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January 08, 2007

In the Driver's Seat

by Michele Martinez

Now that we know each other better, I'm ready to confess my deepest, darkest secret.  My father, god rest his soul, left me with an abiding fear of driving.  He wasn't afraid of driving generally; he afraid of me driving.  And this from a guy who was convinced I'd be the first female President of the United States.    It must have been some variant on Latin machismo, some misplaced need to overprotect. . . .

Oh, hell, I'm not being entirely honest.  My father had reason to be afraid.  I first suspected this when, at sixteen, I took my driving test.  I got a hundred on the written exam, but the driving portion did not go smoothly.  The tester guy asked me to parallel park.  I tried my best, and when it was over, he said he'd pass me on one condition -- that I promise to practice a lot and actually learn to drive.  (True story!)  Naturally I agreed, but given that we only had one car, and that my dad was afraid to let me use it, I never made good on the promise.

Years passed.  Decades passed, in fact, in which not driving didn't pose much of a problem for me.  I had a valid driver's license for identification purposes.  I lived in urban areas with excellent public transportation such as the yellow cab.    (Talk about people who can't drive!)  And I lived with men --first my ex-boyfriend, later my husband -- who drove me places.  Who insisted on driving me places so I wouldn't hurt the car, or myself, or anybody else.  Yes, this was a dreadful betrayal of my feminist principles, but somehow I managed to rationalize it.  I recall for a while relying on the excuse that Jackie Kennedy had said the man should always drive as if that made it okay, when of course it made it so much worse.

(By the way, I just asked my husband if he had any funny stories about me driving.

"I don't normally associate you driving with laughing," he said.

"C'mon, seriously."

"Let's see.  There was the time you almost drove off the cliff near my parents' house.  There was the time you called me from a parking lot because you couldn't figure out how to back up.  No, none of that is funny.")

After a while, the Jackie rationalization stopped working, and the fact that I couldn't -- or as I prefer to say, didn't -- drive began to seem not amusing or eccentric but downright embarrassing. I remember trying to explain to an FBI agent I was working with that I couldn't drive to FCI-Fort Dix to interview a witness.

"You don't have a license?" he asked.

"I do have a license."

"You don't have a car?"

"I do have a car."

[Blank stare].

But then he just drove me there.  All the agents drove me wherever I wanted to go.  Enablers!

You've probably figured out that I wouldn't be telling you this if the story didn't have a happy ending.  Yes, finally in my late 30s, I learned to drive.  Why?  I wanted to, that simple.   A fast car, the open road -- I was tired of missing out on the quintessential American experience.  Retail porn in the form of the "Build Your Own Porsche" website didn't hurt either.  (Not that I own one, but is that gorgeous or what? )  Plus, I'd quit law, which meant I could take my kids to the beach on a hot summer day while poor hubby worked if only I could drive them there.

As to how I learned -- turns out that like Dorothy with her ruby slippers I'd known all along.  I had a license.  I had a car.  I just drove.


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Michele - I'm passing this along to our 15-year-old daughter who, like her brainy friends, is none too eager to learn how to drive.
This reminds me of my childhood friend Claire who was on the math/debating team, who went to Northwestern on full scholarship and who would stop on green and go on red. Driving in her dad's Dodge Dart was a frightening experience and Claire seemed clueless as to why, wherever she went, people were beeping her.

Which just goes to show that the smarter the woman/the worse the driver. Could that be? What would Jackie say?

Great post!

Oh, I forgot to add that Claire ended up flying planes for the U.S. Air Force.

I was thinking I could call this post "New York Retard." People like your daughter and your friend Claire eventually get it together, Sarah, or else face Darwinian extermination, In New York people can stay stupid forever. I knew a lot of people there who don't drive, and even more who don't cook.

Don't is a euphemism -- they absolutely can't. The fact that I cooked for my own family made me almost superhuman in their own eyes. One mom friend came over for lunch, saw an avocado pit on my cutting board and screamed in terror. She'd never seen one in her life despite having subsisted on salad alone since age 12. She might eat 'em but she didn't make 'em.

A couple of things.

First, Sarah has a great story about taking her driving test at least two times. I may still have the high school newspaper in which she tells the story--not for that story, but because I probably had some embarrassingly bad item in it.

Second, as the Liberty stalker of "Claire," I can tell you that her name was spelled "Clare," the Catholic spelling. I doubt that she is readiing this from the place I stalked her to most recently, but if she is, I apologize for being a jerk back then. Like Kaiser Soze, you will never hear from me again.

Third, I thought she was a doctor of some sort, not a pilot, so I guess my cyberstalking skills are not as good as I thought.

Fourth, and this has to do with the world revolving around me, but did you make this post to elicit comment from me, because you had to know that I wouldn't be able to resist.

Oops, I was referring to Sarah's comments, not Michele's post.


Where I grew up, everybody drove. We didn't feel compelled to wait until we were 16, either. So the day I went to take my drivers' test, it was a Snow Day - the roads were an icy mess and the visibility was worse - the police officer looked at my Mom, asked if I had driven over there (yes) and then had me drive around the block. That was it.

Still not sure how my friend Lori passed. We think it was the cleavage factor. That girl ran into things walking around inside the mall, let alone behind the wheel of a machine.

Josh - you frighten me.

Well, well -- I somehow missed this history between Sarah and Josh. Any other regular commentators have secret pasts together that they've been hiding?

Julia Spencer Fleming has an ex air force helicopter pilot named Clare (Catholic spelling), who is currently an Episcopal priest, as the heroine of her excellent series. Maybe based on your friend?

Kathy -- it's possible the cleavage thing played a role in my getting a pass, too. It's as good an explanation as any for an otherwise incomprehensible event.

True story: I have a friend whose dad, to teach friend how to park, had her drive into the business area of their city and made her parallel park in every single empty spot. Friend can now zip into a spot smaller than her car. I, on the other hand, learned to drive in the country. I'll just circle and circle and circle until a parking spot fit for a semi opens up.

Why, oh, why did you bring up the Julia Spencer-Fleming books? I'd fallen behind, so read all five over the Christmas break. I was just getting past the obsession, and now...

My dad didn't want me to drive...my mom didn't drive( she had an accident early on and wouldn't.Period.). No drivers ed in my school other than classroom, which didn't make any of my classmates happy and probably turned out a generation of 'bad' drivers. I lived in a Chicago suburb so public transport was a given.My friends drove so I always had a weekend ride. Long story short, I learned to drive(in cental Illinois) after an argument with my husband in which I said "You WON'T teach me to drive,but I'll learn if you find someone to do just that!" Two weeks later I had my license, courtesy of JR Driving School. 14 months BEFORE my daughter got hers. She loves city driving...I don't drive any closer to Chicago than the 'burbs. She also makes me sit yoga-style when I'm in her car because otherwise I 'brake' for her. Not really but since she's driving on our trip to Scotland, I could end up tied to the roof of the rental.

Michele, Josh and I share a history that is notable for both its length and its nerdliness (Josh was on the same math team as Clare). Suffice to say, we have known each other for about thirty years. Clare, however, (sorry about the spelling) is a chapter in Josh's life that should be far behind him, about as far as Clare is somewhere in the Philippines. (Probably thanks to Josh.)

My driving test story is this. #1 try - flunked. #2 try - waited in line of cars at the state police barracks. My mom goes out to sit with other parents while I remain behind wheel. Cop tells me to pull up to line. I do so and - flunk! Not a licensed driver beside me. I've had chilly relations with state police ever since.

Maryann -- so glad to hear I wasn't alone in my secret shame. I was always terrified people who knew me as capable and accomplished would find out about this weird omission in my life. It gave me some inkling of what it must feel like not to be able to read and to always have to hide that.

Sarah, how weird that you flunked TWICE yet I passed without being able to drive. What were you wearing? Must be the cleavage thing.

Like most kids who lived in my rural birthplace, I learned to drive a tractor before I drove a car---which, if you're truly a country kid--was a stick shift, of course. How's that for nerdliness?

Great post, Michele! When I started writing and first met all those sophisticated New Yorkers in the published business, I quelled my instinct to be intimidated by telling myself they probably couldn't drive a car.

I must have had the same driving instructor. I couldn't parallel park to save my life, but I did get a 100% on the written part. I, too, promised to practice,etc. To this day, I will drive around the block a hundred times until I find a spot that I can directly pull into rather than attempt to parallel park my car. C'est la vie!

Hah, Jen, I knew we had a lot in common! Nice to see you here.

My parent's are New Yorkers that took great pride in their ability to parallel park on a dime, though to this day my mom will go out of her way to avoid a left turn. It's really annoying. The move to the Chicago suburbs devastated her; snow that she would never drive in and people that "did not know how to merge".

It is good to know some of the Sarah and Josh history, I had guessed that it went waaaay back.

Jen, that comment made my day. I think we should start a support group. The Pull-In Club? Parallel Parkers Anonymous?

I don't parallel park, mainly because I didn't have to learn how to pass the test. If I can't find a spot at either end of the block, I'll find a spot at one side of a driveway. Or walk an extra block. Not fond of snow myself but drive in it. Don't have a choice. Merge nicely too, but refuse to back into my garage. I'll also at times make two or three right turns to get to some place more easily arrived at by one left( I call it sightseeing). Funny though, my pet peeve is drivers who drive five miles under the posted speed limit and hit their brakes when they are within a city block of another car. Too cautious can be just as dangerous as not cautious enough.
And ramona, I'll join PPA :o)

Hah, PPA! Count me in.

I think Sarah had a good point in her first comment of the day, and the fact that Jen, like me, got a hundred on the written confirms it. Us brainiacs have too much on our minds to pay attention to the road.

I didn't get my license until last year (at age 36) and when we show up, the clerk had me move the car to another spot. When I checked in, she was horrified to learn I was the one there for the test (I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd hit someone in the parking lot), she'd thought it was my husband who was there for the test. He's an amputee and she must have assumed he was re-testing or something.

On the first attempt, I couldn't take the test, because the horn didn't work. Three hours later, the horn was fixed and I managed to pass.

I'm also ready to join PPA, since I didn't need to parallel park for my test and live where I can usually avoid having to do it.

Here's the thing about parallel parking - I'd much rather parallel park our Nav than my little Nissan - why? WYSIWYG - the back of the truck is the back of the truck. No guessing.

Also - unless you are really good and you have a very tight turning range, you cannot parallel park front end first into a single space. Don't try it. You'll just tie up traffic behind you and piss people off.

Kathy, you mean you should back in? Why didn't anybody ever tell me that?


The happiest day of my life was when I moved to NYC at age 19 -- I simply tore up my drivers license. I didn't get behind the wheel again for 8 years -- that's 2 presidential terms -- and then only because I moved to LA. I had to actually go to driving school to get myself back into the game. I'm a pedestrian at heart.

I had a neighbor in DC who subscribed to the bump bump school of parallel parking. She would ram her car in to the cars in front and back numerous times. I have small circle dents all over my bumpers from her license plate bolts. One of our neighbors, a Capitol Police officer had enough and threatened to write her a hit and run ticket for every time he saw her do it.

Harley, I'm with you on being a pedestrian. If I can walk, I will. Unfortunately the public transportation is nothing compared to my previous homes in DC and Chicago.

Wait a minute -

Does this mean you are NOT going to be the first female President? Why not?

I never said that. Hillary may fade.

Amen to that.


As someone who knew Josh, Clare and Sarah in HS...and the parent of one teenage driver (dau 18) that is pretty good and a son about to get his permit, this struck a chord with me. Note that the following hit my inbox today as well.


Woman Passes Driver's Test ... After Stripping For Examiner

NAUGATUCK, Connecticut -- A license inspector for Connecticut's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been charged with persuading a woman to strip off some of her clothing in exchange for passing her driver's test.

Kevin Chagnon, 48, of New Britain, allegedly took advantage of a woman in her 20s who had failed her driver's test several times in the past, said police.

Chagnon was charged with coercion, when he turned himself in to Naugatuck police. The charge of coercion is defined as compelling a person to involuntarily behave in a certain way by threats or some other form of pressure or force.

Police said Chagnon was giving a road test to the woman Dec. 13. She had failed the driving test several times previously. Chagnon allegedly told the woman he would issue her a driver's license if she would take her clothes off. The woman reluctantly took off some of her clothing, but refused to take off all of it and Chagnon issued the woman a license, said police.

Chagnon was released on a written promise to appear Wednesday in Waterbury Superior Court. He has been placed on paid administrative leave at the DMV.

This sounds like something that would happen to Bubbles.

Mike, thanks for posting that. It's so on point! Also, any good stories about Sarah or Josh that you'd like to share?

Just kidding. That could get dangerous.

"That sounds like something that would happen to Bubbles."

Or Margie.

Mike? Who the hell is Mike?

Unless, Josh, ohmigod, it's THAT Mike!

Due to a series of unfortuante misunderstandings (like thinking the month-equivalent "3" on my license meant May instead of March), I wound up having to take a driving test when I was in my 30's and driving an extended-cab pickup truck (with cap). There were other snafus involved, so that by the time we actually got to the driving part, the cop was being really nice to me. We did all the regular things, then, as we were coming up to the parallel-parking area, he asked me "So, can you parallel-park this thing?" "Not well," I replied. He passed me.

Several years later, I was taking my daughter to school for some function or other. I was driving the latest incarnation of the extended-cab pickup truck The only spot available was a PP spot. I totally nailed it in one. She was totally impressed :)

And I think we should buy Mike a drink and get him to dish . . .

Hi Mike.

So did you meet my cousin Connie or just read about her?

So - you know Sarah and Josh? Call me.

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