How I Never Learned to Drive Stefene Russell Creative Nonfiction

new_releases How I Never Learned to Drive

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 22 ~ March, 1999

As horrible as it is to not have car, some part of me thinks that having one is more horrible, even if you do end up in some very strange places when you don’t have a driver’s license (like on the side of the highway, tripping over chunks of blown-out tires in the dark because you missed the last bus home. Or riding on someone’s lap with your head crammed into the corner of the windshield. Or face down in pyracanthia bushes after you wipe out on your bike).

My parents have acquired a Dodge K-car, which they say is mine as soon I get my driver’s license. I’ve got to do it soon because my learner’s permit expires next month, and I’ll have to take driving school over again, which makes me sick. It took me eight years to finally complete a whole driving school course, and I hated every minute of it. I think there are two reasons I never learned how to drive – the first is that I’m completely puerile and lazy. This is the way I’ve always seen it – you get a cheap car in high school, and then you have to get a minimum wage job at the pie shack so you can buy insurance and brake fluid and spark plugs. Then of course you must rip out that rotten stereo that only gets AM stations and replace it with something better. Then when people start making fun of your car, you have to take out a loan so you can buy a nice one, and if you’ve got car payments, you’ve got to have a job. It’s true that if you don’t have a car you may have to wait for the bus in the snow, but it’s only a buck, and you can probably scare that up in spare change out of the cold air ducts. You can get anywhere you need to go without ever having to go out and get a real job, especially if you have a good pair of mailman’s shoes.

I think the other reason I never wanted to drive was the fact that my eyesight is 20/750, not entirely correctable, and my motor coordination sucks. I always feel like some kind of maladroit robot when I’m driving a car. I have a hard enough time manipulating my own limbs, but when those same limbs are operating tons of metal at high speeds, I start to panic. People always say, “Oh, I could teach you how to drive,” but they never think that after they get into a car and drive around with me. One friend in particular decided I should never be allowed to drive, and his dog agreed – when I was at the wheel, it peed all over the windows and back seat in fright, and wouldn’t get back in the car once we stopped to change drivers.

While friendly amateur lessons are bad enough, driving school is even worse. When I turned 18, my mother forced me to sign up with my sister Jennifer for a nine-day course at Beehive Driving School. Basically, she explained, she was sick of driving my ass around.

Beehive School of Driving was founded by a semi-retired highway patrolman named Larry. His school was ensconced in a sleazy business complex between a “massage” parlor and a Chinese beauty salon. Larry wore turtleskin cowboy boots, which pissed my sister off, especially after he bragged about buying them on the black market in Mexico. At the time she was a die-hard animal rights – she’d make sad oinking noises whenever my dad ate bacon, accusing him of indulging in “the breakfast of cruelty.” So things really came to a head the day Larry gave his roadkill safety lecture.

“I saw an accident a couple of years ago,” Larry began, “where two girls hit a horse. Its body had completely crushed the roof – it was one of these little compact cars – and I could hear one of the girls screaming inside the car. So I went to my trunk, got a crowbar, and pried the door open. When I finally got in there, all I could see was blood, and at first I was like, ‘Oh, Lord.’ But the girl was screaming, “Get it out, get it out!’ I looked down and there was that horse’s head, right in her lap. They were both fine, but when they slammed into that horse, its head came clean off and went flying in through the windshield.

“The point, kids, is this: if those girls had tried to swerve away from that horse, chances are it would have been one of their heads in the front seat. It’s always safer to hit the animal than to try to swerve out of the way.”

I could feel my sister becoming more and more livid and trying to decide whether or not she should say something. Finally, she couldn’t help herself. She stood up at the back of the class and said, “Well, I’m going to swerve.”

Larry was very quiet for a minute.

“Let me get this right. If a deer came leaping into your headlights, you would swerve?” he said, thwacking the pointer on his palm.

“Yes,” she said, staring straight at him.

“Well, the next time I hear about an accident, and someone says, ‘Oh, Jennifer swerved for a deer,’ and you’re lying dead on the road, I’ll take a look at that and say, ‘Well, that’s okay, because Jennifer wanted it that way.'”

That was the fourth lesson of nine. I never went back.

The next school I attended was A-1 Driving Academy, right between Junior’s Tavern and Dewey’s Bail Bonds, across the street from the public library. The instructors (every single one) were old pink bald guys who drove taxis or school buses and so were supposedly qualified to teach people how to drive because they did so much of it themselves. They all had monosyllabic names: Ron, Bob, Mac, Joe. Every other night, there was a lecture about drugs.

“Now, I’m going to say this first off, before I even begin,” Ron told us one night. “If you take drugs, you’re dumb. I don’t care how smart you are. If you take drugs, you’re dumb.” He then popped in a videotape about some good-looking high school student with incredible potential whose life was cut short by a drunk driver. Most of the footage was slo-mo shots of his crying mom putting some flowers on his grave in the rain, interspersed with interviews of the repentant drunk in his orange jail jumpsuit.

“Now, that was about alcohol, which is bad enough,” Ron said. “That didn’t EVEN get into drugs. Well, I’m here to give you the low-down on how dumb drugs are.” He approached the white board with a big, fat red marker.

“Now, I’m going to write these down on the board so you don’t forget how dumb they are. Okay, first let’s make a list,” he de-capped the red marker – “You’ve got your, um, acid, your pot, your marijuana, your speed, your crank, your angel dust; you’ve got your LSD, your methamphetamine….” As he went to write ‘methamphetamine’ on the board – it’s M-E with an amorphous squiggle behind it – I realized that the guy couldn’t spell methamphetamine. The adult students, who were either Russians or DUI offenders, were suddenly excited to be thinking about all those chemicals. “You forgot ‘shrooms,” yelled a woman from the back of the room.

The reason I never finished the course at A-1 is because I knew so many people at Junior’s. I’d be walking across the street to go to driving school, see all those friendly drunk people waving at me from inside the bar, and I would just have to go in to say hi. After a couple of pitchers of Budweiser, I never had much of a hankering to go next door and hear Don or Bob or Bill yammer on about parallel parking or drugs or what to do at a four-way stop. And anyway, most of the time they didn’t even yammer. They would put in a videotape with a really fuzzy audio track, and I would fall asleep in my chair.

After attempting to go through A-1’s course on four different occasions, I finally signed up to go out driving with one of the instructors, an old bald guy in a powder blue suit who looked like Mr. Toad from Frog & Toad are Friends. I thought he would be nice – wouldn’t you want to get a driving lesson from Mr. Toad? But he screamed at me the whole way. After being instructed to drive into a busy parking lot (what my friend Amber would call “a total clusterfuck”), I nearly ran over a guy and his German Shepherd.

“You women!” he screamed. “You’re all so overexcitable! You know, you’ll be lucky if you ever learn how to drive!” So I stepped out in that parking lot right there and walked home. “To hell with this,” I thought. And I continued to consolidate my spare change and ride the bus.

Strangely enough, I finally earned my learner’s permit at Beehive School of Driving. As I stood in line to register, I looked at the snapshots tacked on the walls. Car accidents. One in particular – a red poster board, shots taken from all angles – this young man with a sweet face and blue eyes, looked out from the picture. His face was without abrasion or wound, but there were brains leaking out of the top of his head, like raw, very fatty ground beef, broken glass, bent-up chrome – they must have taken the photo just seconds after he died, because his eyes were not glazed at all. The only thing out of the ordinary were the brains all over the hood of his car. Eyes still open, surprised even, but nothing there, so gone it was beyond lobotomized. Black and white photos, a head lying on a highway with bent-up cars in the background; arms, cars flattened to the size of phone booths. The place itself had same horrible green shag carpet, the white board with little magnetic cars stuck to it, but Larry was nowhere to be seen. His replacement was one Scott, a skinny, sarcastic guy who liked to tell us about his days as a ’70s dude with long hair and a Camaro. He also used the term “punch it” to refer to the act of stepping very hard on the gas pedal in order to go fast. He also gave the drivers of the little magnetic cars actual personalities.

“So you’ve got this guy in the truck here,” Scott would say, zooming a little metal truck across the board, “and he’s been hittin’ the bottle pretty hard and not looking exactly where he’s going. And then you come cruisin’ in here — meeeeeehr, and you don’t stop, you punch it, and go right through this light. Who’s going to be sorry they don’t have insurance?”

While it was embarrassing to be one of the only non-teenagers in the class (there was one Russian and one fellow with a DUI), I bit the bullet and went every day for nine days. The only thing I really remember is that you’re not supposed to drive with your hood up.

“Anyone ever had their hood pop up while they’re driving?” Scott asked one night.

A guy in the front raised his hand.

“Yeah…that happened to me and my homeboy once,” he said. “We was drivin’ real fast to get away from some police officers – like, eighty-five or so – and the hood popped up.”

Scott didn’t even blink. “So, what did you do?”

“Ah, we jus’ hopped out, slapped the bitch down, and kept on drivin’.”

“Very good!” Scott told him. “Never drive with your hood up.”

Sometimes I see myself in a glass K-Car, like Wonder Woman, dressed in a little red, white and blue swimming suit with a magic lasso on my hip. I’m just zooming along, no cops in sight, drinking a big thermos of coffee and flying past ghost towns and cow pastures. Gypsies have always seemed like the most beautiful, natural thing to me, and cars have always seemed the most alien, frightening thing, but they go together so well. I don’t think you can be an American gypsy without a car. Actually, I don’t think you can be much of anything in America without a car.

Maybe my love for cars and moving is so gigantic and impossible that physically driving actually ruins it. Maybe it is best to love cars and driving from the perspective of the troubador tradition. I can look out from my window at the pigeons flying, at the parking terrace behind my apartment building, and watch the cars coming and going, and sing lovely songs to them from the fire escape. Because it might be that some heavenly force, which knows something I don’t, has prevented me from driving all along; maybe I would love my car like the devil. Maybe I would get in that car and never come home – get poisonously good at driving, like some tragic fairy tale character. Driving for eternity, like a ghost – people would see me on the highway sometimes, driving too fast, but no cop would ever be able to catch me because I wouldn’t be able to stop long enough to get ticketed. All of my old driving teachers would tell sad anecdotes to their students. “This is what happens when you put driving off for so long, folks,” the old pink men would say. “It builds up in your system like a toxin. You think you can do it in a moderate fashion, but that’s what she thought, too. She thought she was immune. She thought she hated driving.” They would get very quiet, the way they do when they stand in the office to register and see splattered brains and scattered limbs. Walking along the side of the highway, in the dark, in mailman’s shoes – even when cowboys throw empty beer cans out the window at you, it could be said there are worse ways to travel.

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.