Cars and Trucks

Devoted to the Manhattan Subway, a Transplant Learns to Drive in Houston

Nothing like a black car with a dark leather interior in Houston's summer heat.
Nothing like a black car with a dark leather interior in Houston's summer heat. Photo by Isobella Jade
When I moved to the Houston area from Manhattan right before the summer of 2016 started, the sweltering heat was no bother, the moving truck being two weeks late was only a temporary sigh, because nothing could beat the anxiety and annoyance in the pit of my stomach of having to learn to drive here and finally get my driver’s license.

My husband, originally from Houston, had tried to swoon me into the thought with a used BMW X3 from the Manhattan dealership. It had good mileage (because no one drives in New York City, I thought to myself), with a dark leather interior and leather steering wheel, at first glance from his text message photo it was stunning, but after packing for Houston, I started to feel tense and uptight thinking about this SUV, my first car.

We had the X3 shipped down to Texas, and when it arrived I had never driven it before. I hadn’t stepped on the gas or tried to in over 15 years, back in high school when I had practiced driving for a few weeks in my mother’s compact Mazda, but then I moved to Manhattan for college, where there was no need for a car.

As I practiced parallel parking that first summer in the Houston area, I wasn’t ecstatic for this new freedom, I didn’t want it, and felt ridiculous watching the teenagers nail it. I was probably the oldest one in America at 33 without a driver’s license and everyone was staring. I had been fine waving down a taxi or as a passenger on the MTA subway lines in New York City.

Learning to drive meant tucking my Metro card away as a keepsake, and letting go of the grid streets of Manhattan that I had walked miles on every day since I was 19. It meant putting on flat shoes for more stability when using the brakes in my SUV and swallowing my biggest fear of driving, instead of the convenience of grabbing my heels and hitting the pavement toward the 4 train on the East Side of Manhattan, the wind at my back, zipping and dodging through foot traffic, the journey 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 was driving in unknown territory alone, and being patient with this southern way of taking forever to get anywhere, coupled by the Waze navigation app.

It took me a year to be brave enough to drive into Downtown Houston by myself, and drive under the Be Someone sign that’s over I-45 South. I tried to focus on those words while steering cautiously into a foreign scenery, and swerving away from the huge 18-wheeler at my side, I was never fast enough, always lost and late, U-turning, fearing to drive the wrong way, and I wasn’t confident enough to park between two huge Dually trucks.

What would’ve been an easy subway ride was a heart-racing panic attack of doubt of even making it.
If the freeway happened to be clearer, I could glance longer at Houston’s Empire State Building, the eye-catching, jagged, gothic structure of the Houston skyline, what I’ve learned is The Bank of America Center. It stood tall, with the first section rising 21 stories, I often tried to quickly count up six more stories, and measure up to the height the apartment in Manhattan used to be, 27 stories high.

The worst day driving was in northwest Houston, on FM 1960 when I backed up into someone. I was crossing an intersection near Willowbrook Mall with the yellow light and felt I couldn’t make it, so I stopped, reversed quickly and didn’t look at my rear mirror. I bumped right into a humongous Texas truck. I rushed out of my car and blunted out a million sorries. And the sweet older man simply said, “That’s what those things are for,” he was talking about the truck’s bumper. I knew it could’ve gone much worse. I’ll never forget those boys selling water on the street corner who yelled that I was so lucky that man had been so nice. I swore to myself that I hated Texas, hated Houston, hated driving, missed Manhattan, shouldn’t be here, wanted to leave, and I was a terrible driver.

But there is no quitting driving in the Houston area. Besides backing into that truck, another shocking moment was when I was driving on FM 2920 and my contact popped out of my eye, I pulled into a gas station and thankfully had a spare in my purse. Another time I got lucky was when I left one of my car doors open at a retail store parking lot for over an hour and nothing was stolen.

Perhaps the biggest shock was my first experience of “Pay it Forward,” with the car in front of me paying for my coffee in the drive-thru line, just a few weeks ago.

In the past two years I’ve mastered eating Whataburger with one hand and although moving here has meant driving in a completely new direction, I want to believe I get braver each day. When I-45 is slow, I really don’t mind, because the pause in my car allows me some solitude to take in this new landscape of Texas and think about what’s ahead. Sitting there, one of many in the jam of different lives and different cars on this Houston highway, I get to think about how this move has made me face my fears and welcome change even when it’s been nerve-wracking. And while waiting to move forward, I’ll wonder if the truck behind me will notice that the frame around my license plate reads: Manhattan.
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