License To Drive

Getting in the car and driving from point A to point B ­— and often, points C, D and E in succession — is something I do so regularly that I often don’t give it much thought. Driving is something I do so often that it’s almost mind-boggling to think of a time in my adult life when I didn’t own a car and have access to get behind the wheel whenever I wanted.

I was talking about this Saturday morning over coffee at The Lantern in Sibley, a roughly 18-mile drive from my place in Worthington. We were chatting about the joys — for some, anyway — of driving a stick shift. I subsequently confessed that, to this day, I still am unable to operate a manual transmission vehicle. That’s likely because the last time I tried to do so, it didn’t go so well.

It was March 1996 — and a completely different stage of my life. A few months before, I’d made the bold decision to leave my stable job as an editor at a Manhattan publishing company and my ever-cozy yet ideally located studio apartment in favor of an uncertain yet exciting future with my-then girlfriend in Erie, Pa. To make a long story short, the move (in retrospect) was almost deemed to fail from the start. I knew no one in Erie except for my girlfriend, who I’d only known for about four months. I had no employment in place. And …. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, never mind my own car.

So many people in the Midwest react with astonishment when I tell them that I still didn’t have a driver’s license at 28. I suppose it is sort of bizarre, but I guess it was never a must. I remember not wanting the expense of a car in high school — I instead rode my bike everywhere, and I had friends give me rides to group outings — and in college there were all kinds of campus buses. Then, I lived in New York City, where owning a car as a single person is completely unnecessary. Even in the early 1990s, one could pay more in monthly fees for parking in Manhattan than a current southwest Minnesota mortgage payment.

In my quest to leave Erie, though, the need to have a license and a car quickly became obvious. Before long, I had an interview for a reporter position at a daily newspaper in Dunkirk, N.Y., about 90 minutes or so from my northwest Pennsylvania residence. A woman I’d been in a community theater production with was kind enough to get me to Dunkirk, and even kinder in letting a total novice drive her car there. I had obtained a learner’s permit, yes, but her judgment in letting me drive has to be considered questionable at best — especially since she had a stick shift.

We made it successfully to Dunkirk, but not without a few fits and starts along the way. Exiting the tollbooth just across the Pa./NY state line certainly was interesting, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if a bill for clutch repairs arrived in my mailbox a few short days afterward. I remember thinking if I got the job, I would have no choice but to buy an automatic.

Well, I did get the job, and I did buy an automatic — a 1986 Chevy Nova, which turned out to be an absolutely ideal first car — but I still needed the license. I failed my first road test thanks to an utter inability to parallel park, so in desperation turned to another theater cast mate for help. After spending the better part of a morning practicing (over and over) an art I’ve rarely employed since, I passed the test and was a licensed driver. Less than a week later, I started the reporter job, and my newspaper career was officially under way.

Nowadays, I don’t need a car so much for work as I do the errands that get run during the day and on weekends. Most of those errands involve the kids, so I suppose I should hope they don’t wait until age 28 to start driving. The first time they get behind the wheel, though, may age me another 28 in rapid fashion — especially if they’re as rough around the edges as their dad was.