather than a question intonation, despite feeling less than sure that it was good enough.

"No, I'm sorry," she said, and sounded as if she might even mean it. "We usually need in-state insurance, and even if not, we need the original documents. We can't accept faxes. You'll have to reschedule."

I had really thought I'd have my license that day, and not getting the paperwork right was clearly my fault, and the whole thing felt just terrible. I even asked Pete to drive home. I felt the need to sit absolutely still and stare into the gray middle distance for a while. Still, there was a little glimmer, a tiny and dim beam of gratitude that I'd get another shot at it, that the historic day of my getting my license might not have to have so much rain and fighting in it.

I had to call the automated road test scheduler again, and now the wait was even longer. I was assigned a slot in the early afternoon of the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I decided to ask my dear friend Lucine to take a half-day off of work to go with me as my "sponsor," which she readily agreed to do, angel that she is.

It was a mild day for November, partly cloudy and no rain. Lucine took the bus to my house, and then we got in my car to head to the DMV. We got to the area early, so I could drive around a bit. Lucine and I made some guesses about what the test course must be, and even discovered a weirdly placed stop sign that seemed to serve no traffic-related purpose and must have been there expressly for the road test checklist. We felt very clever and pleased with ourselves. Although I couldn't help being a little nervous, I really did think I was ready, and anyway, Lucine and I almost always have fun when we're together. We parked and went inside. This time, they actually checked my insurance paperwork inside the DMV, before I went out to wait in the car queue, but Pete had now put me on his in-state policy, so I was all set. Lucine twinkled at me. They asked to see her license, and she produced it with a straight-faced, don't-piss-off-the-people-with-the-badges deference. They sent us out to bring the car around and get in line.

I got the thin little white woman state trooper again, but this time everything was in order, and so off we went. I even mentioned to her as we were easing out of the parking lot that I had tried to test a month ago, but only had a faxed copy of out-of-state insurance, and so she had turned me down.

"I did?" she asked, sounding slightly apologetic.

"You were very nice about it!" I said.

Lucine and the nice lady trooper and I talked easily and comfortably as I went through the course. The trooper asked me politely, with a generous preamble about how lives are complicated, and everybody has their reasons, why I was getting my license at this age--not only "why not earlier?" but also "if not earlier, why now?" I explained about having moved to the suburbs, and besides, I said, I definitely wanted to be able to drive early enough in my young daughter's life so that she wouldn't remember me not driving. It just felt important to model that kind of independence for her. We talked about women and men and roles and attitudes. In between, I stopped at the useless stop sign (the trooper made sure to stop the conversation as we approached it so I wouldn't be too distracted to notice it) and made a 3-point turn and backed up 20 feet and stopped at a stop light (!) and all the things I had to do. The trooper even complimented me on my good defensive driving when I hesitated long enough when the light turned green to take a quick look before pulling out through the intersection. "There are a lot of crazy people out there," she affirmed. We pulled back into the DMV's back parking lot, and the trooper had me pull over. We weren't really done with our conversation, but there wasn't an excuse to sit there any longer.

"Well," said the trooper. I had a flutter of nerves, because her tone sounded almost like she was going to give me bad news.

"You passed," she said, and I recognized with relief that her tone wasn't oh-gosh-I'm-sorry-to-tell-you-this, but rather no-surprise-here-but-I'll-make-it-official. She marked the "passed" box on my learner's permit, made some official mark identifying herself as the tester, and handed it to me.

"Congratulations," she said.

And then she got out of the car, and I sat for a moment, looking at the paper in my hand. That was it? After all this time, all this angst, all this preparation, all these years of explanations and excuses, that's all it took? It was so easy, so straightforward. Now I was a licensed driver? I couldn't let it sink in all the way. It didn't seem like it could be true.

Lucine let me have my moment of reflection for as long as she could stand it, and then from the back seat, said "YAAAAAY!" And we laughed, and we pulled in to park, and went inside. We stopped to pee in the ladies' room, which for its suburban mall location is weirdly minimal and rustic, as if it's in a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. And then we went in to get my license. I was starting to believe it was real. In the photo (which is actually a good picture! does that invalidate the license?), my cheeks are flushed, and I'm beaming.

Afterwards, we went to a nearby middle eastern restaurant, and Lucine bought me a celebratory late lunch. (The foul was amazing.) I started to drive us back to my house, unreflectively just reversing our trip to the DMV, when Lucine said, "I think there's a bus stop up at this corner. Why don't you just let me out here?" It took me an extra second to process that. Oh. Right! I could let her out, and then I'd be alone in the car, which would be okay, because... I had a driver's license! Um, okay. And so I did. She smiled and waved goodbye, and I pulled back out into traffic, and after a moment, it occurred to me to hit the trip-counter, to zero it, so it could count my miles as a licensed driver.

In the year and a half since that day, I've driven only about 2,000 miles, but I've gotten more at ease driving. I make fewer dumb mistakes, steer with more precision, brake more smoothly. I can listen to the radio while I drive, even if I have to go on the highway. I have to admit, though, it still feels a little like a lie, as if my license has an asterisk on it. In the first months of having my license, I realized that I was so embarrassed about being new at it that when I did something dumb or clumsy, I was hoping that people would just think I was a lousy driver. "Goddamned crazies on the road," I pictured them saying. And it soothed me. I guess I still haven't let myself off the hook for waiting so long, and I still feel as if I'm just passing. I'm not really a normal adult. I can just kind of make you believe I am one, if I try really hard and you're not paying too much attention.

I have mixed feelings about it, though. Not driving functioned as kind of a positive emblem of difference, too. It helped to give a contour to that inchoate sense of not-belonging that I walked around with. And it meant that I was not just a regular middle class person. Riding public transportation was a way of feeling like a real member of the community in a way that I wouldn't sealed in my own little automobile space. I couldn't be pegged as just a yuppie back when I was sitting there poker-faced with my umbrella and my bag, the only white person on the #4 Cottage Grove.

Now I live in the suburbs. I drive a shiny new station wagon and blithely pop my groceries in the back. I pump my own gas, and roll my eyes when I get stuck behind a slow-poke, and don't always signal my turns. I usually go a little over the speed limit. Sometimes I set out without knowing exactly where I'm going, just knowing I'll figure it out. I'm turning into a driver. And of course I don't feel any less odd than I did. Not driving was a red herring that way. It really was just a symbol--it wasn't the source of my difference. It's making me wonder whether some of those other people who drive, who seem to fit so effortlessly into capable middle class adult life, might not be weird, too. It would be nice to think so.

Thursday, March 31, 2005


It all started when the high school administration let it be known that this year they were going to come down very hard on each and every student participating in Senior Skip Day. A longstanding and arguably benign tradition at my high school as at countless others, Senior Skip Day had historically been celebrated with low-key picnics at a local public park—some frisbee, some hot dogs and chips, and okay, maybe some drinking of beer and smoking of dope, but nothing out of hand. I still don’t entirely understand why one wouldn’t tolerate a one-day-a-year attendance blip, or, alternately, co-opt the idea by instituting some kind of school-sponsored senior fun day to rob the unofficial celebration of its momentum. But in this case, the school administrators stepped proudly into their Hollywood-scripted role as humorless prigs—professional wet blankets in the Animal House / Ferris Bueller’s Day Off mold—and promised a fierce crackdown. Their threats were seen as credible and fearsome enough that the response went through the grapevine (a remarkably efficient communication apparatus in a class of more than 400): the secretly scheduled late-spring Senior Skip Day was now decreed to be Senior Drunk Day instead. We would show up and be counted as present, but—in a show of solidarity and rebellion—we would be plastered.

(I realize as I write this that the climate in the US has changed a great deal since 1983, the year that this all went down. Teenage drinking today is seen as a scourge and a public health danger, and the thought of a bunch of high school seniors drinking beer has an unmistakably sinister cast. The images conjured, straight from network news magazines and very special episodes of teen dramas, are of drunk-driving fatalities and severe alcohol poisonings. Twenty-plus years ago, though, the cultural attitude was substantially less anxious, and in fact the drinking age in New York State had only just been raised from 18, to 19. The tenor of Senior Drunk Day that spring was that of a naughty goof—a harmless, if somewhat daring, prank.)

It so happened that our established date for Senior Drunk Day coincided with an all-school end-of-year awards assembly to be held in the East Gym during the first two class periods of the day. This meant that what might otherwise have been a pretty dreary affair ended up being rather, well, festive. Paper airplanes flew. Those who couldn’t be bothered actually to fold their paper into airplanes just threw crumpled paper balls. And after a certain point in the droning program, every award announced was met with a huge, raucous, and thoroughly disingenuous cheer: “For most improved grade point average in the sophomore year…” Wild applause! Whistles! Stomps! “For excellence in industrial arts…” Hooray! Clap clap clap! YAAAAAAY!!

Amid the genial hubbub, I pulled a little jar of Pustefix out of my backpack, opened it, and blew bubbles with the plastic wand, as my small contribution to the party atmosphere. Not too much later, my boyfriend elbowed me and pointed to the bobbing bald head of the Associate Principal moving in our direction—“Corcell’s coming. Better put that away.” And so I did, and by the time Mr. Corcell—oh, excuse me, Dr. Corcell—reached us (having to clamber up some bleachers to get close enough to hiss effectively), the bubble stuff was safely stowed. He chose not to recognize that the offending jar was already put away and fiercely whispered (so as not to disturb the solemn proceedings, I suppose) at me to stop blowing bubbles. I gave him a slightly smart-alecky teenaged girl cocked eyebrow and said, “I’m done.” This was apparently not sufficient reassurance, and Dr. Corcell settled himself in the empty bleacher seat directly in front of me. I felt the rage of offended innocence—I was not, myself, like many in the gym, drunk. I was not making noise. I was not, by my own lights, being disruptive. I was a good girl, and, you might as well find out now, I was salutatorian and “Most Likely to Succeed.” If one told me to put the bubbles away, one could trust that I would, in fact, put the bubbles away. One didn’t need to plant one’s chubby little carcass in front of my knees to ensure that I would be compliant. My buoyant mood temporarily ruined, I tried to cheer myself up. I saw some friends, Kevin and Patrice and Gup, across the gym, low down in the bleachers on the opposite side of the gym, watching the little drama unfolding on our side. And so, with Corcell’s shiny head all but in my lap, I amused myself and them by making bunny ears, and wiggly antennae, and crazy hair, behind it. That done, I found I wasn’t mad anymore, and I could let it go, and passed the rest of the time cheerfully. The ceremony had reached the major academic awards for the senior class, and I had to clamber around Dr. Corcell a few times as I went down to collect awards for this and that (including a rather impressive-looking medal that had “valedictorian” stamped on it, given to me in error, and a “scholarship” of $75 for excellence in English).

And then, at last, the assembly was over. The Principal gave a summary address that strained to be inspiring, and then we were all filing slowly out of the gym, on our way to 3rd period classes. I was taking my time, since I had a free period up next, and let a lot of people go in front of me. I’d almost made it to the sets of big double metal doors that led out of the gym, though, when Mr. Jooster, the head of the Physical Education Department as well as an Assistant Principal, strutted into my path and told me that he wanted to speak with me in Dr. Corcell’s office now. As it happened, my phys ed-related conscience was not entirely clear—there was a small matter of dropping after-school Modern Dance (disappointingly humiliating) but not going back to gym class. I’d already been caught, and had arranged to make up the missed classes in time to actually be able to graduate (and this, at the special senior amnesty cut rate of one make-up class (jogging, picking up golf balls from the last period) for every week of ditched gym—an absolute bargain, one of the best of my life). So faced with the red face and jutting orange beard of an incensed Mr. Jooster, I immediately began to stammer my clarification that I was going to make up those missed classes, when he cut me off with that kind of impatience that says “I’m not even going to begin to try to figure out what the hell you’re talking about” and hustled me out and down the hall to the main administrative offices of the high school.

Dr. Corcell had managed to make it to his office before us and was behind his desk. Mr. Jooster ushered me in, had me sit, though he himself continued to stand, and closed the door. And, for the next 20 minutes or so, these two esteemed high school administrators lectured and berated me. I remember that they called me an exhibitionist. They talked about how immature my behavior was, and how disrespectful I was to the other students. This awards assembly, it seemed, was the pinnacle of everyone else’s high school experience, and my blowing bubbles during it was the moral equivalent of spitting in their fresh-scrubbed faces. Moreover, I was committing unspeakable insubordination to my elders and betters by showing so little regard for what they had to say over the gymnasium public address system. Interestingly, no direct mention was made of the bunny ears and crazy hair—maybe that was subsumed under the rubric of “childish conduct.” In the beginning, I did try to defend myself, and to make the point that I had in no way intended to be disruptive of what was already a noisy and somewhat chaotic event. As the tongue-lashing continued, though, I got so frustrated and angry that I was afraid I’d cry if I said anything, and I couldn’t bear to give them the satisfaction, so I just sat there stonily.

In their conclusion, when it finally came, my tormentors waxed unctuous. With a grand show of generosity and sanctimony, Dr. Corcell observed that as salutatorian, I was to speak at graduation in a couple weeks, and that he (magnanimously) hoped that the audience would show me the respect I had denied to others, and not blow bubbles during my speech. He seemed to find this to be a pleasing ending note, and I was thereupon turned out again, shaking and pale, into the wide, tiled corridor.

At first I couldn’t do or say much of anything. I spent the remainder of my free class period hiding in the walkspace between a bookshelf and the windows in a kind of student lounge, not quite able to have a good cry but not quite able to pull myself together yet, either. I had hoped that my best friends, Sharon and Chris, would be there, too, to hear my story, but they weren’t. (I later learned that they were having their own Senior Drunk Day run-in. They had shown more class spirit than I, and did, in fact, arrive at school with a substantial buzz. Chris’s empty stomach didn’t do so well with all the alcohol, though, and Sharon went with her as she had to throw up in the girls’ bathroom. A suspicious hall monitor entered; Sharon escaped unidentified (if not undetected); but Chris was cornered and ended up slapped with a 5-day out-of-school suspension, during which she studied for finals and got a nice start on a tan.)

Later that day, and the next, I began to tell my teachers about my ordeal and was gratified to get their support and sympathy. My calculus teacher, who was also the head of the math department, even let me use the typewriter in his office (which he said he didn’t even let the other math teachers use) to type up a letter to Corcell and Jooster, cc’d to Bill Stacchio, the Principal. I wish I still had a copy of the letter—I fear it was kind of strident (I remember the phrase “sacred cows” appearing) and probably a bit overwritten. In any event, I gave it to my trusted teachers to read, and then carefully copied it and delivered one to each of the addressees. I never did get any kind of response, but I’m not certain that my letter had even requested any. I suppose I mostly just wanted a chance to say the things I wasn’t able to say while trapped in Corcell’s office.

The weeks before graduation passed. The valedictorian, a co-salutatorian, and I were called into the Principal’s office to receive instructions for the content of our graduation speeches (salutatorians—looking back at the past; valedictorian—looking ahead to the future). The sun shone. I made up my requisite gym classes. Chris returned to school. We signed yearbooks. We took final exams.

My dad and his wife and their month-old baby came from 3 hours away for my high school graduation, and my maternal grandparents flew in from Minnesota. I had bought myself a vaguely 40s-style black dress with a print of little white crescent moons from the cheesy mall clothing store where I worked (ooh, 15% employee discount) to wear under my white nylon graduation robe. I had also cut my butt-length hair to shoulder-length, deciding that looked more grown-up and marked the transition from high school to college in a satisfying way. What I still hadn’t done (characteristically, I’m afraid) was written my speech. Mr. O’Connor, my English teacher, was responsible for certifying its appropriateness to the school administration, and I was responsible for getting him a copy at least 5 days before graduation so that he could fulfill this responsibility. He told me later with a shrug that when they asked, he just told them that he was sure that whatever I came up with would be fine. I started to write it the night before, but then I got tired, so I just went to sleep, and there I was, the morning of graduation, lying on my bed and furiously writing out a speech. This made my grandmother nuts. She couldn’t believe I’d let this go so long. My mom, who had witnessed firsthand the process by which my high school term papers were produced—and who had put in her time at the typewriter at 3 in the morning on more than one occasion, as I scribbled the next pages on a legal pad—was unfazed. (A speech, after all, has the great virtue of not having to be typed.)

By the time we arrived at the downtown performing arts center where the graduation was to be held, the speech was not only done, but transcribed into a sort of classical-looking blank book—green leather with gold-toned filigree. The other co-salutatorian’s speech was first (her grade point average was 1/25th of a point lower than mine—on a 100-point scale—which I suppose made her something of a first-runner-up), and didn’t go particularly well. I wish I could remember a single detail, but I just can’t. All that remains is a vague sense of unease. And then it was my turn to speak. I’d had my preamble written for weeks, long before I even started on the main body of the speech. Even now, I remember it nearly word-for-word: “Recently some members of the school administration have taught me that it is considered rude to blow bubbles while someone is speaking. So for the rest of the ceremony, I respectfully request that you not blow any bubbles. I would be both pleased and honored, however, if you would blow bubbles during my speech.” I then launched into a sort of satirical fairy tale (with the justification that I was supposed to talk about the past, and there’s not much farther in the past than “once upon a time”), in which a young maiden is trying to earn the right to leave the enchanted forest but has not fulfilled her requirements in the sportsmanlike arts. The high school Principal, Bill Stacchio, was transformed into King William the Industrious (Principal Stacchio was kind of a bland presence, and knowing very little about him, I wasn’t able to summon any more pithy epithet than that but couldn’t bear to sacrifice the joke). There were references to the morning PA announcements, to hall monitors, to guidance counselors. I had intended it to be funny, and through some alchemy of an audience pleasantly surprised at not being totally bored, and my own adrenaline-amped delivery, it was. I got laughs. Laughs from an auditorium of maybe 3,000 people. It was an amazing feeling. The very best part, though, was that through the whole thing, from much of the front row of my classmates, and from scattered spots behind, came dozens, and then hundreds, of floating, shiny bubbles.

It’s now nearly 22 years later, making that day in June of 1983 well more than half my life ago. I still, at 38, think of myself as young, but am beginning to realize that that self-concept is reaching a point of being more denial than reality. I always knew that life held disappointments, but when I was in high school, that was only going to apply to other people. I was going to march forth into a bright future. Everyone said so. I didn’t have a plan for that bright future, in particular, beyond finishing college, but I knew that something fabulous would materialize. I would wing it. I would write it the morning of. And it would be great. A resounding success.

I did finish college, graduating with departmental honors, a writing prize, and magna cum laude, in a hot tent with a bunny-fur collar on my academic regalia (college tradition). Since then, there have been illness and depression, crappy clerical jobs and crappier relationships with a small series of bad-news boyfriends and girlfriends of varying DSM-IV diagnoses. I’ve been fired twice. I have a second bachelor’s degree (in nursing) but no advanced degrees. I’m now married, and a mom, and relatively healthy. We’re struggling financially and otherwise, though at long last I am at least discovering the benefits of a good antidepressant. The life I had imagined being made up of bold strokes and bright colors, great achievements and big steps, has been complicated and difficult and weary, with compromises and half-measures and tones of gray. What successes I’ve had have been generally modest and hard-won. Pretty much the best thing I’ve got going at this point is my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who is bright and sweet and sunny and resilient, who gives her stuffed animals crazy names and does silly butt-wagging dances. She was conceived after two years of trying, an infertility work-up, and a miscarriage.

And yet, somehow I persist in believing that any time now, I’m going to fulfill that promise that everyone seemed to agree I showed. It’s a sort of cognitive tic, I guess, that stubborn idea that great things still await. I feel a lot more compassion now, though, for the two short, bald men who raked me over the coals back in 1983. The memory floats to the surface that Dr. Corcell’s teenage son had been involved as a perpetrator in some kind of violent incident that happened before I arrived in that town, something about a death by stomping. Disappointment and grief clearly weren’t unknown to this man. And anyway, does anyone really set out to be a second-tier public high school administrator? Would Dr. Corcell and Mr. Jooster tell you that they had reached the pinnacle of their potential policing a rowdy gym full of irreverent teenagers while the Principal droned on about the achievements of students with exemplary performance in home economics? I begin to be able to imagine how it might feel like the unsupportable last straw if one girl who at least wasn’t supposed to be a problem chose that moment to thumb her nose at order and decorum. It was an affront for her, of all people, to disrupt this celebration of things that had to be important if any of this were to mean anything.

I hope now that, against all probability, great things did still lie in store for Dr. Corcell and Mr. Jooster. Just as I hope that great things still lie in store for me.