Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Driver's Ed

“The number on this ID card will be her driver’s license number when she’s old enough to drive. Isn’t that neat?”

I raised my eyebrow at the unusually chipper DMV employee behind the counter. “It’ll be awhile. I’m sure they’ll have risen the driving age considerably by then.” In my head I added, “And rightly so”.

The smile she gave me seemed to say, “Listen lady, I’m trying here.” But in my defense she’s the very first DMV employee I’ve ever met that didn’t appear angry or lobotomized.

According to my father the kid didn’t need an ID card to fly. He claimed he called the airline and spoke to someone directly. It was entirely possible, but not very probable, so I decided to have one made just in case. Which was why I was standing at the DMV counter, holding the wrist of an uncooperative five year old, on my coveted lunch break. And sweating, I might add, because it was approximately 103 degrees and humid enough to cause mirages in the parking lot. I was almost positive I’d seen a mariachi band and a dancing margarita.

“Mom, I’m getting a driver’s license!”

It was not a question, but a statement. And for the fifth time since walking in the door, filling out the paperwork, and taking a number I said, “No. It’s not a driver’s license. You are too young to drive.”

“When can I drive”, she whined.

The lady behind the counter paused in her typing to smile at my cranky child. “Soon”, she said...at the exact same time that I muttered, “Never”.

She crossed her arms over her chest and said what all children from a broken family say when they aren’t getting their way. “Humph. I’ll just ask my daddy.”

I only just managed to stop myself from saying, “Good luck with that, kid. If you can squeeze any money out of your broke ass father, then you’ve got a tighter grip that I do. And I don’t foresee a wealthy, car buying, insurance paying stepfather in your future. Also, shut your pie hole.”

Instead I simply laughed and escorted her to the side counter to have her picture made.

The whole process wasn’t as painful as I expected, but it caused me to think about things I hadn’t even begun to fathom. Like my child driving...in a car...with a motor. Blaring a DMX CD, smoking a stolen Virginia Slim, carting around three boys with sagging pants that are rolling up marijuana in the backseat, all while her best friend flashes truckers from the passenger side window.

Or maybe she’ll be a bit smarter than me. A mother can dream.

I can sympathize with teenagers desperately wanting to drive. I’m only 25. I remember what it was like to crave that freedom – to count the days until you didn’t have to be embarrassed about riding the school bus or being dropped off by your parents. To this day, I don’t think I ever wanted anything more than I wanted a set of car keys and that little plastic card.

But I also remember what a fucking idiot I was and how often I came close to killing not only myself, but every woodland and domestic creature in the surrounding area. Just like every teenager that knows everything and thinks they’re the best driver, like, ever.

I was luckier than most. While the majority of my friends had to wait until their sophomore year to get their license, (because there was a mandatory Driver’s Ed class that had to be taken first) I got mine that summer. Papa paid for my cousin Christine and me to take a four day course with a private driving instructor – three days of on the road training and one 8 hour day of video watching in a “class” similar to those given to drunk driving enthusiasts. At least my dad said they were similar.

Our instructor’s name was Karen and she was a very sweet lady. And by sweet I mean that she only made us do parallel parking five times a piece and always let us go through the drive through at Bojangles for an afternoon biscuit and a sweet tea.

We had a lot of fun in those three days. The exception being Christine’s interstate driving - which was like teetering on the edge of a precipice and not daring to breathe lest we go plummeting to our deaths... all the time knowing that had I been the one driving, I would have at least had sense enough to use signals on the way down. I read the training manual twice, after all. My skills were clearly superior.

When it came time for us to go to the DMV I was ecstatic. I knew dad was going to give me a car right before we left to take the test as a surprise. I spent a lot of time coming up with the perfect outfit to wear in my Mustang convertible, which is what I asked for and had no doubt I was getting.

And get one I did – a 1990 white model with a beige top. He tried to pull the ole Jekyll and Hyde trick on me though, because the inside looked like a warehouse after a rave. The door panels were ripped off, exposing the metal and wiring underneath, and the fabric on the seats was virtually threadbare. I wasn’t able to hide my disappointment and didn’t put much stock in his promises to fix it up. The kicker came after the driving test (which I aced) when we were on the way home. Despite his reassurances that the inside only needed a “little” fixing up and the beige top was “brand new”, we still got drenched in a sudden downpour.

“So dad”, I said, pushing wet strands of hair off my forehead, “how does a brand new top have that many leaks?”

I got a different car a few days later and though it wasn’t much better, at least it didn’t leak. It was a 1989 dark blue Mustang hatchback. The paint was peeling on the back and the inside smelled like a strip club (took me a few years, and becoming legal, before I could put a name to that smell) when he first brought it home – ashtray filled to the brim and beer cans rolling out from under the front seat. I don’t believe his story that the long haired, angry tattooed guy that dropped it off in the middle of the night just suddenly wanted to get rid of it, oh no! I’m willing to bet it had something to do with a game of poker.

It took two days of cleaning before I would even sit in it and knowing I was unhappy, dad purchased what every 15 year old girl needs in her busted ass hoopty – a state of the art CD player that flipped out of the dash with a remote control, a 1200 watt amp, and a trunk full of speakers.

In theory it was a cool gift, something I knew a lot of kids with a vehicle would love to have. But there was nothing badass about the clanging and rattling that old car emitted when the “system” was turned on. With the windows down it was tolerable, but otherwise the radio had to be kept at a manageable volume. Not only that, but I didn’t want to ride with the windows down. People would see who was inside.

When I pulled up in that ticking, shuddering mess on wheels the first day of school, I was beyond embarrassed. There I was parking next to the suped up trucks, SUVs, and sporty Eclipses. It took me a while to realize that I had to act like it didn’t bother me and then they’d stop laughing. After a few weeks I got used to the old thing and even grew to like it. Just a bit.

The more comfortable I became with my car, the more comfortable I became with driving in general. Soon I was steering with one knee, smoking a cigarette, putting on mascara, and blaring disgusting rap music up and down the roads. I had a routine – once I was two roads from home I would turn down the music, flick out the cigarette, hide the pack, and spray myself with eau de trashy teenage girl. (It amazes me that Christine and I thought that god awful stench masked our deceit.)

But one afternoon on my way home from school, I left the routine a little late. As I struggled to turn off the CD player with the remote, toss my cigarette, and make a sudden right hand turn onto our gravel driveway...I lost control of the car. I could have corrected it immediately, but when the steering wheel jerked my cigarette fell between the seats. I ran over the stop sign, flattening it to the ground, and hit a tree.

Thankfully the only thing wrong with the car was a broken headlight. I, however, wasn’t so lucky. I was unable to back it out. Instead of walking home calmly and rationally explaining to my mother that I was fiddling with the stereo (leaving out the cigarettes) and lost control, I wailed like a banshee. I walked the half a mile from the stop sign to my house, crying the entire way, went in the door and told mom that I’d gotten my goddamn shoestring caught on the gas pedal.

I was wearing flip flops.

Then just a few weeks later I was on my way to town, jamming out to my rattling windows, when I passed Christine in her bright blue, brand new Eclipse (the bitch). In the country when someone taps their breaks or flashes their lights at you, it means one of three things: they are saying hello, there are cops up ahead, or they want you to stop. As Christine drove by, she tapped her breaks and honked her horn. So I stopped.

It was on a back road close to our house and there was no one else around. So when she stopped too, and didn’t seem to be making the effort to back up, I decided to go for it. However, I went for it a little overzealously. I punched the gas too hard and flew backwards so fast it scared me, causing me to accidentally turn the wheel and do a complete 360, then slingshot straight down into a deep ditch.

It scared the living shit out of me and that’s really the only excuse I have for the first words I said to Christine when I crawled out of the car, wild eyed and disoriented, but unharmed.

“Did you see those huge deer!?”

“What deer”, she said.

“The deer”, I emphasized heavily, “you know, the ones that just ran out in front of me!”

“You’re a fucking retard.”

Funny thing is, my parents didn’t believe me either.

And those two incidents? Those were just the beginning of my long and fruitful driving record. I ran over and into things with that old Mustang that I wouldn’t even tell my dog about. Though I never hit a human at full speed, I can tell you that. And there’s a certain county judge that will never forget the day I backed into his brand new Lincoln in the Wal-Mart parking lot and took off like a bat out of hell. That one earned me a week on the bus and instilled in me the always healthy habit of checking your mirrors first.

After a year of all that unintentional mistreatment, the damn thing finally blew up. Dad sold my sound system for the crack rock and, feeling bad, Papa bought me a brand new PT Cruiser.

There’s a video somewhere of the day he took me to the dealership. In it I’m standing on the bottom step in front of the building next to Papa, my parents, and my sister when they drive the car in from the side and park it a few feet away. Papa says, “Happy Birthday, Alyson”. And I let out a scream to rival any slasher actress and say “HOLY SHIT”, launch myself at him, wrap my legs around his waist, and hang there. The poor man had to go lie down.

But as thankful as I was, I wasn’t very gentle on the PT either. There were deer, curbs, and the side of a building or two that were intimately familiar with that car. Oh, and policeman. They were pretty familiar too.

Two cars and seven years after the PT was given up, I still have a reputation as a horrendous driver. I haven’t gotten a ticket or had an accident in about three years (I think...). I’ve become infinitely more careful. But they’ll never forget and they’ll never let me live any of it down, especially ‘The Mustang Chronicles’.

Most teenagers think they’re invincible. I obviously did. And I can’t believe I’m about to parrot my grandmother...but the simple truth is that driving is a privilege, not a right. Kids need to earn the freedom to hit a deer, hose hair off the bumper, and swear someone must have hit it while they were parked at the mall. Or maybe what she said was, “Driving is a privilege, not a right. Damn it, I can’t believe I just bought you that Dodge Neon.”

In the DMV that day, as I thought about all the stupid shit I’d done, the machine spit the kid’s ID out into a tray. The woman behind the desk handed it over and we made our way out the door. She was jumping up and down chanting, “Let me see! Let me see!” I watched the grin spread across her face when she saw her picture and her own handwriting across the bottom. She chattered and chattered, excited about showing it off to the rest of the family.

As we drove out of the parking lot she handed it up to me and said, “What’s that say mom?”

“Which part?”

“The big red letters on the front...what do they say?”

I glanced down at the card then grinned at her in the rearview mirror.

“It says ‘NOT A DRIVER’S LICENSE’ and ‘UNDER 18 UNTIL 4-6-2023’.”

“Awww man!”

She wasn’t happy, but my mood had marginally improved.

Each new parenting experience, like having an ID made at the DMV, makes me feel that much closer to things I’m not sure I’m ready for. But just seeing that date made me feel marginally better, because 2023 seems like a long time from now. And even if it isn’t, I’ll keep pretending otherwise till it’s time for our next visit and a new card.

And because... according to Papa, who has the black marks on his patio to prove it, the kid has inherited my driving talents and is currently practicing her ram a ditch and lie about it routine with a pink Barbie Power- Wheel convertible. In fact, she’s pretty much got it down.


The Vegetable Assassin said...

I've never met a teen yet who isn't a liability in a car. They're just not ready maturity wise. I'm all in favour of raising that damn age to 21. I mean if you can't even order a beer till then why the hell should someone be allowed to drive a weapon through the streets while texting their boyfriend, things of utter importance like "OMG U R so KEWL LOL". The number of times I've had to honk loudly to get the attention of some driver too busy texting to move at the lights, is insane. I'm so happy it's now illegal mostly everywhere. I want to wait by the roadside for arrests and laugh. It incenses me that much.

I still laughed at your exploits though. So you're a smart girl but you totally drive blonde. :)

the eternal worrier: said...

You made me laugh talking about rolling a cigarette while driving. Usually whilst steering with the knees if I remember correctly. I too was a terrible driver when I was younger.

Sara said...

Oh man, I was an idiot driving when I was a teenager. On the way to school, I used to do homework. I would actually put my binder in my lap and do fucking vocabulary homework driving 70 miles an hour.

I was such a fucking idiot.

Baglady said...

I must be such a nerd - I never did any of those things. When I got my first car (a tiny hatchback) it was because I'd bought it myself and that was 4 years after I passed my test (when I moved out of the family home, got a full time job and was living with my then fiance). I feel like such a dork in comparison to you and your deer bumping mustang...

Didactic Pirate said...

I'm with Sara -- total idiot driver when I was a teenager. I look back and am amazed I'm still alive. Then I imagine what kind of driver my daughter will be... and then I have to put my head down and cry for a bit.

Jenny DB said...

Umm I still steer with my knee while smoking a cigarette and putting on mascara. Does that made me a teenager? :-)

Seriously, tho, loved this story... and your lil one in the back "Awww man" i love that image..

BugginWord said...

Adorable. Now can we go grab a biscuit and sweet tea? Make mine a cajun fillet, please.

Ed said...

When I saw the post title, I thought you were going to be writing about doing nasty things to me.

Now, I'm just in the mood for a car ride.

SaJ said...

Just got my drivers license!
Look out everybody!!!! :D

Mr London Street said...

Triumphant. I still love the image of the car looking like a "warehouse after a rave" which is probably the best simile I will read all year. This one ends perfectly too.

Obviously I'm better off talking about the quality of the writing than comparing notes on driving as I'm an even worse driver than I am a writer.

rubbish said...

My one and only crash.

Kola Kokahalla said...

I actually drove a Scooter before I ever had a real grown-up driver's license. First time I got on it, I was so engrossed in a conversation with my friend I shot across the street, through a hedge and ended up on my butt in a neighbor's yard. Good times. I would doubtless have been a liability in an actual car. Too many shiny things. :)