When you grow up in a small town best described as on the outskirts of nowhere, you don’t need much more than two wheels or your own two feet to get around. That is, unless you wanted to go somewhere exotic, like a place that had more than one clothing store. Back in those days it was unheard of to have more than one car per family and the notion that you would be presented with the keys to your own wheels on your sixteenth birthday was laughably delusional. Still, most of us dutifully signed up to get our ‘365’ learner’s driving permit the minute we blew out 16 candles. Unfortunately some of us were more successfull at learning to drive than others.
The 365 was obtained by studying a booklet of driving rules and taking a multiple choice test based on the body of knowledge contained therein. I should have figured out that the test was not designed to restrict the driving population to rocket scientists. Instead, I approached it with all of the rigour and critical thinking skills that should be applied to any important academic pursuit. The net outcome was that I flunked the written test by answering questions like “Where do you drive on the road: the left, the right or the middle?” incorrectly because it was obvious that you drove on the right side of the white line, therefore the correct answer must be “the middle”. At which point, I decided my bicycle was a perfectly acceptable form of transportation for the foreseeable future.
The good news is there were driving prodigies among us that were considered trustworthy enough to occasionally be given temporary custody of the parental wheels. The bad news is these cars were often in ‘as is’ condition. My friend Ruth was not only the holder of a valid driver’s licence, she had mastered the ‘three on the tree’ manual transmission on her father’s Dodge station wagon. This made her the default chauffeur any time we wanted to go beyond the townline road, which was great, except in the winter because the heater and defrost were intermittent at best, requiring whomever was in the front passenger seat to continually scrape the frost off the inside of the windshield.
Once I ended up in Toronto, the ability to drive seemed even less of a priority since I lived downtown and transit was abundant, but work often took me to suburban locations that defied easy passage without a car. Also, my non-driving co-dependent friend Nicola suddenly decided that it was ridiculous not to be able to drive when we were well into our thirties and shamed me into accompanying her to a driving course. I’m sure we were the biggest challenge the instructor had ever faced (I needed cheat notes to remember which was the break pedal and which was the gas), but he rose to the challenge, possibly hoping to win a major humanitarian award – either in person or posthumously.
Somehow I passed the course and was scheduled for the final road test. I was at the stage where I couldn’t even manage the distraction of turning the radio on if I hoped to keep the car on the road. Come to think of it, I’m still at that stage. Anyhow, the examiner had me drive around several side streets with tricky bits like one-way streets and four-way stops, trying his best to trip me up. I also had to parallel park, which by some miracle I executed without flaw. Then on the way back to the test centre, he directed me to a street with a school zone. I totally missed the speed reduction sign and failed the test on the spot. I did eventually re-take the test, mostly because Nicola passed it and I couldn’t stand the shame of still being without a driver’s licence at 35, if only for its value as picture ID. And that’s pretty much what it remains for me now. A credential that comes in handy whenever I need to renew my passport.
I’ve got no car and it’s breaking my heart, but I’ve got a driver and that’s a start.