Despite the bustling LA traffic outside, the interior of my new car’s cabin was very quiet.
I was still in a state of mild disbelief the little Honda was mine, and that I’d be driving it to work, the grocery store, and wherever else I needed to go. But when it came time to actually drive the car off the dealers’ lot, my heart rate sped up. Now I had to get out there on my own? Share the road with the rude, the aggressive, the overly daring, and the distracted?
Beside me, the salesman gave me a kind smile, sensing my trepidation. “We can drive around the block together until you get comfortable,” he said. “This is a big moment for a former New Yorker.”
He sat patiently in the passenger’s seat as I made a few loops around the neighborhood, trying to make this momentous occasion less fraught for me with banal small talk. After about 15 minutes I dropped him off at the dealership and cautiously made my way back home to my apartment.
I took photos of my new car — which I later christened Audrey, after my late grandmother — and texted them to my family and friends. On the other side of 30, I had finally hit a milestone many people had reached over a decade before I did.
My mom only tried to teach me to drive once. It was awful: I was unable to control the vehicle, and she yelled at me in frustration. When my cousin tried, there was less screaming but I still sucked. Afterward, he secretly told my mother that he didn’t think he could teach me to drive either. According to him, I was a difficult student with a lead foot and jittery nerves. He advised taking lessons with a driving school, but that would have cost several hundred bucks my mom couldn’t spare. I took the bus to school, and there was no money to buy me a car, anyway, so I just gave up. Deep down, though, it was embarrassing to me, a type-A overachiever, to not be able to drive.
I despise feeling limited, especially if removing a barrier is within my power. In 2009, my self-proclaimed “Year of No Fear,” I took swimming lessons to conquer my fear of the water. The class was my own chlorinated hell, but I did it. My fear of driving, however, was a tougher nut to crack. That experience with my mom — how inept it made me feel, along with a minor car accident we got into — was enough to put me off for more than a decade.
For a long time, my lack of driving skills didn’t matter. In college I was able to get around on the city bus. After graduation, I moved to New York City, where owning a car was a liability. Still, even though I was surrounded by many people who couldn’t drive either, I felt like someone posing as a capable adult.
After six years of tiny apartments, packed subways, and a frenetic pace, I’d had my fill of NYC and desperately wanted to leave. Since few other places in the US have a public transport system as extensive as New York’s, I accepted that driving was going to be a part of my life. It still scared the crap out of me.
Learning to drive as an adult can be harrowing, because you’re old enough to be fully cognizant of the dangers. A 16-year-old fears nothing. In my late 20s, I saw cars as expensive, depreciating steel death cages. But they are essential for getting around and having a full, unencumbered life in most of America.
I booked my first set of driving lessons, a 10-hour package for around $350, in Boston during the spring semester of my last year in grad school. My first teacher was a middle-aged white woman we’ll call Jackie, with a black lob and a smoker’s voice. In my first lesson, she insisted I get on the road. I stared at her like she was crazy.
“You can’t learn in a parking lot, sweetie!” she exclaimed. “You drive on the road, you learn on the road. Let’s go!”
Once a week for nearly three months, we drove together through the labyrinthine streets of Boston, practicing smooth left and right turns, proper signaling, and three-point turns. I drove in the sunshine, the rain, and the slick aftermath of snowfalls. We did a night lesson so I could get accustomed to driving in the dark. I even took a spin around that Massachusetts fixture: a rotary. They’re known as traffic circles or roundabouts in some places, but I called them “widowmaker wheels” in my head.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sensory overload. In the beginning, I gripped the steering wheel like a vise, my mind flitting over the myriad things I had to be aware of: other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, changing road conditions. I thought I was good at multitasking, but driving was mentally taxing in a way I underestimated. The fear of hitting something or someone was ever-present, even as I improved.
Slowly, I became more comfortable behind the wheel. Driving was still far from my favorite activity, but it was no longer this impenetrable, dreaded mystery. As I walked to and from class, I visualized myself behind the wheel. My most important takeaway from those lessons was that driving was a skill just like anything else. It required time, patience, and practice.
But 10 hours does not a competent, confident driver make. I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse for a one-year fellowship position located in New York City. Determined to leave NYC for good after my fellowship, I set a goal of getting my driver’s license by Christmas and bought another $350 lesson package. For one hour a week, I zipped around town with a succession of laid-back West African instructors. My skills sharpened, and I left every class with a goofy smile on my face — I was doing something I never thought I would or even could.
So it was crushing when I failed my driving test. I screwed up my parallel park, and the hit to my confidence cratered everything from there. I spent the entire evening wallowing but woke up pissed the next day. The same anger I’d felt years earlier, sick of being afraid of water, roared to life. I hope you are not shocked that I passed the test on the second attempt. I looked smug and triumphant in my license photo.
My dogged pursuit of that little plastic card was a long, arduous process, and it wasn’t cheap either, ringing up at nearly $1,100 when it was all said and done (I spent another $300 on refresher courses and parking lessons after I’d moved to LA). Beyond money, learning to drive was an investment of time and energy that also required me to put my ego on the line and overcome long-held fears. As a black woman, the world tries to put so many limitations on me. I don’t want to add to them. This quest was about smashing barriers, an outright refusal to allow anything to stand between me and anywhere I wanted to go.
Verdell Walker is a writer and essayist based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Bustle and Catapult.