Learning to Drive in my 40th Year

I grew up in New York and have never felt the need to drive, even when living elsewhere. Having spent most of my time in big cities, I have always managed either to walk or take public transportation, and have never really even felt the need to drive. When public transportation wouldn't do, it was usually possible to cadge a ride from a friend, and I have gotten into the habit of repaying these occasional chauffeurs and chauffeuses with meals, either home-cooked or in good restaurants, and for better or worse no one ever really complained. It was more a source of bemusement for them to meet a non-driver. Europeans, especially, with all their cinematic preconceptions about Americans, found me anomalous. I know several other non-drivers, though, all New Yorkers except one Berkeleyite. It happens from time to time; take note, European brethren.

I did take lessons when I was in college, at age 20, but I did so badly on the road test that the inspector had to wrench the wheel from my hands to prevent an accident. For some time after that I was resentful toward the driving school that had taken my money for lessons, but now that I think back I suppose those inspectors must experience a lot of stress every day, not knowing what nut will get into the car with them, and mainly I just feel sorry for my part in it all. Anyway, I spent the next 7 years abjectly impecunious in Taipei and New York, and there would have been little sense in trying to drive then. I took lessons again, from a friend in graduate school, when I was about 30. My friend had a stick-shift, and I got to the point where I felt I could take and pass the exam. But it took longer than I had planned to schedule a road test, and by the time my date came up I had had to leave the country to do research in China. It was two years before I was back in the U.S., and somehow the urgency of it had passed. Between 1992 and 2000 my wife and I moved a total of 6 times, and lived for two of those years out of suitcases in inns and guesthouses in small Chinese towns.

This year I will turn 40. Is there some sort of obscure biological cycle that makes me think of learning to drive every ten years? I don't know. We have been living in the same place for almost two years now, so perhaps being settled has something to do with it. Anyway, for some reason, as of last August the idea started coming into my head that I really should learn. I took and passed the written test at the old Department of Motor Vehicles (closed since 11 September), and in December I began taking lessons.

This past April 15th I took and passed my road test at a run-down Bronx testing site. It wasn't at all hard, and even the pre-test stress was minimal for me. I live in Maryland, but I now have a New York State license.

I'm still rather amazed at myself. Why did I do it, and what am I to make of the whole experience? Where will it lead me? Those are my sensations since the exam. I'm not worked up, but there is something slightly unsettled in my mind.

I have no intention of buying a car - actually, I can't think of any place I really need to drive to. Possibly it would be fun to take my wife out driving somewhere. The only places I can think of - nearby cities - would be just as easy to get to by train. Well, I suppose I'll think of something.

The truth is, although driving is fun, I still can't stand cars. I love the pedestrian life, the rides in subways and buses and trains. I do sense that I've proven something to myself, but I don't feel my life has changed in any appreciable way. Mainly, I think I have created what may prove to be a set of new options for myself in the future, and it evidently satisfied some need of mine to do this before turning 40. For that matter, as of yet I don't really have a sense of what "40 years old" will mean to me. I don't fear it; in truth, I seem to foresee feeling it to be, as the old saw says, the real beginning of my life.

Perhaps the most seductive thing about passing the test is to anticipate being able to watch new options, as yet unglimpsed, develop in my life because of it.

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