I grew up in New York City. To be precise, in Manhattan, where few people needed cars, although my family always had one. My guess is that it was a sign of affluence. My father, a doctor, drove his Cadillac to work and parked in the hospital lot. My mother took cabs and I had a bus pass. When I got older, I took the subway, although I never told my mother, because the subway worried her.
When I was 14, we had yet another in a string of rented summer homes. My mother rented a Mustang since my father commuted in the Cadillac, no longer willing to commute by train with Mom dropping him off and picking him up at the station. That summer, Mom decided it was time to teach me to drive. She put me behind the wheel and explained the car parts: ignition, accelerator, brake, wipers and turn signals. Pretty straight forward. And then each day, she and I drove with me behind the wheel through the winding back roads.
At 19, I took a road trip with a boyfriend. Somewhere around North Carolina, he asked if I wouldn't mind driving. Not at all, I said as I slipped behind the wheel. When I casually mentioned that I had no driver's license, he resumed the wheel and stopped at a motel so that he could get some sleep. He was annoyed that I agreed to the road trip without a driver's license. I was annoyed because I'd been driving without one since I was 14 and felt I was a better driver than he was. I was also annoyed that the motel was so sleazy that they had vending machines for multi-colored condoms right there in the room. We got to Florida and when we came home, the boyfriend insisted that I take a road test.
My road test fell on a day after a blizzard. Plows had cleared the streets but snow was piled up by the curbs. When it came time for parallel parking, the wheels climbed up a snow bank. The DMV official failed me, despite my insistence that it was impossible to identify the curb. I took the test again a few weeks later. As I settled into the driver's seat, I spied my former testing official.
"There's that asshole who failed me," I said
"That 'asshole' is my brother-in-law," the new official said.
I was doomed. But the third time's a charm, and I passed a few weeks later. The snow had melted and my mouth was shut. The license was superfluous in New York City, though. I still took buses, subways and hoofed it. A license for ID wasn't a requirement for anything in those days. Not even getting into a bar. But when I was 21, the license was necessary. I'd moved down to Miami, the hometown of my next boyfriend, whom I married a year later. Florida was a car culture and I needed to drive everywhere. My grandfather gave me his 1970 seafoam green Dodge Dart. His depth perception was failing and he'd driven the Dart into the wall of his garage about a half-dozen times and wisely called it quits. Having that Dart was a freedom I'd never known before. Quite different from public transportation, where I was dependent on transit schedules. Sometimes, I drove down Dixie Highway at night just because I could, listening to Cousin Brucie on the tinny AM radio. I felt so free.
Roughly four years later, I left the Dart and the husband in Florida and moved back to New York. Back to the subways and buses until I won a bicycle in a dollar raffle. The bicycle was a godsend since my paycheck barely covered my rent and, with the spoils, it was often a toss-up between food and public transportation. The bicycle was literally my meal ticket.
Four years later again, I married again and we got a Dodge Aries even though we lived in Manhattan since so many of our weekends were spent at my parents' country home, owned, not rented. Eighteen months after we married, I had baby number one and then eighteen months later, I had baby number two. When baby two was three months old, my husband said we had to move to the suburbs since New York City rents were astronomical.
Resigned and obedient, I plopped the babies in the Aries and reluctantly headed to parts unknown, searching for houses outside of my cherished Manhattan. We left the city when baby number two was six months old. My husband took the Aries and I got a Subaru station wagon. I was often alone until all hours while my husband worked in the city, so I loaded my pajama-clad babies into their car seats and just drove for miles while they slept. Cousin Brucie was my friend again. Two years later, when baby number three came along, I got the typical Soccer-Mom van - big enough for three car seats and equipped like a snack bar. I practically lived in that car as I commuted to my job and shuttled the kids back and forth to school, games, friend houses, shopping malls, doctor's appointments...you get the picture. Not to mention trips back and forth to Manhattan, road trips to Canada, Florida and The Adirondacks. The most terrifying part of driving came when my kids got their learner's permits and I was their passenger holding on for dear life. Correction: the most terrifying part of driving was when my kids got their licenses and waved goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway. Teenage Driver is an oxymoron.
We moved back to New York City in 2006 when our youngest was a freshman in college. I was eager to come "home." For one month, I drove back and forth in my newly beloved and leased Subaru Outback as I set up the apartment. When the dreaded day came to give back the car, I cried as the dealer practically wrestled the keys from me. My husband got to keep his car: The argument was that he not only owned it, but it had an urban-proof trunk and more "muscle" with six cylinders. Truth is, I feel like my wheels got taken out from under me.
Since the move back, I haven't done a lot of driving. My "children" (now in their 20's and one who's 30) seem to have forgotten the decades I spent getting them from Point A to Point Z with all the stops in between. "Mom doesn't drive," they say. How quickly they forget. How that hurts my feelings.
If I had enough money to buy a car and pay the enormous rent for a parking garage in Manhattan, I would. And sometimes I would just hit the road solo on a whim. New York City, especially in the summer, has lost its luster for me these days. I find myself longing for trees, a strip of beach, winding back roads and air that doesn't smell of diesel and dog urine. And Cousin Brucie is alive and well on Sirius radio.