Fear of Driving: Merging With the Dark

I have often wondered if Manhattan might be a better place without any automobiles. Trucks, taxis, buses and prom limousines would be permitted, but no personal cars. No obnoxious S.U.V.’s, no ironic 70’s gas guzzlers with kitsch dangling from the rearview mirror, certainly no Bugs of any vintage. People would walk around, get to know each other, there wouldn’t be that whole double-parking controversy where the police get to do it but no one else does, no one would “block the box,” whatever that means, and the air would be lovely and fresh.

This is easy for me to advocate because I am a terrible driver. This is not an affectation. Many New Yorkers like to pretend that they are terrible drivers, as if it to prove how New York they are, how timidly Woody Allen in Annie Hall , or conversely, how wild. Like having nothing but caviar in the fridge and eschewing the Super Bowl, not driving is a talisman against the manicured lawn and widening buttocks of suburbia. I knew a New Yorker fact-checker who actually went so far as to obtain, and proudly display, a New York State non-driver’s identification card-in essence, a license to be passive.

However, I really am a bad driver. Or-why make a value judgment?-myopic, inexperienced and afraid. It’s not that I lack the credentials. Indeed, I still carry around the stenciled yellow insurance certificate issued to me 10 years ago after I spent one adolescent summer with M. Goldberg, a driving instructor from the Dalton School who resembled Ken Olin from Thirtysomething . I still haven’t forgotten the demerit I got from my examiner up in the Bronx at the end of the course, after I parked too far from the curb (rumor held that the worst thing one could do was hit the curb). At least I passed the test on the first try, unlike many of my male classmates who failed after whipping confidently into traffic as if they were starters for Nascar. And so I was granted a license, which I dutifully renew every five years. The authorities say I am good to go. I disagree.

This may be due to childhood psychological trauma. There was nothing ironic about our 70’s gas guzzler, a Ford purchased in honor of my birth. It smelled of vomit, which I produced in sporadic profusion on our occasional trips to the relatives as my brother shrank back horrified on the opposite end of the back seat. The dark brown leather (Corinthian?) seats shone with stultifying heat in the spring and summer. I’m sure the monthly tithe paid to our garage would’ve paid the rent on a decent one-bedroom in Chicago or Philadelphia. When thieves finally got around to stealing the thing while I was away at gymnastics camp-bringing it, my mother whispered, to something faraway and exotic-sounding called the “chop shop”-I wasn’t sorry. It felt like liberation.

But in recent years I have been priced out of my native Manhattan. So when my boyfriend’s parents, who are from Boston, land of the twisty one-way roads, offered us a gold Nissan Maxima they no longer needed, I accepted eagerly. We went to the outer-borough versions of Joe’s Shanghai and Century 21, got to see first-night movies without 777-FILM, and helped our friends move small pieces of furniture. Talk about liberation. It was great!

Except that he was always the one driving. Dealing with the city’s absurdist alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, like hauling out the recycling and watering the bougainvillea, became “his” job. This offended me. I remembered that growing up, Dad had always been in the driver’s seat. I started to feel a traitor to my sex, which had not come this far to be squired around like a helpless chippy. And what if he were suddenly incapacitated by a heart attack and needed to be rushed to the hospital? Etc.

I’d like to say I just boldly took the wheel one day, growling “Here, lemme drive,” but in truth my hand was forced when he left for a weeklong trip to Los Angeles, land of the scary eight-lane highway. Suddenly the city’s absurdist alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules were my responsibility. I worried and schemed, anxiously solicited advice and left work two hours early so that I could complete the task before dark.

My co-workers thought I was nuts, but my prudence became evident when it took me 10 minutes just to wrestle off the Club. As I pulled into the neighborhood’s mild twilight traffic, I saw New York for the first time in a long time from the perspective of a driver rather than a passenger. My customary belief is that drivers are thoughtless jerks willing to roll right over your toes if it would prevent you from scuttling across on the almost-red light. Suddenly it was the passengers who were the sly jack-in-the-boxes popping up at unexpected moments. People honked. I hurled expletives, alone, unheard, in my little gold space capsule. But there was no ground control on the other end of a helpful headset.

I found a space easily enough on an uphill side street, but as I was maneuvering into it-at last, a chance to deploy that masterful, benevolent hand-behind-the-passenger-seat gesture-I heard a terrible crunching. Convinced that the transmission or worse had run aground, I stopped the car. A plastic milk carton rolled out from behind one of the wheels. I felt like one of those people who think they’ve killed their computer when it displays a “fatal error” message. I turned wheels toward the curb (a distant memory from the manual?) and lifted the parking brake, with its satisfying rrrrrrrrp .

My trials weren’t yet over. Two days later I had to meet the boyfriend at LaGuardia. Should I drive there? Could I? I could order a car service, he pointed out worriedly on the phone. I didn’t want to order a car service. Cheapness did battle with car-phobia, and cheapness, mixed perhaps with something nobler, won. I could try.

I stayed up late and woke super-early, plotting my route with the help of Yahoo!’s amazingly authoritative map service (“Turn LEFT onto ATLANTIC AVENUE …”). I donned my lucky red shoes, which I usually wear to prevent planes from crashing and whose powers I have probably just nullified by divulging this. I felt, pathetically, like Jodie Foster in Contact . I had been trained for this. I could do this. And if I couldn’t pull it off, I could always turn around and order a car service.

Except there is no room for error on the on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. More honking. No backing up. Heart pounding, the Yahoo! printout rustling at my side, I merged with New York’s great school of automobiles. No one seemed to realize that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing which, it strikes me, is an apt if trite metaphor for life. Chugging along in the right lane, cars vrooming past me on either side, I also realized I was the only one obeying the 45 M.P.H. speed limit.

I made it to the airport, after getting lost in Queens and getting bailed out by a nice cab driver (thanks, Medallion No. 6J15, wherever you are). My boyfriend was impressed. Though it was dark when we returned, I even helped him drive part of the way home. I am, miraculously, intact.

But the bougainvillea is at death’s door.