Russell Street amusement arcades were the place in Melbourne to buy heroin in the 90s and early 2000s. But I went there to learn to drive.
My roommate and I would walk around town after class and play the Daytona car game for hours. You slipped into a seat. You can choose between manual and automatic. There was a road. And after you made your selections, a voice said, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” It was basically like being in a car. I liked it. It was a game that you could feel throughout your body, just like the feeling you get when you’re driving for real.
The feeling was mostly speed, tight turns and the euphoria of overtaking. Those were my driving lessons – I rode hundreds of miles on these machines and emerged from the darkness of the arcade in a runaway state, high on another kind of drug.
During the job interview, the firm’s partners did not ask me if I had a driver’s license because it was assumed that I had one. When I arrived the first week and they found out I couldn’t visit branches, clients and courthouses up to 100km away, talks had to be held.
Soon after, a senior associate volunteered to teach me. A man with four young children, he looked nervous and half-regretful when I stuck those L-plates on his station wagon and got behind the wheel. We were driving after work between Portland and Warrnambool, a distance of about 100 km with a speed limit of 100 km/h. We mostly shared the road with trucks on the Adelaide-Melbourne route and the car was shaking if they got too close.
I remember the dark, wet roads, the watery yellow twilight, the shudder and bray of cattle road trains, the rhythm of reflector poles and hypnotic white lines. But mainly I remember going very fast, like at Daytona. I was looking for the same feeling I had in the arcades – the racing feeling. My blood seemed to flow faster around my body when the car was going fast. A few times the senior partner and I stopped and got out of the car with frozen legs to swap places. These were nights when I had gone too fast, or I had misjudged the gap when overtaking. He no longer joked about the fact that I had killed him and made his children fatherless.
I got my license, but stayed away from anything bigger than a one-horse town. I got nervous in built up areas. Warrnambool was pretty much all I could handle – until one day I had an accident. I was approaching traffic lights and listening to Silverchair when a song came up that I didn’t like. Lowering my head to move forward quickly, I crashed into a car in front that had stopped at the traffic light. He was a French tourist driving a rental car. He was fine but our cars looked like the graphics after a smash at Daytona.
I remember standing in front of our dented vehicles in my pajamas, the cars were passing by, and one of the drivers was my mother – who, seeing me in the main street in my pajamas, continued to drive.
But when we talked about it this week, she didn’t remember seeing me. “You didn’t even have pajamas on,” she told me. “You just used to wear an old T-shirt to bed.”
The memory may be wrong, but the feeling of shame was obviously real, my mother’s insertion into the accident like the cognitive cousin of a Freudian slip.
One thing was definitely real. I was uninsured at the time of the accident. The amount was about a third of my annual salary and I spent my 20s paying it. I haven’t driven for a very long time.
Decades have passed. At 40th birthday parties around the country—unlicensed now and helpless as a baby—I felt the dizzying sensation of waiting outside for my parents to pick me up.
2016 and I took driving lessons again. It was a small town. A traffic light. I should be fine, right? But I’m a different person now, and a different driver. My arms and back hurt after the first lesson, I was so tense and rigid in the driver’s seat. I missed that almost oily feeling of speed, the ease of turning fast, feeling confident and reinforced. Who was this old person who was now learning to drive? This shy person stalled at the “give way” sign, too scared to cross?
After the first lesson, the instructor texted me to say she couldn’t take me anymore because she was retiring.
2019. A new instructor. He called me “Strudel” for no reason and told me to “swirl with your hand of chardonnay”. What is that? I asked him, irritated. I don’t drink chardonnay. The reference was somewhat insulting, although I don’t know why. Was it because chardonnay was out of fashion? We drove in the middle of the day when there were hardly any cars on the road. He didn’t think I would be ready for the test ‘for ages’. I zoned out in lessons. I was bored – which was dangerous. Same streets. Same set of traffic lights. Sometimes he would raise his voice and tell me that he had driven with more reliable killers than me.
2021. Sydney long lockdown. I met my new instructor on a quiet street in Darling Point. She was friendly, relaxed, used to older learners. We drove down a few side streets and like before, I was rigid with fear. Half an hour later we drove down a side street and then turned onto ONE OF SYDNEY’S BUSIEST ROADS! I panicked. There were four lanes. There were trucks and cars. There were pedestrians. There was so much going on that I wanted to leave my body. The wheel was slippery with sweat and my breathing changed and stopped a bit.
Somehow the lesson ended and we were still alive. I did it! I drove in a big city! In traffic! It was different from before, like a whole different experience. We were riding mostly slow and it wasn’t about the feel in the blood of the momentum, movement and rush to the white line. Instead, it was about stopping and starting. Try not to touch anything or anyone. Keep your cool, keep your distance, keep moving. Twice a week we would meet and drive slowly through traffic. It was exhilarating in a different way. When I took a turn well, my instructor would say things like “you are a real professional pilot”. Did she mean professional like an Uber driver? Or professional like Formula 1? Maybe she meant professional like Daytona. Whatever she wants to say, I swell with pride. It was better than being called Strudel.