Learning to Drive



Neighborhood: Cobble Hill, Flushing

I am learning to drive for the second time. On Sundays, I take classes at “Learn-Rite,” a school in Flushing. The school boasts a neon blue sign illustrating a yellow car and red stop sign. The graphics’ cheap branding displays cartoon-like pictures as if to reassure students that this endeavor is simple, achievable, and above all, happy.

The whole ordeal takes three hours door to door from my home. I drive from Cobble Hill in my parents’ Subaru and during the lesson, my mother kills time at a nursery nearby. When we return to Brooklyn, the car is overgrown with fresh flowers, which I nestle in between my legs, the dirt getting on my shorts.

Going is faster than returning. So far, I have clocked almost thirty hours of driving lessons. I keep waiting for that serene moment of utter empowerment when my hands roll over the leather wheel and the windshield wipers move synchronously to my thoughts.

Right around the time I shelled out several hundred dollars for my classes, Serena Williams appeared in a stellar car commercial. She reclines in a sleek Infiniti and hums along to music as the rain pours down. The successful commercial perfectly captures a   bizarre confluence of sexiness, practicality, safety, money, resilience, and speed. I foolishly believed I’d experience this same cocktail of emotions in a car. Sex would give way to safety which in turn would make me resilient and capable of anything. Simultaneously, I would become rich just by driving.

Instead, I’ve found driving to be tense and disheartening. Even as I improve and make headway, I backslide into bad habits and succumb to inconsistent parallel parking.

I wait for my instructor outside an old white church, which reads: “First Door of Faith, Church of New York. Full Gospel. All Services in English.”

“What’s going on with you today,” my driving instructor asks, shaking his head.

“The car is being difficult,” I say with a whimper. Or maybe it’s Flushing’s damn fault, I say to myself. What kind of New Yorker would I be if I didn’t blame the city for my disastrous driving?

My driving instructor, Byron, is a good guy. He tries to be patient and friendly but it comes across as just cordial. He regularly asks me “How’s it going?” It’s a simple question, which I internalize with meta-level seriousness. Byron is rumored to be the most-in demand instructor. After registering, I convinced the receptionist over the phone to book me with Byron in blocks, so no one else could have him. How ironic, my ability to be so forceful and fight for a man in this case when in my own life, even in my day job as a publicist, I am rarely that pushy.

I attributed his favorable reputation to his name. “Byron like Lord Byron–how lovely,” I said to him in our first session. “Ah, no I’m not a lord” he said, sticking a piece of gum into his mouth. I knew then we had different references. We would stick to talking about rules of the road. In the right light, Byron is almost handsome. At average height, he has good skin and blonde hair. But his good looks are fragile. He swears like a sailor, which draws attention to his terrible teeth. With his light wash blue jeans, he looks like an extra from a 90s sitcom. Though determined to get my license, I can’t say I enjoy driving much. However, I’ve developed a fondness for Flushing. Perhaps it’s because it feels like an amalgam of different neighborhoods I’ve been to before: the dollar stores and food markets of Astoria, the quiet residential feel of Brownstone Brooklyn, the mansions of Westchester, and the narrow sidewalks of certain Philly suburbs. 

The bevy of restaurants in Flushing’s Chinatown include “hotspots” where you can cook your own food, and sauce bars where you can design your own dipping bowls made from a base of soy, sesame or seafood sauce and enhanced with any number of ingredients like chili, cilantro or chutney. If driving lessons were less of a rigid business, I could persuade my instructor to take me to the night market, where vendors from Norway to Puerto Rico congregate. Instead, we stick to our usual radius.

In order to prove to the DMV that I am a capable driver, I must read the street signs and demonstrate awareness. As a result, I’ve collected a great deal of information on Flushing. For example, its borough merged with the rest of New York City in 1898. Queens is the home of the 1964 World’s Fair and a variety of other historic sites that are only open on specific days that I’ve memorized: the 17th Century Bowne House (only Wednesdays), the Queens Historical Society (Tuesdays and Weekends) and the Quaker Meeting House (Sundays).

My biggest problem with driving is that I’m more interested in looking at the people outside than the operation of the car. My left directional is not nearly as absorbing to me as the Korean couple bickering outside their home. And, despite all my practice, driving still feels abstract, much like when I studied astronomy and felt on the precipice of clarity without ever quite arriving at knowledge. I generally grasp why the stars stay suspended in the sky but ask me to explain it specifically and my brain becomes stardust.

I first tried to drive at seventeen. I passed the written test, but on the road I couldn’t modulate my maneuvers. My body felt too small against this mega-machinery. 

Each spring, my private high school, Berkeley Carroll, partnered with a Russian driving school which raked in thousands of dollars. The Russian crew included a head secretary who wore dark, dry-plum lipstick and collected our photo IDs. I drove with the owner of the business, a large burly guy named Gus. He used each session with me to eat a twelve-inch sub as he navigated us through an onrush of mommy-kid-filled-traffic. Each student got twenty minutes. When it was our turn, we were selected without warning. I requested to go last so I could have a semblance of structure, to which the secretary responded: “When we throw you the keys, you drive. If you look down at your hands and you see no key then no drive. Got it?”

Driving without a clue made me fearless, whizzing down Seventh Avenue bagel shops and yoga studios. Now, seven years later, I drive cautiously. Too slow to make decisions at intersections, I run the risk of getting rear-ended. A half-decade of growing up, replete with breakups and bad bosses, has made me more fearful. I’m wary now, not just about the next possible collision but about everything–my future, my career–perhaps all of that permeates my driving.

My grandmother has long been a proponent of my learning to drive. It’s doubtful I will marry and produce grandchildren while she’s still alive, so this is a gift I can give to her instead. Occasionally we practice in Nyack, along the hilly side streets, where she lives. We slow by the rumored houses of Julie Andrews and Rosie O’Donnell. I parallel park in front of Scarlett Johannsen’s newly acquired home and admire her lavender plants. I do a three-point-turn by the nature reserve, where we used to pet reindeer at Christmas, and practice turns by the Runcible Spoon bakery where a lively weekender crowd of bicyclists gathers for brunch.

“Once you learn to drive, you can go anywhere,” she announces as we pull out of her parking garage.

“I know. That’s why I’m learning. It’s important,” I say.

“Anywhere, just anywhere,” she exclaims.

“Well, not overseas,” I joke, inching the car forward.

“It’s wonderful, the independence it gives you. The places you’ll go.”

“I hope so,” I say as my tires turn a corner, nearly clipping her neighbor with a wheelie cart.

The urgency I feel to learn how to drive is growing, partly out of impatience but also because I am eager for that certainty and forward-motion. Stubbornly, I continue to practice. I am waiting for that moment of synchronicity when the rhythm of the road reinforces my thoughts. If the two should ever coincide, well then, I may accept this whole sexy business of life on the road after all.

It is only when I stop thinking about driving that I drive well. When I wonder whether I should eat Mexican food again this week or how I never thought I’d write promotional copy for a living, I park perfectly. It is in these moments that I have renewed faith: I will (eventually) get my license.  Perhaps then the ever-rushed anxiety of my twenties will glide into neutral and I can breathe.

Once I get my license, I hope to trust myself in the car just as I trust myself in thought. So far, this feeling of proficiency has been fleeting. For half a block, I drive beautifully and feel the sweet surrender of the wheels beneath me and then without notice, the scene changes. Just as I become engrossed inside my brain (or trapped, you might say), a lady emerges and I stop short. “Why did you do that?” my driving instructor yells. I fail to produce a reason and tell myself to continue driving cautiously down the street.


Lily Lopate is a Brooklyn-based writer and graduate of Bryn Mawr College. Her essay, “A Relationship of Words” was published in the anthology Every Father’s Daughter (McPherson & Co) and her work has also appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Honeysuckle Magazine, The Millions, People Magazine and various college publications. When not doing her own writing, Lopate works in public relations. 

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