Learning to drive

I was something of a late bloomer when it came to getting my driver’s license. I think it was because I lived in central Wellington and most places were a short walk away. When I was 24 I moved to London for 10 years, and there was zero need for a gas guzzler as I lived and worked in zones one and two the whole time I was there. As for those trips outside the M25, there was always someone else on hand to be the grownup driver.

Things came to a head when I moved back to Wellington in 2010. I was living in town, working out in Miramar, plus I was in the habit of travelling to the Wairarapa most weekend’s to hang out with the whanau. While I’m not dissing public transport – it’s an essential service for citizens from all demographics within a society – I wanted, no I needed, no I desired the feel of a steering wheel on my fingertips. The time had come.

Getting my learners was fairly straightforward. I bought a road code (hard copy even), took about 20 million online NZTA tests, then went into the local AA store and passed with flying colours! The next crucial step was obviously learning how to drive. Now, I’d spent enough years on the planet to gain a certain degree of self-awareness, so recognised the need for a driver instructor who had experience with … unrelaxed learners, shall we say. I hit the jackpot with Dave. I booked him through a company that specialised in ‘cautious’ learner drivers. Understatement of the fucking century.

My journey (excuse the pun) with Dave began in a manual. Various friends had told me that if I was going to learn how to drive I absolutely had to master the art of a manual otherwise I was basically cheating. So one Saturday morning in 2011, I met him in the parking lot across the road from my house in Evan’s Bay.

Dave was in his mid-fifties. He was decked out in a football t-shirt, his hair was pomaded into place and his voice low and gluggy with the remnants of a thousand cigarettes. His car smelled like a cliché of pine air freshener and Rothmans, and the seats were dressed with sheepskin covers. It was winter, so settling into that soft sheepy hair cushion felt like a snuggly security blanket, cunningly drowning out the ‘voice of doom’ chatter that was brewing in my head.

He talked me through the gears, stopping and starting, the steering wheel: basic essentials. Crucially, he also pointed out that while technically I was in the driver’s seat, he had foot controls and a healthy relationship with the hand brake to thwart any potential accidents.

We pootled around the car-park for a bit until I felt reasonably confident, then he told me we were going to hit the big time and take a drive in actual traffic.
I said “I’m not ready Dave.”
He gently ignored me and instructed I pull out into the trickle of traffic that my anxious gaze clocked as a Los Angeles six lane motorway in peak hour traffic.
Somehow we managed to make our way out to Lyall Bay, as Dave wanted to introduce me to roundabouts.
Fine, Fine, I’m thinking to myself. This is all good. Nothing to lose my shit over here: I’m basically driving.

We turned onto the road by the beach and drove towards the roundabout that’s outside Maranui café. For those of you not familiar with Wellington at all, it’s basically a lego build, a roundabout-lite if you will. As we approached it, Dave started instructing me on how to go about changing down through the gears to either stop OR slowdown, in anticipation of moving forward through the looming circle of death.

The closer we got the harder it became for me to listen to his dulcet tone. As we hit the roundabout I slammed to a stall then ripped the gear stick into a gear – I’d somehow chucked it into neutral – bunny hopped a bunch of times, then took off through the roundabout, careening round the gentle bend like a demented rookie Steve McQueen. Now in full panic mode I lifted my hands off the steering wheel and my feet levitated above the pedals whilst shrieking like a banshee, “It’s a disaster, it’s a FUCKING DISASTER!”

Dave threw his arm across my chest and grabbed the right side of the steering wheel, safely manoeuvring us through the bend and out the other side. He pulled the car up on the side of the road (using his clever foot pedals), and gave me about three years to gather myself back from the brink of the apocalypse.
“Sorry Dave,” I finally managed to say.

Then he said something that I’ve always remembered (and called upon in subsequent times of stress – real or fabricated), “Emma, there’s no point us sitting here and rehashing what just happened. Who is that going to serve? Let’s just sit here for a bit then start over.”

What a fucking legend.

I continued with manual lessons for about another six months, supplementing Dave’s lesson’s with short trips out every lunchtime from work with my mate Venus. She was also infinitely patient and full of logical advice. It was during one of those lunchtime jaunts where I did another bunny hopping trick, managing to drive up onto the grassy verge outside Miramar New World, only to stop a hair’s breadth from the large NW sign that would have seriously dented Venus’s car. Being lunchtime, there was a crowd of people lining the pavement laughing at me. Shame on my name.

Some wise arsehole said the definition of insanity is doing something again and again the same way and expecting a different result. If you looked this up in the online dictionary of truism’s, you’d find a picture of me trying to learn how to drive in a manual. Suffice to say I had a light bulb moment shortly after New World-gate and decided to swap over to an automatic. I also took about a year off the driving mission as I was spending a fortune with Dave and the whole experience was starting to feel a little dehumanising. Once I picked them up again in an auto, within a month I was a competent enough driver to book in my restricted test – which I then failed twice but that’s a story for another time – and in March 2013, I earned my stripes and took to the road!

Fast forward to today and I can honestly say that I fucking love driving. I have dozens of Spotify playlists and when I go over the hill to see the family I crank that shit up and sing like a mo fo. In fact, I do that when I’m driving round Wellington as well and often get snapped at traffic lights yelling along to Toto at the top of my lungs. And sometimes, when I’m pulling a tricky manoeuvre or feeling a touch stressed about parallel parking or whatever, I hear Dave’s voice in my head.

“Just focus on the positive’s Emma, and what’s going on in here, who cares about what those people in the other car’s are thinking.”


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