Bergdorf Goodman Essay
Women are many things, but when they write they are “women writers,” and when they drive they are “women drivers.” In politics, where we make up a minority, the distinction might be understandable, but when we occupy half the vehicles on the road, it bears investigation.
Who is the woman driver? Is she doing 50 in the left lane? Or passing you at 90, mid-laugh, her hair whipping out the window? Does she own a convertible or a station wagon? A white luxury SUV or Cadillac? Is she splitting town with Lucinda Williams on her stereo, or does she make her commute to a steady sound track of self-help? Is she wearing jeans and aviators or driving in heels while applying lipstick? Or is she a woman of a certain age, both hands on the wheel, hair stiff, eyes shellacked, the turn signal indicating a perennial left? The images are disparate and varied—it seems like for every botched parking job, for every man cut off, there’s yet another “woman driver.”
There’s something about women and driving that seems to bring up outdated attitudes. It’s still a bit of a production when we take the wheel in front of a man, and inordinately impressive when we do it well. I’ve never met a man who didn’t make it feel like driving his car was an important gesture, and I can’t imagine passing that initial test without hearing it appraised. Driving, and especially driving stick, still has a certain caché—like playing pool or, once upon a time, smoking a cigar. Even though I resist the idea that there’s something special about a woman driving, I have to admit that one of the compliments I enjoyed most was from my grandfather—a former commissioner of the 24 Heures du Mans—who said, without any elaboration, that I was a good driver. Though it’s hard to imagine an occasion on which he’d let me drive his car.
Living in New York City, people think you’re crazy if you have a car—and if you’ve tried to find a parking spot, you agree with them. A woman can know a man for a while before she ever sees him drive. And so getting into a car for the first time is a revealing moment in a relationship—akin to seeing a man first enter the kitchen with intent. Behind the wheel or behind the burner, there’s no place to hide. I love to drive, but I’m also curious to see how someone will drive me—are they hot-tempered or levelheaded? Can they take direction? (Though I know better than to offer advice.) In the end, I love to be driven and wonder if the same isn’t true of more men these days. I’ve always seen a man’s comfort in the passenger seat as a real sign of general confidence. In New York we walk, we bike, we taxi. When desperate, we rent. But there’s something to be said for taking off at a moment’s notice or bringing a desk back from Brimfield. Some part of me still likes a man to own his own car—and not just a hand-me-down from college—a real car, a sleek one, one that stays quiet when it’s unleashed in the left lane. Maybe even a German. If the car I want for a man is not the car I want for myself, it doesn’t mean I want pastels or vases, vanity mirrors or purse buckets or any of the other design gimmicks that are calculated to appeal to women. Driving has always been a part of a broader context for me. It’s the car, the clothes, the soundtrack, the destination. At fourteen it was a pickup with a bench seat, a tank top, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and a long road in Wyoming. In college it was a brown Mercedes, a silk blouse, Nick Drake, and a weekend upstate. Right now I’m dreaming of a Citroën 2CV, a St. James shirt and fall on an island in France. What do all of these cars have in common? It’s hard to say—it’s not speed, it’s not power—they represent ideals of escape. One thing they don’t do is talk to you—they don’t think they know the best way to get somewhere, they don’t over-react when you squeeze into a parking spot, and they don’t complain when their wiper fluid is low. I don’t want an entertainment center. I don’t want a computer. I don’t want a triumph of sculptural design. What I want from a car, and what I want from driving, is just the same as anyone who loves to do it—I want a connection to the road. BG