Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Shin
At sixteen I had my first real brush with mortality. At ten miles an hour on a quiet Pasadena street, I made an unprotected left turn and t-boned a Taurus. “HOW COULD YOU LET HER OUT OF THE HOUSE,” my uncles screamed to my mother. But even after that, plus a ticket for obstructing traffic in Arcadia, a $250 speeding ticket while rushing to a $3 movie theater in Simi Valley, a $350 tow while buying a $2 hot dog on La Brea, hitting lots of poles in parking lots, and a mailbox incident that’s still a bit fuzzy, I still love to drive.
I’ve learned over the years that driving can be frustrating even when you actually know how to do it well. But I reject the premise that it is a utilitarian exercise in isolation, because of how profoundly important it has been in forging my relationship with the world around me.
True, driving doesn't have the same kind of physical intimacy as standing cheek to cheek, or in my case cheek to armpit, with someone on a crowded metro. But that intimacy is oftentimes superficial, because most days it feels like everyone’s isolated in a sticky little cocoon that only cracks open when you notice the guy next to you trying to put his hand in your pants pocket.
On the other hand, there’s an unspoken language between drivers in Los Angeles because we need each other in order to get home at the end of the day. I love the “go ahead” wave, the violent hand gestures when you’re mad, and the camaraderie of the “can you believe this guy?” look you share with the driver next to you when a homicidal maniac cuts you both off. And I even love that homicidal maniac from time to time, because at least he’s more deliberate than the guy on the metro who stands, instead of walks, on the left side of the escalator.
Never, ever, do that.
Then there are the romantic elements, the satisfaction of wanderlust that comes from driving through the city for no particular reason. The thrill of getting lost by myself and discovering a new place, and the comfort that I feel when that place becomes familiar. I ran out of gas. I asked really strange people for directions. I got a flat tire in the middle of the night in East Los Angeles and a group of people in front of a food truck helped me put on a spare. I had the opportunity to interact with the world on my own terms.
And then the year I turned seventeen I spent the summer in India. I flew by myself, and stayed with an aunt. But my summer of adventure and exploration quickly took a nose dive when it became clear that I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything on my own, and my relatives weren’t really inclined to take me outside. At the time I thought it was a nefarious plot, instead of a justifiable effort to keep me safe. I was in a vibrant country where men and women ride motorcycles, cars, buses, and auto rickshaws everywhere, and I didn’t understand why I was under house arrest. I wasn't in a city where young women were kept indoors, but my family was keeping me indoors in part, becuase I was a young woman.
I don't resent my relatives now because had I ventured out on my own I probably would have been run over by a scooter. But at the time, my sheer dependence on them for everything from food to entertainment led to a sense of isolation that was completely paralytic. At first I wrote angst-filled Xanga entries describing white walls and boredom, but after a while I just slept as much as possible. I didn’t have access to any forms of communication because I couldn’t go to a phone booth. I read books faster than I was released in to the wild to buy them, and then went through an insufferable Ayn Rand phase screaming "INDIVIDUALISM!" to myself while I paced around the bedroom. And what few times I did venture out with someone the city were elusive, a series of polaroids that never fully developed. I was being led instead of being allowed to wander.
Granted, the shock of my house arrest wasn't so much about my lack of access to a car, as it was about my complete lack of mobility. But the experience taught me that mobility is not just about the practicality of being able to choose where I go, what I eat, and whom I interact with. It's about putting myself in a position where adventure has the possibility to unfold. Because in a car, I always have the option to just go, without really worrying about where. I’ve found that sense of independence to be vitally important, because for me, getting lost over and over again is the only way that anything can be found.