I am a lousy driver.
The State of Illinois would disagree, oddly enough, seeing as how they’ve just awarded me “Safe Driver” status and the ability to renew my license over the internet. And I’d even be pleased at the prospect – the DMV is darker and more vile than a truck stop restroom – if I didn’t suspect the alternate meaning of “safe driver” is “chickshit lameass.”
It annoys me to no end to be lumped so neatly in the stereotype “bad female driver” – but there never was a stereotype so neatly correct. Far as I can tell, there are two categories of female driver, and both are equally awful: the overly cautious, white knuckle variety like myself and the oblivious, bitch-on-the-road type would who sooner plow her SUV over the grassy knoll dividing a highway than admit she can’t text, apply lipstick and change CDs simultaneously while driving – and then get angry at you for swerving to miss her vehicle.
Not that I’m much better: I’m the kind of driver who will travel 15 miles out of my way just to avoid making a left turn at a busy intersection without an arrow. I may also be inclined to spend 20 minutes on the tollway driving under the speed limit behind a truck spewing the foulest combination of raw sewage and turkey feathers before I’ll work up the nerve to pass them.
I blame my parents, really. Both were useless when it came to teaching me how to drive. My mother is a white knuckle driver herself and spent most of her time in the car with me clutching the arm rest and shrieking than offering better driving suggestions. Her inclination was to leave the instruction up to my father and high school, and suffice it to say, neither proved effective.
My father – once a race car driver of the drag strip variety – would on the surface seem a good choice, but his method of instruction was to first attempt to teach me how a car works. My eyes glazed over as he linked his fingers together in explanation of gears shifting; as a 16 year old, all I wanted was put the top down on the Wrangler and cruise to the movies with my friends. That fantasy ended real quick when I backed the Jeep into a ditch at the end of our street. Guess I should have paid more attention to that whole “gear” lesson.
I was ultimately turned over to private driving instruction when I managed to fail the on-the-road portion of driver’s ed in school. I spent four weeks of summer vacation being picked up in one of those “student driver” cars and reminded to check my blind spot and mirrors only to fail my first two attempts at getting my full license.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of being a passenger in my car is likely having an epiphany right about now; puzzle pieces rarely fit so well together. But all my panicky movements and mistrust of other drivers now is nothing compared to the full-on meltdown I had while in the car with my state-appointed driver’s examination officer that second time around.
He was every bit the state employee: he wore an ink-stained shirt, exhaled cigarette smoke and beef jerky, and carried the weight of self importance and broken dreams. He knew it was my second attempt at getting a license, and it was his duty, he informed me, to point out that I only had three chances to pass before I’d be sent back to retake a year of driver’s ed.
I knew this of course; the vision of starting my junior year and being forced to take driver’s ed with the sophomore class had haunted me all summer long. The terror of such indignity welled inside my brain as I followed State Employee’s directions out of the DMV and into traffic.
Did I know, he asked, that it was his personal opinion that 16 year-olds were far too young to be issued a license? And did I also know that in addition to the rules of the road, it was his personal opinion every driver should memorize their local street grid?
I didn’t know that, but thanks for wiping out every shred of confidence I might have had, jackass.
State Employee then told me to turn west on Highland. A simple request, except that I thought I was already driving on Highland, and wouldn’t have been able to tell him which way west was if the Wicked Witch of the West appeared and lit me a blazing trail.
“Um, where is Highland?” I tentatively asked.
“How do you not know where Highland is?” he bellowed. “It’s the next major intersection past this light! I swear, you kids think you know everything, but when faced with simple tasks, you prove time and time again you don’t know ANYTHING.”
I figured it would be a bad time to tell him that I also didn’t know what direction west was.
Traffic was fairly heavy that afternoon; the DMV was located in a business district where the speed limit was 45 MPH, but the average was 55. Cars were whizzing past me like meteors, and I realized I had less than half a mile to make a decision. The hamster wheel in my brain started spinning overtime as I desperately tried to reason what direction I was currently going.
We had just passed the local mausoleum, and I seemed to recall hearing that the movie theatre was south of there. Because I thought the theatre was just up ahead, it seemed logical to deduce that I was driving south, and would therefore need to turn left on Highland. Of course, I also once baffled my grade school math teacher by deducing that because there are sixty minutes in one hour, there must be sixty pennies in one dollar.
Wrong on both accounts, it turned out.
The three-lane roadway buzzed with traffic as I turned on my blinker. I checked my mirror, checked my blind spot, and cautiously started to move into the left lane when State Employee slapped his hand on the dashboard and roared, “What are you doing! You’re supposed to go west. West, you fool! Go west!”
I was so startled by his anger that I just immediately swerved back into the middle lane, and then into the right turn lane without so much as a thought to the other cars on the road.
Papers flew into the air as State Employee screeched something about watching where I was going. I felt the car bounce over the curb and only caught partial exclamations from around me:
“Get off the road you fucking idiot!”
“God damn teenage driver!”
“What’s wrong with you?!?!”
“Fluffy? Oh my god, Fluffy! Are you okay???”
I managed to right the car without causing any real damage, though as far as State Employee was concerned, I’d just singlehandedly justified every conviction he had about banning all teenagers from the road.
And who knows, maybe he was right, but it didn’t stop me from bawling wildly and begging him to give me another chance.
“If I had my way, you’d NEVER get a license!” he screamed as we pulled back into the DMV lot.
My father was waiting for me there, fingers crossed and looking hopefully at State Employee for good news that never came. Instead, State Employee burst from the car in a huff and sprinted toward his office, yelling over his shoulder about how I nearly killed him and that I was the worst driver he’d ever encountered.
The reality of the situation crushed me, and I threw the car keys to the pavement in frustration. My poor father, who was still attempting to figure out what had caused a state employee to threaten us with legal action, did his best to console me.
“Don’t worry – that guy is a jerk. You’ll get your license. I promise you’ll get your license.”
And ultimately I did, even without the horror of retaking driver’s ed, but the entire experience sits with me to this day.
My guy, I know, would just as soon take a bus than get into a car with me. He’s already been privy to my nearly taking down an ATM one night when I couldn’t manage to talk and take out money at the same time. This is why I would also make a rotten drummer.
Still, in my nearly 20 years of driving, I’ve only received one ticket, and that, according to the State, makes me a safe driver.
I’d better renew my license online quick before they wise up.