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The Column

Teaching an Old Dog New Sticks
10/5/03

My name is Steve, and I'm a shotgun-a-holic.

I don't mean the "get off my lawn!" kind of shotgun. Or the "I can only drink beer when I do it creatively" kind of shotgun. I mean the "riding along side a friend, controlling the radio, making phone calls, and allegedly looking out for the street signs" kind of shotgun. That is where I feel at home.

There are a lot of rules to calling shotgun, and many of them change depending on what group of friends you're with. But here are my basics:

1) The car must be within sight.
2) Everyone riding in the car must be outside.
3) The car's owner doesn't have to ride in the back if he doesn't want to.
4) The driver can overrule anything.
5) Numbered lists are an easy way of filling column space.

Some people may disagree with me on the first two. And they're allowed to, because the most important unwritten rule of shotgun is that house rules rule. The second most important unwritten rule is that no one fewer than five feet tall is ever allowed to call shotgun in a compact car.

The reason shotgun is so important to me is because I can never call "driver." Not legally, anyway. I, like at least four other Americans above the age of 16, do not have a valid driver's license. And I don't mean like the Portland Trailblazers don't have driver's licenses, because that was the jury's decision. I don't have a license because I've never had one. And up until now, I've never needed one. But now that I do, I'm screwed.

I am in the middle of a cross-country road trip, and in the past month, I've been in 13 different states. I've driven in more than half of them (Shhh, don't tell), but it's only when we have the luxury of time, when we're in really bad traffic, or when everyone else is drunk. And when I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE. If there's a paraplegic with a clubbed-foot and a tic nursing an O'Doul's in the corner of the room, he'd be a better bet than me.

For the amount I've been driving, I'm not that bad. Compared to anyone else, however, I'm atrocious. But that's because you only get good at driving as you do more of it. Driving is like sex that way. While some people are more naturally in tune with the process, you can't really learn any more by reading the manual. Though some guys read those manuals constantly.

We all learned to drive at some point, but people act like they always knew. They expect me to know what I'm doing, even though I've already told them I just started learning. Maybe I should take that as a compliment, since they expect I can learn quicker than other people. Though "you damn moron, can't you drive?" is an odd way to phrase a compliment.

So I, along with many 15-year-olds, am doing the best I can to learn what millions of people already know: how to find the slope of a sine curve. Also, how to drive. Thankfully, I can concentrate on driving without worrying about how I'll do on the SATs.

I do want the freedom that comes with being able to drive. But not the thousands of dollars in insurance payments that come with that. Did you know it would cost me $8,000 to insure a car? That's right - because I'm a new driver, live in New York, drive more than four hours a day, and am under 25, I have to pay more to insure my car than I do to own it. Which seemed sort of silly, at first. That's like buying an $800 computer and paying $1000 for the warranty. But then I realized that, when operated incorrectly, a computer won't kill anyone. Except if you operate it incorrectly by dropping it on someone's head.

I will be able to drive by New Year's, I promise. And I mean legally drive, not the crap I've been doing. If I continue to practice while we're on the road, I will probably drive in more states than most people have been in, even before I get my license. It helps that I recently drove from one side of the "Welcome to Virginia" sign to the other. (Take that, North Carolina!)

In the meantime, I will continue to operate the radio, misfold the map, and use up all of the night and weekend minutes I can. And, like any good passenger would, I will continue to drive my friends crazy.

And don't you dare try to call shotgun.

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