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Freedom to Ride

I was sitting outside the Glendale DMV last month while my 16 year-old daughter took her driving test. Another right of passage about to be checked off the list. In January it was the SAT. In February it was birth control pills. At this rate I will be fully grey by July.

She’s becoming a conscientious driver, my daughter, though those first few outings were not as comfortable as I desperately tried to pretend they were. I didn’t visibly grip the door handle and I practiced deep yogic breathing as I attempted to speak calmly about the importance of turn signals and staying in one’s lane as we careened toward congested intersections. And I didn’t scream at the 5-point intersection when she turned the car into oncoming traffic and we quickly pulled into the adjacent 7-eleven parking lot. No, I kept my cool and calmly urged her to straighten the wheel as we backed out down the driveway toward the fence post for the 39th time.

Besides the time spent with me in my Prius, my daughter’s driver’s education was done on-line and paid for with a Groupon. The same company picked her up at our house for ten hours of behind-the-wheel practice with a skilled teacher. I am grateful that they are the ones who first took her out on the freeway and on the Canyon Roads and I am glad that I’m not the only one who had to remind her to use her review and side mirrors before changing lanes.

My driver’s ed experience was quite different. Our classes took place in school. Mr. Piver, the creepy p.e. teacher and tennis coach who wore his striped athletic socks to his knees and his white-piped satin gym shorts too high on his thighs, showed us gruesome films of the aftermath of car accidents with names like “Red Asphalt” and “Carnage on the Freeway.” He then loaded us, four at a time, into the school’s tan Datson equipped with an extra break pedal on the passenger’s side. With three classmates in the back of the car and Mr. Piver yelling at them to “Calm down! You’ll get your turn!” it was difficult to concentrate. Archelus McClean ran over a mailbox on his first attempt. We all thought it was hilarious, but I can’t say I gained much confidence from the lessons and there was no requirement to spend additional time behind the wheel with one’s parent. Many kids I knew had been driving on the local farms since they were 9 or 10. A traffic jam typically meant there was a tractor around the bend and two or three cars were ahead of you behind it. Rumor had it they’d give a license to a goat. And so, it was with only a little apprehension that I set out to get my drivers license right after school let out on May 25th, 1982.

Everything went smoothly at first. Mom got out of the car. The DMV lady got in and off we went, out of the parking lot and down Blue Ridge Road. The examiner was no-nonsense. She didn’t abide by nervous laughter, my specialty. And this is what I remember most of her:

She was carrying her clipboard, small beads of sweat forming on her upper brow threatening to cascade down her cheek past her bright pink lips in a salty waterfall. Her thick ankles were swollen in the heat as she walked across the overpass in her navy blue pumps. I suspect she was wishing she’d worn different shoes, though surely she only anticipated walking from her counter to the car and back again about twenty times that day. She couldn’t have known that the vehicle she was riding in would sputter and die three quarters of a mile from the DMV office, and just an hour and a half before she could call it quits for the long Memorial Day weekend. How unfortunate that when the number 57 came up, she was the next examiner.

I was walking next to her, trying to hold back the tears. Ten minutes earlier, my hair and makeup were just perfect for the photo that I planned to proudly display for all of my friends and family at the party that evening. I could taste my freedom. Freedom to ride! I was wearing the new birthday top and skirt my mother had reluctantly bought the day before at the Cary Town Center Mall. “I still say that skirt is just too short,” mom had muttered as she handed over the $21.95 in exact change to the cashier at The County Seat. I had a bright blue ribbon tied around my side braid to match the stripes on my shirt.

My father drove a Ford pickup truck with a camper shell so it was decided that I could better maneuver the silver Chevy Citation for my driving test. I felt confident in my ability to change lanes and use the blinker and to make stops at controlled and uncontrolled intersections. I was a little worried about the parallel parking part of the test, but I needn’t have been. We had gone less than a mile, down past the barbed wire fence that encircled the Juvenile Detention Facility and across the bridge, when the car began shaking.

My palms were sweating as the instructor asked me to pull over by the side of the road. We barely cleared the asphalt before the car simply stopped. I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. The instructor got out of the car and opened my door as a Pine State milk truck whizzed by, dust and leaves swirling in the muggy air.

Let me try,” she grumbled as I cautiously got out and stood along the weed and gravel-strewn shoulder, kicking at a Burger King French fry scoop. “This can’t be happening,” I kept saying to myself. But it was. My sixteenth birthday was ruined.

The examiner looked at me with contempt as she handed me the keys to my parent’s piece of crap car and we began the trek back to the DMV offices, passing the livestock pavilion at the state fairgrounds on the left with the Waffle House visible just beyond the bend on the right.

Cars in working condition passed us at alarming speeds as we trudged along the shoulder. Drivers with licenses confidently tucked in their wallets came flying by within inches of my purse with no license in its wallet. There was no sidewalk and I was prepared to dive into an adjacent ditch should one of those licensed drivers get too close, just as I’d been taught to do if a tornado came and there was no available shelter.

The examiner was seething, muttering under her breath and panting profusely, her rather large bottom swaying in front of me in her blue, beige and tan zig-zag print skirt as we crossed the overpass in a single file march to my doom. As we approached the DMV, I saw my mother sitting on the concrete bench in front of the cement block building, thumbing through her Better Homes and Gardens magazine. She looked at me quizzically as we trudged down the sidewalk. The examiner wiped her brow with the back of her hand, shaking her head at my mother and I heard her say something about automobile maintenance and irresponsibility and wasting her time.

My mother looked at me with a mixture of pity and relief as she pulled a dime out of her change purse for the payphone. “Well she wasn’t very pleasant,” mom said as she dialed my father’s office, “You can try again in a few months, honey.” A few months?! I was devastated to be so close to the brink of freedom and to have it yanked away because of a crappy car.

Thankfully it was different for my daughter. I’d barely finished checking my emails while leaning against the planter outside the DMV when I heard a familiar voice say, “Mom!” And there she stood, casually dressed in her jeans and a breezy blouse and beaming. She looked lovely but unlike her mother, she didn’t seem at all concerned about the photo that would later appear on her license. She passed the test with no complications. The Prius was fully fueled and in good working order.

Also unlike me, she waited days before she asked to take the car to visit her boyfriend. She had waited until she was almost seventeen to take her drivers’ test. I’ve had to make up grocery store errands just to get her behind the wheel on her own. She is far more grounded, more cautious and not the rebel her mother was. When I finally did get my license, the first thing I did was drive to the Mini Mart down the street from our house to pick up a six-pack of beer before driving to my best friend’s house to celebrate. The drinking age was 18 but no one ever checked ids and at 16 in heels I didn’t need a fake one. My goal in life seemed to be driving my parents crazy. Meanwhile I can barely get my daughter to drive.

As shared at Story Salon in April 2014.

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