Thursday, June 30, 2011

Learning to Drive

I've got one of those circular driveways and I can't seem to navigate the damned thing properly. I've taken out several landscaping lights already, destroyed a sprinkler head, busted the hose nozzle and if there is a trash can within a hundred foot radius you can bet that I'm running it over.

The other day I was trying to back out of the semi-circle and repeatedly running over the garbage can. I ran it over so many times that I had pushed it out into the middle of the street where my neighbor in his sleek new BMW was waiting to pass. I rolled down my window to apologize and then I decided I'd be better off to just get out of the car and move the trash can as far away from the path of my Saturn as I could. My neighbor rolled down his darkly tinted window and proceeded to make all sorts of jokes about women drivers.

It's not women drivers though. It's me. Can we just say that, well, driving isn't exactly my forte. I mean, I manage to get where I'm going eventually, but sometimes it takes me longer than the average person and my vehicle is sporting some scars. Those concrete poles at the bank drive-thru get me every time. Once I ran my old car into a brick wall because I didn't see it. If I think about it, I've never driven something without several dents, dings and sizable scrapes.

My family likes to tell a story that I couldn't learn how to drive. I prefer to say that they simply weren't able to teach me and that's the real reason I didn't get a license until I was almost eighteen. Still, they'll tell you I was impossible, that every member of our extended family swore they'd be the one who could finally get me steering, shifting and braking like a pro until they tried to take me for a spin around the block. One of those spins around a block ended up with a trembling, teenaged me plowing a Mercedes into a neighbor's landscape island uprooting a couple ornamental palms and several flowering annuals.

I couldn't help myself. Driving was hard. I didn't have the coordination to work the wheel, pump the pedals, look where I was going and work the radio all at the same time (because that's a seriously important part of driving of course). Add in that I was a nervous wreck, scared to death of wrecking someone else's car and there was no way I was getting a license and pulling out onto I-95. Just wasn't happening.

My friends all had their licenses anyway, so I could usually get rides from them. My mom would take me places occasionally if I'd run into the Farm Store and get her a pack of Vantage Ultra Lights in return and if my dad was around, he'd generally give me a lift to wherever I needed to go as long as I was willing to wait for my ride to fit into his schedule. You could say that I was fairly content and not as extremely motivated to drive as most adolescents are. I kinda wanted to drive, but not enough to actually get over my fear of learning.

"She'll never drive," my mother used to sigh, "She can't learn."

They treated me as if I had some kind of special car-related learning disability. Maybe it was called Vehicular Dyslexia or Automotive Processing Disorder. In any case, my family acted like I was afflicted when it came to cars.

My dad would try to argue with my mother and then to prove his point that he would be the one to teach me, he'd drag me away from whatever book or depressing cd I was engrossed in and make me get in the car and try to drive it. That's how the Mercedes mishap went down, by the way. Fifteen minutes later, we'd return with him cussing and me just about in tears and I'd rush back to my Anne Rice or Morrissey to escape him telling my mother how I'd run the car into a ditch or hit yet another mailbox. Again.

One time my Aunt Kiki, who was half drunk, decided that my parents just didn't know what they were doing in trying to teach me and that she'd get the job done once and for all. She drove some junker at the time. All I remember is that it was rust colored and a stick shift and that anything called a clutch sounded absolutely menacing. Before we attempted to back out of the driveway, Aunt Kiki decided to get high. She had a dugout that was painted to look like a cigarette so you could smoke weed and drive and if a cop pulled up he wouldn't think anything was amiss. Well, she lit up and I had a full on panic attack. I just knew I was getting arrested. It would be just my luck that I'd get caught driving without a permit with drugs in the car.

"Aww, come on. Just hit the clutch and put it in reverse," Aunt Kiki said.

We didn't get twenty feet before I ground the gears and stalled the car three times. I couldn't do it. Even with Aunt Kiki's help shifting (and I kept slamming on the brakes instead of easing onto the clutch) it still took us several tries to get going at any real speed. That was when we careened into a freshly cut lawn, cutting deep tire tracks in the soft dirt. Aunt Kiki made me get out and trade seats with her. She took three deep hits and drove us back home, defeated. Once in the kitchen we microwaved some nacho flavored Cheez-wiz and poured it over Doritos while my mom did her I-told-you-so routine. 

By the time the summer of '91 rolled around and I'd be eighteen that November, my parents had had enough of me wanting rides all over. I'd been in New York for the past six months and was home for a couple months before I'd head up to Bennington in late August.

"You can't sit around here all summer wanting us to take you to your friends' houses. You're getting your license," my parents said.

And because they'd long since given up on teaching me themselves, they hired, much to my consternation, a driving teacher who promised to have me driving and able to pass the license exam within two weekends.

The driver worked for a driving school - the kind where you drive their car and it's plastered with huge signs notifying other drivers that you are a student and to stay far far away. I was mortified when the little Toyota pulled up and I saw that it even had a sign on the roof which was approximately the size of a neon yellow doghouse and reminded me of a pizza delivery car.

The car was nothing compared to the teacher. As soon as I took one look at him, on that first, broiler hot June Saturday, I feared he may not make it to the next block. If my driving or the Florida heat didn't kill him, it was a very real possibility that this man could easily keel over at any second from just plain old age. He was at least ninety years old and that is no exaggeration. The man was downright frail and his skin was so mottled with age spots in all shades of brown and mauve that it was impossible to tell what shade his original skin tone may have been. Large chunks of flesh were missing from his arms, likely from recent skin cancer surgeries, and amber liquid weeped into the bandages. I about gagged, but that may also have been from his mothball/ old man pee smell. I could not believe my parents were making me do this. Knowing them, I thought, they probably found some deep discount driving school and this reject from the nursing home was all they could find to teach for them. Figured. Once again, I prepared to not learn how to drive and to have to come home head hanging in shame, having run off yet another teacher.

The ancient man stood at our front door and introduced himself.

"Dick Weiner," he said, "Nice to meet you. Now get in the car because you paid for two hours and I don't waste time."

Dick. Weiner. No. Way.

I got in the car and Dick Weiner made me get back out again.

"What the hell's the matter with you? You go in the driver's seat. I already know how to drive."

I got in the driver's seat and he settled into the passenger's seat, which I noticed had been specially fitted with its own brake. I immediately knew that this feature had been added for students like me who enjoyed cutting channels through their neighbor's landscaping.

"Ok, start driving."

"I don't know how," I said.

"Everyone knows how to drive. You push the gas to go and the brake to stop and turn the wheel. Stay in the lines."

I put-putted down my street with great hesitance.

"Ok, now turn out onto the main road."

Me? On a main road? Dick Weiner wasn't just old, he had senile dementia. No wonder he smelled like pee.

"Are you sure?" I squeaked.

"You gonna stay in your neighborhood the rest of your life? No. So you gotta drive on the main roads. Turn here."

He had a point.

"Where do I go?"

"Head South and then turn at the next major intersection and we'll head out on I-95."

And with that, Dick Weiner proceeded to crack open the days newspaper and read the headlines while I, scared shitless, turned the car with its doghouse neon sign on the roof, into real, actual, going somewhere traffic.

I kept driving straight, concentrating very hard on staying in the lines and not hitting the cars in the left lane next to me. I tried to think of it as if I were playing Nintendo. Every couple minutes or so, Dick Weiner would look up out of his enormous glasses with their yellowed lenses, squint and tell me to go faster or to look in my rearview mirror.

"Use your mirrors," he'd say and I would, although I had no idea what I was supposed to be using them for.

By the time we got to the Interstate, which was only a couple of miles west, Dick Weiner had magically taught me to change lanes and had finished reading the sports pages. He apparently was a Yankees fan. Figured.

He pointed to the On ramp and said we'd just go to the next exit and we'd stay in the slow lane.

"Are you sure?"

"You're doing fine."

Miraculously, I was and yes, I only went forty-five miles per hour and I practically drove in the shoulder, but I drove from one exit to another on 95 South without killing anyone, all while Dick Weiner leafed through the local news.

"Most kids want to gun it. Why are you driving so slow?" he asked.

"I'm scared."

"What the hell of?"

I shrugged.

"You know how many idiots are on the road? Driving's not hard. If 90 percent of the morons out there can get behind the wheel, you can too."

"Are you saying that even if I'm an idiot that I can still drive?"

"You're god damned right I am. I don't know if you're an idiot or not, but I'm telling you that even if you are, you can still drive a car and at least get to where you need to go without hurting someone."

We got off the highway and cruised around town some more and when he finished reading the paper, and God only knows how the man didn't get violently car sick, Dick Weiner said our two hours was up and it was time to go home.

My mother was waiting in the driveway. She had picked her cuticles raw. I could see the blood spots on her fingers through the windshield.

"Did she do ok?"she asked Dick Weiner.

"Course she did fine."

"We thought you'd bring her back after a couple of minutes."

"Ma'am. I've been teaching people how to drive for over forty years. I've never had a student get in an accident and I've never had a student fail the exam. Your daughter's fine."

I'd be lying if I said I went in the house without a sassy little flounce in my step. I practically wanted to get up in my mom's face and say "HA!" and for the rest of the day I was high on gasoline fueled, look at me now endorphins.

"What did that man do?" my mother asked.


"What do you mean nothing? How did he manage to teach you?"

"He read the paper."

"He did not. Tell me what he did," my mom demanded.

"I'm not kidding. He read the paper."

The next day, a Sunday, Dick Weiner showed up wearing the same polyester pants, smelling even more strongly of pee and we did the same routine as the previous day, only he had more sections of the paper to read and he made me drive faster this time. We went both ways on the highway for quite a few exits and I changed lanes many times over.

By the end of the day, I could officially drive a car. Like for real. By myself. I was driving.

Since I could now drive, the next weekend Dick Weiner showed me how to park, which was completely exasperating, though manageable and then we worked almost a whole Sunday on three point turns. By the end of the second weekend Dick Weiner said I was ready for my driving exam and that I'd pass just fine. He'd pick me up the next morning and take me himself.

I studied for the written part for a total of five minutes. I can't help it. I've never been one to study. It's not in my nature. I probably looked at the book and then turned on In Living Color, followed up by The Simpsons. After that, I probably stayed up until midnight so I could watch 120 Minutes.

I even remember what I wore to my driving test. I had planned it out carefully because I wanted a cute picture. Baby doll dresses were in style and I had a black one with pink and purple flowers scattered across it. I'd gotten it at Contempo Casuals and I liked to wear it with Chinese slippers and a silver necklace I adored that had a crescent moon pendant with an amethyst crystal. This was '91 after all, so I also made sure to wear lots of liquid black eyeliner and a thick slather of the reddest lipstick. Siouxsie Sioux would have been proud.

I passed both sections and I was so excited that I almost wanted to hug Dick Weiner when it was over. I say almost, because one I didn't want to smell like pee and two he was pretty gruff and business like about the whole thing and I got the sense that he really didn't care and would immediately forget about me once he dropped me off at my house. We didn't exactly have an emotional connection or anything, even though he did teach me to drive.

My parents were stunned. I took each of them out to prove that I could, indeed, drive a car now. I even parked for them. After that they had to let me borrow the car once in a while and I spent the rest of the summer driving myself around. My mother loved it because now she could run me to the store to get her stuff and I had no choice but to do it, lest I be stuck at home rideless again. I'll tell you, she used that to her advantage too. My mother's smart like that.

The Buddhists say that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. In the case of Dick Weiner (of course I had a driving teacher named Dick Weiner, of course I did) he didn't teach me any major life lessons except that even an idiot can drive a car and that it's best to run a red light than to slam on your brakes and get rear-ended. I can do an ass-kicking three point turn and I credit him for it. I may have been almost eighteen before I was ready but my driving teacher appeared when I needed him. He was so old he was brittle, he stunk of ammonia soaked polyester and newsprint smudged his dry fingertips but Dick Weiner did the impossible. He taught me to drive. If only he were around today to teach me how to stop running over my trashcans.


JoeinVegas said...

Why were you backing out? Isn't the purpose of a circular driveway to let you always drive forward?

Head Ant said...

I got my license when I was almost 22. I think I waited so long to get it because my dad put the fear of God into me when I was 14 and attempted to park the car in the driveway for him.

I didn't have a teacher like you did; but my first car was a standard and I stalled many times trying to learn how to drive it.

I also had many run ins with posts and parking garages with a couple of cars, not to mention an eighteen wheeler that didn't realize it had hit me.

L. said...

I loved the story. I too had many problems trying to learn how to drive and finally my parents had to hire a driving instructor ... and years later, my father again - hired driving instructors to teach my teenagers how to drive. ...which I thought was hilarious. He was trying to avoid ME teaching them. are a wonderful storyteller.

Laurie said...

Great story. Dick Weiner - LOL. Only you. I didn't get my license until I was 18, since I had to save enough $ to buy a car first. I had no problem passing, which was a pleasant surprise to me at the time. My Dad had taken me out driving a few times, but I was a nervous wreck with him in the car. I think I my friends ended up teaching me.

Green said...

I liked this story a lot. Thank you.

Rachel said...

My daughter, who's about your age, didn't get her license until age 19. Her twin sister got hers at 16, but it was just like when they learned to walk. Her sister walked first, and she waited until almost 2 months later--if her sister could do it, then why should she bother? She had a hard time learning to drive, including an unintended off-road excursion through a rose garden and right up to the edge of a swimming pool. That was with her dad, who just couldn't comprehend that driving doesn't come naturally for everybody. Eventually, our next door neighbor taught her.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

awesome story!!

onthegomom said...

This made me literally LOL! Great story and great writing!

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