Chapter One: It Shouldn't Happen to Us
This is the recurrent nightmare:
I am inside my father's Morris Minor convertible, scarcely filling the driver's seat, and the oyster gray automobile is hurtling, helter-skelter, down a steep hill.
My hands can neither hold the steering wheel nor grasp the stick shift, and my feet dangle uselessly, high above the pedals. The car is going so fast I am unable to see anything through the windows except a rushing, murky blur, a whizzing smudge of motion.
The dream has no beginning or end, just movement and terror.
The nocturnal scenario is now unreeling in broad daylight, in actual time and real space -- with a few crucial changes of location. This time I'm seated inside a different vehicle, a '92 Acura Integra. My legs are more than long enough to reach the pedals, but for all the control my right foot possesses, it could be kicking right through the windshield. There is no high hill here, but the car might as well be rocketing skyward, upside down, so disoriented is my sense of vertical and horizontal, right and left, earth and atmosphere. And this time I can see, with too much clarity, what's outside the window: a throbbing digital traffic sign, skipping white and yellow lines, a curving cement retaining wall, and a looming suspension bridge, maybe a thousand feet ahead. And all of them are angled fiercely, about to collide and converge on me like the falling planes of a Cubist painting.
The driving instructor in the passenger seat beside me grabs the wheel and guides the car away from a hulking SUV in the adjacent lane.
Saved. The dream begins to ebb away.
For my entire adult life I had no use for automobiles, and no ability to drive them. Unlike most Americans, I never drove to work -- in my case, the Vanity Fair offices on the twenty-second floor of 4 Times Square in New York City. Every morning I commuted, instead, from my silver-and-pink bedroom, on upper Park Avenue, to a large black-and-gold desk in my adjacent dressing room. The clothes in the closets opposite this ornate desk (formerly the property of Hugh Hefner) were part of my working life too. All were custom-made by Geoffrey Beene -- he was my fashion mentor, I was his muse. Fifteen years before, I had donated my previous wardrobe of Giglis and Alaïas to one of my charities, the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, and never looked back. This drastic divestiture also was performed in the line of duty. As a special correspondent to Vanity Fair, I wrote features about style, fashion, society, old Hollywood, and other glamorous subjects. I was obsessed not just with flawless design but also with painstaking research and writing about vanished people, places, and things.
Arranged on the walls of my lacquered fuchsia work cell were souvenirs from the stories I had published during my fourteen-year association with the magazine -- studio shots of Claudette Colbert and Hedda Hopper, red luggage tags stamped "Diana Vreeland," whimsical sketches of me by Karl Lagerfeld and Hilary Knight, handwritten notes from Geoffrey Beene, and a triple portrait of me by Horst. Images of my daughter, now nine, were displayed on this trophy wall too, taken by the photographers with whom I had collaborated over the years.
I never drove my daughter to school either, of course -- she rode the yellow school bus. And whenever I needed to go to the office at 4 Times Square, to a lunch appointment (I had one almost daily), a dinner party, or a fund-raising event (this could happen almost nightly -- it's where my job blended into my social life), I traveled by taxi, car service, or, on rare occasions, bus or train. In New York I had at my disposal a round-the-clock, on-tap abundance of transportation alternatives.
If a Vanity Fair story -- such as the ones I wrote on Chanel
and Valentino -- took me to L.A., London, Paris, or Rome, I got around there by car service or taxi too. And if I needed to travel out of New York on a family holiday -- to Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt's house in Pennsylvania, for instance, or to my beach rental in August -- then my husband, a subway-loving city man, drove me in an Avis auto. It was a lopsided arrangement that went unquestioned.
My dependency on my husband, friends, colleagues, and strangers evolved almost into an affectation, in keeping with the impractical, cerebral, hothouse tone of my life. I didn't own sneakers (at the gym I wore ballet slippers), not even jeans (Beene jumpsuits worked fine in the country). I wore high Manolo heels (which I have collected since 1985, the year they arrived in America) even throughout my pregnancy, and blood red lipstick at all times. And I accumulated rarefied useless objects with impressively quirky provenances at auctions and at flea markets, such as 1930s Vogue fashion illustrations and Lucite furniture from the same period, examples of which I had lent to museum shows. Though not comfortable to most people (comfort, I argued, was a state of mind), my apartment was highly photogenic, and was showcased repeatedly in magazines and decorating books.
Before I became a journalist, I spent nine years at Swarthmore College and Columbia University earning three degrees in art history, a precious, scholarly field that deals in ideas more than things and that encouraged my inclination for reflection over action. In all my endeavors I was a perfectionist, setting such impossibly high standards for myself that eventually I eliminated pursuits -- painting, cooking, ballet, French -- in which I couldn't measure up. I could not tolerate mediocrity in anything. Among the many reasons I had resisted driving -- something 190 million Americans did 2.6 times daily -- was that I knew I had no natural aptitude for it.
My phobia about driving was a legacy passed down from my father. On a frigid late-November day when I was four, his 1960 Morris Minor, the oyster gray convertible of the nightmare, skidded on an icy road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It smashed into a red delivery van, also spiraling out of control. My father's car was demolished. His head was gashed open, his leg pierced by the steering column, his neck thrown permanently out of alignment, and some of his teeth were knocked out. A psychoanalyst, he was on his way to a hospital for consultation on a case. He reached his intended destination, but as a patient.
This was the second of three accidents that my father miraculously survived -- a fate that eluded both of his parents. My paternal grandfather, scrambling to catch a ferry when my father was three, was mowed down by a hit-and-run trucker. Twenty-seven years later, my paternal grandmother was killed under similar circumstances, while crossing a shopping center's parking lot on foot.
On the road with my family -- traveling in one of our Ford station wagons or, later, our garnet Volvo sedan -- my father would utter a Yiddish incantation, "Nisht fur dich gedacht," whenever we passed the scene of an accident. I thought this was one old Jewish word for "accident," but later I learned that the phrase translated more or less as "It shouldn't happen to us."
But the fact of the matter is that over two million Americans are injured every year in car accidents. That comes down to around forty-three thousand deaths annually -- a figure exceeding the total U.S. casualties in the Vietnam War, and ten times greater than the number of fatalities caused by all other forms of transportation combined.
The father of this book's first editor, Chuck, died in a car wreck; the father of Simon & Schuster's publisher, David, killed a man in an accident; my literary agent, Suzanne, crushed her face when an Amtrak Metroliner ran into her family's car at a railroad crossing (every ninety minutes someone is hit on a train track); my upstairs neighbor's child perished in a collision when she was a college freshman; my Vanity Fair editor's best friend was immolated in an automobile soon after her marriage. Even First Lady Laura Bush killed a high school classmate, track star Michael Douglas, in 1963 when she ran a stop sign on Farm Road 868 and smashed into the seventeen-year-old's Corvair.
Both my sister and I obtained our learner's permits and driver's licenses in Tennessee, where our road tests consisted of driving out of one parking lot and into its counterpart across the street. Though we were rarely given car privileges, we learned to negotiate our way to school, to our favorite shops, to our father's offices, but not onto a highway, and certainly not out of town. My sister and I were both academic stars and able athletes, but as drivers we were failures.
Though he repeatedly disparaged me for having no "depth perception," my father once tried teaching me to drive standard shift, in a 1974 Ford Capri. But like many fathers, husbands, and boyfriends who try to instruct their children, spouses, and girlfriends, he exploded in anger each time I made a mistake -- a vicious cycle in a pedagogical setting.
Whatever particles of confidence remained to me as a driver were wiped out for good after my sister and I were stopped by a Florida policeman during my sophomore-year spring break for making a perilous, illegal turn. In fact, the only pleasurable driving I knew before giving it up entirely in my late teens was a few bumpy seconds bouncing a battered truck over an empty pasture at my college boyfriend's tobacco and horse farm in Versailles, Kentucky.
From Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where I attended college, and New York City, where I moved afterward, I renewed my Tennessee license -- a false but legal document -- on schedule every four years, via U.S. mail. And then one year I let it expire.
A decade passed -- a pivotal one, during which I abandoned academia for magazine journalism and became a mother. Then, in late January 2000, acting on a millennial New Year's resolution, I signed up for a ten-hour package with a Manhattan driving school. I'd had the company's number filed in my Rolodex for two years, slipped to me by a friend who apparently felt she had given me one lift too many. Initially, I was motivated less by a desire to drive than by exasperation with the new FAA rules requiring airline passengers to show government-issued photo identification. It seemed like an imposition to carry my U.S. passport, the only such document I possessed, aboard domestic flights; I felt discriminated against as a nondriver.
The school assigned to me an earnest Asian instructor named Fred, adept at teaching for the road test. (His pass rate: 94 percent.) The essential skills to master for the New York City exam, reputedly the toughest in the nation, are parallel parking, the broken U-turn, right and left turns, attentiveness to signs, and good hand-eye-and-foot coordination. Every action must be accompanied by the correct head checks, mirror checks, and turn signals. For each maneuver, Fred had in his repertoire a fail-safe technique that, properly understood and executed, worked like a charm. Still, the lessons -- totaling thirty hours in the end -- were a trial. Over the course of three brutal winter months, I assimilated these fundamentals with painful slowness, considerable difficulty, and enormous self-consternation.
Fred's sound teaching and my perseverance paid off. I passed the test on my first try, at Havemeyer Avenue in the Bronx, on April 4, 2000. Along with the license (with its penitentiary-like portrait photo) I had acquired some good rudimentary motorist's habits and -- thanks to the state-mandated five-hour class, taught by a Filipino named Carl -- a heightened sense of safety. (His computer-simulation video of Princess Di's car wreck effectively closed the case on the subject of safety belts.) Still I could not drive, not well. For around a year and a half, in fact, I drove only on the stringy byways of the thumbprint-sized island where I spend every August -- because there are no highways, no traffic signals, no traffic, and a maximum speed limit of 30 miles per hour.
Fred proposed I advance with him to the next stage, highway driving. I wanted to oblige him, but I had hit a psychological wall. Facing down the phobia had tapped out my psychic reserves; another year and a half had to pass before they would replenish.
Copyright © 2004 by Amy Fine Collins