Steve Braunias on learning to drive

Driving is awesome. My girlfriend taught me one night last year on the wharves in downtown Wellington. “I don’t know about this,” I whimpered. It was a dark night, barely a smudge of stars in the sky, no moon – the brightest lights were shining off jetties on the black, black water. I thought about a previous driving attempt. It was also in Wellington, also the idea of a girlfriend, and even closer to the harbour, along the coast road around Karaka Bay, and although that time was in broad daylight, it only took oh, say, 20 seconds between starting the car and driving it straight off the road into the sea. I thought we might drown or, more likely, that I would die of shame.

Driving is a thing of joy that lasts forever. At my age I don’t have much of a forever left but better late than never. “You can do it,” she said. “I’ll show you.” I love looking at her and she was an adorable sight driving around the wharf in a tight dress and high heels. It was a cold night. We’d been to dinner at our favourite restaurant, the Jasmine, a windowless little love nest up the top of a winding staircase off Lambton Quay, and then decided on an evening stroll by the harbour. I put my arm around her, we kissed, green lights burned all night across the harbour on the Petone jetty.

Driving is terrifying. “Okay,” I said to her, my voice shaking. The most successful attempt I ever made was a few years ago down on the wharves in Dunedin, where my good friend Shayne gave me lessons. Over the next two days, I drove Shayne’s maroon Nissan Maxima automatic around Aramoana and good old Milton but the hairiest it got was near the wharf when I turned a corner into the path of a Kenworth truck. “You’ve got this, Stevie B,” Shayne said, but I could tell he was thinking of the unpleasant consequences if his prediction was proved dead wrong.

Driving is easy. I forgot everything Shayne had patiently, expertly taught me in Dunedin but it mattered not. After a few false starts, and keeping well away from the black, black water, with its unknown depths and countless sunken treasures, I got the hang of things; I started off driving slowly, at a crawl, but my girlfriend cheered me on (“You look so cute!”) and claimed I was moving at exhilarating speeds. Encouraged, I soon drove at what actually were exhilarating speeds. I conquered that wharf. I took Wellington. “Next,” I shouted, “I’ll take Auckland.”

Driving is something I do all the time these days in Auckland. I opened the front gate the other day and ran into my neighbour, Peter. I asked what he was up to and he said he was taking a bag of butterflied chicken to cook at a friend’s house around the corner. He was walking, it wasn’t far. He asked what I was up to and I said I was going to drive to the top of the street to buy an iceblock at the dairy. It wasn’t far, either. I could tell he was thinking: Steve’s the Man.

Driving is a way of seeing things differently, also smelling things differently – it’s strange, but the speed of driving gives scent a kind of urgency, as though it, too, is travelling at speed. When I motor the back streets of my neighbourhood, I catch great whiffs of herbs; it’s like I’m driving through a farm. And then I head for the coast, and it’s like I’m driving through the sea. The smell of salt is strong, intoxicating, wonderful. I’ve spent my life stopping to smell the roses. It’s been a good life. But this life is even more richly scented.

Driving is dangerous. You have to watch for pedestrians. God, what a nuisance they are! They think they own the pavement. You have to be careful of traffic, too, and travelling downhill at exhilarating speeds. Suburban trees, suburban speed, and it smells like heaven; I’m like the roadunner, and then I park the scooter outside my front gate, and hope that it’s still there in the morning if I want to go up to the dairy or catch the bus. Driving is like a new way of living, and I have my girlfriend to thank. She always makes me feel alive.

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