It was just past rush hour, right around 6:30. I was heading north on 59 in a hurry. Just as I turned on my left blinker to signal my intent to scooch over to the fast lane, I glanced at my left rearview mirror and was greeted by a METRO bus, in all its hulking, rectangular splendor, abruptly switching into the leftmost lane before shifting into lightspeed to zoom past my puny blue Ford Taurus.
My lane change had been thwarted. The gauntlet had been thrown. Whereas in the past I would have mumbled a few choice words under my breath, this time I sped up to within flipping-off distance of my newfound foe. It felt like the right move, given my wounded pride—and, fine, my hunch that city bus drivers probably aren’t packing heat. Now spitting distance from the front of the bus, I laid on my horn while jabbing my middle finger at the driver.
If my nemesis saw the gesture, he didn’t react. He probably couldn’t even see me. Still, it felt like a rite of passage. I imagined Sam Houston, sitting in a celestial traffic jam, smiling down on me from heaven. For the first time, I felt like a Houston driver.
I grew up in tiny Uvalde, Texas—population 16,000, not counting livestock. For much of my life, Houston felt a world away, even though it was just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from my quaint little hometown. I’ve associated Houston itself with driving for as long as I can remember, and hard, crazy driving at that, full of traffic and complicated roadways that could throw off even the most seasoned drivers.
Drivers like my dad. My first memory of Bayou City is a trip my family took to see relatives down in Clear Lake when I was 9. It was pretty late and pitch-black outside. All of a sudden Dad lost it—he’d missed what he thought was the right exit toward Uncle Joe and Aunt Laurie’s—unleashing a torrent of expletives as my mom tried in vain to calm him down. I’ll never forget the sight of my dad so flustered, the first time I’d ever seen him wholly out of control. Houston 1; Willie Edwards 0. As for me, I learned my lesson: Don’t mess with Houston, country boy.
Some years later, when it was time for me to learn to drive, I didn’t exactly take to it, even in my own hometown. The first time I commanded a vehicle on an actual public road, I was 15. Dad put me behind the wheel of his cherry-red GMC pickup truck, out on a two-lane stretch of Highway 55 outside Uvalde. With the windows hand-cranked all the way down and the wind blowing in my hair, it felt like something out of a movie—a horror movie. Convinced I’d somehow hit 100 miles per hour, I was terrified. When I finally pulled over, heart racing, Dad told me I'd never gotten past 30.
Soon it was time for driver’s ed. After weeks of classes leading up to my 16th birthday, I took my final exam, which consisted of driving down a 14-mile chunk of highway so flat and empty, you could almost see all the way down it. I passed with flying colors and was rewarded with an authentic Texas driver’s license, which apparently was valid outside sleepy cow country, too. It seemed like some sort of mistake that I’d been deemed qualified to take on the mean streets of metropolises like Houston, but who was I to argue with TxDOT?
And so it happened that three years later, I found myself rolling into Houston behind the wheel of my first car, a white ’99 Ford Taurus. It was July 2009. I’d been accepted to Rice and was headed into town for a pre-orientation community-service project.
Even though I was eager to leave small-town life behind, my fear of driving in Houston hadn’t faded in the slightest. My dad still felt it, too. We figured it would be smart for me to get in some driving practice while a co-pilot was handy. I did pretty well to start, although Dad informed me I needed to pick up more speed when merging onto the highway from the access road (we didn’t know to call them “feeders” yet, bless our hearts).
Just when I was feeling something akin to confident, I met my match in the 610 Loop. Dad told me we should probably exit soon, so I flipped my blinker on, glanced over at my passenger-side mirror, and started shifting to the right, totally oblivious to the motorcycle in my blind spot. Luckily Dad saw him at the last possible second, yelling out “Schaef, stop!” just in the nick of time. If he hadn’t looked over right then, that motorcyclist might be dead. It was the closest I’d ever come to killing someone. Still is. All of a sudden I felt like a kid from the country again, in way over his head.
My freshman year at Rice, I was the only one in my suite of four with a mode of transportation. My new buddies quickly christened my thoroughly uncool Taurus “The Spaceship,” thanks to its funky oval tail lights, which looked like something out of a bad ’80s sci-fi movie.
Unfortunately I still wasn’t comfortable driving in Houston. I quickly gained a reputation for trying to offload the responsibility whenever I could. My favorite move was to toss my keys at a friend unexpectedly on the way to the parking lot, calling “Shotgun!” as soon as he caught the keys. It was a decent trick to keep myself out of the driver’s seat, but it didn’t always work. And so, bit by bit, I was forced to become familiar with the paved terrain surrounding campus, even if, in classic behind-the-hedges Rice fashion, said terrain was limited to the section of Holcombe with a Taco Bell, Whataburger, and Spec’s.
Before sophomore year, The Spaceship died on the side of I-10, never to be resurrected. My folks replaced it with another Taurus, this one blue and newer but still dorky. My friends gave me crap about it, but I was just happy to have a working A/C and stereo.
A senior-year move off-campus with my suitemates to a house in Riverside Terrace meant no more opting out of the driver’s seat. Out of necessity I started to explore areas outside my Rice-adjacent comfort zone. Soon enough I knew, to the minute, what time I had to hit the road to miss the morning rush while devising alternate routes home to avoid late-day traffic. Just like a real city dweller.
After graduating I knew I wanted to stay in Houston, mostly because I’d started dating a lovely Rice gal named Meghan. Without a job in hand, though, I moved in with Uncle Joe and Aunt Laurie down in Clear Lake. Meg lived on campus that summer, and I lost count of how many times I drove up and down 45 to see her those next few months.
By summer’s end I knew that highway like the back of my hand. Then came my first real job, a gig on the marketing team for Saint Arnold Brewing Company that required me to crisscross every inch of Houston, spreading the gospel of craft beer to the masses in a big old van full of brews. Along the way I discovered more nooks and crannies of the Bayou City than I could ever count, which helped inspire countless adventures with Meg. With every new part of the city that we explored together, we fell further in love—with Houston, and each other.
In one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs, Régine Chassagne sings, “I’ve been learning to drive my whole life.” That line always comes to mind when I think back on the miles and miles I’ve now logged on the streets, highways, and spaghetti bowls of concrete that make up Houston, the city I now call home. Learning to drive doesn’t just happen—there’s no switch that gets flipped and stays that way. It’s a process that never really stops.
The same goes for growing up, or falling in love, whether it’s with a person or a city. Just because you’re a grown man with a family doesn’t mean a dark stretch of road far from home can’t leave you feeling like a scared kid again. And I didn’t just become a Houstonian in one magical instant—after living here for nine years, after finding the love of my life, or even after the moment I finally felt confident enough to give an overly aggressive METRO bus a piece of my mind. It was, is, and will be a process that continues one mile at a time.