Monday, February 27, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

Kids who grew up in New York City are probably considered freaks by the rest of the country in a very general way, but there is one specific way that they are freaky and that has to do with driving. Ask any other American when they started driving and they’ll say something like, The second I turned 16, or even something like, My dad let me drive his truck when I was like 14 and I could barely reach the pedals! Ask someone who grew up in New York when they started driving and they’ll say something like, I guess I was like 28 or something. I just wanted to go upstate on the weekends. Or even, Oh god, I should probably learn to drive already!

Now don’t get me wrong. There are definitely some New York City teenagers that learned to drive at the proper age due to, for example, living in Queens and going to high school way up in the Bronx, as it happens sometimes. These were the only friends I had who had cars and so I did experience the occasional pile up of teenagers heading out to a diner, but nothing so dangerous as drunken teenagers driving around after a party. More common for us was the drinking of Old Mr. Boston out of a paper bag on the D train, or falling drunkenly down the subway steps. Safer? You decide.

So my point is that learning to drive is not one of these huge teenage milestones for New Yorkers, but rather this thing you get around to eventually. My experience was no different. The summer after I turned 17 I took some driving lessons with this guy who owned a driving school and happened to be friends with my stepfather. All I remember about these lessons is that the guy talked about one thing and one thing only and that was The Who, who happened to be touring that summer. I have almost no other memory of these lessons and after they were over, they were just over. The guy went to follow The Who on tour and I never took a driving test, nor did I even drive a car for some time afterward. My permit expired. I went through all of college not knowing how to drive but knowing people who knew how to drive. This suited me for quite a while. Then when I was 26 years old and living in Astoria I took driving lessons again. There was no real reason for me to learn to drive except that I figured that I might need to drive someday and I might as well be ready. Little did I know that a few years later I would move to upstate New York and would find myself behind the wheel of a car every single day. Every single day, just in case that was not clear.

But meanwhile, back in Astoria. My driving instructor was maybe around 30 and was a dead ringer for Ricky Ricardo. And I don’t mean Desi Arnaz, but Ricky Ricardo, if you can see the distinction, which is impossible to explain. He was dashingly handsome and frustratedly impatient with me as I navigated the unbelievably crowded streets of Astoria. I didn’t really think about where I was learning to drive exactly, but when I returned to Astoria, years later, and saw cars doing broken U-turns in the middle of the streets everywhere (a habit which I’m afraid I picked up as well) all I could say was, Oh my god, I learned to drive here!

I took 15 lessons and then Ricky decided I needed 15 more lessons. I think he was right, but I also think that he knew it would be an easy 50 bucks or whatever it was. Oh, and remember the written test you have to take? The best part about that test is that you only have to pass, and that it does not matter which questions you got wrong. So you can actually get a driver’s license even if you think the correct answer to “What should you do if a pedestrian crosses in front of your car?” is “Press down harder on the gas pedal.”

Ricky was constantly fed up with me, but he did like to talk about himself a lot and where he was going out that night and I could always distract him with questions of this sort. But you could tell that he almost always wanted to just grab the wheel from me. On the day of the driving test, the minute I got into the car with the instructor I felt myself actually trembling. Ricky was hanging around outside and I still remember the look of total horror on his face as, in my panic, I proceeded to “press down harder on the gas pedal” and truly peeled out of the parking lot. But the minute I got going, I managed to drive totally normally and I even parallel parked perfectly, something that still eludes me to this day. And I passed! At last I was no longer a freak!

I didn’t drive again for another four years.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Includes Outdoor Space!

For much of my childhood I lived on the ninth floor of a fairly large apartment building in the Bronx, which for some reason I found a picture of online, but its industrial good looks are not worth reproducing here. Inside, however, the apartment was gorgeous and huge: three bedrooms for my mother, stepfather, and me, which meant that the extra bedroom was turned into a “den,” just like on The Brady Bunch.

And for anyone who grew up with an actual backyard, here is what we kids did on our urban terraces pretty much all the time. (What you are missing in this picture is my friend sitting next to me wearing a blue shirt and white shorts, which we had planned via the phone that morning, but I feel that I can only take responsibility for pictures of this sort of myself.)

Now in case you think this tiny space was maybe kind of restrictive, just remember that our thoughts tended to go vertically instead of horizontally (though I did roller skate back and forth on this terrace, but only for practice). My daughters are thrilled by the tales I have told of what my friend and I used to throw off the terrace down to the street below. We started with ripped up pieces of napkins, hoping that someone below might mistake it for snow. Then we decided to use ripped up pieces of cheese with the hopeful thought that someone walking along might get the idea to look up, maybe to see if it would rain or something, and would suddenly see something falling from the sky. That person would then say, Oh! and the piece of cheese would land right into his or her unlucky mouth (it never occurred to us that someone might even like a piece of cheese landing in his or her mouth). The problem was that we were so high up that it was hard to tell if someone was ever looking up into the sky, and we could never get the timing right if that really did happen. Plus my mother was always saying, What happened to the cheese? I just bought some cheese yesterday! Where did it go?

Now that I think about it, I guess there must have been a pile of paper and/or cheese out in the front of our building much of the time, but I don’t think I ever noticed it.

But that’s not the only terrace I meant to talk about. Because meanwhile, across town, in my dad’s apartment on the Upper West Side, there was another terrace. Now if you knew me anytime between the ages of 7 and 27, it is very likely you were out on that terrace at some point. It was up on the fifteenth floor and it faced 73rd street and it was always cluttered, and I do mean cluttered, with tons of plants, including an ultimately enormous tree in a container that my dad picked up off the street (recall my dad’s habit of picking things up off the street), but it had a great view, even if its wide brick ledge made it nearly impossible to throw anything off.

There are plenty of stories about that particular terrace, but the one I want to tell is one in which I used the terrace to break into the apartment. I was maybe around 20 and my dad and stepmother were at their house upstate and I was planning to stay in their apartment for the weekend. I had taken the train in from the Bronx and it was right at the front door I realized I had forgotten my keys. I knew that I could probably get into the building somehow, but there was no way to get into the apartment once I got up there. Or was there? Now since my father had built a greenhouse on the terrace, the only real door separating the terrace from the apartment was actually an iron gate. I knew the key to that gate was in the living room. If I could get as far as the gate, I could probably figure out how to get in from there.

I thought about this for a while standing in front of the building. If my dad's terrace was on the fifteenth floor, I could probably climb over from the terrace on the fifteenth floor in the apartment next door. Would someone actually let me do this? I went to the building next door and buzzed the top floor apartment. When a person asked who I was, I explained that I was locked out and could I please climb into my apartment through his terrace. You may be surprised that it only took a little confused back and forth discussion via the buzzer before I was actually buzzed in. Was the guy just curious? I have no idea. He met me when I got off the elevator and I explained my predicament again, even giving details about my dad in case the guy happened to know him (he didn't). But he did let me walk through his apartment to his terrace and then climb onto my dad's terrace, to which I thanked him profusely. I wondered if even for a second the guy wondered if it was just an excuse and that I was going to rob the apartment next door. If so, he didn't let on. I may not have looked like a robber, but isn't that always the first mistake people make? Anyway.

I opened the greenhouse door and now there was only the iron gate separating me from the apartment itself. Basically the gate was just iron bars that I could fit my hand through, but not my entire body. I looked into the living room and there, hanging not too far across the room on a shelf, on a long chain, was the key to the gate, as I'd known it would be. But how would I get it down from the shelf? It was at that moment, and I kid you not, I suddenly remembered the Brady Bunch episode ("Ghost Town U.S.A.") in which they were locked in jail and they all put their belts together and, using them like a rope, managed to knock the keys to their jail cell off a hook and drag them back to their cell and escape. I used this very same ingenuity, with my very own belt, to knock that key to the gate down and drag it back to me. I unlocked the gate and I was in! Never was I so proud or so grateful for the hours and hours I spent watching The Brady Bunch as a child! I'd also like to add that after this experience I never forgot my keys again, but that would not really be honest.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Brief Musical Interlude

Back in 1979, when I had a record player in my room, I would make up my own dances to the music of Supertramp. I think I may have seen a modern dance performance once because I started, as you do, all curled up in a ball on my bed, and then I would, to the music, slowly unfold, which was meant to mimic birth, you see. This really meant to connect me to the deepness that is Supertramp. It was an album my mother’s friend had gotten me for my birthday. A strange gift really, for a nine-year-old, a record. How could this person have possibly known what music I liked? And I was a bit uneasy at first, you have to understand, having no idea what exactly Supertramp was supposed to be, or was supposed to do. But I soon discovered that the instrumental beginnings of some songs were just perfect for these dances I created in my bedroom. Many years later, a freshman in college, a boy I liked handed me the very same Supertramp album (an unwrapped cassette actually) for my birthday. Again I felt uneasy. What was it about this music? This time, I could hardly bear to listen to it because it brought back memories of those long ago dances in my room. And the boy, who played bass with long, skinny fingers that I could not get over, why exactly did he think I would want such a thing? I eventually asked him, Why Supertramp? I thought you should have this album, he said. And to this day, I cannot decide what I think of Supertramp and it’s likely I never will.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Chair of One's Own

In the fall of 1998, I started working at McGraw-Hill’s School Division, located then at Two Penn Plaza, literally right above Penn Station, i.e. the last place in the city you’d ever want to be. This is how I got my start in educational publishing, but it was completely accidental. I didn’t want this job and told the interviewer as much, but was then offered the job anyway. (I have been tempted to use this approach on other interviews, but have never been brave enough to actually try it.)

One of the more notable things about this job was a certain co-worker I had at the beginning. When he was gone my other co-workers and I finally were able to say out loud that he might have been something like 400 pounds. For about six months, we listened to his loud angry phone calls in which he tried to return things, such as a bed at a store called “Relax the Back” (which I can only say out loud in the serious angry way he said it) and his lunch on an almost daily basis because it was never quite right. For example: He wanted his broccoli not undercooked, did they understand that, because some people liked broccoli that wasn’t entirely cooked, but he didn’t, he could not eat it that way, and did they understand that? Sometimes the anger would be saved for the poor delivery boy who actually brought his (imperfect) lunch all the way up to the 23rd floor and then was given a mouthful for his effort.

Much of this anger (according to him, anyway) was based on the fact that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” threw a ball at his head when he was a kid and it permanently damaged him. I’m not entirely clear on when this happened exactly, or why, or how the guy in “The Fugitive” ended up throwing a ball at a kid in the late 1960s in a Boston suburb, but no matter. This was his story and it pretty much explained everything about him (according to him). Which is why we shouldn’t have been surprised when he smashed his chair to pieces in the office one afternoon. But we were all very very surprised, as a matter of fact.

Due to his size, he could not fit into regular office chairs comfortably or, in some cases, at all, and there were very many attempts to find a chair that would suit him. The HR people were always coming around with some new kind of chair that would seem good at first, but would eventually anger him and cause a series of phone calls that we were all privy to, as we were to the daily lunchtime calls. (You’d think that working with him would be entertaining, and it was sometimes, but it was also exasperating. He wasn’t even very good at his job, which meant that he had absolutely nothing going for him, in all honesty.) The HR people were extremely delicate about the situation and responded to his angry calls as though they were perfectly reasonable. But then one day when we were all sitting at our desks, working, or not working, but at least looking at our computer screens, we were stunned to hear the sound of smashing wood nearby. Not a single one of us turned away from our screens. This angry 40something, 400-pound man was smashing his wooden chair to bits.

The next day the HR people returned with a bench. What I mean is, they brought in a wooden bench, the kind you might see in a park or in someone’s backyard and could fit maybe four or five people comfortably (I should probably mention, shamefully, that after our angry co-worker had left, the remaining five of us in our particular section of the office took pictures of ourselves sitting together in the bench. There was plenty of room.). Anyway, the HR people left this bench for him as one final attempt at an office chair. You’d think that he might have been insulted by such a gesture, but no, he was delighted. The chair was apparently just the right size and comfort level for him, and so for the remainder of his time there, he was what you might call slightly less angry.

Now when we first started at this job we were all contract workers there, and in a few months our contracts were up. It was then that our angry co-worker made the startling discovery that all of us had had our contracts renewed, all of us but him. He went around asking all of us and then complaining to the higher-ups, but really there was nothing he could do. They told him that they didn’t need as many people anymore. The fact that they needed all of us minus him was not lost on him, of course, but he ended up just accepting it finally. I wish I could remember his last day there, but I can’t. And you’d think that we might have missed him when he was gone, but we didn’t, not for a single minute. I have no idea what became of him, but I do hope that he has at least a comfortable place to sit.