Originally printed in The New York Times: Sunday, August 24, 2003
EVERYBODY says: “Don’t learn to drive in the city. It’s crazy.” But as the song says, if you can make it here, and so forth.
And I really wanted a driver’s license. I was 43, had my learner’s permit and had failed the test once already – but that was in Riverhead, on Long Island. I’m an urban girl. This time, I would learn how to drive in the city. My city.
But my quest, like driving in New York (and like life), was full of stops and starts, unexpected dead ends and mysterious spirals (like the streets of Greenwich Village). In the end, my pursuit of the elusive New York State driver’s license became about much more than a divorced woman’s learning to drive for the first time.
I recently moved back to my old neighborhood, near 102nd Street and Broadway, where I lived from 1967 to 1979, and I decided I would learn to drive there. It was strange, rolling down the very roads where I had taken my first small steps away from home. We moved to 102nd Street when I was 7, and I remember crossing Broadway for the first time. It was as big as an ocean. I remember learning to navigate the neighborhood in concentric circles – you can go around the corner to the grocery store to get Daddy’s cigarettes, but you can’t go across any streets. O.K., you can cross four streets to get to your friend’s house, but you can’t go down to 96th Street. Eventually, I could walk to school on 97th Street, several blocks from my house.
How weird it was to drive streets I knew so well. What a different perspective. I could rumble down streets I would have been too afraid to walk on, especially as a kid. Now I zipped past everyone, and everyone was a pedestrian. There were lots of them. Big ones, too. I didn’t hit any, even the slow ones who took their time strolling though the intersection when I had to turn right.
My first lesson last fall was given by Mr. R., an elderly, gentle Puerto Rican man. I got in the car, an old beat-up Toyota, and started it up. He smiled encouragingly.
“Let’s just go forward,” he said. “Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous. Make a left here.”
As I drove, he hummed or sang old Spanish ballads under his breath. From time to time, he talked on his cellphone. I figured I was doing well since he didn’t seem very concerned. At the end of the first lesson, he said: “You are a smart, careful driver. How many lessons did you buy? Ten? At the end you will drive better than me. And you look like a driver!”
I didn’t know what to say, but I thanked him.
I liked Mr. R. He never yelled. Here was his method: “What color do you think that light was back there?” he would muse.
“Um, green?” I said hopefully as my mind raced: What light? I saw a stop sign, so I turned left. I didn’t see any light.
“It was red” he murmured. “Try not to do that again.”
Once, as we zipped along 125th Street right above Columbia University and Barnard College, where I went to school 20 years ago, he said, “You are going to have to merge here.”
How did he know this? Did he just feel it in his bones? I asked him. He just smiled.
“Let’s do that again,” he said. The third time through, I saw the merge sign. “Oh, there’s the sign,” I said. We did it a fourth time, to make sure I kept seeing the sign.
One day, instead of getting Mr. R., I got Nelson, a short, square-shouldered young man. Hmm, I thought. There had been a Nelson in my first-grade class in East Harlem. That Nelson’s name had been Badillo and his birthday was in July, like mine, and his coat hook was next to mine. We were delighted by these discoveries; they seemed significant to us. I remember him saying, “Maybe we’ll get married.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if it were the same guy?
“How old are you?” I asked the current Nelson.
“Twenty-four,” he said.
I am 19 years older than he is. I could be his mother. But the coincidence of his name makes me feel as though I am traveling a spiral, around the same streets but in a different time. Those were the 60’s and 70’s, when Manhattan looked the way it did in “Shaft” and “Serpico” and “The French Connection.” Now it’s cleaner, mostly, and there are “Safe Haven” stickers in the stores on Broadway. My daughter, who is 9, has never stood on the sidewalk unattended or crossed a street by herself.
Nelson is different from Mr. R. He is casual, funny, streetwise. He chats with me about Howard Stern, about 9/11, about how much coffee he drinks, the merits of Starbucks over Bustelo. Every time we start a lesson he wants to be reminded of what problems we are working on.
Parallel parking and observing.
I learn fast as we sail around all my old neighborhoods. Here is where P.S. 179 used to be, where I was the only one who could read in the second grade. Here is 110th Street, where we had a family friend whose cat’s name was Bonnie and Clyde. Here is the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where I once had a midnight picnic. Each street is saturated with emotion, with memory.
One day I get stuck behind a stalled bus. I have to do a real three-point turn into oncoming traffic, fast. Amazingly, I do. I make eye contact with the driver on the opposite side and motion for him to stop. He does! I do my three points and dart up the other side, thrilled.
Another time I have to begin the lesson by backing down the street the whole length of the block, turning backward onto Broadway. Wow.
I learn about the different times of day and the obstacles they bring. At 10 a.m. there’s U.P.S. trucks and FedEx trucks, double parkers, women with strollers. And 3 p.m. brings the masses of yelling schoolchildren.
We work on parallel parking. For days that’s all we do: me, Nelson, the car and the curb. There is a formula, a parallel parking geometry, if you will:
Pull up to the car you want to park behind. Indicate right. Line up the wheel of your car with the front tire of the car next to you. Try to be parallel and not sticking out. Rotate the steering wheel one full revolution to the right. Put the car in reverse. Look behind you and try not to depend on your mirrors while the car is in motion. When your right mirror has lined up with the left rear taillight of the car in front of you, cut the wheel the other way, turn it left as far as it will go. Slide into the space without hitting the curb, or the car in front of you, or the car in back of you, or the garbage on the sidewalk.
Nelson doesn’t even open the door. He is cracking himself up laughing. “Well, you paralleled, but you didn’t park.”
The formula has failed, or I have failed the formula. I am indeed parallel, but nowhere near the curb. I am about three feet away. For an hour I try. And fail.
Then Nelson says: “You just touched that man’s BMW. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Finally, I get the date for my actual driving test. I do so much want to be a good driver, but I just don’t get how. It is so frustrating. I ask my neighbor if I can go driving with her. She has a great big van with exquisitely responsive brakes. I try to show her where Nelson and I usually go – the lovely drive down Morningside overlooking a little park that nobody knows about, that winds so beautifully you don’t even know you’re in Manhattan.
Somehow we end up on the other side, but at least there are parking spaces. She watches me.
“What are you doing?” she asks. “Why are you throwing the wheel to one side, and then the other? Here, watch me.”
She gets in and expertly handles the big machine, adjusting first one way, then the next, keeping the distance between the car and the curb in her mind at all times.
I decide that I have been following an abstract principle instead of living in the real world. This is a good lesson. Don’t follow the formula. Just look at the curb as it really exists, and adjust to it. This works!
On that I day I feel enlightened. I have learned a basic principle I should apply to my entire life.
But this joy is blotted out when I become distracted as we approach the parking garage. for one moment, as we are talking about something, I get the brake and the gas pedal confused, and accelerate hard right toward a brick wall. I finally brake, but my friend has her head in her hands, whispering in horror. She thinks we are going to die. I look out the window. Everyone is staring.
The garage attendant and all the passers-by, are staring at me as I get out of the van.
“Hello!” I wave cheerfully. “Sorry!”
But I go back to Nelson with my new, hard-won knowledge. This time I get half the parking right, a huge improvement. I would be really happy about it, but one of Nelson’s relatives is in jail, and he’s not happy about that, so I am not happy either. He talks on the cellphone.
He tells me: “My cousin’s girlfriend is pregnant, and when he gets in trouble, she calls me up. Do I look like the president?”
I assure him that he doesn’t. I have had relatives in jail, too, and wonder if I should tell him I know how it can be? I start to, but he is not listening. So I drive here and there, parking randomly in all our usual spots as he sighs into the cellphone.
Next time, the incident is gone from Nelson’s mind. But he starts to tease me about my powers of observation. On the way to the lesson, I notice the tarot reader on the same street, past the sign for the driving school. This begins a chain of thought, and I sail right past a bewildered Nelson, standing in the doorway.
“Where are you going?” he shouts at me. “How can you work on your observation when you don’t even observe the teacher!”
We go up to Harlem. “Oh, here is Convent Avenue!” I say. “My sister just got married up here! Look at the great old Gothic buildings!”
We head toward Broadway and students from City College clog the intersection. I slow down.
“Why you slowing down?” Nelson says to me.
“Mr. R. told me not to hit the pedestrians.”
“These guys are wiseguys. They see your student sign, and they are giving you a hard time. Don’t slow down.” He reaches across me and honks the horn. The students scatter, laughing.
Another time we are on Riverside, about to turn right. I notice two old ladies in the car to my left. They cut me off, still chatting away, while I seethe. I think to myself, as Mr. R. said, if someone wants the right of way, give it to them, it’s not worth getting into a fight over. So I let them go and turn right myself without stopping, but in hot pursuit of the two old ladies.
“You know what you did back there?” he said.
“What?” I say, jolted back to reality.
“You went through a stop sign. Didn’t you see it?”
I explained to him that I wasn’t going to let those two ladies get ahead of me. Nelson throws his head back and laughs.
“You’re competitive,” he says. “I like that.”
The morning of the test arrives, bright, clear. I wonder if I will pass this time? I show up for my warm-up lesson. Nelson confides that the job is getting to him. He puts his life at risk every day, and he’s only getting $10 an hour. His dream is to be a truck driver. A truck driver? He has never been outside New York except to go to Puerto Rico and back. I imagine him on a highway, droning through the Midwest somewhere, and wonder what he would think of the huge flatlands, all that open space.
“What’s horrible is how you’re driving today,” he says.
“Your problem is you got to observate, and that’s not something I can teach you. If you keep your head on your head you should do O.K. But I can’t teach you to observate.”
With that endorsement ringing in my ears, I’m ready for Yonkers, ready to face the test again.
The tester gets into the car, looks at my permit. “What a nice smile,” he says.
It flashes through my mind that the photograph is from the day my husband and I separated, but I figure there is no need to go into that.
“Thanks,” I say.
As we drive, he corrects a couple of things without writing them down: slow down, you nicked the yellow line here, you have to look both ways on the three-point turn.
We parallel park. I seize the moment. I adjust. I look at the curb. I do not touch it, and I am close, though, three inches to be exact. I turn the wheel so the tires face forward, pull the car up and ease it into park. I try not to act surprised. Imagine if I fainted? He looks at me.
“What do you think?” he says.
“I think it’s pretty good.” I say.
“I do, too.” he says. “I am impressed.”
I feel victory in my bones. I pass the test! I can’t believe it! I want to throw my arms around this man’s neck and kiss him. But I don’t. I’m relieved that I won’t have to take any more lessons, although I had gotten used to Nelson and his moods, his humor. I suddenly realize that I will probably never see him again.
Even though I got my license, I still feel cautious about driving, and I haven’t driven in the city since I passed. I am still an urban girl, but right now I feel most comfortable driving in Orange County, Calif., when I visit family, because the roads are nice and wide, and the signs are really big.
And, from time to time, I wonder about Nelson, wonder whether he’ll ever end up on that highway, driving a truck through the Midwest.