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What it’s like to learn to drive in your 30s

It's good to be bad at something.

Elana Berkowitz stands with her car in Los Angeles.

It’s good to be bad at something. For me, that thing is driving. 

I’ve spent most of my life in New York City, but my husband’s job recently began requiring us to live in Los Angeles part time. The city’s monstrous sprawl left no way to avoid it — I had to learn to drive in my 30s. I hired a taciturn driving instructor I found on Yelp. Taciturn was key  it gave my lessons a “You’re on your own, kid. Don’t ask too many questions. Just drive” pressure that I needed. I booked six hours of lessons, at the end of which I was miraculously able to drive  kind of. 

For my first solo outing, I drove to a national forest outside Los Angeles for a hike. Distracted by all the mirrors to adjust and dashboard gauges check, I overlooked one very critical thing — the gas light. I ended up stuck at the top of a very steep and winding road with no fuel and no cellphone reception. Screaming in panic, I descended in neutral, hitting the occasional guardrail, until I found a gas station. Having never pumped gasoline, I fumbled nervously with the levers and buttons as other drivers giggled and stared. I vacillated between annoyance and mortification, until all I could do was burst into a fit of laughter.

And that was just the beginning. Many days, driving seems like nothing more than a means to anger half of Los Angeles. There was the elderly woman who told me that I was the worst parallel parker she had ever seen. And there was the gentleman who shouted in my face for dinging his shiny $5,000 rims with my $900 used car.

These minor humiliations remind me how little effort it takes to turn frustration into levity and confusion into adventure. Being bad at something strips you of perfectionist desires that can limit life and lets you enjoy learning something new. It leaves you free to ask a million questions without feeling like, somehow, you’re less professional or adult. That’s just one of the edifying lessons I’ve gained from my late-in-life skill acquisition. There have been many more:

* Age isn’t a barrier to learning a new skill

We’ve all read about the risks of diminishing brain plasticity with age, making it more difficult to absorb new information. When people heard I couldn’t drive, they’d respond with “But it’s so easy.” Yes, maybe it was easy to learn when you were 17. As we cross the threshold of 30, we reconcile ourselves to the fact that if we have not yet made progress on becoming an astronaut or an accomplished cellist, it isn’t happening. But learning something new that had seemed impossible has filled me with possibility. (And, also, filled me with tears. Yes, I cried learning how to drive, but it was only once and I guarantee it was warranted.)

* A car can serve as an additional closet or a hoarder’s paradise.

I once found the car my husband and I share filled with beef jerky, bicycle parts and multiple neckties. Why don’t New Yorkers buy cheap cars just for the storage space? No more tucking wine bottles and books into never-used ovens — just put it in your car! While you’re at it, maybe add some picnic supplies, golf clubs, welding torches or other detritus of object-intensive hobbies.

* Driving empties the mind. Perhaps too much.

New Yorkers are used to having subway-commute time to catch up on The New York Times, back issues of The New Yorker or a great novel. In a car, that time disappears. Instead, when I started driving, I was treated to multiple local NPR stories per day on the impact of the lime shortage and subsequent price increase on L.A. bars. (No margaritas! The horror!) I noticed, looking at my Kindle, that total pages read since learning to drive in L.A. diminished by 50 percent. Driving too much makes me feel dull around the edges. Joan Didion, who described driving on freeways as “the only secular communion Los Angeles has,” wrote that successful freeway driving requires “a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture of the freeway. The mind goes clean.” It is true. I tolerate the commute by appreciating driving as a very solitary, meditative dance punctuated with shouted profanities and coffee spilled on laps.

* You must add value on road trips.

For most of my life, cars have been utterly narcotic. I was like an infant — I’d immediately conk out. I couldn’t help you with directions, and I didn’t know how to put gas in the car. I simply shrugged with an exculpatory refrain: “I don’t know how to drive.” At one point, I was so unhelpful during a road trip through Montana that a friend left me (and another non-driver) behind in Bozeman and returned for us only 12 hours later when her anger dissipated. I now understand how annoying I was. Sorry, everyone.

* Driving steals the serendipity of urban life.

My second week in L.A., I was stuck on a freeway and noticed someone from college sitting in the lane next to me whom I hadn’t seen for almost a decade. At this point in my driving career, I was too scared to remove a hand from the wheel to wave, so I just let her drive by sans reminiscing about our glorious alma mater. The joy of pedestrian culture in a great city is to wander through the diversity, density and messiness, pausing and discovering things new and unexpected. Or, as Jane Jacobs put it, “the ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself … always replete with new improvisations.” It is hard to have serendipity on a freeway, to meet someone new (or old) when you are stuck traversing multiple lanes of traffic.

All of which is to say, though L.A. has been surprisingly wonderful, I miss the vibrancy of living on the streets and the subway even in the humidity of a New York summer. However, going through an In-N-Out Burger drive-thru for a burger animal style almost assuages the longing. Almost.