Drive by 25

by Sara Ghaleb

We all agree that Tai’s famous dig — “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” — remains one of cinema’s most scathing insults. In the words of Cher Horowitz, it’s “way harsh,” and rings way harsher if at 24, you still don’t have a license.

That’s right, I’m 24 and I can’t drive. Or I couldn’t — until today.

I consider myself a proud pedestrian in my habits and a snob in my taste in cinema, but I’m soon moving to Los Angeles, where I’ll need to swap those two. (First and last dig at my soon-to-be city.) For the last two months, I’ve been crashing with my sister in San Francisco as I took driving lessons. She is the living parody of kindness that comes to mind when you picture someone with the dual occupation of social worker and yoga instructor to let me do this. That said, it is a burden lifted to finally be able to move out. Nothing will make you feel like a child quite so much as living with your engaged big sister while you both try to write a cartoon script and accomplish a task you should have checked off in high school. There should be a word for feeling like a child in a bad way, because I think it’s what men mean when they say they feel emasculated.

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I really should have learned before now. I got three permits in Massachusetts, one in Illinois and one in California. In Boston I even took some driving lessons, but they didn’t stick — just a foggy memory, along with all the words I failed to retain from five years of my Spanish teacher playing tapes of Destinos.

After college, I moved to Chicago, a city spread out enough to encourage driving but still not really worth it if you could get to a train. One friend of mine had a car, and I would estimate based on anecdotal evidence that he got a parking ticket roughly once an hour on his own street.  Driving just wasn’t a thing that came up. Sure, I mentioned once to a boss that I couldn’t drive and she laughed in my face, but that’s par for the course when you’re a temp and you tell someone with a career anything about yourself. I get it. I majored in television. I find the choices that got me here comical as well. I did get a permit in Chicago, though. And fun DMV fact: Illinois made me give up my Massachusetts state ID card for an Illinois one in order to receive my permit. So I spent a full $60 dollars on a permit I never once used and an ID card for a state I’d already bought a plane ticket out of.

Second fun DMV fact: California does not care about my state ID. They didn’t take or look at it when I applied for a permit, and they didn’t even ask for it when they gave me a license.  California only wants to know your social security number and have proof that you were at some point born. They did not even check that I was still alive or a human, so I assume any old ghost or team of four badgers in a trench coat could get a California license if they passed the eye exam.

I started taking lessons in California in early January. I logged eight hours with an old Chinese man whose name I never got — but in my defense, he showed me a picture of his dog once and when I asked for her name, he said the dog was a boy and never told me his name, so I suspect it was both our failings that I will never find him on Facebook. Nameless Dog Owner was an ideal instructor for me, because I tend to really overthink directions, but you can’t overthink “Stop at the line” or him just moving the wheel himself when I was too far left. It was like getting driving lessons from my dad, if my dad didn’t start a sentence and then trail off to look out the window as I’m trying to figure out which turn to take.

At the beginning of February, I had one 90-minute appointment with a different driving school to get some variety; this time, I got a white bro in his thirties who was real chatty. We had a night lesson in the rain. Here’s the story of me nearly dying that last sentence set you up for: San Francisco is entirely steep hills that have stop signs at the top of them because fuck you. This already insane premise is made a little worse when the 90-degree angle you’re on is covered in water and you don’t know that pressing on the gas makes it worse.  Ironically, this was a question I always got right on the permit test: don’t gas if you’re stuck, lest you hydroplane.  I lost control of the brakes and gas and right before we skidded backwards down the hill, I had a moment of annoyed validation that I was right about cars all along.

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(This would be the point where I remind you all to get professional instructors because they have their own set of gas and break pedals and will tell you when to stop doing dumb things so they can drive you over the hill safely. It was nice to have a chatty bro for that experience because we could laugh about it without me craving his fatherly approval. Nice guy.)

My final lessons were organized over text message with a new instructor from the first agency. I don’t know why giving my address over the phone felt less sketchy than texting a guy named Eric to pick me up, but it did. “Eric” was a young Chinese guy, bringing my journey full circle. He had a car too nice to have added a second break and gas pedal to, but I suppose all instructor cars start too nice for the job and then gradually settle into being the quality driving experience students actually deserve — my own dwindling promise reflected back to me as I finally started driving well.

Third DMV fun fact: If you go online to schedule an appointment and they’re all booked for the foreseeable future, don’t bother calling. The guy on the phone will only politely explain that you should believe the online schedule. Saying “fuck that,” I went to the DMV and tried to apply in person, which is not a thing. It did, however, make me seem helplessly dumb enough to get an appointment the next week. BOOM. I would also recommend going in person (despite that not being a valid way to get an appointment) so that someone might inform the naive newborn fawn just learning to walk — which I am, in this and all things — the important information that the DMV does not provide you with a car for the test. You need to bring your own car. You need to bring a car and someone over 18 years old in that car because you cannot legally drive alone. You need to bring this car and this driver and also registration and insurance, you dumb, dumb baby fawn.

Truly earning her Lapsed Unitarian Universalist sainthood, my sister took two hours off work this morning to escort me to the DMV. I would recommend driving to the test, so you can get stuff like not knowing which button unlocks the car and nearly hitting a cab out of the way without an audience.

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The test itself was blessedly uneventful. When it was over, the woman grading me took her sweet time adding up my score before she happily told me I “just nailed it.” A misleading way for her to tell me I was one point off of failing, and “just” as in barely “nailed it.”

But still. Nailed it.

Sara has a degree in television and a fear of squirrels (unrelated). Follow her thrilling saga on Twitter @binaryfission.

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