mototaxis in Chinchero, Cusco, Peru
car driving in Urubamba, Cusco, Peru

Car Story 2

This essay was published in an early zine that, sadly, no longer exists. But I was honored to have been included.

It was always a shock to those who knew me that I couldn’t drive. I’m fiercely independent, have lived and traveled all over the world, and am used to doing things on my own. And I’d had my driver’s license for more than 13 years.

So why couldn’t I drive? I grew up in New York and took a drivers’ ed class in high school. It was not a good experience. I had about 10 minutes a week in a car with two guys who’d been driving since they were 12, and the instructor, a man in his 70s who used to slap my right thigh when he wanted me to do something.

When it came time for my road test I was nervous, my toes and fingers were numb from the cold, and I’d just watched all but one of my classmates fail. I failed, too. When I took the test again a year later, the guy I drove with gave me a break. With an amiable, “I really shouldn’t, but I’m gonna give it to you anyway,” he told me to get some more practice and sent me out into the world of drivers.

But when I wasn’t living in New York, I was in Moscow or London or Vienna or San Francisco or some other place where I didn’t need — or want — a car. There were a few hours back in 1995 when a boyfriend tried to re-teach me, around Silicon Valley office parks and even on the highway. But I still wasn’t comfortable, and, since parking and traffic in the Bay Area were stresses I didn’t have time for, it didn’t happen again.

Years later, I moved to Seattle. I checked out the city carefully before I made my final decision: I wasn’t going to move unless it was easy to get around without a car. The bus system in Seattle is extensive, though it does require patience since many lines run only once or twice an hour. I decided to take my chances.

Fortunately, the friends I made here didn’t mind taking me on shopping trips and helping me haul large objects in their cars. But that got old, for them and for me. Then there was work. When I started a new job on the Eastside, it took three buses to get from my apartment to my office. And, of course, none of the schedules are synchronized.

I dealt with that for exactly one day, then decided I’d had enough. I found someone nearby to carpool with (she drove, I rode). But our workdays didn’t always run the same course, and there was also the problem of trying to find a decent place to eat within walking distance of my office.

There was no gearshift

So I called up a local driving school and booked a few lessons. Each lesson was 90 minutes long, I didn’t have to share it with anyone, and I had a nice instructor who never slapped my thigh. After the first lesson, I felt more comfortable behind the wheel than I ever had. By the second lesson I was tooling around in the Corolla with the plastic warning sign on top as though I’d been driving for ages. After lesson number four, my instructor and I both figured I was ready, and I started fantasizing about buying my very own car.

I scoured the web for information and asked everyone I knew about cars. I got quotes from insurance agencies and read up on haggling. I investigated models and makes and dealerships. I bought a calculator in preparation for tough negotiating. It was time. I was going to get a car.

But I figured I could use more practice so I didn’t embarrass myself on the test drive with a salesman. Figuring a small car would be cheaper and easier to park, I reserved a Neon at a rental car agency, and made an appointment to drop off some clothes at a consignment shop on the same day to give myself somewhere to go.

On the appointed day I was a little nervous, but more excited about my new-found freedom. From the time I gave the rental agency clerk my name, however, the day was a comedy of errors.

First, he asked me if the debit card policy had been explained over the phone. It had not. It seems that, since a credit limit can’t be verified with a debit card, $250 is deducted (not simply held, as with a credit card), and may not find its way back to your account for up to 14 business days. I didn’t have a credit card with me, so I had no choice. Then he asked me whether I wanted the minivan or the Lumina. I turned around: The lot was completely empty except for a minivan and a big maroon Lumina. No little Neon in sight.

I asked what good a reservation did, if the car I requested wasn’t available. He replied that an upgrade to a bigger car was complimentary. How nice.

So the Lumina it was. I got in and carefully adjusted the seat, the steering wheel, and all three power mirrors. I rested my foot on the brake pedal, turned the key in the ignition, and put my hand down to shift into drive. Then I realized there was no gearshift.

In the Corolla, as in every car I’d ever paid attention to, the gearshift was on the floor between the driver and passenger seats. Where it should be. But in the Lumina, it was missing. I couldn’t find the gearshift. I tried to stay calm as I perused the buttons and gadgets on the dashboard. I finally discovered it, sticking out of the steering column.

Finding it was a good thing, but there was still a problem: I didn’t know what to do with it. It moved differently from the floor model, and I couldn’t figure out how to tell what gear I was shifting into. Now mildly panicked, I got out and walked back inside. Trying to smile and not cry, I said, “You’re going to think I’m an idiot, but could you please show me how to use the gearshift?” The clerk gave me an odd look, but quickly came to my aid. Turns out that when the Lumina’s thick steering wheel is turned in any of a number of ways, it blocks the gears from view.

I thanked him and tried to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible.

A flashing “P” and a little sun

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful. I managed to get to the consignment shop, which required navigating freeway on- and off-ramps and parallel parking on a steep slope. I discovered that it’s very difficult to read directions while driving an unfamiliar vehicle along unfamiliar streets, and that it’s bad to take a series of S-curves going down a hill without slowing down. And that people can be very rude — they’ll honk for no reason whatsoever.

I got myself and the car home in one piece, and even went for a ride around my neighborhood, intending to practice parallel parking. But every time I saw a spot with plenty of room, someone came out of nowhere to watch my maneuvers, so I just kept driving. I didn’t want an audience.

The really daunting thing was the next morning when I had to gas up the car and return it to the rental agency downtown. When I was a kid, we always went to the full-service pumps. And I had never paid attention when my friends pumped their gas. So I was completely lacking instruction in the art of filling the gas tank. No problem, I decided — boldly would I go where I’d never gone before.

But first I had another problem: A heavy frost had settled overnight on the windshield of the Lumina. Not owning a car, I didn’t own a scraper, so I tried to find something else that would work on the ice. My brain, not completely functioning yet at 7 a.m., came up with a towel.

I turned the key in the ignition, turned on the defroster, and turned up the heat. Then I got to work scrubbing the windshield with my towel. (Two days later I felt like I’d been in a one-armed weightlifting competition.) After ten minutes of fairly futile scrubbing, my neighbor — my angel — came out and began scraping the ice off his car. I ran over and asked him if I could borrow his scraper for a minute. He was startled (he didn’t know me) but kind. I scraped for about 30 seconds, and ran back to return it to him so he could go to work.

Then I got into the car to investigate the controls. It was still pretty dark out, and I knew I’d have to put my low-beams on while driving. But I didn’t know where they were. There was a knob on the dash with two icons, a flashing “P” and a little sun. I tested them both, but there didn’t seem to be any change in the amount or direction of light. So I turned the knob to off. I was checking out various other controls, when the headlights went on again. I tried to figure out how that had happened, since I hadn’t touched the knob. Then I realized that I could have unknowingly turned on the high-beams, and became worried that people would start honking and cursing at me and I wouldn’t be able to stop shining my brights in their faces. Panicking for the second time in 24 hours, I tried every switch I could see. I ended up mostly turning the wipers on and off a lot. Then I tried to splash some wiper fluid on the window, just for the hell of it, but there didn’t seem to be any.

After turning the ignition on and off a few times, and giving the windshield a few more vigorous scrubs with my towel, I gave up and went to get my things. When I turned the engine on again, the lights were off. Satisfied, I set out for the gas station.

The combination of the towel and 30 seconds with a scraper had not been effective. I got two blocks before admitting to myself that I really couldn’t see through any window but the back, which made it hard to go forward. So I pulled over to a curb, and saw someone else scraping ice off his windshield. He, too, kindly lent me his scraper, and I was able to make the windshield at least partially see-throughable. Off again I went on my way to the gas station.

Baptized in a shower of gasoline

I pulled up on the correct side of the pump, having taken careful note of which side the tank was on, and opened the cover. I deftly slid my debit card through the slot, but couldn’t get the cap off the gas tank, no matter how hard I tried. I twisted left, I twisted right, I yanked, all to no avail. Embarrassed, I called out to the attendant to ask for help. He gave me an odd look, then came over and twisted the cap right off.

I took the nozzle from the pump, inserted it into the tank, and waited. Nothing happened. Confused, I called the attendant back. He was very unhappy with me. Apparently, the transaction had timed out. He took my card from me, swiped it, and put the nozzle back into the tank. Then he stalked away. While washing the blurry windshield I heard a loud beeping noise coming from the pump. Assuming the tank was full I nonchalantly pulled the nozzle from the tank, only to be baptized in a shower of gasoline.

The pump spit a receipt at me: I’d pumped exactly 11 cents worth of gas. Mortified and soaked from head to toe, I decided that it was worth paying the $3.95 per gallon the rental place would charge me just to avoid having to be at that station for one minute longer.

Following MapQuest’s directions back to the agency brought me into the far-left lane of a four-lane one-way street going the opposite direction from the car-return entrance. This was so unexpected that I ran a red light trying to figure out how to get back. Several circles later, I drove into the car-return entrance and got out of the car for the last time, forgetting to check the mileage. It must have been obvious to the clerk that I was having a bad day; he didn’t charge me for the gas.

I came home after my rental car escapade feeling useless and incompetent, and knowing with certainty that I had no business even contemplating buying a car. But friends and family gently reminded me that no one is a great driver at first, and that I just took 13 years longer to get here than most people.

I called the driving school and scheduled one last lesson, and the next day I went to test-drive the car I wanted. I had my insurance and my pre-approved loan, and a friend for moral support. I actually bought a car that day. Another friend took me to a gas station and showed me exactly what to do. And yet another offered me one of her three ice scrapers as a gift. So when you see me driving along, a thumbs-up or a smile would be lovely. But please, no honking.