I learned to drive on a 1985, 5-speed Honda Civic CRX Si. There was nothing luxurious about my first car, which was already 7 years old when my Mom helped me buy it before I left for college. A high school friend, who had received a brand-new white convertible BMW as her graduation present, laughed at my Honda love, saying, “nice plastic interior!” But its looks did not matter to me. I immediately loved the little red Civic, which managed to be sporty and fun in spite of its hefty mileage and advanced age.
My brother (who already was a bonafide car guy at age 16, having helped my Dad restore a 1968 Porsche 912) taught me how to drive the 5-speed Honda in one afternoon. I had grown up watching my Mom drive manual cars, and had heard the narrative of how manual transmissions worked, so I knew the facts. All that remained was learning the feel of pedals, the timing of the shifting, and the novice driver’s biggest foe: the avoidance of stalling. My brother talked me through a few practice laps around our neighborhood, and advised me to “use the brakes, not the engine for braking.” After about an hour he said, “now go practice,” and off I went. Thankfully Florida is tortilla-flat, so my stalling was limited to embarrassment and not rolling precariously down a hill, backwards.
Once I mastered basic driving concepts, the Honda became a great source of joy for me. In Miami, having a car meant I had newfound freedom to meet friends, make it to social events and rehearsals (I was a ‘cellist in those days, and the instrument fit perfectly in the hatchback) and occasionally escape my abovementioned brother’s noisy drum-playing. Most importantly, the car became this introvert’s perfect way to be in my own space, enjoying the road.
Because the stereo did not work, my brother found a secondhand Alpine CD player and installed it for me. The sound inside the cabin was nothing to write home about, but it worked just fine. I carried a ridiculous amount of CDs in the car (no iPods in 1991, kids!), and enjoyed playing them loudly. Whether Beethoven or Sinead O’Connor, being in the Honda’s “fancy plastic interior” cabin surrounded by the music I loved quickly became one of my favorite things to do. I wore out Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love, Sting’s The Soul Cages and the entire REM catalog driving back and forth between college and home, and eventually drove the music-filled Honda to Chicago, where I settled for a long while, and where my college mates and I often escaped on music-filled drives up and down Sheridan road.
There have been many cars in my life in the two decades since the Honda: the first car I bought completely on my own, (VW Golf), my first family car (VW Passat wagon), my favorite family car (a manual Audi A4 Avant) and my current family car. Briefly, there was a Porsche 996 Cab (beautiful, nice stereo, but sadly Tiptronic and thus boring to drive) and a Porsche Cayman S (truly a driver’s car and a pleasure to drive, but with the world’s absolute worst stock stereo system ever).
Before kids, before the full-time job, I would often hop in the car and head out on a beautiful afternoon to “clear my mind” and enjoy the music and the road. I drove just to drive. One could argue I drove for the same reasons some people drink: to escape. These days, most of the driving I do involves commuting to work, to the grocery store, or to my two young daughters’ school or activities. This driving is repetitive: same routes, sensible speed, and the occasional suppressed curse word when faced with bad drivers. Because we are so busy with the jobs and family, I very rarely drive for pleasure the way I used to. A few times a year, my partner and I spend a weekend at the race track, where we enjoy driving our cars at speed in a safe, challenging environment. However, this driving does not involve music (no radio in the Spec Miata) and requires high levels of concentration.
Just yesterday I was driving back home at 6 p.m. after putting in a day at work and a few hours volunteering for my daughters’ Valentine’s Day party at school. It had been a very full, albeit good day. There was a decent amount of traffic as people were heading home. I was suddenly seized by the desire to find an open road and drive while the sun was setting. Not to drive fast, but to just drive and enjoy the ride and the music. To drive, just because.
I no longer carry bags and bags of CDs in my car — but I do carry an iPod. These days, my car is a little bit nicer, the Michelins I’m driving on connect me with the road even better, and my stereo system is no longer removable. All I am missing is time. So on this evening, I found ten minutes and took the long way home. I found Peter Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball and pressed play. And suddenly it was just the music, the car, the road and I. And for that moment, all was right with the world. And I was reminded of why I love to drive, and why it can be so very good for the soul.