ON THE ROAD
A few months after I moved to San Francisco, I had to trade in, by law, my New York driver’s license and go Californian.
“We must grieve this,” said a sympathetic, Californian friend who left his heart in New York.
When the Department of Motor Vehicles’ employee hole-punched the flimsy card that had solidly reminded me of my New York identity over the past three decades, I felt as if he had hole-punched me.
My East Coast past had expired. Gone were absentee ballots anticipated to arrive from New York. The curtains were closed on renewing my license at the Hudson Valley DMV that had issued my first driver’s license when I was sixteen.
I suddenly belonged to an American city that was new to me – on a whole new side of the United States where I’d never lived before. Instead of giving up New York for California, I realized I was adding yet another city to my driving record.
However, after clocking kilometers in Europe and the Middle East, throughout Rome, Paris, Brussels, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, my car habits have become a hodgepodge of the customs of the countries in which I’ve lived over the past 20 years.
Since moving back to the United States, I’ve had to get used to driving like a local in a new city where, at first, I felt like a foreigner, despite being American.
For starters, I’ve had to slow down; I miss driving the acceptable 75mph of Tel Aviv and Rome on highways. I can’t honk freely as punctuation to traffic frustration. And, if I do, I’m singing an aria rather than with the choir. I can no longer park on sidewalks, crosswalks or in front of fire hydrants. I can’t double-park and put on my hazards while I hop inside a store and pick up some groceries. No one fills up my tank – many of my shoes reek of gas from moments when I haven’t refueled with finesse. I miss a stick shift and changing gears; driving with just two pedals instead of three gets dull. I can no longer park perpendicularly in a parallel parking spot (how I loved doing that in my Smart car in Rome). The car wash here costs as much as sushi for two.
But, then, there are things about driving in America that I love. Right on red, for instance, is a genius time-saver: I’ve never understood why it doesn’t replace the ridiculous “priorite’ a’ droite” that causes numerous accidents in Belgian and French roundabouts.
And San Francisco’s four-point stops have forced me to be patient and gracious while I wave ahead other cars as if I’m do-si-do-ing at a square dance.
But, I guess driving more slowly forces me to pay attention to all that is around me.
Much of what I discover about a new city comes from my adventures behind the wheel. Driving gives me the cherished solitude and independence I often crave in our noisy world of parenting and multi-tasking. It offers me time alone when I can think, when I can lap up NPR from satellite radio or learn something new from a podcast.
My Californian license has grizzly bears, Redwood trees and the Golden Gate Bridge outlined all over it. When I first slipped it into my wallet, I couldn’t wait to be carded or pulled over so I could flaunt it. Because the New Yorker in me admits that there’s something fundamentally cool about having a Californian license. It’s like wearing a trucker hat over a visor: it feels edgier.
Once handed my Californian license, I wanted to hop into a convertible, throw on a trucker hat, and drive down the Big Sur with a surfboard strapped to the roof.
I recently drove down the Big Sur, and, if my picture had been taken, I would have resembled a slobbery Labrador with her tongue hanging out the open window.
Driving is one of the things I do in San Francisco. I spend hours in the car. In recent years, in becoming a chauffeur to my kids in their after-school activities, I’ve seen how the car has served as my Zen den, my mobile office and my kids’ confession booth.
In those hours between the end of school and dinner, as I shuttle my kids between karate, soccer and music lessons, their hearts are vulnerable and weary after a day of socializing and learning. They talk, talk, talk as we drive, drive, drive.
Over the lower Hayes valley and through the South Sunset, the Castro, Richmond, Cole Valley and Pacific Heights of San Francisco, tales unravel after my kids tumble into the car, tired, sweaty, increasingly smellier, and raw. They unwind. And I listen.
The hum of the car’s motor and the constant motion of moving forward without having to look me in the eye reveal their after-school-confessions. Often with their friends in the car in circus-like carpools, elementary and middle school dirt comes out about their crushes, teacher frustrations, that day’s lunch, and the latest fart jokes.
Whenever we cross the Golden Gate Bride, we grow silent, as if its majesty demands due reverence.
Throughout the Presidio, we strain our necks as we try to see the tippy-tops of its eucalyptus trees and Redwoods.
We debate which colorful townhouse would be better to live in as we wiggle down The World’s Most Crooked Street on Lombard, and fantasize a police-chase down it in a VW bug.
My daughter rolls up the windows whenever we drive through the Tenderloin and the man shooting up on the sidewalk frightens her.
The next day, she rolls down the window and offers her afternoon snack to a homeless woman at the intersection leading to Berkeley.
We zip past the motels of Lombard Street near the Marina, and wonder who stays in them when Air B&B and VRBO now dominate the accommodations’ market.
We dust sand off our bare feet after we drive to Baker Beach to beat the fog.
We gather shells from the beach off Crissy Field, and hope to catch a glimpse of the roaring sea lions at the Warming Hut dock or a fin of a whale that might have wandered into the Bay from the Pacific Ocean.
We park the car overlooking the Sutro baths near Land’s End and gawk back at Ocean Beach.
We drive past the two-story, multi-colored houses of lower Sunset and contemplate whether we’d prefer the dim sum or acupuncture offered on every other corner.
And, sometimes, after two years living here, when I feel particularly far away from my family in New York or my husband’s family in Europe, I drive alone to the Marin Headlands, park my tiny Fiat on a cliff, and look back on this magnificent city I now call home.
I adjust my trucker hat, inhale the salty, crisp Californian air that is often laced with marijuana, and feel grateful that being on the road has taken me down this one.