The Unlicensed Adult

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

New teenage drivers are all alike; every new adult driver is tragi-comic in his or her own way. Katha Pollitt’s 2002 New Yorker essay (paywalled) remains the foremost text in the field of Late Bloomer Studies, Auto Division, but that doesn’t stop the rest of us from trying. I’m sure I have my own such essay in me, but the memories are too fresh. So I will instead present Elana Berkowitz’s account of being a displaced New Yorker first learning in her 30s:

For my first solo outing, I drove to a national forest outside Los Angeles for a hike. Distracted by all the mirrors to adjust and dashboard gauges check, I overlooked one very critical thing — the gas light. I ended up stuck at the top of a very steep and winding road with no fuel and no cellphone reception. Screaming in panic, I descended in neutral, hitting the occasional guardrail, until I found a gas station. Having never pumped gasoline, I fumbled nervously with the levers and buttons as other drivers giggled and stared. I vacillated between annoyance and mortification, until all I could do was burst into a fit of laughter.

Yikes! (I still have never pumped gas, but that’s because NJ law forbids us from doing so.) But Berkowitz sees the experience as a positive one:

We’ve all read about the risks of diminishing brain plasticity with age, making it more difficult to absorb new information. When people heard I couldn’t drive, they’d respond with “But it’s so easy.” Yes, maybe it was easy to learn when you were 17. As we cross the threshold of 30, we reconcile ourselves to the fact that if we have not yet made progress on becoming an astronaut or an accomplished cellist, it isn’t happening. But learning something new that had seemed impossible has filled me with possibility. (And, also, filled me with tears. Yes, I cried learning how to drive, but it was only once and I guarantee it was warranted.)

She only cried once! I’m impressed.

But for an outrageously positive spin on being an unlicensed adult, turn to Matthew Schneier’s recent lifestyle story about the New Yorkers – himself included – whose non-driving is an inconvenience principally because it gets in the way of their vacation plans (NYT):

Not driving did not hold me back from covering fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris. But this Fourth of July, it did pose a problem when a caravan of friends trundled to Hebron, N.H (population 600).

There was no way to get there without driving, and nowhere, save the post office and general store a few paces away, I could conveniently reach once we had arrived. Thus began my weekend of anxious dependency, one that echoed many summer weekends before it. No alternative plan could be made when the majority of the group headed out for a hike. No sightseeing was possible farther than the dusty center of the town square. I arrived when they arrived, and left when they left.

I summered, in sum, at the mercy of my friends-turned-captors, and let me take the opportunity to make clear that I appreciated deeply their kindness and (to be frank) amused indulgence.

Schneier found a woman who may actually be too glamorous to drive – a problem I wish I had, because as thrilled as I am to have a license, driving is – as I’d say if I were more glamorous – quite a bore:

“I’ve just gone by the motto, ‘Some people drive, and some people are driven,’ ” said Melissa Bent, 36, an art adviser. “I’m the latter.” Over the years, she has become adept at plotting clever ways around her inability. When, as a gallerist, she needed to travel to Los Angeles, she would hire a local art student to be her chauffeur (upside: they knew all the local galleries). And in Boulder, Colo., where she was calling from on a recent July afternoon, she was discovering the bus system. (“You wouldn’t believe the guffaws from all the people,” she said.)