Baby driver

On Wednesday when I left my house, everything seemed the same as usual. But something nagged at me, something distant and faint, but present nonetheless.

I looked around, I listened, I sniffed the air. No changes could I detect, but still it was there, that undefined and perhaps undefinable something.

I dismissed it as just another geriatric synaptic misfiring, and drove into town to start my day.

Spotting a parking place, I pulled alongside the car in front of it, put the gearshift in reverse and then it hit me! On a day exactly like this one, but in 1964, I took my driver’s test.

I was 17, about to graduate from high school, and sophisticated beyond my years. I could tie a Windsor knot, I knew who Dave Brubeck was, I was conversant about classical Russian literature (that is, I’d read a couple of Turgenev short stories and knew Dr. Zhivago was a book title, not some dude who worked at Trudeau).

But when it came to that most worldly art of 1960’s guys – driving a car – I was sadly deficient. Not that I couldn’t drive – I could, but only at a rudimentary level. You know the scene – a kid stiff as a tent pole white-knuckling the wheel, eyes wide open, staring straight ahead. That was me.

Meanwhile, every other guy in town was whizzing around, one hand on the wheel, the other dangling out the window, cruising with contemptuous grace, making Steve McQueen look like Nervous Nellie.

My lack of vehicular adeptness was understandable: Till then, I’d had almost no driving experience. Frankly, I didn’t care about driving. My Home Town was essentially my world, and I could easily reach all its marvels by foot. The candy stores, the Pontiac theater, my pals’ houses, were all a mere 15-minute stroll away.

For adventures in more distant climes – say, swimming at Crescent Bay – I only had to hop on my bike.

Pushed to the extreme

I’d already gone through three learner’s permits, and had it been up to me, I might never have taken my driver’s test. But it wasn’t up to me – it was up to my mother, and she’d waited long enough.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, she said, “OK, Bozo, you’re going to take your driver’s test next week.”

“I am?” I asked, shocked. “Why?”

“Because you need to have a license.”

“Whatta I need a license for?” I said. “I get around just fine.”

“No,” she said, “you only think you do. You can’t drive a car alone, so someone always has to be with you.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“Nothing if you can always find someone.”

“So when wouldn’t I?”

“Just in case,” she said. “That’s when.”

My mother was a deeply scarred Depression survivor, one of those people who knows opportunity knocks but once, but the Apocalypse keeps knocking all the time. And thus I had to get a license, “just in case.” To my mother, “just in case” was a pleasant way of saying “when unimaginable horrors will visit you – which they indeed will, you naive rube.”

Still, I pushed it.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Give me an example.”

“How about you’re swimming with someone, out in the sticks, and he has a heart attack?”

A really likely scenario, that. The only person I ever went swimming with was my boon companion Ralph Carlson, and the chance of him having a heart attack was the same as me winning the lottery – without buying a ticket. Aside from being only 18, Ralph came from rugged Swedish stock whose idea of a premature death was croaking before hitting triple digits.

No matter. My mother had made her decision, and once she had, she would not turn back. I made the appointment for the test.

Unlocking the secret

As I said, I wasn’t a very good driver, but I wasn’t terrible, either. In fact, as a driver, I had only one major flaw – I couldn’t parallel park.

Ultimately, it wasn’t my fault. No one had ever taught me how. My mother and brother both explained it in such terms as, “You pull alongside a car, then you back up and turn the wheel till you’re in the parking place.” It was about as specific as explaining the mysteries of skiing to a novice by telling him to go up to the top of the mountain and then come back down.

My attempts at parallel parking were pathetic. Either I ended up at a 45 degree angle to the curb, or parallel to the curb but about 6 feet away from it.

Test day arrived and my mother took me out for a practice run. Of course we parallel parked a bunch of times, and of course I screwed up each one.

With about a half-hour till the test and on a complete whim, I did something I’d never done: I thumbed through the New York state learner’s permit manual, which I’d stashed in the glove box.

I remember it yet – its cover was black and yellow and it contained everything you needed to know in order to pass the driver’s test. And, believe it or not, there was even a section on how to parallel park. How I’d missed it before, I’ll never know, but once I saw it, I pored over it.

The instructions were simple: You pulled up next to a car, your steering wheel lined up with his. Then you slowly backed up, turning the wheel till your front tire was lined up with his rear tire. Then, still backing up, you straightened the wheel, and -Voila! – you were in the parking place exactly as you were supposed to be.

I read and reread the directions; then I took off and tried them out.

Amazingly, I parked perfectly each time. I was so thrilled that I could do it, I actually looked forward to the test, as in, “Well, now I’ll show ’em!”

I’d always heard horror stories about the testers, about what a bunch of fascists they were, but my tester was a nice guy. He was polite and low-key, and he gave me clear directions, as we drove around town. I was pretty nervous, but kept it in check and acquitted myself honorably on the asphalts of honor.

Finally, the acid test.

“OK,” he said, pointing, “parallel park in back of that car.”

I looked, and could hardly believe my eyes. There were about four open parking spaces behind that car. With my newly-acquired skill, I could’ve parked an 18-wheeler in there – blindfolded.

I parallel parked perfectly and the next week my driver’s license came in the mail.

Something else came from that experience, namely three lifelong lessons.

First, with proper instructions, the “unlearnable” can be learned.

Second, the best instructions are worthless if you don’t follow them scrupulously.

And third, the state of New York can do the right thing, and they can do it well.

The first two, I follow religiously. The third one I take on a case-by-case basis.