My first car was an International Harvester mail truck from the late sixties, with the steering wheel on the right side. (My dad, who was a big fan of all things British, thought it would be cool for me to learn to drive in a car with the controls reversed. More on my dad later.) Dad paid the guy fifty bucks and had it towed to our Silicon Valley Eichler, where he and I huffed and puffed for a half an hour to get it all the way up the driveway (Dad had really pissed off the tow-truck guy) and tucked safely into the carport.

Then the fun began. Dad, being a veteran of countless encounters with British engineering, knew the Basic Litany of Starting a Dead Car:

  1. Put in a new battery.
  2. Put in a new alternator.
  3. Prime the carburetor.

The first two steps are pretty vanilla; back then a new alternator for that particular truck was, like, six bucks at Kragen, and we always had three or four extra batteries kicking around the house.

Step Three was the killer. "Priming the carburetor" meant taking about a quart of gasoline and pouring it over the entire engine compartment, in the hope that some of it, somehow, would find its way down into the carburetor. Wherever that was. (Remind me to tell you about the time Dad tried to light the barbecue with camp fuel.)

Here was where I finally had something to do. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my job in all things Dad-related was simple: whatever it was he was working on, I got to hold it while he pounded on it. He showed me a tiny, spring-loaded lever, somewhere around what would be the car equivalent of a small intestine, and said "Okay, hold this open. I'm going to fire it up."

He did, and this is how it went:

"Click. Whir-whir-whir-whir-whir."


"Clickety-whir-pop!-whir-bang!-whir-bangety-bangety- FOOOOOM!"

With that last FOOOOM! came a four-foot tongue of flame that set the entire engine compartment ablaze. Included in the engine compartment was my right arm, and included in the blaze was the right sleeve of my jacket. I quickly flapped my arm out; luckily there wasn't any actual gasoline on me, just a bit of fire. Dad jumped out of the car, a look of concern on his face unlike anything I'd ever seen before. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget what he said right then:

"Jesus fucking Christ you fucking idiot what the fuck did you do? I told you not to let go of that! You lit the fucking house on fire!"

And yes, it seemed to be true: the flames were climbing up over the hood of the truck, rapidly smoking up the inside of the carport.

"Shit! Help me get it out of here!"

We both leaned into it and pushed the evil thing out of the carport--

--and onto the driveway--

--and watched in horror as, gathering speed, the 1968 International Harvester mail truck rolled backwards down the driveway, across the street, between two parked cars with inches to spare on either side, bumped up over the curb, and set the neighbor's tree on fire.

That pretty much took care of any hope I had of learning to drive before my second year in college.

I was in a bad car accident when I was 15. I was in the back seat, unbuckled, of a Colt, Jennifer's car that Eve and I carpooled in for school. The woman who hit us ran a stop light. I don't remember anything from the impact, just being cut out of the back window and put in a neck brace. I remember throwing up birthday cake in the emergency room. I had just turned 15 the night before.

Even though I sustained no severe damage in the wreck, it scared my parents so much that they would have preferred it if I never got my license. They all but refused to help me set up driver's ed and showed no interest in teaching me anything. So I waited until college. I was 19 and a junior before I was able to get organized enough to take it. Of course every kid in the class was 15 and a smartass and got out of making fun of me or bonding with me because I was a college student.

My parents waited until this time to drop another bomb on me. I found out that the two pieces of identification I needed (my SS card and birth certificate) did not have the same last name. Despite my mother's claims that Uhl was indeed my last name, the birth certificate listed me as Porter, her name from her first marriage. She was adamant about my license listing me with the last name of Uhl, so she dug up an alternate document that agreed with the SS Card. I still have yet to clear that little family secret up with her, but from consulting my older brother, it's pretty clear that I was born out of wedlock and that mom is just too embarrassed to admit it.

Thanks, lady who hit me, for whom I can now thank for lower back pain and minor occasional black outs. It's been real.

...Because you are a Foster kid. In one of the most insane legal technicalities I have ever heard of, foster kids are wards of the state; Private insurance companies cannot insure state 'property'(as if people were property). because of this, foster kids cannot be insured until they are adopted or become adults, and are no longer the responsibility of the state. In most states, you must have insurance to drive - therefore, for foster kids, no adoption means no insurance which means no licence.

I remember it very clearly. I was 15 years old, listening to Elvis Costello in the dark of my room. Thinking about a boy with red hair who didn’t like me. He had told me so. I should have been asleep by then, but I was too busy being sad about the boy. Since my mom worked nights, I was in charge of making sure my younger brother got a bath and went to bed on time. My mechanic father had fallen asleep hours before. It was always like this. Me taking care of my siblings, him passing out on the couch before my mom got home from her department store job. I got used to the sound of his snoring. Big tired bear of a man.

I remember it so clearly because it is the day my life changed. In my dark room, the digital clock said 12:03 a.m. She was nearly an hour late by then, but I didn’t want to wake him and worry him. I figured she would come home sometime. Then the phone rang. It surprised me. Frightened me. I reached up to the Swatch phone and answered it. A man was on the other end. He asked for my father. I said he was asleep. The man was stern, I would have to wake him. So I did. I called downstairs. Wake up! Phone! No, she isn’t home yet.

When I got back to the phone, I didn’t hang it up. Instead I listened. The stern man was a police officer. He told my father that my mother had been arrested. She was caught stealing money from the safe at work. My father argued. There is no way, he said. The stern man said she was seen doing it. The money had her prints on it. It is her job to put the money in the safe, my father said. Well, they caught her stealing it, the stern man said.

Then he put my mother on the phone. She was so tiny. A tiny voice. Crying. I didn’t do it, she said sobbing. I was stunned. I was mad. I hated her and loved her all at once. I remember thinking she was a horrible liar. I looked around my room and thought about how things had been going so well lately. How there had not been much yelling about money lately. I don’t remember what happened next, exactly. But nothing was the same again. There were lawyers to pay and bail and a trial. My mother would be unemployed for the rest of my teen years. She had been our only source of health insurance and now it was gone. She didn’t go to jail and I don’t even know if she was convicted. We never talked about it. But it was always under the surface. I would come home from school and she would be asleep on the couch. She was either asleep or yelling at us. She was no longer our mother, but this sad tiny shell.

Shortly after that night when my mother didn’t come home from work, I told my dad it was time for him to teach me to drive. I was about to get my learner’s permit and was so excited. He said he would try to get around to it when things calmed down. But they never calmed down. Every time I asked, he said we didn’t have a car for me to drive anyway. Soon after my 16th birthday, I got my first boyfriend. He got his driver’s license that summer, so I no longer needed one. I was off. With him in his black car. Speeding into the night like a Halloween child. Having a boyfriend meant being free of her. Free of the mess she was making of our lives. So, I never went without one. A boyfriend with a car.

I graduated from high school and entered college without a driver’s license. Finally, with the help of lots of friends, I learned to drive. I got my driver’s license a few days before my 19th birthday. By then, my mother had found another job and acted like nothing ever happened. But I never forgot. Whenever someone talks about when they got their driver’s license, I remember it. I remember her tiny sobbing voice in the dark.

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