Last month, as many of my friends were off doing their best to recreate the debauchery of “Spring Breakers” (or at least get a tan), I paid $50 to spend the better part of a Thursday with a Staten Island-accented retired postal worker. The man—let’s call him Mr. Kagan—wore his white hair in a comb-over and paraded on exceptionally spindly legs.
Seven or eight other disgruntled individuals shared in this less-than-glamorous encounter, which took place in a cramped, windowless room of a New York City walkup. There, Kagan paced as he rambled through his life history, delighting in his opportunity to impart curious bits of wisdom to us. Only occasionally did he throw in a remark about road signs, or run toy cars across a white board. The radiator hissed.
To be clear, this ordeal was only semi-voluntary. Had state law not mandated it, Kagan’s path and my own would likely have never crossed. The problem, you see, is that I am about to graduate college with photo identification that reads “Learner Permit.” And in order to rectify the situation, I needed to enroll in a five-hour pre-licensing course, for which Kagan was the instructor.
Being license-less at this age was never in the plans, of course. Sure, cars were a novelty, not a necessity for those of us raised in Manhattan. But I, like most American teenagers, pictured myself leaving the nest being able to wield a vehicle. It seemed like just another part of growing up, of becoming an adult.
Yet here I am: a 22-year-old who cannot live anywhere without excellent public transportation, much less rent a Zipcar.
I have been perusing Craigslist recently, looking for places to live after graduation. I pause, almost daily, over photographs of a seemingly perfect apartment, only to confront a description such as “ten minute drive to downtown.” Earlier in the year, during my job search, I realized that I am ineligible for all employment requiring a valid driver’s license.
Perhaps the most upsetting realization took place last March, when my younger brother of three years fulfilled his promise of acquiring his license before me. He texted me photo evidence of his victory, minutes after the DMV printed off his temporary license. Yes, Owen, you won.
Often, though, I consider my automotive incompetence with a distinct sense of pride. It’s like a stamp of authenticity, proving that I am, indeed, a New Yorker. No car needed.
I can trace my misgivings about cars to their various points of origin. When I was younger, the only way I could make it through the two hour ride to my grandmother’s house without vomiting was by holding a pillow over my face for the duration of the trip, so as not to inhale the “new car smell.” I outgrew that reflex, thankfully. But in the years since, other, less visceral objections have taken its place.
I have a habit, when sitting on planes, of selecting the window seat so as to be able to examine the landscapes of takeoff and landing. I like watching the ground tilt and fade as the plane turns, enjoy taking in the topography of the city illuminated by lights, at night. The daytime is never as romantic, though, revealing only rooftops and the cars weaving between them on paved pathways. A world of boxes and enclosures of various sizes and colors, with no humans visible. A space of neither disorder nor contact.
From these moments of aerial observation, I developed a sense of unease about the isolation cars require—the human interaction they preclude. When my friends—the drivers, I like to call them—discuss being on the road, they do so with a vocabulary of freedom, of exhilaration and release. But I’ve always found wandering by foot to be so much more liberating. My path is less constrained, my encounters with strangers more frequent and less predictable. Walking is messier, and I like that.
I suppose, though, that it is better to be able to drive but choose not to, than to not have the option at all. And so, in a concession to practicality, I have scheduled what will be my very first (and hopefully last) road test: Tuesday, June 3 at 9 a.m. Not before graduation, as always seemed appropriate, but close enough. Wish me luck.
—Rebecca F. Elliott ’14, a former Fifteen Minutes chair, is a literature concentrator in Winthrop House. One day, she aspires to become an Ice Road Trucker.