How the Pandemic and a Bunch of Lunatics Taught Me to Drive

A carless liberal flees New York City for Reno.

Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photo: Getty Images

Right away, my first driving instructor in Reno made a few things very clear:

1. I suck at driving. (Which makes sense, considering I had signed up for driving lessons.)

2. He is a “full-blooded Italian.”

3. His ex-wife is a cheating whore.

I asked him only one question during our 90-minute lesson: “What brought you to Reno?” But for John that was no less complex than “What were the causes of the First World War?” While I should have been watching the road, I was instead fixated on his mask, which struggled to cover John’s monumental nose while his mouth below recounted a saga of lies and heartache. (Names throughout this story have been changed.) By the end of our time together, I knew all about his ex-wife’s affair with a “Mexican,” the secret abortion she got — which her ex–best friend Connie told John all about — and how three of his four children don’t talk to him anymore. (A mystery in its own right.) I also knew I wasn’t going to book another lesson with him, an easy decision after he told me that he’d considered murdering his ex-wife, only choosing not to because he didn’t want to go to jail and leave his children fatherless.

John wasn’t my first crazy driving instructor. Growing up in a carless Manhattan household, I didn’t get my license when I was a teen like most people did. After I graduated from college at age 20, however, I decided I ought to learn in order to become a real adult. It didn’t go so well! My instructor, a pot-bellied Russian man named Alexei, exclusively wore sweatpants with suspenders and yelled at me whenever I made a tiny little mistake. I have a memory of him making me get on the FDR when I was nowhere near ready to, my sweaty palms grabbing the wheel like my life depended on it, while Alexei screamed, “Faster! Faster!” As it turns out, having someone constantly yell at you is not helpful when you’re learning something new, so when my exam came around, I didn’t pass. I took that as a sign from the universe that getting behind the wheel wasn’t for me — plus I hated driving because I associated it with getting scolded and feeling like I was going to die. I proceeded to spend the next six and a half years car free and carefree.

Then the pandemic hit, and moving out of New York, a city where having a car is more of a burden than an asset, became a financial necessity. As it turns out, there are many affordable places to live in the U.S., and in almost all of them, you need a car to get around. I landed on Reno and had an extremely nice friend drive me, my boyfriend, and all our stuff across the country. Learning how to drive went from something I should probably do to something I needed to do as soon as possible.

After my lesson with John, I was worried. Would it be possible for me to find a driving instructor who was kind, patient, and, most of all, not openly homicidal? My next lesson was with Alex, a jockish millennial who was an associate of John’s. He also had an ex-wife, but if he did contemplate murdering her, he kept it to himself. He also made sure to tell me that I was really, really bad, which was a self-fulfilling prophecy because of how much it shook my confidence.

Alex wasn’t a maniac, but he made me feel like I was incapable of learning how to drive, and he didn’t even do me the courtesy of giving me another colorful story about a crazy driving teacher. Was I destined to be stuck in cars with various men who were seemingly paid to provide driving guidance and to lower my self-esteem? The biggest idiots in the world know how to drive, I thought, and somehow, I can’t do it. After taking a two-week breather, I called up another driving school in Reno, which I initially avoided because of some unfortunate Google reviews. This place had something special, a secret weapon that no other driving school I had gone to possessed: an instructor who was also a WOMAN!

My first lesson with Janet was lovely. She had long hair that was light brown and speckled with gray, a gentle voice, and a distinctly maternal aura. Our conversations were easy. She told me about almost drowning in the Truckee River as a child and getting saved by a kindly fisherman. I told her all my driving-teacher horror stories. She responded in an appropriately horrified way and immediately understood that I needed encouragement. Being encouraging was in her nature: Chugging along in an old Toyota Camry, she would tell me when I made a mistake and what I needed to work on but did so tenderly. “Your right turns are too wide, so let’s work on those,” she commented. When I finally nailed those turns, she was quick to tell me that I did a great job. “Good, good, good,” she would almost purr as I came to a perfect stop at an intersection. “Good girl,” she said as I managed to navigate the freeway without having an anxiety attack. Janet convinced me that I was absolutely going to become a good driver, and that one day, driving would even be fun for me. (She also gave me more gossip on John, who apparently used to work for her driving school, then betrayed it to start his own business.)

Each lesson with Janet was two hours, and inevitably we ended up having meandering conversations about our lives and the world. These lessons coincided with the election, and Janet, I soon discovered, was a Trump supporter. As it turns out, when you leave a major metropolitan area in a solid blue state for the purple pastures of the West, you are bound to have to interact with people whose political views you might find abhorrent. (In 2016, Hillary won Washoe County, surrounding Reno, by only 2,621 votes.)

When we weren’t talking about politics, our interactions could be kind of strangely nice or entertainingly weird. Like in one of our last lessons, right after Christmas, I mentioned I was Jewish. She told me that even though Jewish people are “the chosen ones,” she believes that one day we will find Christ. I thought that perspective was too funny to be offensive. Janet could be so sweet. She gave me some of her 100-year-old sourdough starter, which is a really precious gift if you know anything about sourdough, and even more precious during a time when you’re forced to be inside your house all the damn time.

From October to December, Janet was the only person whom I regularly spoke to in the flesh aside from my boyfriend. In a sense, it was the closest thing I’ve had to a friendship in Reno, on account of the pandemic — and I’m not sure how I feel about that. When we did end up talking about politics, I felt sad. This person who, in many ways, is so lovely, who didn’t even become a Republican until late in her life, had been totally sucked into the cult of Trump. She got her information from right-wing cable news and the Epoch Times. Her sister didn’t talk to her anymore, she told me, because of politics.

I’m not someone who believes that you should immediately cease contact with a person just because they voted for Donald Trump. If Trump is a con artist, shouldn’t we treat his supporters like the victims of a scam? I don’t think total hostility toward people like Janet is a sustainable way to exist in a country where 74 million people voted for that horrible man. There’s a huge right-wing propaganda apparatus in place to ensure that people don’t have access to true information, and further cutting them off from other viewpoints isn’t going to make them suddenly realize that they’re being lied to by Fox News or whatnot.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I liked talking politics with Janet. I hated it. I did not care for feeling stressed out about how our country is ever going to recover from Trumpism while I was learning how to safely operate a death machine. She mostly spoke about politics in vague terms, but I would push back when she would say something blatantly untrue, like “BLM was founded by white Marxist women” or “the election was rigged because of voting machines from Venezuela.”

“We should always support our president,” she said, repeating a refrain of the average Trump voter. “No,” I told her. “We shouldn’t have total loyalty to any politician. They are working for us, and we should treat them as such.”

In one lesson, I was driving in a quiet residential neighborhood, when we saw a coyote walking on the sidewalk. “You know,” she told me, “it’s legal to shoot coyotes in Nevada” and invited me to go out shooting coyotes with her and husband. I won’t be taking her up on that offer, not really on account of politics, but because I wouldn’t feel good about shooting an animal, especially one that looks exactly like a dog. She also invited me to stay at her home in Lake Tahoe, which I knew I could never accept. I don’t believe in shunning Trump supporters, but I’m also not especially interested in having a legitimate friendship with someone who is itching to relay right-wing conspiracy theories. Trump has occupied so much of my mental energy for the past four years, and I can’t wait to go a day without thinking of him.

Something Janet would often repeat, something she told me right before I took my test, was, “I’m really worried about the direction this country is going in.” And I could say, totally honestly, but for the opposite reasons, “Me too.”

On December 30, I finally got my driver’s license. It was a joyous occasion — along with getting totally sober, learning how to drive was the hardest thing I’ve done in my adult life. I was happy that Janet was with me at the DMV, that we could squeal with delight together. “I knew you could do it,” she told me. “I didn’t,” I said. “But I did it. I got my fucking driver’s license!”

I haven’t seen Janet since, but a month later, one of her prophecies has come true. No, I haven’t found Jesus, and no, Trump has not magically cheated his way into a second term. But I have come to love driving, and I couldn’t have done it without Janet.

How the Pandemic and a Bunch of Lunatics Taught Me to Drive