The View from the Passenger Seat

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – I grew up in Los Angeles, and I can't drive. I never thought that not having

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – I grew up in Los Angeles, and I can't drive. I never thought that not having this semi-basic skill would be a very big deal, but it is becoming increasingly embarrassing. It's not that I'm averse to cars. I just never got around to enlisting in driving school after I left home for college, and before then, it was simply out of the question.

Late one night during the summer before my senior year of high school, I was sitting in the passenger seat when my friend Christine made a left turn and collided with a SUV. Our significantly smaller car skidded several yards and was totaled upon impact. An airbag erupted in my face and violently threw me against my seat. It smelled like someone had tried to make cupcakes out of plastic and failed. For a split second, I actually believed the car would explode and, had I not been in such a hurry to get out, my shell-shocked friend might've actually remained inside the vehicle for the rest of the evening. (A paramedic later informed me that explosions only happen in movies.) Against all odds, we only suffered a few cuts. My bruises were mostly from the airbag, which left a purplish ripple down the side of my face.

I was shaken, but not traumatized. To my mother, on the other hand, I might as well have been hooked up to tubes and on the brink of death. I was forbidden from riding in cars with friends. As for my own license? If even Christine, my "responsible" friend, managed to get us into an accident, then I shouldn't ever be allowed behind the wheel. Since I was in no position to pay for my own car or insurance, I didn't argue.

And so it was for many years. At some point, I could have reopened the topic for discussion, but after I went to college, learning how to drive seemed so irrelevant when I spent most of the year within the same half-mile radius. Besides, being immobile in Los Angeles didn't bother me. I was used to it. I'm one of the few people over 14 and under 65 who's actually set foot on the "subway," a Metro-run underground train that is approximately one-twentieth the length of any other metropolitan rail system in America. Starting at age 16, I worked three summers in L.A. without a license, which meant daily hour-and-a-half-long commutes (and that's just one-way). On subsequent visits home, having to beg for a car ride from a friend never seemed as bad as those mind-numbing hours on public transportation.

But now, my inability to drive has become somewhat embarrassing and extremely inconvenient. When I want to visit my grandfather, who lives in a nursing facility two miles from my house, I have to jog there after sundown because it's too hot to wait for a bus during the day. My mother regularly drops me off at lunch with my friends; she's even offered to drive me to bars before. At the end of a night out, my pals jokingly yell "Not it!" when it comes time to decide who drives me home. Once, a kind girlfriend drove me to the other side of the county so that I could attend a meeting with a literary agent, while she waited downstairs at a Coffee Bean. As much as I wanted to pretend that it was sort of like being an executive with a car service, it really wasn't.

Last week, my mother chauffeured me to a meeting with my thesis adviser. That was the final straw. While I attempted to engage in a discussion about conservative social movements, she waited for me outside, parked under the shade and ready to emerge at a phone call's notice. Next month, it's my 22nd birthday. I envision turning 28, with my mother ready to drive me to work, and determine that I'd rather risk another encounter with an airbag.

My adviser, surprisingly, could empathize. Born and raised in England, the Cambridge graduate never learned how to operate a vehicle until he decided to relocate to Los Angeles. He enlisted in the Brookline Driving School beforehand and received his license in a matter of weeks. He assured me it was easy to get the hang of it.

"But what if I pass the test in Massachusetts and can't drive on the freeway in L.A.?"

"Don't worry," he said. "When I came out here, I just practiced with my mother."

Lena Chen ’10, a Crimson magazine writer, is a sociology concentrator in Currier House.