On the day of my first driving lesson, my instructor pointed at the cars surrounding us and cheerfully explained the most important rule: All of these people despise you.
Ignore all pedestrians and bicyclists, she added. And sound your horn often.
I had not planned to learn to drive in Boston. In fact, I had not planned to learn to drive at all. At the age of 27, I found not driving had been a core part of my identity — like how some people are vegans or wear bow ties — for many years. Even though I was surrounded by drivers, I suspected that they were fundamentally different from me, born with a mysterious and intricate knowledge about where a person is allowed to park.
But then I moved to Boston and decided that, unfortunately, a driver’s license was important for being a reporter. I often needed to get to out-of-the-way places, and every faraway assignment was an exercise in creative visioning.
In the past I had sometimes taken extreme measures — for example, persuading my friend to drive me six hours each way from Chicago to Ames, Iowa, during the 2016 presidential campaign (turned out there wasn’t a story there); or bribing my younger sister to drive me to a blood plasma clinic in Philadelphia to interview people; or, as I did in my second week on the job here, waking up at 4 a.m, flying down to Newark, flying up to Presque Isle, Maine, and then getting a 30-minute ride from a school principal to get to my assignment. Looking out the plane windows at the potato fields below, I knew the time had come to find a more straightforward route.
So, reluctant but determined, I secured my learner’s permit (ask me about the penalties for 16-year-olds who drag race) and signed up for 10 hours of driving lessons at a local school. I texted my little sister, asking her to remind me which was the brake. I wasn’t a Driver, with a capital D, but maybe I could just learn to drive.
My journey to becoming an elderly student driver had been circuitous. I grew up in Philadelphia as one of five kids with a single mom, so it would have been very useful to get my license as a teenager. But I barely considered it. My best friend drove me around in her blue Volvo, and many other people drove me in their cars, and I also took trains, buses, and cabs and biked and walked.
In 2012 I had a brief lapse and drove for a few months with a learner’s permit, but then I accidentally crashed the family minivan into two parked cars while coming out of the driveway at 3 miles per hour, and I soured on the whole thing. Who needed it?
A lot of young people are with me: The percentage of teens with driver’s licenses has dropped precipitously in the past few decades, according to studies from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, with just a quarter of 16-year-olds getting their licenses in 2014 compared to nearly half in 1983.
People who have driver’s licenses can’t imagine the many benefits of a licenseless life, but it can be quite pleasant. Not knowing how to drive binds you, necessarily, to other people. For example, you can’t drive a U-Haul yourself, so someone has to help you move. I liked always having a companion, and I was convinced that getting a driver’s license would be pure isolation. Anyway, I believed it wouldn’t be much longer until the advent of self-driving cars — a technology whose progress I monitored closely. My brother called me an ambassador from the future.
I quickly discovered that Boston is, objectively, a terrible place to learn to drive. Out of 200 cities ranked for the safety of their drivers, Boston ranked 198th, and it has the worst rush-hour gridlock of any major metropolitan area in the country. Also, why are there no lanes in roundabouts and why is everyone always honking in them?
My driving instructor often posed unanswerable riddles, like, “What is the difference between pulling into traffic versus starting a three-point turn?” (I think the answer is . . . nothing?) and “What is on the back of a car?” I said, “lights” and he said “what else” and I said “a fender” and he said “no.”
Soon, I learned the basics of parallel parking, which I never imagined participating in. My system made no sense and led to different results every time, but I became sure of one thing: It had been extremely stupid of me to trust my life when I was in high school to a bunch of 16-year-olds who had no idea what they were doing. I had been blissfully calm in all my years in the passenger seat, assuming that people who drove must have been privy to some kind of secret expertise. Now I knew the truth. They were winging it all along, just like me.
Driving on Interstate 95 was especially daunting. I was terrified of changing lanes, having never understood what a “blind spot” was. Also, when I studied my rearview mirror, I often thought that the car behind me was actually next to me. I tended to grip the steering wheel like I was drowning and pivot my whole body to the right when turning. After the lessons I would collapse onto my bed, exhausted by the strength it required to never hit the curb on the winding nightmares that were the Arborway, Jamaicaway, and Riverway.
Sometimes, though, I would catch a tiny glimmer of the thrill of the open road, that feeling of total independence that all those country songs are about. (Then I would find myself lost in a pitch-black underground maze and the feeling would evaporate.)
On the day of my driving test, I stood in line with about a dozen teenagers outside of a local high school, while a man with an earpiece barked instructions at us. By the time it was my turn, my heart was fluttering. I had spent so much time sure that I was not a driver, but it seemed more and more plausible that I was about to become one.
I turned the key in the ignition and the woman from the RMV looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain. The car was already on. All right, I thought, it’s time to summon the secret knowledge of all the drivers who have ever chauffeured me.
I pulled out. I signaled. I reversed. I made a three-point-turn. I parallel parked. I drove around the block and pulled back in. Who was I now, six minutes later? Had everything changed?
“Congratulations, you passed,” said the woman from the RMV, the same way a person might say, “This is a very boring and unimportant day in a string of similar ones.” I was reeling and I felt exactly the same as before. Was this all there was to it? Was this what drivers experienced all along?
I stepped out of the car and blinked in the sun. Then I unlocked my bike, climbed on, and wove between cars all the way home.