I have been thinking about cars my entire life. When I was growing up, my father was a used car salesman at a Volkswagen dealership. He had a different car every few months. They were the revolving door that brought him home and then took him away for dizzying stretches, despite promises to be back for dinner with the family, or to pick up a Christmas tree for the holidays. My mother and I would stare out the back kitchen window waiting for him to pull into our gravel driveway, never knowing which car to look for. She would collapse in a rage when it was clear that, this night, no car would be coming at all.
For a man who was just 5-foot-6, my father had a big temper behind the wheel. He would shout at other drivers and say to me, “Did you see that? People are nuts!” It didn’t matter if he rolled through a four-way stop, nearly hitting another car taking its rightful turn. Nothing was ever his fault. I never saw him get out of the car to threaten anyone, but I knew he was a guy who wasn’t afraid of a good fight. I’d seen him come home a little beat up after a night of drinking and gambling.
These days, I drive like my dad because driving in Boston has turned me into a macho lunatic. For most of my driving life, I was merely a screaming and impatient petite woman in the eyes of angry male drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. Men laughed at me when I flipped them off from my driver’s seat or shouted in their face while trying to avoid being flattened in a crosswalk. I posed no threat to them. That was before my gender transition.
As I have entered my new life living as a man over the last few years, I have learned that male drivers behave differently when interacting with other male drivers — and that men in transit are never wrong. Changing genders isn’t just about the fact that I look different, but how I am perceived from one context to the next. Often it is to my advantage: At the car dealership, the young salesman can’t stop talking about my sneakers — adolescence never really ends for men — and the longer he goes on, the better my deal seems to get. The mechanic at the same dealership fixes a $1,200 side-view mirror that I broke free of charge because white guys seem to see other white guys as comrades in the costly mishaps of everyday life.
White masculinity has privileges no white man can fathom when he has never lived without them. I know because I have lived without them.
I drive to the college where I teach two days a week because the public transit in Boston is a dilapidated, unreliable nightmare. Driving is hardly better, but at least I am alone and not smashed alongside the sweaty bodies of strangers in an overcrowded and filthy train. In the last five years, the number of cars and trucks registered in Greater Boston has increased by 300,000. At the same time, we have the second highest rate of commuter train derailments of any metro system in the nation ; only New Orleans is worse. No matter how they commute, everyone here is late and everyone is on the verge of a meltdown — myself included.
One day last spring I was pulling into a parking garage when a white man started to back his work van into my car. I tapped the horn lightly. The next thing I knew, he was at my window, screaming expletives, trying to open my car door to pull me out of the driver’s seat for a fight.
Driving as a man in Boston traffic, I am now fair game for a fight. But I also feel a magnetic pull toward these displays of toxic white masculinity. Why was I so surprised when I realized that actual physical altercations might be a byproduct of mixing driving with biweekly testosterone injections?
How do I drive as the man I want to be? How do I keep my spontaneous outbursts in check so I don’t become what I despise? How can I avoid what I call the “Kavanaugh face” — scrunched nose, twisted lips, flushed cheeks, and spittle forming at the tongue — the face of a man who feels victimized for being held accountable for his own aggression? Music choices are critical. I have various playlists filled with soothing sounds to accompany deep and focused breathing. I put the car in drive, both hands on the steering wheel, turn up the music, temper in check.
The problem is, I’ve never been angrier. After living as a white woman for almost 50 years, I finally see the privileges I had been missing out on. I can now, with some distance, feel more viscerally how badly men treat women. Becoming a man has exposed a new side of my temper and a new body to express it. This white guy is done being threatened by fragile white men who feel wronged by their own mistakes. The guy in the van was backing into me. I don’t believe in the delusions of white men and their infallibility and unfounded conviction, even if I now am living as one.
On a warm October morning, I am halfway to work when it happens. I see a twentysomething white guy on a bike to my right. As I pass him, he puts out his left arm to signal a turn. The next thing I know I am at a stoplight and he is pounding his fists on my car windows and screaming in my face. I hadn’t come close to hitting him. But a white man’s rage doesn’t need logic — it just needs an outlet.
Then he is pedaling in front of my car, slowly swerving from side to side. He races ahead to a green light and parks his bike in front of my car until the light turns red. Do you know how long it takes to drive 3 miles in Boston traffic? Do you know how much longer it takes when you miss out on a green light?
I get out of my car and much of what ensues is a blur. I shout, “I never came near you!” He shouts something I can’t hear because I am screaming over his screaming. Finally, I hear myself say, “Get off your bike and come say that to my face. Yeah, I didn’t think so, pathetic little man.”
A woman driving in the car behind me starts to honk her horn, and the sound jolts me back to a more recognizable version of myself. In seconds, I realize that woman just witnessed what I was seeking to eradicate. I didn’t solve the problem of unjustified white male rage. I am just another angry white man, like my father, aggressively driving through the streets and picking fights.
P. Carl is a distinguished artist-in-residence at Emerson College and author of the new memoir “Becoming A Man.” Send comments to email@example.com.