I have a driver’s license, but I never drove regularly, so I never really was comfortable driving a car, so I have been using my time off (*cough* funemployment *cough*)to take some intensive driving lessons in my neighborhood.

A bit of back story: When I learned to drive in my 20s*, here in New York’s Chinatown, I was taught by this man I called “The Driving Guru,” and who was the best driving teacher ever. His name was Steve, and he was actually a year or two younger than me, and he was the world’s calmest dude. He taught me completely in Chinese, and only spoke in Ye Olden Chinese Confucius-like epigrams–like if I didn’t slow down for pigeons, he would say, “Each life has its own worth, and we must respect the life of each living being,” and when I gave him grief about giving me different advice on different days, he said, “Each situation has its own solution, and we must honor the uniqueness of each,” etc. Once, I was freaking out on one of Chinatown’s narrow streets, and Steve assured me that nothing would ever happen while he was in the car, and I believed him. We almost never spoke about our personal lives–I can only remember one instance where he randomly asked me the English words for how to order different kinds of eggs (scrambled, sunny-side up, over medium, hard-boiled, etc.), which is hardly personal. Anyway, I knew he used to be a long-distance truck driver, and sadly, when it came time to relearn, Steve had moved to California to return the long-distance driving.

*I had a learner’s permit at 15, like a normal red-blooded American, but somehow I fell off the learning on-ramp and never got a license until my 20s.

(I have also found there is a small subset of people, namely neurotic New York women writers, who learn to drive as adults, and who tend form strange attachments to their driving teachers. I chalk it up to the intimacy of spending so much time in a small space with a man who has so much control over your life, and spending A LOT of time with him on a regular basis. See The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt’s essay “Learning to Drive,” Vanity Fair‘s Amy Fine Collins’s “Vroom at the Top,” and songwriter Suzanne Vega’s, “Street Legal, Finally.” As a neurotic New York woman writer myself, who was, um, driving-chellenged,  I was always especially aware of these articles, and kept a metal talley of the many famous non-drivers I would hear about, like Studs Terkel, who I would always trot out, when people rolled their eyes at my lack of driving skills.)

Anyway, I have two new driving teachers, neither of whom I love, but they are intense in their own ways. I have been going on the highway and Northern Boulevard (a hellish boulevard here in Queens, filled with what my California driver’s ed teacher would have called “The Final Factor”: unloading trucks, people talking on their cell phones, children dashing out into the street, Totally Insane Youth driving sports cars in terrible ways, aggressive people who like to yell at me, etc.) while listening to my driving teacher explain about (1) her first arranged marriage to an abusive drunkard; (2) her only child, who lives in India, and their tortured relationship, which is so complex that it’s like a Faulkner and V.S. Naipaul novel rolled into one, combining issues of class, family, immigration, emigration, and patriarchy; (3) her second marriage to a Pakistani man (I have a small personal interest in The Partition, based on my fondness for arranged marriage novels, and when she mentioned this Southeastern Asian Romeo-and-Juliet Indian-and-Pakistani pairing in her life, I was vaguely fascinated); (4) her plans to quit her driving teaching career of 16 years to work for the MTA (the NY transit authority); and (5) the differences between America and other countries.

I was a history major, I’m a writer, and I grew up in an immigrant family, so I am always at least a little interested in how immigrants view America and Americans, and especially how women perceive America. But I have to say that there were times in the past week that I have been like, “While I am fascinated by your complex immigrant story, I am also about to be killed by being smushed between a fruit truck and the M60 bus on Northern Boulevard! What should I do!?” I am not always sure that my personal StoryCorps experience has been beneficial to my driving skills. But I have finished my current stint with this teacher, and begin tomorrow with my other teacher, who is an old-school dude (read: mildly sexist and fond of saying things of his students like, “Well, she wore the pants in that family and he wore the dress if you know what I mean, haha,” which I would normally find kind of offensive, but have decided to accept to improve my driving skills) who has been teaching for 40 years. I will report back after I am done.

On a positive note, I think I’m actually a fairly decent beginning driver now. None of my driving teachers are believers in positive reinforcement. (I think “positive reinforcement” might be an American philosophy, and since all of my teachers have been immigrants, they believe in the tough love stance. Or as my current teacher said, “When we compliment students, then they think they are doing well, and then they stop learning!” I inwardly groaned, remembering my various aborted stints at Chinese school, where teachers are always quick to rank students and point out your failures.) But as an American who grew up in woo-woo San Francisco, I am big on positive reinforcement, so I have taken to saying things like, “Aren’t I doing so well? Did you notice how great I was on the highway?” which makes my teacher laugh. I told her that I needed to be complimented (who cares if I’m fishing?) and she was like, “um, I don’t do that, but okay.” The truth is that driving isn’t so difficult, and though I was kind of mentally stressed about it for a while, I finally was like, if I can knit an entire sweater, I think I can learn to drive.

Posted in personal, Uncategorized at July 13th, 2009.