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When I moved from Manhattan to the Houston area just before the beginning of summer 2016, the sweltering heat wasn’t a problem, the moving truck delay of two weeks was just a passing sigh, as nothing could beat the fear and anger in my pit of stomach , learn to drive here and finally have to get the driver’s license.
My husband, originally from Houston, tried to faint me with a used BMW X3 from the Manhattan dealership. It had a good mileage (because no one drives in New York City, I thought), with dark leather upholstery and leather steering wheel, at first glance from its text message photo it was breathtaking, but after packing for Houston I got tense and feeling cramped when I think of this SUV, my first car.
We had the X3 shipped to Texas, and when it arrived I had never driven it. I hadn’t accelerated or tried back in high school after practicing driving in my mom’s compact Mazda for a few weeks in over 15 years, but then I moved to Manhattan to go to college where it didn’t what was needed was a car.
When I was practicing parallel parking in the Houston area that first summer, I wasn’t excited about this new freedom, I didn’t want it, and I felt ridiculous to watch the teenagers nail them down. I was probably the oldest in America without a license at 33 and everyone was staring. I had managed to flag down a cab or ride as a passenger on the MTA subway lines in New York City.
Learning to drive meant putting my metro map away as a souvenir and letting go of the Manhattan streets that I had walked for miles every day since I was 19. It meant putting on flat shoes for more stability when I swallow the brakes in my SUV and my greatest fear of driving, rather than the convenience of grabbing my heels and walking down the sidewalk towards the 4-train on the East Beating the side of Manhattan, the wind behind you, the hissing and swerving of pedestrian traffic, driving from one side of the city to another was never a chore.
When my Texas driver’s license card came in the mail, I wasn’t excited; Life officially consisted of driving alone in unfamiliar territory and being patient with that southern way of taking forever to get anywhere, coupled with the Waze navigation app.
It took me a year to get brave enough to drive alone in downtown Houston and drive over I-45 South under the Be Someone sign. I tried to concentrate on these words, while I carefully steered into a strange landscape and deviated from the huge 18-wheel by my side, I was never fast enough, always lost and late, turned back, was afraid of driving wrongly, and I wasn’t safe enough to park between two huge dually trucks.
What would have been an easy subway ride was a heart-racing panic attack out of doubts that it would even make it.
If the freeway were freer, I could take a longer look at Houston’s Empire State Building, the eye-catching, jagged, Gothic structure on the Houston skyline, what I’ve learned is the Bank of America Center. It was tall, the first section was 21 stories high, I often tried to quickly count up six more stories and measure the height of the Manhattan apartment, 27 stories high.
The worst day driving a car was in northwest Houston, on FM in 1960, when I was backing into someone. I was crossing an intersection near Willowbrook Mall with the yellow light and felt like I wasn’t going to make it, so I stopped, reversed quickly, and didn’t look in my rearview mirror. I crashed into a huge Texas truck right away. I crashed out of my car and blunted a million excuses. And the sweet older man simply said, “That’s what these things are for,” he spoke from the truck’s bumper. I knew it could have been a lot worse. I’ll never forget those guys who were selling water on the street corner and yelling that I was so lucky that the man was so nice. I swore to myself that I hated Texas, hated Houston, hated driving, missed Manhattan, shouldn’t be here, wanted to go, and was a terrible driver.
But there’s no stopping driving in the Houston area. Aside from driving back in that truck, another shocking moment was when I was driving the FM 2920 and my contact popped out of my eye, I stopped at a gas station and luckily had a replacement in my purse. Another time I got lucky when I left one of my car doors open in the parking lot of a retail store for over an hour and nothing was stolen.
Perhaps the biggest shock was my first experience with “Pay it Forward” a few weeks ago when the car in front of me was paying for my coffee in the through line.
For the past two years I have mastered whataburger food with one hand and while moving here meant a whole new direction, I want to believe that I am getting bolder every day. If I-45 is slow I really don’t mind because the break in my car gives me some solitude to enjoy this new Texas landscape and think about what lies ahead. As I sit there, one of many stuck in traffic jams of different lives and different cars on this Houston highway, I think about how this move made me face my fears and embrace change, even if it was nerve-wracking . And while I wait to move forward, I wonder if the truck behind me will notice that the frame around my license plate reads: Manhattan.
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