This story begins in the summer of 1987. It doesn’t end on November 13, 2013, but that’s nearly as much of it as I know at this point in time. This is the story of a professional lifelong pedestrian and how he became a licensed motorist. It’s my story and it begins in 1987 with me asking both my parents about how they wanted to handle my becoming a driver, since my 16th birthday was coming up in a couple months.
Just asking this question took an amount of gumption that would be hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in my family, which is to say, anyone else on the planet (I am an only child). See, the thing about my family, was that change, of any kind, was bad. Change was something that we steered around without ever discussing why. It was the kind of bad that was so unspeakably taboo, mostly no one ever proposed it. Nothing ever changed in our household, because that’s how my mother wanted it, needed it. Status quo was something she could control and master, and anything that threatened this status quo threatened her personally,seriously, and deeply, so she fought it tooth and nail. It was sad and terrible and deadening, and it was the first condition of life in my family by the time I was of an age to learn to drive a car.
On some level I knew this was a terrible idea, this asking. An explicit, open request for change. Mom and Dad, it turned out, had already discussed this, and here were the few small conditions I needed to meet before I could learn to drive:
- If I wanted to learn to drive, I couldn’t use the family car to learn to drive, because my dad used that for his job, and, as poor as we were, we simply could not risk anything ever happening to the car;
- I had to get professional lessons, and I wouldn’t get any lessons from my Dad, the only driver in the family;
- Once I learned to drive, I still wouldn’t be allowed to drive the family car; I had to buy my own car for that.
I had no job or allowance, and I was still only 15 of course, so my options for paid work were pretty limited, if not outright non-existent. So I basically had to sit tight. School started and my peers learned to drive, and either got cars as gifts from their parents, or borrowed a parent’s as needed, since most families had one car per parent. I was farther out from the center of town than most people, so my already meager social life took a hit. Most places I went to, I either got there because a friend was willing to go 20 minutes out of his or her way to come pick me up. I dragged my ass about getting a job.
Finally in the summer of 1988, I did get a crappy little part-time retail job, which meager income I was also able to supplement by serving as a teacher’s assistant for a summer school algebra catch-up session at my high school. I thought maybe there’d be a chance I could save maybe four or five hundred dollars if I kept working through the fall, and then maybe that could cover a basic, used, POS car. So I worked toward that goal for a while, til I made the mistake of mentioning it in passing to my mother.
“No,” she said, “when you get a car, you’re not throwing your money away on a piece of shit used car that’s going to break down in a month. You need to put that money toward college. You think we can afford college? You got another think coming, mister.”
“But,” I said, “that’s the whole reason I got a job in the first place, was to afford a car.”
“Well, you’re going to have save more than a few hundred dollars so you can buy some nigger car.” Yes, I lived inside a Flannery O’Connor story.
“I’m not going to be able to save that kind of money, even working two jobs,” I protested.
“Well, it’s hell being poor, ain’t it? I hate it too.”
At which point I realized that I’d been an idiot. The draconian set of rules laid out the previous summer were never meant to be conditions that I could actually meet. I was being actively excluded from the possibility of driving. No matter what I did, my mother was going to find a way to keep it from happening, ever, for as long as I lived under her roof. I didn’t know why then, and I’m still not completely sure. Maybe it’s because she never learned to drive herself. Maybe it’s because she was terrified of me becoming hurt. Maybe she was terrified of change, maybe she just didn’t want to see her only baby become an adult. Who knows. It doesn’t matter now. It didn’t matter then. All it meant was that I was not going to learn to drive anytime soon.
Or for the next twenty-five years, it turned out. Check back Friday for the rest of the story.