The assumption is made over and over. Virtually every time I need directions or arrange a meeting with someone who hasn’t met me before, I am told how to get there by car, where to park. It’s automatic. Ingrained. As natural as breathing oxygen instead of carbon monoxide. I must drive. Obviously.
Why don’t I drive? In my defense I must say that I tried to learn. After arriving in Chicago in the early 70s, I registered with a driving school and took lessons. Well, took one lesson. That was it! The instructor suggested I practice a lot with someone who has a car before I continue with him. He also advised me to get a car with manual controls. Why? Because I can’t use my right foot to brake and press the gas pedal. My right foot is missing a muscle and therefore doesn’t have complete range of motion. Where did the muscle go? It atrophied after I had polio when I was 4 years old. Since then I’ve lived with this “bad” foot as I call it. It tends to trip on raised sidewalks and rugs. It makes bicycling difficult. And driving practically impossible.
I asked people I know who don’t drive to send me their thoughts, reasons, comments. Some of them questioned my sanity, wondering who would care about that. I beg to differ. Others offered their thoughts and stories generously. I have omitted their names and slightly paraphrased their stories in the interest of smooth and clear narration.
DRIVING IS A LUXURY
I don’t come from a family of drivers. In Argentina, growing up in the 50s and 60s, only two neighbors had cars. It was not part of the culture, let alone within our financial means. When we arrived in Los Angeles, my father tried to learn but never succeeded. He had to go to work on the bus. In Los Angeles! Can you imagine? It took him hours to get there and hours to get back. “It’s just me and the maids,” he used to say. In Chicago he managed to get around on public transportation and abandoned the idea of driving altogether.
Like me, a friend told me: “I come from a poor working class family. Cars were a luxury for us and no one seemed to be willing to help me develop the skill using their automobile for practice. It was mostly the middle class kids who had cars or at least the use of a family car. Others might have beaters or borrow a family vehicle but generally they did not have the degree of access as those more economically advantaged.”
DRIVING IS NOT HEALTHY
One of my friends said: “I decided that actually driving was too much pressure for me, not worth the effort while I enjoy taking public transportation where I can sit and read. Or I can walk. No only I gain in relaxation but I also increase my daily cardio activity.”
Someone else told me that: “I have suburban friends and relatives who would never think to walk the few blocks to the local food store. Instead, they get in their cars and drive the four blocks to pick up a six pack or a gallon of milk. I have struggled with weight for much of my life and there are growing health concerns to boot so now the idea of becoming a car and couch potato is even more disconcerting.”
“You don't drive? How do you survive?” a friend is often asked. She replies: “The answer is very simple. I live within three walking blocks of some of the world's finest cultural activities: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center in the well preserved old Chicago Public Library and the Symphony and theatre district are my ‘hood. They can all be accessed by walking past the beautiful Millennium Park or from the underground pedway. I haven't driven a car in over 17 years, except for a short time in Southern California out of necessity. I don't miss it; I'll walk or take public transportation and leave the driving to others.”
DRIVING IS DANGEROUS TO THE HEALTH OF OTHERS
A friend says: “Uncle Harry, whom I loved very much, offered to teach me how to drive. He had a big old convertible with a stick shift. We lived on Waveland, across from the park where there were big lots for people to leave their cars. Sunday mornings there were no crowds, so it seemed like an ideal place and time. Sitting behind the wheel, I noticed a family leaving their car, heading somewhere in my direction. I panicked. I was afraid I might kill them. That was the end.
Another friend told me this story: “One blistering summer day when I was ten, a leather jacketed motorcyclist sped directly at me where I was waiting on the corner for the light to change. At the last minute, he slid on his side and spun past me in a semi-circle, his body dragging and scraping across the sun baked concrete, which prevented me from becoming a victim of the out of control Harley. His barely recognizable bloody body was taken away in an ambulance not long afterwards. Perhaps, this was an early premonition that driving was not in my cards. I like to think that I don't drive because I appreciate the perspective it gives me on life and the vantage point to see all kinds of people and experience things at a different angle and distance than from behind glass windows. Still, sometimes I wonder how much easier life would be if I drove. But mostly not.”
Over the years I’ve been plagued by people who admonish me to learn. At least once a month someone will offer his or her counsel: “You should learn. That way you’ll be independent.” “It’s never too late. My aunt Sally learned to drive in her 70s.” “You’ll need to drive your husband when he can’t drive anymore.” And on and on. I smile, say “yes, yes, you’re right,” and walk on. What I’d like to say is “leave me alone already. I am not going to learn because it is next to impossible for me to use my right foot and I am not about to buy a car with hand controls.” And I’d also like to say “mind your own business!” But I don’t. I nod in agreement and curse under my breath.