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.

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