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Yes, I know how to drive. When I become Queen of the World, it will be a law: everyone must learn how to drive, swim, read music, make salad dressing, and change a diaper.
The problem is I’m a hazard on the road. I have the attention span of a magpie, not a good thing behind the wheel. I’m too easily distracted: a new restaurant opening, a cute guy on a bike, a favorite song on the radio, and hopefully I’ve driven into a ditch and not a pylon.
I’m also never one hundred percent sure which is the gas pedal and which the brake.
I’m gonna blame my terrible driving on that convenient scapegoat, my mom. Duluth East High School did provide rudimentary driver’s ed: an exhortatory screening of “Death on the Highway,” which displayed all the gory ways stupid teenagers could end up in bits and smears on the tarmac (I had my eyes screwed shut the entire hour and tried to stop my ears as well) and then ten hours behind the wheel with a bored driving instructor who stayed awake by chain smoking and used his own brake liberally. He did teach me to make a right hand turn. I think he got paid by the student and passed everyone; after two weeks of me driving around the block making right turns, he signed my learner’s permit and sent me off to wreak havoc.
Once I had my permit in hand I hounded my mom every time I saw her head out to the car. “Can I drive? Can I drive? Can I drive?” I would have begged my dad too, but he was gone, coping with a new baby and a nineteen-year-old bride, his former dental hygienist.
Me behind the wheel and my mom sitting shotgun was a combination made in hell. To start with, I was driving her big green Chrysler Newport, given to her by my dad right before Donna’s pregnancy began bulging under her tent-like, tooth-white hygienist uniform. The Chrysler was shiny and new and scratch-free, even if within five minutes of ownership we had already littered the interior with greasy hamburger wrappers, tattered coloring books, broken crayons, used and unused Kleenex, and somewhere in the back, a white baby bootie my sister Heidi had managed to kick off.
My mom, bless her little heart, was not a very good instructor in any subject: “Here, give me that!” was her reaction to watching me do something clumsily or half-assed, which is how I usually do things.
Because my spatial intelligence is that of a house plant, backing up was particularly problematic. It would have been better if mom had walked into the middle of Hawthorne Road and stopped traffic like a crossing guard so I could safely inch that big boat of a car down our driveway; that way she could have just worried about me scraping the stone wall on one side or gouging tire marks in our carpet-like lawn on the other. My mom was convinced we were fated to be t-boned at the end of our drive by a car making its leisurely, 20-mile-an-hour way down Hawthorne Avenue because I didn’t see it coming.
Mom’s gasps, finger pointing, shrieks, imaginary brake pumping, and desperate grabs for the steering wheel started from the second I turned the key and put my hands in the ten and two position; from the noises she made you would have thought we were about to star in “Death on the Highway.”
“I see it! I see the station wagon/bus/stoplight/pothole/fire engine/squirrel!”
“No you don’t!” admonished my mom.
Throw in two squabbling younger sisters, untethered by seat belt or car seat, and my mom’s miniature poodle scrabbling from the front to the back of the Chrysler, and Dale Earnhardt would have gone back to a horse and buggy. Sometimes I managed to drive three whole blocks before mom, certain I was about to cause a real accident to add to her car wreck of a life, ordered me to pull over, and that was the end of my driving practice for the week.
Meanwhile, one after the other, my friends all slipped the surly bonds of earth and entered the exalted realm of licensed driver. Nancy E., with her January birthday, was first, and inherited her family’s battered White Delight, a Rambler that had been well broken in by her older brother and sister. The White Delight was our clique’s ride of choice, as it had already been sullied by fender benders, pukefests, splashes of red from an overturned bottle of Cutex nail polish, overflowing ashtrays, rear and front enders, and a variety of sloshed alcoholic beverages, from near beer to MD 20/20; the floor of that car resembled an uncovered midden from the ancient city of Troy. The White Delight was indestructible, and we thought we were too.
A driver’s license, that little rectangle of cardboard with a smudgy black and white photo, was a ticket out of childhood, and a car was a chariot of freedom, an escape from parents and school, from the square adult world and its silly, Draconian rules.
For teenage couples (sometimes in weird, double-dating tandem), a car was a cramped Bower of Bliss, muggy and foggy-windowed in winter, lake-air cooled in summer, Duluth’s one and only music radio station, WEBC, providing the soundtrack, rotating through the Top Forty. That was a crap shoot. Squooshed and smooching with a cute boy in the back seat, sometimes my libido was stoked by Shocking Blue’s “Venus” (“I’m your Venus/I’m your fire/What’s your desire?”) only to be quashed mid-kiss if the next tune on the radio was the tear-jerking “Patches” (“She doesn’t know that I can’t come to see her/Patches must think that I love her no more”) or the annoying noises and corny lyrics of “Indiana Wants Me.”
(It seemed that I could not get behind the wheel of my mom’s Chrysler without “Indiana Wants Me” — by the justly forgotten R. Dean Taylor — coming on the radio. The first thirty seconds are a dopplering “whoo — WHOO — WHOOOOOO!!!!” of a police siren. Every single freaking time that crappy song came on my mom threw herself on top of me to wrench the car over to the curb only to realize there was no klaxon of cop car, no ambulance, no fire truck. “That goddamn song,” she muttered. “Get out. I’m driving.”)
Necking in cars with boys was fun. Even better was squashing in with six of my best friends, a party on wheels. We had an assortment of alcoholic beverages, whatever we could pilfer from our parents’ liquor cabinets, dumped willy-nilly into waxy cups of Coke and 7-Up from the London Inn Drive-in. We had thirty-five cents-a-pack Tareyton cigarettes, purchased from the vending machine in the lobby of the Viking motel. And we had each other, a band of true-blue sisters.
There was gossip — the popular senior girl who vanished mid-year, showing up five months later twenty pounds thinner, pale, and catatonic; the drama teacher who liked to practice love scenes in private with his pubescent leading lady. There were confessions — who finally gave up her virginity to True Love, who was the tragic victim of a Hump and Dump, what guys you had crushes on who weren’t your official boyfriend. In the midst of our peripatetic party, we had to come up with plausible alibis to cover missed curfews and figure out who was supposed to be sleeping over where. All this yammering was non-stop and at ear-piercing volume, every girl in the car shouting at once, Nancy E.’s head swiveling from the front passenger seat to the back so she wouldn’t miss a word.
At the sight of a familiar car, we shrieked in unison, Nancy slammed on the brakes, and the White Delight skidded to a halt, jouncing me off someone’s lap onto the floor. We piled out to greet our pals and share intelligence: whose parents were out of town, who had a keg in the woods, who knew an older kid with an apartment of his own and an open door policy.
On quiet nights, when our selfish parents all stayed at home, we drove and drove, from Park Point, chilled by the arctic gusts of Lake Superior, up to the top of Duluth’s sheltering hills, where we were too absorbed in ourselves and our lives, as new as an egg, to appreciate the play of star light and city light on the inky water below. But now the gas indictor had dropped past E and we coasted down the Enger Skyway to the closest gas station. We fumbled through purses and turned out coat pockets to put a dollar’s worth of gas in the White Delight, and then drove off again into the dark.
For a few weeks one summer we had a mania for Chinese Fire Drills (which Wikipedia tells me should not be confused with real fire drills). The rules are simple: You screech up to a red light (which the driver barely saw in time, as she was busy talking to a girl in the back seat), someone yells “CHINESE FIRE DRILL!”, all the doors are flung open, and everyone, including the driver, jumps out and runs around the car at least once before hopping back in. You are supposed to end up in a different seat but all I ever got was a different lap.
I was a happy passenger in that carload of girls cruising around on summer nights in search of boys with beers. I dreamt of the day that it would be me driving up to my friends’ houses, leaning on the horn like Gabriel to summon them, and chauffeuring us about on our quest for mild adventure, something that would not end in broken hearts or limbs. At fifteen, I showed an early talent for ignoring troublesome facts: I shoved to one side the knowledge that even if the State of Minnesota said it was okay for me to drive, there was no way my mother would trust me with her car.
The Saturday after my sixteenth birthday, my reluctant mother drove me to Hermantown for my road test. I did not get a final chance to practice my driving, as to get to Hermantown you had to face the peril of a four-lane highway, and my mom was not about to take a chance on me careening the Chrysler across two lanes of traffic and the grassy median strip into oncoming traffic.
I don’t know how the test examiner managed to keep a straight face at my complete lack of knowledge of the most basic (except the right hand turn) driving maneuvers. When ordered to parallel park I tried to magically levitate the car into place as I could not even picture how such a feat was accomplished. I still think parallel parking is an optical illusion.
“Well?” said the examiner. I drove forward a few inches and then tried to remember how to put the car into reverse.
“Okay, the test is over.” Because I am insane, I was sure I had passed. Back at the DMV, I strode up to the window, gave my name, and was rewarded with the results of my road test: out of 100 points, I scored 16.
Five years later, my mother finally got over her fear that I was doomed to die in a car crash, took me to the Colorado Springs DMV, and told lies about me living there. I aced the written test, and then a stoned examiner with a graying ponytail had me complete four right turns and asked me out for a beer. I got my license but broke my promise to meet him at the Castaways bar.
I do have a few Iliad-like cross-country car trips in my past, some of them with unwanted baggage such as my grandma Nana and her penchant for reading every road sign aloud, or a thousand Quaaludes and a pound of pot.
The last long distance drive I did was from New York City to Atlanta, away from my sins and towards a brand-new blissful start with a new guy. Jeff and I pooled our savings to buy a basic and beat-up dun-colored Ford pick-up truck, loaded up all our worldly possessions (90 percent of which were record albums), tied a plastic tarp over the lot with what turned out to be slip knots, and headed south. The blue tarp made its break for freedom as we entered Newark, sailing off into the stratosphere. When we crossed the South Carolina state line a monsoon descended, soaking everything in the truck bed and leaking from the roof on to our heads. Gallons of water splashed up at us from rusted out holes in the floor as we drove down the flooded highway. Screw a rainy night in Georgia
Jeff believed he had a bright future as a running back for the Falcons, despite his diminutive size. He had seen Rocky too many times.
I believed, with my impressive experience as assistant editor at Penthouse magazine on my resume (and not much else, though I did award myself a B.S. in anthropology) that I would land a cool gig in Hotlanta.
After a shaky start (a week of eight-hour days on my feet demonstrating a towel-folding machine at the Hotel and Hospitality Exhibition, writing copy for a snake-oil salesman who failed to pay me), a nice man at the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, wowed by the fact that I used to live in New York, assigned me a fashion column in their Sunday supplement, despite the fact that my mom still bought most of my clothes. Then Virgil Schutze, creative director at the McDonald & Little Advertising Agency, a rotund, balding, foul-mouthed Southerner, leafed through my portfolio, asked a few inappropriate questions, held my resume to his wide backside and farted on it, and hired me to write ads for Ralston Purina Cookie Crisp and Waffle-Os, Wise Snack Foods, and Busch Gardens.
Jeff did not fare as well; despite six weeks of training and daily lunches of grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, French fries, and chocolate malts at the Varsity Drive-In, he still tipped the scales at 139 pounds without acquiring Usain Bolt speed. He returned to New York in a tiff. I know the feeling. I quit dance classes at four years of age, insulted that an older kid was cast as Cinderella, a role I believed rightfully mine; I refused to be relegated to lowly mouse.
Jeff didn’t ask me to go back with him, and I didn’t really want to. I had a job that was almost as good as Penthouse editor: I rode roller coasters for a living and had all the Cheez Doodles I could eat. I wasn’t an assistant anything: my business card read “Gay Haubner — Copywriter.”
Jeff left me the pick-up truck, which I finally realized was an eyesore in the McDonald & Little parking lot, a turd in a shiny metallic punch bowl. The mail room guy had a nicer car than I did. Plus it was really hard for me to drive the seven minutes from home to work, so distracting was the tarmac passing beneath my feet, a view that got wider by the day.
I swapped the truck for a ten-year-old Cadillac Coup de Ville. The shaggy, gap toothed guy handed me his keys and pink slip, then peeled out with a hillbilly “Yahoo!” I stretched out in the leather bucket seat of my new ride, which did not have that sexy Cadillac smell I remembered. I thought about the owner of another Caddy, my car-selling, drug-smuggling, day-trading degenerate ex-lover James and wondered if he were dead yet.
That effing car guzzled gas and oil like I guzzle Pinot Grigio. I think I got eight miles to the gallon and god only knows what it was doing with the oil, selling it to other cars while I was at work maybe. Even the Texaco mechanic was baffled by how many cans of Pennzoil I went through; he did unhelpfully point out that the balding tires might kill me.
After two months, 86 cans of oil, and too much money spent on gas to be able to afford even a single new tire, the Cadillac self-immolated.
My dearest pal and sister Penthouse editor had also made her escape from New York to a real job in Nashville, a four-hour drive from Atlanta. I gulped and filled the Cadillac’s tank, set the cruise control to 65, and headed north for a raucous reunion weekend.
Right after I noticed the first billboard for Ruby Falls (my mind’s ear heard my Grandma Nana’s voice intoning “Visit Breathtaking Ruby Falls Café and Incline Railway”), I glanced down at the dash to see how perilously close I was to the big E and was startled to see that another dial had swung way to the right, past a faintly glowing H.
I pulled over and did what I now know is the worst possible thing you can do with an overheating car: I popped the hood of the Cadillac and in whooshed a billow of oxygen and out leapt ten-foot high flames.
I reached in the back for my pink Samsonite, grabbed my purse and jumped out, while screaming “My car is on fire! My car is on fire!”
Cars stopped all around me at a safe enough distance to enjoy the conflagration and me tearing my hair out. Finally one guy ventured out of his Camaro and moseyed over to me. He waited till I was mid-scream: “Ma’am, I got a fire extinguisher in my truck” and here he gave a jerk with his thumb in the direction of his muscle car —“but this ain’t my truck.”
At this point the vehicle that always haunts my nightmares, a white panel truck, pulled up dangerously close to the blazing Cadillac. The driver got out, opened the back of his truck, pulled out a ridiculously huge container of bait, and threw the entire thing on the fire, dousing the flames, and leaving hundreds of silvery minnows sizzling on the engine.
Now I live in a place where a car is not only a luxury but thanks to taxes, arcane licensing and registration regulations, a climate that encourages rust, mold, and mildew, and the fact that the nearest gas station is a town away, also a millstone about one’s neck. I ride my bike down our one and only road, doggies running at my side, waving at acquaintances, stopping to chat with friends, grateful that I never have to get behind the wheel of a car again.
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