momready archives

Drive Time

Posted by Elisa Taub
Drive Time

by Tracy Scott Miller

Before you’re a parent, nobody tells you about the driving. Okay, there are lots of things about parenting nobody tells you beforehand; for example, that many of the daily jobs of parenting are drudgery, plain and simple. But the driving definitely took me by surprise. Back in the days before I had kids, driving meant freedom to me. A Californian born and bred, I took to the freeway as an escape. At age 16 it was driving the winding mountain pass to Santa Cruz, at 25 driving Sunset Boulevard to the ocean. Even commuting had a meditative element, and at least I got to listen to NPR. But as a parent, driving has become a chore. There’s driving to school and back, to soccer practice, doctors’ appointments, playdates, and field trips. It’s boring, repetitive and time-consuming.

When my two boys were younger, I drove back and forth to my kids’ school, a 20 minute trip, twice daily. There were days when I had to make the trip a mind-numbing four times a day. When your kids are just old enough to see out the windows and notice what’s going on out there, you start pointing out everything that could possibly be of interest to a two-year-old, to pass the time and prevent car seat-induced meltdowns. You find yourself saying, “Oooh, fire truck!” even when there aren’t any kids in your car, which can be rather confusing when you’re chauffeuring your hip, still-childless friends. You sort of sound like a crazy person.

For years I have cursed all this driving, but now I find that driving the same route over and over actually affords me insight into the neighborhoods I cruise through. I’ve absorbed the atmosphere, and learned the quirks and rhythms of the places. I’ve watched the same commuters leaving their driveways at the same time each day, seen puppies grow into dogs, and babies in strollers begin to toddle and then to run.

Most days, driving home from school with the kids in the car, I would see a man dressed in a white puffy blouse and black trousers, boots, cape, mask and hat, carrying a thin fencing sword. He trudged along, looking for all the world like a tired hero on his way home after vanquishing his enemies. I would see him wearing the same get-up even in insane summer heat.

He was clearly crazy, just another sad, deluded character you would see in any city. But I wondered what made him so obsessed, to dress this way every single day. Had he suffered a breakdown on a college trip to Spain? Or perhaps he was a minor league fencer and devotee of Spanish history, gone mad when his Olympic dreams failed? But there was no way to know – only the sight of a man with a sword, walking tiredly up the sidewalk every afternoon.

One day I took a slightly different route home, along Hollywood Boulevard, near the famed Chinese Theater, a route I usually avoided because of the crowds. And then I saw him, my Zorro, standing on the sidewalk in front of the theater, next to Superman, Marilyn Monroe, Elmo and Spiderman, entertaining the tourists and making tips posing for photos. He wasn’t dressed like Zorro to satisfy the voices in his head, being Zorro was his job! Mystery solved. And the kids loved it. We had to change our route and add to our drive time so they could see their favorite superheroes on the sidewalk.

Of course, in the urban landscape I drive through, sometimes quirkiness gives way to edginess. And facing the realities of city life can bring up interesting parenting issues, usually before I’m ready to face them. When my eldest boy was seven, he finally noticed the strip club we had been passing on the way to school for several years. Or at least, he was finally able to read the sign that said, “Nude girls”. “Are there naked girls in there?” he asked. “Well, I guess so…” I began. He cut me off with a disbelieving look, and said, “Why?” Good question.

Beyond talk about strippers and superheroes, my secret hope was that driving wasn’t really drudgery – it was quality time with my kids. Time to share, and communicate. Hah. On the way to school, at the ungodly hour of 7:30 am, my kids are too tired to do anything more than poke each other occasionally. My cheerful “What’s happening at school today, guys?” is met with silence, or a grunting “I dunno.”

And the drive home is equally satisfying. “How was school today, guys? What did you do? What fabulous things did you to learn today?” And the answer? First, there is the stare – the “why are you asking me” stare. Then the answer. “I don’t remember.” How can they not remember? It was nine seconds ago. Where is the reward for all this driving?

Carpool. That’s where. As the kids got older I started sharing driving duties with other parents – taking gangs of kids home from school, to soccer games. But carpooling didn’t just mean less driving. It also meant I finally got a little access to the secret world of kids (shh, don’t tell them). Before carpool, I was alone in the car with my boys, and I got no information. But now my car is filled with kids. No one even notices me. I just drive and listen, a fly on the wall as they talk amongst themselves. And it’s better than a simple report of the day’s activities -- I also get to hear their worries, their struggles, their little life philosophies. It’s all I can do to keep from laughing, or crying, or joining in. But of course I keep my mouth shut. I don't want to jinx it. I almost enjoy driving the kids these days. Now if I could just do domething about gas prices...

Tracy Scott Miller is a writer and mother of three who lives in Los Angeles, California.