On learning to drive later in life
“Is this your first time holding a driver’s license?” asked the examiner.
“Yes. First time.” I couldn’t blame him for asking. I’m a balding 45 year old man with grey in my beard. I was wearing a button down shirt and a modest spritz of luxury cologne – in case it made a difference. The other examinees were school kids in baggy shirts, baggy shorts, and begrudgingly worn shoes. I thought about all of the fear that must pass through the motor registry each day, as if fears were coins paid in tax to the state.
I was trying not to cry tears of relief. The examiner had just informed me that I had passed my driving test, and he was giving me the piece of paper that would act as the substitute for a drivers license until the plastic one arrived in the mail. My fingers shook as I took it from him. I thought of framing it and putting it on the wall, like an award or a degree.
I was feeling too many things at once; I couldn’t disentangle them, but I was abstractly cognizant that everything that was happening was good, was life-changing, was irreversible. There would be no more assessment of my driving ability, no more supervision. But, more than this: there would be no more dependency, no more asking for permission, or waiting for invitation, or trying to get places by suggesting, cajoling, planning. No more waiting for the bus in the burning sun or drenching rain. My travel time had suddenly been miniaturised. Even more than this: my anonymity outside the house had been granted to me – I didn’t just have to stand there, or walk there, as the river of chrome vehicles flowed past me, judging me.
I grew up watching American Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons on television. The absurdist desert canyon of those cartoons by artist Maurice Noble would go on to affect my dreams for the rest of my life. The Road Runner landscape was a synthesis of the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, distilling a whole dream of the American Southwest, both its past and its future, to the simplest possible shapes. It was a landscape of vastness, both horizontal vastness and vertical vastness. Part of what made the Road Runner cartoons so delightfully absurdist was that the vast space depicted was no barrier to travel. The Road Runner could cross the desert in a moment. The Coyote could fall from a precipice to the sand of the desert floor in a moment without perishing. It didn’t matter whether the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were running or falling, they always seemed to shrink rapidly to a tiny dot in the distance, swallowed up by space, silence, and the glissando of a doppler shift. Travel was effortless, and space was effectively divorced from time.
That oneiric desert always seemed so empty and attractive to me. As a white child growing up on stolen land, I interpreted that world as a reassuring fable about colonialism, or to use colonialism’s word for itself, “civilisation.” I interpreted the Road Runner as Indigenous, at home in the open desert, and the Coyote as the invader, using ACME corporation tools and traps. This is to say, I identified very strongly with the Coyote. He had a business card, a middle name, used tools, saw himself as an apex predator, and in the most gorgeous of suburban details, he was a sucker for mail order products. (I loved mail order catalogues and products too, and if you think of the internet as a kind of souped up mail order system, then I still do.) Coyote was, to my eyes, a settler and a suburbanite still living for the thrill of conquest and dominion, still hoping for better weapons.
But even though I identified with him, it still makes sense that I applauded every time he failed. I was personally seeking settler innocence. I needed to hear that the desert and the Road Runner could withstand Coyote’s rapacious appetites and destructive behaviour. I needed to know that as an Australian, that the landscape would be okay. The animals would be okay. The world could withstand me.
But last month when I got my license, I found myself thinking about the Road Runner cartoons, and the ways in which they’re also a fable about roads, cars, and driving, the most powerful tools in the modern colonial arsenal. Because the desert of the Road Runner cartoons wasn’t really empty at all. It was covered in roads, ribboning across the desert, tunnelling through mountains, giving the Road Runner an almost godlike power to conquer the vastness of space and time. The Road Runner’s call “meep meep” is even the sound of a car. The mid-century American world that created the Road Runner cartoons was a world of suburban sprawl in which all of space was being suborned to the logic of the automobile. The road is the colonialist coup de grace: it seems to sever space from place.
I’ve been thinking about Road Runner cartoons because the reassuring absurdity of those cartoons is now echoed in the reassuring absurdity of my own situation. When I want to go up a mountain, I drive up there effortlessly, merely pointing my car at the summit and pressing down the accelerator. When it is raining, I can simply drive across town without getting even slightly wet. When it is hot, I can sit in an armoured air conditioned cocoon that will take me wherever I want to go. When I run out of any kind of food or tool, I can simply drive to a supermarket in the next suburb, and even buy heavy goods without worrying about how much I can carry home. People drive past me and see me laughing at nothing, thinking I must be a crazy person.
I am a crazy person, but my exultation is real.
The reality of driving a car might be normal and ordinary for you but for me it’s like being granted a magic power, like being given wings. Considering I can go just about anywhere now, I might as well be flying.
I feel strangely included in the world now, as if I’m part of its larger project, and not just coping with it. I feel less like the Coyote – using shitty products from some faraway corporation that don’t work, meant to deliver a satisfaction that was never going to come. Now I feel more like the Road Runner. I don’t even have to talk to people anymore; I can just make a beeping sound and shrink to a tiny dot, disappearing over the horizon in a few seconds, because space doesn’t control me anymore.
There are a lot of people like me who don’t learn to drive until later in life, usually long after our families have made peace with the prospect of us being pedestrians forever. When other drivers ask us what the change is like, we usually describe it as “liberating” or “empowering,” but people who have had their drivers licenses since their teenage years never seem to fully understand what we’re saying. They often interpret it as us saying “You are free and powerful, and now I am too.” And we forgive them for being self-referential. We’re used to the driving community being self-referential.
But I believe that when a mature learner gets their drivers license and they say they feel “liberated” or “empowered” then we are more often talking about our experience of being without a drivers license as being a state of oppression and disempowerment. We are talking about an experience of stigma, a kind of slow-burn trauma and exclusion that we have all learned to survive.
Marginalisation can be the reason why many of us don’t learn to drive in the first place. Poverty keeps automobiles out of reach – they require not just the downpayment but the regular investment in petrol and repair. A car is a class signifier, and a class barrier too.
Automobiles also have a grim history of being very ableist machines, not built to accommodate the variety of human dis/abilities. It is clear that if we are to achieve an uptake in driverless cars, we are going to have to remind the driving community that dis/ability is everyone’s birthright and destiny as a natural feature of the aging and vulnerable human body. But for now, we are still making automobiles for a narrow spectrum of human bodies, leaving some of us out by design.
My marginalisation had everything to do with being gay in a homophobic world, and the rampant anxiety and dismal self-worth that ensued as a result. For one thing, I simply didn’t expect to survive far beyond my teens, so getting a drivers license seemed like a waste of finite time. For another thing, I simply didn’t have the economic werewithal because I didn’t have the aggressive ambition to pursue any kind of well-paying career. It seemed to me that the world was designed by and for bullies, and that the best thing you could do if you weren’t a bully yourself was to stay out of the way. No future, no money, no confidence. The piece de resistance in keeping me out of the drivers seat was the fact that the world of automobiles seemed like a straight man’s club. Every queer has is well acquainted with the cliches about gay men being unable to drive; that is because driving culture from the racetrack to the repairshop has its own gender order, one that is wildly heteropatriarchal.
When it comes to the ways that inequality is programmed into our society, the automobile is one of most powerful tools of segregation. I would advise all drivers who don’t believe me on this point to spend a week catching cheap public transport – no, not ubers and taxis, but buses and trains – and look at what your community really looks like. You will discover a whole world of ignored old age, humiliated poverty, unsupported dis/ability, fearful gender diversity, persecuted racial diversity, and disaffected youth. But I think that most drivers already know this deep down, and that is why they find the idea of public transport so deeply terrifying. When their cars are getting serviced, they become frantic in organising lifts, taxis, ubers, or even the ridiculous prices associated with car rentals, all to avoid spending time sitting right to the Great Unwashed.
I’ve been the Great Unwashed for most of my life. I was actually really clean the whole time, sitting there on my slashed up and graffitied bus seat. Almost all of us were really clean. But we were still terrifying to the privileged; they locked their doors if they saw us in the distance while they drove delicately over car park speed bumps in their massive freshly-polished SUVs.
I was lucky to have a supportive partner who always encouraged me to have faith that when I was ready, I would learn to drive, and he would be there to help me. He bought me driving lesson vouchers that languished in my office drawer for a decade, but the very moment I was ready to learn, he was there every day for a year to sit beside me in the car while I learned. Getting my license is indeed our achievement.
But many of us older learners were not so lucky. In fact, some of us were attached to abusive partners who either discouraged or flat-out forbad us from learning to drive, keeping us on a leash of anxiety and hesitation in order to control us.
The pedestrian partner literally cannot escape their abuser; they try to escape on foot but the abuser follows them in their car, always pulling into the kerb. Get in the fucking car. If you want to escape, you have to learn the unmapped by-ways and cut-throughs of your local area for all the places they cannot drive. I see a lot of abusive heterosexual relationships like this, where the man drives and keeps his wife on foot. She asks his permission to go out and he says no. She tries to leave him and he follows her wherever she goes. To her, it seems like he is supernatural, inescapable, a vampire who can fly to her, wherever she is.
And in fact, because I’ve lived my whole life under conditions of patriarchy, I’m used to seeing women who can’t drive, and their husbands who discourage them from learning. So she catches the bus. She asks for a lift. She spends a lot of time at home. Her friends are her neighbours. Even when she can drive, he is sure to sit next to her and do everything he can to induce agitation and self-doubt. He encourages her to believe that she really is inept, child-like, a bad driver, a threat to the community. And so she cedes her autonomy, and lets him drive her everywhere. In time, her skills atrophy, her anxiety grows, and soon she has done the opposite of getting her drivers license: she has learned not drive.
This is a big threat to heterosexual seniors, with men who have retired from the workforce but still need to feel useful, handy, capable, necessary. I am watching my parents face this very moment, and am fortunate that my father is flexible and my mother has an independent streak. They do not need to play out the patriarchal pattern, though their peers and siblings might.
When we say “liberated” and “empowered,” we are telling you that our story before the license includes oppression and powerlessness. The places we could not go. The curfew of a bus timetable, the danger of night time travel. The people we couldn’t visit. The contraction of our horizons. The slowness of our lives. We could not move at the speed of machines.
We had to move at the speed of animals.
THE SPEED OF AN ANIMAL
To be a pedestrian walking beside the road is to gaze at a world drivers will only glance at. It is to register details about the way the world is shaped, who lives there, how it looks and sounds and smells. It is to know the animals that live in the world with us – from dragonflies to cats, from magpies to mosquitos. One moves at the speed of an animal. It is to become well acquainted with the privatisation of absolutely everything, everywhere. It is also to become acquainted with the ways that “public space” – parks and footpaths and benches – has been completely denuded in the interests of certain kind of power: low-maintenance and high-surveillance. One gets burned in the sun, gets wet in the rain and snow, gets cold in the wind. Walking is tiring. One sweats.
To be a pedestrian is to know the bodily distance between things, measured in footsteps. It’s to know that not all footsteps are equally easy – some climb hills, some require detours, some require you to be humiliated next to very busy and dangerous roads.
To be a pedestrian is to know that you cannot simply drive somewhere to fetch the thing you might need; you will need to take it with you. You will need to be a traveller everywhere you go. Pedestrians carry totes and satchels, plastic bags and fanny packs and they are full of things that cannot be easily fetched on foot: wallet, keys, phone, cigarettes, lighter, water bottle, shopping bag, hand sanitiser, pen, paper, bandaid, paracetamol, tissues, breath mints, face mask, charging cable, book, snack. One is prepared for the possibility that one might be stranded for some time. One’s choice of outfit and shoes are often functional. Shoes that last are the key.
To be a pedestrian is to be forced into “the environment” without insulation. One feels weather effects keenly. One sees the ground change underfoot, the sky change overhead. One sees the death of plant life, and the disappearance of animals. Weren’t there more small birds once? Weren’t there Christmas beetles? Koalas? Frogs? Step by step, one walks through a dying world, looking at the fossil fuels being burned for frivolous car trips. One looks at the rusting razor wire, the clogged creeks, the new developments that seem old as soon as they appear.
To be a pedestrian is to be acquainted with contemporary dystopia, not as some far off but unlikely possibility, but as the actual condition of modern capitalism. Dystopia is invisible to the community because the community has been accelerated to the point where if anyone starts to notice it, they will crash.
The internet was called, in its earliest days, “the information superhighway.” We thought of the internet as part of an accelerated condition akin to the automobile. We were absolutely correct. The internet is a superhighway; one dare not slow down lest one perish, or worse, inconvenience a stranger we are now scared to encounter. In this way, pedestrianism is analogous to being offline: one is culturally deprived, but also, one is empirically present.
To be a pedestrian is to be forced into an awareness of interdependence. Automobile drivers can have fictions of self-reliance, but a pedestrian must say “excuse me,” “please,” and “thankyou.” To be a pedestrian is to be without the luxury of road rage, the luxury of aggression, the luxury of entitlement. One waits. One is patient. One is philosophical.
And there are joys too. The joy of physical fitness and the loosening of anxiety’s grip. The joy of patting a dog or cat in the neighbourhood. The joy of sunshine. The joy of saying hello, and somebody saying hello back. The joy of gardens, and the scent of the world. The joy of seeing one’s community in its diversity. Sunsets that can be stared at. Looking out a train window and letting one’s mind wander completely. And beyond all this, a strange feeling that you have as a pedestrian of arriving at your destination and feeling that you have earned the distance, that it is something you have accomplished, not just chosen.
Will I lose these gratitudes now that I’m a driver? I hope not. My acquaintance with other mature learners leads me to believe that I probably won’t. In fact, if I’m anything like my friends who learned to drive later in life, I will keep that socialist and environmentalist flame in my heart alive forever now. And I may even be more free than other drivers, because I do not drive out of an avoidance of public transport. And hopefully I will be as generous to pedestrians as other drivers were to me when I was a pedestrian.
But it’s time for me to learn new philosophies. I am interested in the driving superorganism, the way it organises itself. I am interested in the ways that the driving community compensate for bad drivers – without the bad drivers ever knowing just how many people are making a space for their solipsism. I am interested in whether I will use my freedom for anything significant, to go anywhere new, or whether I will simply use my drivers license to accelerate my existing routines, many of which I have refined to a point of extreme precision: to be a pedestrian is a ritualised sort of life.
I drive out into the sunrise. I am listening to Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen singing a duet. The hills and valleys pass beneath my car like ocean waves passing beneath a boat. The shadows of eucalyptus trees flicker over me in a cool shimmer. I shrink to a tiny dot on the horizon, and am gone.