Ten pounds shy of legal, Anna plonks onto the passenger seat next to me and starts fiddling with the radio. A seismic blast of teen yearning fills my car.
“Excuse me!” I blurt. “Since when do we ride up front?”
“Mom lets me!”
Indeed. The same person who, when I allowed Anna to ride her bike down the big hill in our neighborhood when she was five, threatened to have me deported. Now I’m the drill sergeant.
And that’s just fine with me. No way do I want someone hardly weaned from Barbie anywhere near the accelerator.
A guy once said to me, “Imagine giving someone the keys to your truck and telling him to go plow snow with it.” What about giving someone who cruises at treetop height the keys to your car and pointing her toward the interstate, as millions of parents do every year? Right now I have more faith in a bunch of primates with word processors hammering out a software program than I do in my A-student learning to negotiate an S-curve. Not to mention remembering to take out the trash.
Next to water in the basement or an RSVP from the IRS, I can’t think of anything parents dread more than that date with destiny when their kid starts learning to drive. SATs are a walk in the park by comparison. It’s like Satan sits on a glowing throne up ahead, waiting to impale everyone on his pitchfork. There’s no sorting out the quick from the dead this time--- it’s one big molten double bind. No matter how good a parent you’ve been, or how authoritative the measures you’ve taken with them, when your kids get behind the wheel you’re a geriatric drooler with the clout of a toadstool.
Don’t I know it. My neighbor’s daughter has been private-schooled since year one. Smart, slim, vivacious. Parking meters straighten up when she walks by. And despite all this, within weeks of getting her license, the rear of her Toyota was jutting from a snow bank like the stern of a torpedoed freighter from the ocean.
I’m aware there are more incentives now for kids to be responsible drivers. Insurance companies offer good student discounts. Driver’s training is a more rigorous process than filing for disability. Keep talking. All I see is the tail end of Sweetheart’s Camry in the air.
Fortunately, the teen years--- which, for girls, now start at age three--- carry a built-in restraining device to put on the brakes, as it were, to untamed impulses: vanity. In vehicular terms it boils down to one word: beater.
My first car was an AMC Hornet hatchback, which I inherited from my dad. It had so much rust that, to quote Dick Gregory, I needed a tetanus shot every time I climbed into it. Which usually was through a window, the doors either refusing to open or not closing when they did. It spent so much time in the shop I’m surprised I wasn’t assessed storage fees. Customizing it would’ve meant putting in an engine that worked.
Only at gunpoint would Anna get behind the wheel of a crate like that. I see what these princesses are driving now: pristine little iPod-sized numbers. They’d no sooner drive something with a paint chip than put up with a chip in their nail polish.
“I figure she deserves it,” says another neighbor, who bought a Dodge Neon , mint, for his daughter. Like mine, she’s an only child. She’s also a great kid. But her college tuition runs over forty grand a year. After forking out for that car as well, he’s probably banking in a ski mask.
So the solution is obvious: Give your kids something to drive that they’d think twice about taking past the bottom of the driveway. Like my wife’s 1999 Volvo.
Let’s break it down, first from an adult perspective.
A Volvo is the safest thing on the road next to a V-belly half-track. Its legendary steel cage construction could easily survive extrication from ditches and wetlands.
When Anna is ready to drive, it would be old enough for us to drop collision coverage to help pay for our tachycardia drugs.
Its nerdy image would keep away undesirable suitors whose career goal is packaging crystal meth.
A foreign car, it costs so much to repair that Anna would need a full time job to drive it. The only free time she’d have would be while driving to work. The perfect teen driving Catch-22.
Now, let’s imagine Anna’s response to being presented such a prize.
“Mom. Dad. You’ve. Got. To. Be. Kidding.”
Happy birthday, kiddo. Careful of the rust when you pull off the ribbon.