I learned how to drive from my father. When I was six years old, Dad got married and moved from Queens to Maryland, outside of Washington DC, where his new wife lived with her two children. I lived with Mom in the Bronx, so Dad purchased a 1985 Renault Alliance to make the eight-hour, round-trip drive. I was an only child who got to spend plenty of time with Mom and, when I’d go to Maryland, I had to share Dad with his wife, my step-siblings and, later, my half-sister, so those drives along the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 95 were the only times I had Dad all to myself. He called me his co-pilot and, in between stories about his career in the music business and about my grandfather, who died before I was old enough to remember him, he would explain the basics of driving to me. But, I learned more about how to drive just by watching Dad. He was never the fastest guy on the road, and was always within 10-15 miles per hour of the speed limit; not once did he get pulled over by the police in all of the hours we spent in the car together. Dad was always in control behind the wheel; rarely was he flustered or surprised by what he saw. Sometimes, Dad would get upset about what another driver was doing, but he rarely cursed or raised his voice, usually resorting to sarcastic retorts that became funnier to me as I got older.
As the years passed, Dad moved to New Jersey, got divorced, moved to Manhattan, moved to Brooklyn, and remarried. But, our time together in the car was constant. Dad was very analytical about driving, especially driving in New York City. I knew to be quiet when the traffic report came on the AM news station, always on the eights – Dad would plan his route based on that report – lest I be shushed. He would plan his days around New York City’s nefarious alternate-side parking regulations, ensuring that he always got a coveted parallel-parking spot within a block of his residence. Dad would brag about his parallel-parking skills and his peripheral vision, claiming he developed the latter during his years as a high school and junior college point guard. He started talking about me learning to drive someday, but I didn’t share his eagerness. Dad mentioned taking me out to the eastern end of Long Island, where my grandmother lived, and letting me drive on rarely traveled roads and in empty lots, but that plan never came to fruition; it probably would’ve happened had I pressed the issue.
When I turned 18, I decided I wanted to learn how to drive. New York City, with its endless public transportation options and hazardous driving conditions, doesn’t allow residents to get their learner’s permit until they’re 18 – 16-year-olds are allowed to get their permit everywhere else in New York State and everywhere else in the United States. I figured I’d learn how to drive over the summer, after my senior year of high school ended in mid June and before I enrolled at Syracuse University in late August. In Syracuse, New York, where the public transit options aren’t as plentiful, having my license would be beneficial, I reasoned.
I signed up for lessons with a driving school that was run by Hector, an elderly Latino man, and his wife. I told him I wanted to take my road test before I enrolled at Syracuse. He told me I was better off waiting until the fall, but I was steadfast and he promised to accommodate me. Hector was impressed that I knew a lot of the driving basics, but I felt uneasy. My lessons went okay and I didn’t make any critical errors, but I never felt comfortable. I figured I’d get more acclimated the more I drove, but I didn’t make any effort to drive outside of those lessons. Mom, who’d gotten her driver’s license in her 30s, had purchased her first car a few years prior, but I was reluctant to ask her to let me drive.
I was expecting to take my road test in late August but, after a few weeks of lessons, Hector told me he’d gotten me a road test appointment in mid July. Everything seemed rushed, but I figured I’d be able to pass a road test; how hard could it be?
After waiting in a long line of cars for about an hour, my turn came. A middle-aged black woman with curly hair, long nails and a clipboard replaced Hector in the passenger’s seat. She instructed me to drive to the next intersection.
“You’re too far away from the parked cars,” she said.
What is she talking about? I thought. If I drive any closer to the cars by the curb I’ll hit them. She asked me to perform a driving maneuver – I’ve since forgotten what that maneuver was – but I didn’t perform that maneuver to her satisfaction and it led to an argument between me and the woman whose job it was to determine whether or not I was a good enough driver to get a New York State driver’s license. Right after the brief tussle, it was over.
“Make a u-turn and go back to where we started, if you can do that,” she said, her voice dripping with exasperation and sarcasm.
Hector was waiting. He knew I was done too quickly to have passed. Off I went to college, without a driver’s license.
I didn’t even attempt to drive again until the summer after my junior year at Syracuse. I signed up for lessons at a different driving school and, as soon as I sat in the car for my first lesson, I immediately felt at ease. I was ready. Mom has never been crazy about driving, so it didn’t take much prodding for me to get her to hand the keys to her 1995 Toyota Corolla over to me. Mom let me drive everywhere that summer, and I loved it; when we went away for a family reunion, she even let me drive the rental car. Mom helped me become a better driver, but I found myself channeling Dad, especially when I found myself making sarcastic comments about the poor driving habits of others on the road. Because of all the practice I was getting, my hour-long driving lessons were a breeze.
Instead of trying to squeeze my road test in at the end of the summer, I scheduled one for a Friday in the fall, making arrangements to travel from Syracuse to the Bronx for that weekend. I wasn’t nervous as I watched the line of cars inch forward and, when it was my turn, I was at ease. It was cloudy that day, but the bald, goateed man administering my test wore sunglasses. I handled my right turn, left turn and broken u-turn with ease. When I was asked to park, I did so expertly, even though I knew I was a couple of feet away from the curb, since I was always told hitting the curb leads to automatic failure (I didn’t know if that was true, but I wasn’t about to find out the hard way). When I was done, I barely listened to what the test administrator had to say, because I knew I passed.
While I was in college, Dad had a stroke which, among other things, weakened his right side and affected his vaunted peripheral vision. Dad and his wife got rid of their car, but took Dad a few years to come to grips with the fact he would no longer be able to drive. Several months after I got my license, Dad rented a car so we could drive to Virginia to see my sister. The 14-hour round-trip drive brought back memories of the many drives Dad and I took to Maryland, except Dad was now the co-pilot. Near the end of our drive back to New York City, Dad said something I’ll never forget.
“You drive like me.”
I smiled. I knew exactly what he meant, even though I don’t brag about my peripheral vision. However, I am an excellent parallel parker.Follow @raford3