I have wonderful family. My niece recently asked how I came to learn to drive while my sister never has. She asked actually in the context of this blog and rightly so. I didn’t have to look back quite as far as most of the other stories in this effort but I think it is a uniquely west side adventure.
The family car had been a 1948 Pontiac named Jasper. He had a big back seat and a yellow plastic steering wheel with that wire that served as the horn activator. Dad proudly sold it in 1960 for a hundred bucks. I don’t remember going anywhere in it but we must have.
For my twenty-first birthday a small group of friends purchased me a package of driving lessons at the driving school next to the Loews 83rd Street entrance. I walked under the marquee to enter the small storefront business of Paul and his dad. They also sold insurance and later added tax preparation. I’m sure it had a name, now long gone from memory.
Among the gift givers were Ronnie who had been the wheelman for years first driving his little blue opel. Stu too was part of the conspiracy he had tried to teach me on his Karman Ghia on the side of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, that ended in a destroyed clutch. In spite of this they remain my friends many many years later.
First up in the lesson package was the three hour class. Chairs were set up in the store and Paul talked safety for the entire three hours. The most remembered statement was when he said something like, when a bus is in the bus stop and the big red lights on the back go out, get out of the way ‘cause he’s coming. Experience has proved this true 100% of the time.
The lessons went well as I recall. Paul beside me with his extra brake pedal teaching stop and go and turning in the middle of traffic on broadway in the 80’s in the 1970’s.
For the road test I paid Paul to accompany me; someone had to drive me to the test and I had to have a car I could drive. Ronnie, Stu and my friends the Cohen’s (who had also been among the gift givers) all drove cars with manual transmissions.
I passed that road test in Washington Heights on the first try. This was in spite of the terror I felt after watching a young woman pull away from the curb without looking and the inspector leaning over, pulling out the key and walking away. It was also in spite of my stalling the car while trying to parallel park at a fire hydrant.
Everyone was impressed with my first try pass. Me too.
I didn’t drive much but I had my license. I did have an unrecorded very very minor accident early on. Sandy had loaned me her car for some reason and on 83rd street and broadway I didn’t clear the bus I was trying to get around. The driver didn’t even notice and therefore I didn’t stop. (Leaving the scene of this accident was not my first criminal endeavor, more of that soon.)
Learning to drive served me well later in the decade when I started dating the woman I would later marry, a long islander with a chevy malibu. I learned to fix a car, well tune ‘er up and change the oil but didn’t drive much. Jean did the driving.
When the malibu had to go and was replaced with a VW rabbit things changed; I started to do some driving. The little rabbit gave me my first feeling of control behind the wheel. I was controlling the car, the car was not controlling me.
Driving became a requirement when I moved to long island at the end of 1978, married.
I’ve done a lot of driving since those lessons but none so important as the trips back and forth from Forest Hills to my granddaughters on Long Island.
Thank you old friends. Those lessons were the life supporters I think you wanted for me.