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For most Americans, the car signals pride of ownership. "My car takes corners on a dime, five cents change." "My first car was a '67 Mustang." The car is the ultimate American icon of freedom. We escape to privacy and reverie behind the wheel. We eat what we want in the driver's seat. It's the place where you can belt out "Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose" with the wind whipping your hair into frenzy. Reporter Nancy Updike found out that, given how beloved our cars are to us, losing the driving privilege can push a person to totally redefine a life.

End of the Road

By Nancy Updike, 9/7/2001

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I got my driver's license the week I turned 16, and I could not have waited one more day. I grew up in the suburbs - on Long Island - and not being able to drive was like not being able to breathe. We lived at the top of a huge hill, in a neighborhood that was way too quiet - no kids around - and I lived for the day when I could get in a car, drive down that hill, and begin my life.

I live in Los Angeles now, and I met a woman named Esther Gospe the other day who reminded me of myself. She learned to drive when she was 16 too. She's 86 now, and tiny (four foot 7) with blue eyes and a longish face. Esther stopped driving around 6 months ago (her eyesight's not what it used to be), and she's gotten some odd responses to her decision.

Esther: "I talked to some people..."
"Everybody has accidents so just get in the car and drive" - this might as well be the bumper sticker on the back of our country. We just don't want to face it: we are all gonna have to stop driving someday, and when we do, it's probably gonna make our lives worse.
Esther: "I go for a walk every day...just kind of hard."
Driving, by itself, can't make you less lonely. But it can take you to a museum, or a library, or a volunteer job, or a restaurant...all the places Esther used to go, that she doesn't go to anymore.

Esther and her husband worked hard, and invested carefully, to be able to live in this pretty condominium complex, with a tennis court and a pool, up a street that dead ends so it stays quiet and doesn't get a lot of traffic. But it's not a bus route. You can't walk anywhere from it. Esther tried taxis but gave up on them after one left her stranded following an appointment. She won't take the city's special van service for the elderly anymore either, because it came late the one time she used it.

You might not realize it from this conversation, but Esther is funny. She can deadpan, and she doesn't seem fragile, even though she's small. But she's 86 - and she's strugging. Not being able to drive isn't her biggest problem; it's just one more loss among many. But it isolates her, and that's compounding all her difficulties.

Esther: "My husband died two years ago in July...a great deal."
Perhaps the biggest change in Esther's life is how hard it's become for her to ask for help, just when she needs it most. When you can't drive, every favor you ask for automatically becomes two favors: can you do this for me, and also can you also pick me up and drop me back at home? Esther has become reluctant to call on friends for anything except necessities - occasional trips to doctor's appointments, help figuring out bills or papers she doesn't understand. She won't ask them anymore to go to the movies, or to dinner.

It is different for me, because I'm younger, but I've been worrying about who I could turn to, to take care of me, my whole life. Getting in a car at 16 was a way to say, "screw it. I'll take care of myself." But you can't live that way forever.

Esther, early on in our conversation talked about how she couldn't understand people her age who just refuse to give up driving, even when it's dangerous. She said it reminded her of those L.A. car chases - made famous by O.J. Simpson - where some guy is driving down the freeway with 15 cops tailing him, and TV news helicopters broadcasting his flight all over the country, and he just can't make himself stop the car. He knows that once he stops driving, his life is gonna fall apart. And he's right.

I'm nancy updike for The Savvy Traveler.

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Nancy produced this piece in association with hearingvoices.com.

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