Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Lately, I’ve been thinking about driving.

Because, I recently had the chance to attend an awesome Adventures by the Book event for best-selling author, Jennifer Niven, and her book, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, which is the story of Velva Jean Hart, a fiercely independent young woman from rural Appalachia. Well, it just so happens that this book was preceded by another written by Niven, titled, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. Which just goes to show you, that Velva Jean sure gets around.

Posing with my first car.

There was a time when I, too, had to learn how to drive. In fact, I cut my teeth clocking hours and hours of mad-dash driving through the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York City. The trick is to not look at the other lanes, whether you’re barreling down New Hampshire Avenue or heading to the Holland Tunnel. Otherwise you’ll likely start to panic when you realize that a three-lane road has been stretched to fit five lanes of traffic—cars, taxis, bicyclists, buses and trucks.

Driving on these roads taught me how not to let other cars merge into your lane, lest they slow you down. I’m sure anyone who’s driven in these cities knows what I’m talking about: it’s hardcore, aggressive, every-man-for-himself driving. So, as a result, I got a lot of practice under my belt. But it didn’t start that way.

In high school, I was lousy at driving. The worst. On the first day of my driver’s ed class, there were three of us in the car, along with our teacher, Mr. Simon. When it was my turn to get behind the wheel, Mr. Simon directed me to get onto the freeway. Talk about indoctrination. My blood pressure never rose so quickly.

This was my first time behind the wheel—ever! Needless to say, I didn’t know squat about merging, let alone merging in front of trucks, and when Mr. Simon asked me to get into the right lane, there was a humongous truck there, and so I ended up getting in front of it with inches to spare. And, when I slammed on the brakes, all because the driver of the truck blared its tootin’ horn at me, I nearly caused an accident.  I don’t think Mr. Simon had ever seen a driver more pathetic than me.

I ended up flunking the driving test three times, the first time because I got into the car on the driver’s side instead of the passenger side, as I was supposed to do. Anyway, you know what they say: Third time’s the charm, and so I figured driving just wasn’t in the cards for me, and I began to resign myself to living a car-free life.

All through college I relied on public transportation and the kindness of others, who’d offer to give me a ride once in a while. Then, I went to grad school and met Mandy, my roommate. That woman had the fortitude of a saint. (I’ve written about what a good egg she is in my post, Good Times with Country Boys.)

Mandy took this nervous wreck of a Nellie, and patiently turned me into a real honest to goodness, license-carrying driver—using her car, which was kind of risky, if you ask me. Mandy even drove me to the DMV on the day I had to take the test, and she cheered me on when I finally passed! (Mandy, if you’re reading this—thank you, so much. I still owe you one!)

Thanks to Mandy—and Marilyn, a wonderful friend I met in Seattle who taught me how to drive a manual—I am now quite adroit behind the wheel.  Only problem is, I tend to still drive as if I’m on the streets of D.C., and not on the laid-back roads of Southern California, where most drivers on the road act as if they have all the time in the world. As if everyday is Sunday morning, and they’re just going for a spin in the ol’ jalopy with Archie and the Gang.

Pausing at a STOP sign is not optional.

Unless, that is, you’re a pedestrian out for a walk with your, say, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who goes by the name of, well…let’s just call him, Henry. Which is why, I’ve got to say:

To the fellow, driving a maroon SUV in my neighborhood this weekend:  Stopping at the STOP sign is NOT optional—especially when there’s a woman, with a bum knee, and her dog, trying to make it through the crosswalk in one piece, thank you very much!

Well, there you have it. Now, I can’t wait to read about Velva Jean’s adventures in driving and flying—and trust me, while I’ve conquered driving, flying for me, is out of the question!

So tell me, readers, what are your most memorable behind-the-wheel memories?

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48 thoughts on “Where the Rubber Meets the Road

  1. What a great post and some of the comments are just unbelievable!
    Just like many of your readers, my very first day of driving involved a driver’s ed class (gosh, my parents were smart!), but also about 3-5cm of snow. As my instructor told me to ‘accelerate into my turn’ I executed a perfect 360! Needless to say, my dozing co-student driver (who was a couple years older than me and taking the course to reduce his insurance) sayed awake for the rest of the session! My instructor, bless him, wasn’t phased in the least and answered: “Well, now you now what THAT feels like” and made me keep driving.
    My oldest turns 16 this month … heaven help us both 🙂

  2. Because of the horrible experience my folks had with my brother, they sent me to a driving school. Was so nervous before taking my written driver’s test, I flushed so badly, my dad (who took me there) thought I was having a heart attack… at 16! Great post.

  3. We had “simulators” in my drivers ed class in high school. They were machines you practiced driving in while a movie played on a big screen in front of you. You had to shift gears, operate the turning signal and brake — all those things that are now second nature to me. Anyway, early on, my teacher surprised me when he announced to the entire class that Debbie had just run over that kid with the ball back there. Yikes! Glad that never happened in real life!

      • It was like a metal box with a seat for one person. It also had a steering wheel, brakes, etc. (no CD player, ha!). The student would “drive” as the movie played — the “scenery” passed just as it would if you were really driving. Obstacles would pop out at unusual times — things like kids with a ball, dogs, school buses, etc. — and your reaction time was registered on a console manned by the teacher. They must have been pretty unusual things because I never heard of any other school having them!

  4. Visiting from She Writes. I really enjoyed this piece and your writing. My most memorable experience was in the early 70s when my roommate and I dropped acid and drove out to the coast to watch the sunset (because that’s what we did in those days.) All would have been fine except we neglected to factor in that after the sun set, it would be dark and we would be stoned out of our gills. How we manage to get home is still a mystery. The fact that I’m alive to tell the tale — a miracle. I’m now your newest follower.

  5. Your driving teacher could have caused a crash. He must have come from the same school as my cousin who tried to teach me how to swim by taking me out to the deep part of the sea and telling me to swim back to shore.
    I’ve driven both in DC and NYC. DC’s bad but NYC’s horrible. Still remember my first time driving to NYC from DC and going over the GWB. Talk about intimidation!
    Everyone should learn to drive manual — it’s such a sweet thing to be able to do.
    Now, just try to slow down (a bit), Monica. You’re definitely not in DC or NYC anymore.

  6. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 26—city girl walked or rode the train everywhere. I learned to drive in Cambridge MA from Central Square to Harvard Square. I am a true Boston driver.

    I was working in Central Sq at three in the afternoon so I’d meet the instructor outside my office at two. Second time out we’re coming up to my building after the lesson and I remark “There’s my boss.” Wise ass instructor yanks the wheel out of my hand jumping the curb putting the car half up on the sidewalk. I could barely hear my boss swearing over my hysterical laughter. I was so shocked he did that!

    Of course later I wanted to kill him, my boss gave me shit for weeks afterwards.

    • Cambridge and pretty much anywhere in Boston is kind of a crazy place to be driving. Your instructor was some wise guy, would never have expected him to do that. But sure makes for a great memory! 🙂

  7. My friend Paula and I were the only girls in high school who could drive a straight – making us instantly popular with the boys. They thought we were really cool! I love driving stories and have never been afraid to jump behind the wheel and take off for any place at any time. Road trip! Yeah!

  8. –HaHaa… Great Merging story, Monica :))) that teacher must have been pooping his britches!

    Okay, wanna know the truth?…I took the test 3 times, too! We have something else in common.

    My most memorable story happened during driver’s training.

    Mr. Asswipe had us all out in the Denfeld High parking Lot…. and all of the cars had already reversed to where he told them to be…

    Except MEeeeee!

    Over the intercom, he said sternly:: “NOBODY will be going to their next class until SISTO gets over here! It’ took me about 10 more minutes to reverse to the site!!!

    Great post. xx

    • I still can’t believe that teacher made me get on the freeway. That was crazy! As was yours. Yikes. I would have been mortified if my teacher made such an announcement and everyone had to wait for me. What a riot. I love hearing about all these fun memories. Thanks for sharing yours, Kim!

  9. Monica, that last bit about the driver of the maroon SUV made me spurt my coffee everywhere! bwhahaha! Poor Henry and poor bum knee of yours! Oh my goodness, I needed that chuckle! It’s been a long day. I’m proud to say I pass my driving test the first time around but it was no thanks to my mother who was the worst driving instructor anyone could ever have. Her lessons were always truncated with demands of, “Stop the car. I’m not dying today and you have no business driving a car, which is a lethal weapon. A lethal weapon, you hear me? And no, I will not be accessory to you crime!” Daddy, on the other hand, was the most laid back instructor ever, and sometimes that was good and other times, well, not so good. Take the time when I became distracted looking in my mirrors only to have him take me out of my task in saying, “Bella, you might want to keep your eyes on the road. We’re ten feet from driving into a tree.” The ying and the yang. Ay Dios mio!

    • Too, too funny. I can only imagine you as a young gal, getting lessons from both parents in such different styles. How did you keep a straight face? Oh my goodness. Good thing Roxy wasn’t around to see you almost drive into a tree. Ha!

  10. Monica, no disrespect, BUT I am so GLAD we are not driving the same streets given your singular Mad Max Thunderdome driving style. 🙂 My tale: I’d wait for my dad to come home and take a nap (he was a chef and woke really early, worked, came home, rested, went back) and then steal his car and ‘test drive’. I’d throw my kid sister and our friend Stephanie, in the back seat and go joy riding. It was a 4-speed. My problem was the clutch was fussy and I’d frequently get stuck and could not get the car in reverse. The girls would howl with laughter. They’d flat out refuse to get out and push the car – the nerve. I was 14 at the time. To this day I am surprised I was not caught and the three of us survived. It’s a wonder to me my sister is alive to be honest. I was always one to live on the edge but took her along for the thrill.

    • Funny thing, Brenda, even my son thinks I drive like a mad woman. 😉

      I totally love your story! I was too chicken to get behind the wheel and probably one of the few who never did until my first lesson. Turns out, everyone else had loads of practice except yours truly. Sigh.

  11. Growing up in rural California my best friend and I both knew how to drive before being old enough to sign up for the High School drivers ed. We both drove Hay bailing machines for her grandfather which apparently meant we could drive anything.

    Our teacher knew of our vast experience with large machinery so he would carelessly direct us to take turns driving to a small town about 1/2 hour from our school. He’d recline the seat and fall asleep while we turned up the radio and gossiped the whole way there. He’d have us wake him up just before we got to Winchell’s Donuts where he’d get a coffee and donuts.

    Thank goodness he did realize on our last day of class that we would need to practice parallel parking for the drivers test so we skipped his nap that morning. Although I do recall he was quite cranky without his coffee and donut.

  12. That’s one of the blessings of living in a small state – always open back country roads or small towns to practice on before diving into big city/interstate driving. A 14 year-old girl in NE just wrecked with her mom and sister this past weekend while driving on interstate, killing her sister.
    My dad had me drive the same lonely roads until I became comfortable with the gas pedal, the wheel, but most especially the mirrors. I work with 14 year-old youths in our community, and while a few of them will do well, there are others that, the thought of them on the road, make me never want to leave my house again, ha!

    • In some ways, it must be easier to learn to drive on the open back country roads. When my friends first took me out to practice, it was always in parking lots, like at the mall or business parks, on early Sunday mornings. When I was learning to drive a manual, I’d only take the car to go grocery shopping at 7 am Sundays. If I waited until 8 am, when there’d be at least a dozen cars on the road, I’d scrap my outing and wait for the following weekend. That was too much pressure.

  13. I was 23 years old when I was forced to learn how to drive – moving to Detroit did not leave us any other options. The most difficult part about learning how to drive for me is to make a left turn, even now after 21 years of driving – left turns are tricky for me. My mom first started to drive at the age of 60. My dad passed away suddenly and she had no choice but to learn how to drive – I give credit to my brother – he taught her to drive and now at the age of 77 she still drives, but only on familiar roads.

    • That’s how old I was when I learned! Left turns were hard at first and I still am not crazy about them when I’m at an intersection with no left turn light because you have to wait for the oncoming traffic to go first. But once I learned to get into the middle of the intersection so that you can’t be ignored, then it became a piece of cake. You just have to keep inching your way into your left turn, or you’ll be waiting forever.

  14. My first car was a lime green Pinto station wagon – my sister and I called it The Rustbucket. We didn’t have freeways in our hometown, so learning to drive was pretty easy. For a challenge, we drove to Chicago with our friends. Lots of crazy roads there!

    • I remember the Pinto! They don’t still make them, though, do they? No freeways? Well, you’ve no idea what you were missing. I grew up smack in the middle of a part of town where two freeways intersected, so I was surrounded by them. 😉

  15. My 16-year-old granddaughters are learning to drive. I have let them drive my car one time a piece so far (we just haven;t have time). One of them drove to the movie theater and the other drove from the theater. They both made the same mistake: they didn’t slow down in time for a yellow light and ended up flying through a red light (well, they are twins). We did have to make a rule, though. The twin in the back seat cannot comment on the driver’s driving. Only Nana can make comments. It worked beautifully.

  16. In Miami if the guy’s left signal is on , all it means is that it works. Half the motorists have no license or insurance here. I hate to drive. I now have everything I need with 6 miles of my apartment,

  17. Great stuff, Monica!

    I drove back and forth several times from New England to Arizona when my hubby was in graduate school at ASU in Tempe. Favorite adventure: My dog, Shepard mix, “Heidi” was alarmed when I went into a quik mart somewhere in Colorado. She jumped out the window, and unbeknownst to me, entered the store. Within minutes, I heard the proprietor yelling, “Whose damn dog is this?” My beloved Heidi shat all over the floor in the drink aisle.

    The ensuing cleanup and apologies went as fast as humanly possible and I hit the road asap!

    There are many more stories, but for some strange reason, that popped into my head.

    Keep entertaining us, Monica!

  18. I admire your skill Monica but I much prefer to have four paws on the ground! Tall person had several crashes on motorcycles and cars because of other road users (and a pedestrian). He says he prefers walking – which I fully support because I walk with him!

  19. I don’t remember much about learning to drive. Wait…that didn’t come out right. Anyway, I remember getting my license the day I turned 16. I was scared to death of the parallel parking portion of the test, but thankfully did it on the first try, which must have been divine intervention. My first car was a used avocado green ’76 Ford Granada with an 8-track. I was stylin’ I must say.

    I have driven in NYC once. Actually my husband drove. He is a “professional” driver (used to teach truck drivers) and even he was a little shaken by the traffic there. Now that I think about it, it was quite the comical site.

    I lived in the Redlands/San Bernardino area of CA a number of years ago and remember having to drive the freeway to get to Riverside. Those people were nuts! And not just in their driving.

    • Sounds like you’ve had some crazy experiences of your own. And anyone who’s driven in NYC should earn a Tee shirt that says, “To heck with climbing Kilimanjaro. I survived driving on the streets of New York!”

  20. My first car was a little Suzuki, a very small car. I was driving behind a huge truck, and getting on a bridge. There was a heavy traffic. The truck slided down, and that big piece of metal at the back of the truck (i don’t know what its called), carried me with my little Suzuki. I had the two front wheels dancing in the air, while the truck was dragging me behind on the two back wheels. I was shouting, making signs out of the window. I could see him look into his left side mirror, but i was small that he couldn’t see me. I followed him for kilometers, while people were looking and laughing, until the police stopped him.

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