Shotgun Stories: What It’s Like Without a Driver’s License at 30
Although it’s led to some frustrating times, being a passenger in someone else’s car has given me countless memories.
It is my incredibly biased, objectively incorrect, but firmly-held belief that if you make it to the age of 30 without acquiring a driver’s license, you should not have to take a test to be issued one.
You have already proven that you are not jumping rashly into this. Nevertheless, until the DMV gets on board with my policy change, I’d like to introduce myself, the 30-year-old without a driver’s license.
The year is 2008. I am 18, recently graduated from high school and my braces have recently been taken off. It’s summer in Portland, Oregon, and I’m working most days at a running store, fitting people in shoes and watching track races from the '80s on YouTube with the passel of fit, smart twenty-and-thirty-somethings who treat me as half-little sister, half-peer—and teach me most of what I will ever learn about running. I am near-drunk on free time, warm air and the big sky open plains of my life spread before me. I’m sunburned and muscly.
And then there’s Matt, one of my coworkers at the store, seven years older than me. He’s the goofiest, most interesting person I’ve ever met. Almost overnight, we go from emailing each other funny articles to running together a few times a week. He picks me up from my house or the store and we go up to Forest Park. I don’t, you’ll recall, have a driver’s license. Sometimes we stop for a bagel on the way home. Sometimes I offer him a smoothie when he drops me off. Once, after an evening run, while driving home through the pink-orange sunset and clouds of sluggish mosquitoes, he puts on “Elephant Love Song” and we sing along at the top of our untrained lungs. How wonderful life is, I finish, in a falsetto that cracks, now you’re in the world.
I know what you’re thinking and the answer is yes, we turned out to be in love with each other. A couple of years later, he will drive up to Philadelphia to visit me on my spring break and, after dinner, as he’s driving me home, caught up in conversation in the dark, neither of us will realize he’s taken a wrong turn until we cross a state line. I will jokingly accuse him of absconding with me and we will both laugh as he gets off the freeway to go back, and we will both secretly wish he could take me all the way back to Virginia with him.
Driving With Someone Is One of the Most Intimate Ways to Travel
How often do you ride in a car?
I don’t mean an Uber. I mean a car driven by someone you know, with you sitting in the passenger seat, fiddling with the radio, giving directions, providing the right amount of conversation, letting yourself be ferried from place to place. It’s a surprisingly unusual position for most adults, except for a certain subset of heterosexual women who, like my mother when we were kids, never drive when their husbands are in the car. And except for me.
There are so many ways to cross this wide planet. But surely this is one of the most intimate. Ensheathed by night on all sides, reflected back to yourself in the windows, or at the copper twilight hour, a world is created unto itself for the length of a trip. Once, I went with an acquaintance to get coffee, just the two of us, and in the space of that 20 minutes across Queens on a Sunday morning, we cemented a fond respect in our shared tastes in books and music and affection for our mutual friend.
My Romantic Ride to the Beach
The year is 2018. Another summer. I am 28, have graduated college and quit the job that became a career. I’ve taken my savings and flown to Europe. It’s a hot, humid night in Palermo: The air is so thick and soft you could use it as a pillow. I have had two glasses of wine and an anchovy panini at the bistro around the corner from my apartment where the owners, bartender and waitress have come to know me. I’m sitting at the bar and the handsome, curly-haired Italian man I’ve been trying to make sexy, googly eyes at over the last few nights comes up next to me to order a beer.
Empowered by white wine and Mediterranean salt air, I start a conversation. At some point, he compliments my Italian, and then I know I’ve got him because that’s bullshit—my Italian is five common phrases and then a bunch of Spanish that Italian people can mostly understand. I explain in my personal creole of English, Spanish and per favore that I haven’t been able to go to any beaches outside of Palermo because I don’t drive. I’m not, I swear to you, trying to hint at anything, but he offers to take me to a beach for locals the next day. None of the touristy places. I’m in heaven.
But I don’t want to suggest that all rides home or across town—or for hundreds of miles—are romantic. They can also be the most platonic of experiences. I have also been the recipient of many well-meaning rides from coworkers, teammates and even occasional strangers. There was the woman who saw me struggling with an A/C unit in the Brooklyn Home Depot parking lot and drove me the ten blocks to my apartment. Or my canvassing partner in Atlanta, who drove us all over the Democratic areas in a pandemic, each of us in masks and face shields. We spent ten hours a day together and never saw each others’ noses. Even the boss I have now, who regularly drives me to my apartment in Brooklyn from our office deep in Queens, allows me to scan through radio stations for a song I like. I eventually land on Billy Joel’s “Longest Time” and snap in time, allowing him to drive out of his way to get me to my front door without any input on the music.
I Will Always Cherish My Time in the Passenger’s Seat
Strictly speaking, I can’t recommend living without a driver’s license in the 21st century. There are jobs I’ve missed out on because of it. There are hours I’ve spent waiting for subways and buses. When I sat down to think about the grand adventure of moving through the world on my own two feet, I thought first of the possibilities it cut off. About being stranded in the middle of the countryside outside Palermo. About not getting to take day trips outside of Paris or hikes outside of Portland or even rent a Zipcar—that most important middle-class New Yorker ritual— and go to Storm King Art Center on a fall day.
But when I thought further, all I could think about were the countless cherished hours of conversation in the passenger seat of someone else’s car. One day, and hopefully soon, I’ll get my driver’s license. I’ll make an appointment and go into the DMV and take the test, with the backs of my thighs sweating on the polyester seat. And it will be nice to have an added transportation option. I will love driving to a trailhead and leaving a clean, dry change of clothes in the trunk while I run. I will try to pay forward the thousands of rides home I’ve been given.
But I can’t regret the extra 15 or so years of passenger seats, when a driver moved a pile of stuff to the backseat, murmuring apologies for the mess, ready to be enclosed together, a moving universe of two. Thank you, thank you, thank you.