How I Learned to Drive

Although I had a driver’s license, I didn’t really know how to drive . . . until some Teamsters took pity on me.

Here’s the whole story. I went to driver’s ed like most other high school students, dragging myself to school very early in the morning in order to watch gruesome VHS tapes of “bad things teenagers do in cars that get them killed.” Then, after many weeks of these videos, we were split into groups, put in cars, and forced to run the gauntlet. By which I mean, we tried not to do any of the “bad things teenagers do in cars that get them killed.” Because besides getting us killed, it would get us yelled at by the high school’s Eastern European basketball coach who was doubling as our driving instructor.

After a few weeks of that, and once we’d passed the written exam at the DMV, the Eastern European basketball coach took us out individually for a driving test. I remember him telling me that if he had to use his special emergency break, I would fail. I actually yelled at him at that point. I said something like, “I am FOUR SECONDS BEHIND THAT CAR! I am NOT going to hit anything!” After that, he didn’t talk to me any more. But I passed.

Okay, so if I passed the driving test and had a license, why did the Teamsters need to teach me to drive? Well . . .

I was an adequate driver. Really, I was. But a nervous one as well. I didn’t drive if I could avoid it. In fact, I was relieved in college not to have a car, and therefore not to have to drive. The campus buses were fine for getting around the area. The city buses weren’t terribly reliable, but I made do.

So then I was working on a film set. And I didn’t have a car of my own, but I was also too young and too expensive to insure for a rental, so the production office gave me a driver. Score! His name was Charlie, and he was awesome. He had lots of great stories about famous people he’d driven for, and told me that the set we were on was “one of the worst” he’d ever been on (it was a pretty difficult shoot). He said to me, “If you can get through this, you can do anything.”

And then one day the producer had me drive her Dodge Ram truck, and that made me all nervous. So Charlie and some of the other Teamsters took it upon themselves to buck me up. And they basically re-taught me to drive.

I imagine it was something like a defensive driving course, though I’ve never taken one, so I don’t really know. But I learned to maneuver and such, learned how to watch for other drivers in ways that were effective . . . Not so long ago, my husband said something about how, when I’m driving, I “worry about other people a lot.” But being aware of the other cars is part of driving well–especially since these days a lot of other drivers aren’t watching for you.

What Charlie and his fellow Teamsters really gave me, though, was confidence and a sort of freedom. It was years before I had a car to drive, but when my boss gave me his for a week at one point, I was able to go forth with few reservations. I had survived working on that awful movie set, after all, and as Charlie had said: if I could do that, I could do anything. Even drive.

My 9/11 Story

Everybody has one, and I won’t pretend or presume that mine is any more or less important than any other. But for some reason I like reading these stories; there’s something cathartic about them, and something equally healing about writing one’s own down, getting it out, putting it in hard, visible words so as to give it perspective.

For me, September 11, 2001, began with me waking up in a bad mood because I’d had a nightmare. I often have vivid dreams, but in retrospect this dream is one I will never forget: I was a passenger in a white pick-up truck, but I couldn’t see the face of the driver, only his right arm, which was dark–I thought Latino, maybe, but it could as easily have been Middle Eastern. I didn’t want to be in the truck, but there was no getting out. We were on a highway, moving quickly even though there were many cars, all going in one direction. All the big, green highway signs (you know the ones, at least in the US, that hang over the highways and mark exits and such) read: Death and Destruction Ahead. And in the distance was a cityscape, dark clouds swirling over the tall buildings.

My alarm went off and I stomped through my morning routine, my cat following me around and mewing his sympathy for my irritation–at least, that’s what I thought at the time, but maybe he was just clued in to something bigger and deeper in the cosmos. Animals are funny that way. I eventually left our apartment building, and the day was beautiful, bright and cool, so I chose to walk to work. That walk took me across Boston Common and the Public Gardens to where I was a production assistant at Houghton Mifflin on the corner of Berkley and Boylston Streets.

It was my habit to arrive at work a bit early, somewhere around 8:30 or so. On the other side of my cubicle wall sat the department admin, and I could hear her and a few other voices chirping about the Internet, web sites too slow or not loading or some such. I ignored it. Not a minute later my desk phone rang, and my husband told me without preamble, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“That’s stupid,” I said. I was picturing a little Cessna, and some amateur would-be pilot making a ridiculous and grave error.

My husband seemed to follow my line of thinking. He said, “No, like, a plane.”

Admittedly, I had very little grasp of the geography involved. We’d been to Manhattan a few times, had walked past the Towers at least once, and of course they were featured in any film that had New York as its established location. But other than that, I was a bit at sea about the whole thing.

I tried to go online, but like the admin and her crew, I couldn’t get any news sites to load.

And then my husband said, “Oh my God, another one.”

He worked in finance, you see, and so the open space of his workplace was dotted with televisions.

At this point the girl who worked in the cube next to me was in hysterics. In lieu of any actual, factual information getting through, rumors were flying. The Sears Tower had been hit, the Space Needle in Seattle, Los Angeles was under attack. I grabbed my co-worker, marched over to our boss’ office, and informed her in no uncertain terms that we were leaving. I told my co-worker to call her boyfriend to come get her and felt very lucky I lived within walking distance of my office.

Our boss then went to the corner conference room to tell the department head what was going on. “Can this wait until after the meeting?” he asked. “The country is under attack!” my boss told him. I didn’t wait to see how it played out; I ushered my fearful co-worker back down to the lobby to wait for her boyfriend. Once I’d seen her safely into his car, I started the walk home.

My husband called on my cell to tell me they’d evacuated his building (he’d had to walk down 38 flights of stairs) and that he was going home (he was also within walking distance) and I should go home, too. I told him I was already on my way. The walk down Boylston and then cutting through the Common was very different from the one I’d taken that morning, and as I crossed the lawns I saw so many college students lounging on the grass, reading and dozing, and I thought: They don’t have any idea.

I stopped at the corner convenience store to pick up a few things, just in case they ended up closing early. Just in case we ended up stuck in our apartment for a few days.

My husband was already there when I arrived, television on, and we watched it all unfold, the same images over and over, the media striving to give information when so little was yet known.

At some point I was able to get through on the phone to my parents. You see, September 11 is my father’s birthday.

I’m in New York today, though I’ll soon be on a train back to Boston. But there is a strange gravity in being a visitor this morning. And even still a mixture of sentiment and resilience–for in Times Square as I was leaving, there were yet people out and about, enjoying themselves, off to Fashion Week events, even as farther south many were gathered to remember. And I’ve been past the site a few times now (though not during this visit), and it is remarkable for its vacuum, even as we’ve all adjusted our sight and become used to a New York with many tall buildings but without Towers.