I was thirteen when we moved from New York City to Sheffield, Massachusetts. There were many striking differences, but one of the big ones? Transportation. Unbeknownst to my mother, I had been secretly taking the subway to school in the mornings (this meant an additional 15 minutes of sleep, for the bargain price of ten cents a day…yeah, it was a while ago). In the mornings I would run to the IRT station and jam myself and my armload of textbooks in among a zillion of my fellow citizens (this was also before backpacks became something for persons other than mountaineers). I loved the subway.
And then we moved full time to the barn my parents had been converting into a home for the last dozen years, where I had to walk a mile to get to the school bus pick-up point, and it was five miles to either of the libraries I had cards for. And I was thirteen and wouldn’t have a driver’s license for another three years. That was a long three years. I could ride my bicycle, and did, of course, but this being the Berkshire mountains in southeast Massachusetts, three months a year or so, bicycling was inadvisable-bordering-on-suicidal: snow and ice made it dangerous, and cold made cold.
In Massachusetts, getting your Learner’s Permit, and then your driver’s license, was a rite of passage. Forget Bar Mitzvah: walking out of the DMV with your pink slip (temporary license) was the “today I am a woman!” moment. So there was driver’s ed, and the eye test (which is how I found out just how nearsighted I was: two out of 18 figures wrong, and my next stop was the eye doctor), and the driving test, and at last the pink temporary license and then the permanent license. Rumors flew among my peers that if you were pulled over for any reason while you were still holding the pink slip the cops would simply tear it up.
Once there were three drivers in the house, my mother retired from the field, which meant that most of the week, when my father was out of town working, I was the chauffeur. And in short order, my father decided we needed a second car. A specific second car: a third-hand Triumph rag-top that, in a pinch, was considered a four-seater (the back seat was a bench, but large enough that one could sit on it. If one didn’t mind resting one’s chin on one’s knees). Theoretically he and I shared the car. Let’s be real. I loved that car with a deep, abiding, love. It wasn’t just freedom: it was fun freedom. I was able to stay late at school for rehearsals and school paper deadlines. My dog and I could tool around the countryside with the top down (Fio with his ears waving, me with my hair rigorously tied down, lest it become hopelessly knotted). When my boyfriend had his license suspended for six months, I became the provider of rides: this was a little dicey, as he had a big car and kept offering rides as if that was what I was driving. On one notable evening I recall we had nine people stacked like cordwood in the car, with just enough room for me to shift.
There are various responsibilities that come with having a car. My drivers’ ed teacher, Mr. Menin, insisted that every girl in the class be able to diagram an engine, check the oil, and change a tire. None of us would ever be scammed by some guy at the garage telling us that our Fromiztistat had to be replaced. He also imparted some other bits of arcane information that came in handy. Notably: if your fan belt breaks, he said, a girl could use a nylon or the leg of a pair of pantyhose to make a field repair.
So one afternoon I was driving along Route 7 when I noticed that the engine was running very very hot. I pulled over, and sure enough: no fan belt. It hadn’t just broken, it had dropped off somewhere. So I acted on Mr. Menin’s advice, cut off a leg from my pantyhose, tied it on, and drove off to our usual garage in town. Where, as it transpired, a guy I knew from school was working. The conversation that followed was something like this;
Me: Hi, my fan belt is broken.
Him: It can’t be.
Me: Yeah, it really is.
Him: No, cause if it were, you couldn’t have driv (sic) in.
Me: Well, yeah, but I made a temporary fix.
At which point he opened the hood, saw what could broadly be considered a woman’s undergarment tied in place of the fan belt, and turned a deep, cherry red. And changed the fan belt.
Having a car meant I could hang out with friends, do school activities, go to concerts–all the things I could not do on my own in the days before I got my license. My mother was not always sanguine about this: the trade-off for me being driver and errand-girl was me being out of the house more. A town like ours had rituals around teens in cars. Like going to Friendly’s for ice cream (if you’re not a New Englander: Friendly’s is a chain of sandwich shops with good ice cream). The town where I went to school did not have a Friendly’s, but the town next up Route 7, which was home to our “rival” high school, did. And I’ll tell you: taking a tiny little Triumph with a Mt. Everett Regional parking permit into Monument Mountain territory had its hazards. This is a kind of tribalism I don’t get, but recognized that it existed and tried not to get snarled up in it.
But one night my friends and I went to get ice cream and I–rather than wait at the very crowded window–sat in the car. Which was spotted by a phalanx of large football-player-looking guys wearing Monument Mountain sweaters, who decided to go make a point about the interloper in their territory (me and my tiny car). Four of them picked up the car–with me in it–and carried it across the parking lot to an empty space and put it down there. And walked away.
My tiny car recovered faster from this than I did. The next time I went to Friendly’s I considered putting masking tapes over my parking permit beforehand. In the end I decided to let it be–and in the end so did the guys from Monument Mountain.