Learning to Drive

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People often use their cars to express who they are and what they think.

Life lived as a passenger is a very different experience from that of a driver. When I hit thirty, I decided I would learn to drive. I called the British School of Motoring, which was the one that people said I had to use, and booked some lessons. At the time I was living off Portobello Road in a busy part of West London. My lessons involved dodging buses and angry black cabs on the Harrow Road and avoiding pedestrians. No one observed any lights and my efforts to try and find some order within the chaos of London’s narrow, crowded streets felt frustrating and futile. On top of that, I was learning on an old, manual car. Getting to grips with a clutch while avoiding killing people was too much. I ended up running over a cat and that was that. No more lessons for me.

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A stop sign in Missoula, Montana.

Almost twenty years on, I am living in Montana where the roads are wide, and there are few pedestrians, let alone cars on the road. And drivers seem exceptionally courteous, certainly compared to London ones. So I have decided once and for all that I will get over my fear of cars, my dislike of petroleum products and the people who suck them out of the earth, and challenge the view of myself as one of life’s passengers.

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The perils of being a pedestrian in a car-centric country: sometimes the pavement literally just stops.

When I think back to the adventures I have had, I don’t feel any particular lack in not having driven a car. I crossed the US on a Greyhound bus around ten years ago, and by not driving, I met people and went places I would never have if I had done the trip in my own little metal bubble. The thing you notice more than anything as a passenger in life is that you have to put your trust in complete strangers. In St Louis, a bored taxi driver from Somalia let me sit in the front seat with him while he picked up customers and told me about his life before America. During one call out, we went to a very rough part of town and sat and waited outside a boarded up house. After about three minutes a guy stumbled out in a pair of black trousers, a white untucked shirt and a bow tie askew. You could still smell the booze on him from the night before and he could barely walk a straight line. But we got him to his shift in an upmarket restaurant almost on time. I have also been ferried around Amarillo, Texas and Detroit by taxi drivers who wanted to show me their towns. The cabbies in St Louis, Amarillo and Detroit didn’t charge me for their time, perhaps enjoying some distraction from their normal routine. Telling people in America that you don’t drive arouses their curiosity and their desire to help.

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Old, beat up cars are such a big part of the landscape here in Montana, you stop noticing them after a while. This one is in Clinton.

The driver in Detroit was ecstatic at having someone he could show the real city to. “This place is like Beirut,” he said as he whisked me to a part of town where the buildings had no windows, the cars lay in parts strewn across empty lots and people walked around like zombies, literally out of their minds, pushing shopping carts full of rags. I showed him the hotel I had booked myself into which turned out to be a crack den with people passed out on the front stoop. “Why would you want to stay there?” he had asked. “Because it was cheap,” I replied. He laughed at my naivete and I told him I had managed to book somewhere else called The Milner where the elevators were shaped like coffins and water leaked through the ceilings making the lights fizz. We talked at length of the promise of Detroit during the height of Motown, when Berry Gordy was at the top of the music business and the sounds coming from Hitsville USA were unlike any heard before or since. Compared with the city I was being shown the sadness was too much to hold in. And he didn’t mind me crying as I watched the city in all its crumbling beauty fly past. All that potential, all that hope, all that great music. All of it gone and replaced by poverty and decay and a sense that the place was not worth saving. My visit to Detroit was before any books or photos or films had been made about the town. When its nineteenth-century buildings with their collapsed roofs and chandeliers spilling from broken windows had yet to be documented. When I got back to London, I tried to explain what I had seen there but no one really believed me. I had taken some photos but managed to lose most of them. Would I have experienced Detroit as deeply if I had been in my own car and possibly too freaked out to go to its more devastated parts? Who knows. But I would certainly not be able to say I cried in a taxi while the driver shook his head in sadness alongside me and kept me company in my grief.

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Clinton, Montana. This one was for sale by the owner.

Around a month ago I went out driving with a friend on some quiet streets and in the parking lot of the Mall. It all went smoothly, but I was too worried about crashing her expensive car and destroying our friendship, so I called Missoula’s best-known driving instructor Mike Kincaid who is not a native Montanan but a transplant from Long Island, and set up some lessons. There is something about his broad New York accent and his laconic sense of humour that puts me at ease. We’ve now been out in his car three times. I have negotiated rush hour on the biggest street in Missoula, which is nothing like rush hour in London, but nevertheless I managed to share the road with other cars without hitting them. Mike has been teaching me to parallel park, which I am told no one ever does here, but it’s on the test. I am learning on an automatic on streets with hardly any traffic and it all feels so much more manageable than my previous attempt. Maybe after all these years, this is my time to drive.

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Mike Kincaid, my driving instructor. Maybe the only driving instructor in Montana who subscribes to the Nation.

The impetus for learning to drive here and now is because America, with possibly the exception of New York, is a place where you need a car in order to survive. Learning to drive is a rite of passage, and like marriage and kids seems to be the accepted face of normality. Stupidly my not learning to drive sat next to my “f*** you” button which I press when I don’t like what I am being told to do. I grew up in the Canadian suburbs where you were expected to drive. But as a teenager when I had saved up a chunk of money from babysitting or cleaning houses I would take myself to New York or Florence or Paris instead of putting my money towards practical things. In my bohemian teenage head, sitting in Parisian cafés was much more romantic and life-enhancing than sitting in a car in the Ottawa suburbs being told about the rules of the road. Learning to drive was aligned in my mind with accepting that a white wedding and three kids in a suburban bungalow were my future. I never wanted any of that, and somehow along with rejecting the normal uncontested route, I also rejected driving a car. It was my own personal revolt against the status quo, and what a stupid one it was too. In short the political and personal threads that had seemed so important to me as a young woman had over the years turned into a Gordian knot of non-driving. With the onset of middle age comes the acceptance that some of our stances are puerile and plain ridiculous.

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This old car, which still runs, was parked near a stone angel marking the grave of a much-loved German Shepherd. Clinton, Montana.

On a purely practical level, I need to be able to lug food from the supermarket and get E to her ballet classes when J isn’t around. I need to be able to buy birthday presents for E’s friends and take her swimming. Even these simple tasks will seem like monumental achievements to me, if I do in fact learn to drive and pass the test and find the money for a cheap car. These are all big ifs. J has always said that my problem with driving is that I see cars as large metal death machines. My reply to him is that they are. And death in a car, just like death in an airplane (I am also terrified of flying), is not how I would like to go. Driving makes me aware of my mortality and not in a good way. And the thought of killing someone else terrifies me beyond anything resembling a rational fear.

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Cars provide an endless source of stupid bumper stickers and signs.

I always wonder how people can get into a car and turn it on in such a cavalier manner. It’s not ridiculous to contemplate the fact that every time you get in your car, you might kill someone. In fact, not to think about it seems much more ridiculous. And then there is the ecological argument that favours not driving. You only have to look at the destruction caused by the Canadian Tar Sands or the ongoing catastrophic environmental damage caused by BP’s oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago to know that by handing over your money to oil companies you are implicated in the destruction of the planet. By learning to drive and perhaps one day owning a car, I will directly be part of the machine of oil consumption, rather than indirectly, as a passenger. Maybe this is more honest. Maybe by not buying gasoline and yet benefitting from the kind people who have ferried me around all my life, and by allowing myself to fly across oceans, there has been an element of hypocrisy around my not driving. The idea I can’t shake in all this is that right when we really need to be cutting our consumption, I am learning a skill that relies on the very people who are destroying the planet. And that just really sucks.

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Clinton, Montana.

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4 thoughts on “Learning to Drive

  1. Loved this post. I think you’re very brave. Let me know how it goes and also if you want to practice driving around Zootown in my beat up old Subaru. xox

  2. Thank you Jane! I might stick with my driving instructor as I can’t bear the thought of bashing up a friend’s car! I have little confidence in my abilities. Will email you about our plans, too… Jxx

  3. Anne

    Great writing, Joanna! It is probably a good thing, in the end, to learn to drive — emergencies happen, and you might be glad, some day. Your photographs are amazing — cars in the middle of the woods — I love this piece — I love the details, and how they translate into universals — about learning to drive, or about anything new we try to do.

    • Thank you Heather. Funnily enough I had picked up a book of essays that looked interesting called ‘Learning to Drive’. It turns out the author writes for the Nation. I think for me learning to drive is as symbolic as much as it is practical. But you are so right: I often think how rubbish I would be in an emergency. But not for much longer! Jxx

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