I grew up in the slums of New York City, where a car was as necessary as a dreidel at a Kwaanza party. And as one of the overworked and underpaid huddled masses, if I had a car, it would mean choosing between paying for it and eating solid foods. Not to mention that if the destabilization of the Middle East continued, I would have to pay for gas with bars of gold bouillon.
However, at the age of 35, I decided it was time I got my license. There were many reasons. The New York City Transit System was falling apart faster than a Joan Rivers face lift and I grew tired of leaving it to Greyhound when I went away for long weekends. And, perhaps most importantly, I needed to appropriately prepare for my midlife crisis when I blow my entire 401K on an Italian sports car (‘cuz that’s what the young girls like).
I began my quest by scheduling some lessons at the driving school closest to my home. The Broadway Driving School was a typical Harlem storefront business, with one specific exception. The school featured a thick fiberglass window probably stolen from some unassuming savings and loan and purchased on the notorious fiberglass black market. An unfortunate beige paint, which probably came free with an oversized purchase of spackle from the local Costco, colored the walls. The walls were also littered with an assortment of thank you letters from newly licensed drivers, pictures of cars driven into swimming pools (which was either a scare tactic or “proof” of their teaching skills) and their rate card--$25 for one lesson and $250 for 10--guess no one ever heard of a volume discount.
My first clue that this might not go well should have been that the Broadway Driving School was not actually located on Broadway, but six blocks away on Eighth Avenue. I figured it was my duty to correct this curiosity so I mentioned it to Casey, who was the office manager, janitor and house DJ.
“Hey, did you guys know you are not located on Broadway?” I said, sounding like a sarcastic non-driving troublemaker.
“Yeah, sorry about that. People always think we are on Broadway,” Casey replied. Wow! I wonder how that could happen, I thought. “We figured using Broadway in the name would make the school more recognizable.” Oh, I see. I guess someone else was already using the Rev. Al Sharpton Driving School as their name.
“Gotcha,” I replied, as if it made complete sense to me. There was nothing more to say and I had already paid for my lessons. I was stuck.
“Let me take you outside to introduce you to Desmond, your instructor. Then you’ll be off for your first lesson.”
We walked outside and I quickly noticed a burgundy car with no apparent dents, which I took as a good sign. Desmond was sitting in the passenger seat, reading an article about the birth of a panda in China.
“Des, this is Ralph. He has a ten-lesson package. Take care of him.”
“Ya, man,” Desmond said, intently finishing the panda article. Casey pointed to the driver’s side of the car and I walked around and got in.
“So what do you want to get out of this?” asked Desmond.
Was this a trick question? “Well, I’d like to learn how not to kill myself behind the wheel. Then maybe I can get my license.”
“Okay, we can do that. Let’s start the car and see what you can do.”
I took a good look at Desmond and determined he had never met a tooth brush or Dentist that he liked, as his four remaining teeth strained to hold on to his gums by the thinnest of nerves. There was also an aroma, resembling freshly baked poop, which flooded the car every time he spoke. This made it hard to focus on driving.
Des settled back in the seat, his laidback Caribbean demeanor seemingly too comfortable since he was riding with a guy whose previous driving experience consisted of the bumper cars at Coney Island and a Salvation Army-purchased Big Wheel. The Big Wheel was totaled in a horrific collision with a Green Machine in the manic traffic of the Grand Concourse sidewalks. Surprisingly, this experience did not quite prepare me for driving on the mean streets of New York City traffic.
Desmond popped up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” I thought he had fallen into a narcoleptic state. But I would soon learn that no matter how knocked out he was, Des always woke up before I did something stupid, like run into a lamp post that had the nerve to disobey the traffic laws.
“Sorry. I thought it was a suggestion,” I dejectedly replied. His face made it clear he did not think I was funny. I stopped in the middle of the road and hung my head in shame.
“What are you doing? You can’t stop here! Keep going!”
“Okay,” Terrified, I carefully drove away, trying to ignore the barking of a gas guzzling SUV that seemed ready to eat my burgundy Plymouth.
“And pick up the speed. You are driving like a little old lady.” Dude, why don’t you go back to sleep!
“Okay.” I never thought I would be compared to a 90-year old blue haired lady who, barely seeing over the dashboard, drove slower than the age of her youngest great grandchild. This made me feel fantastic.
“You have a lot of work to do,” Desmond said, before drifting off for another nap. Not the start I expected to my driving career.
However, within a few weeks, I was swinging left turns, right turns and 3-point turns like I was Mario Andretti. I was ready for my road test--or so I thought.
In the days leading up to my test, I became excited about getting my license. Growing up, I was always jealous of the families that would get in their car for road trips, usually traveling to the mythical town of “Down South.” In my family, our “road trip” was hopping on the D train for the annual sojourn to Coney Island. I dreamt that my parents would steal a car and we could drive anywhere we wanted. Sometimes I even closed my eyes and imagined that my Dad had hijacked the D train and announced that the next stop would be “Walt Disney World” so I could ride on the Magic Tea Cups.
However, we always ended up in Coney, where we rode the Cyclone, a rickety roller coaster held together by rusty screws recycled from ancient tricycles. I was afraid that at any moment the 900-year-old jalopy would hurtle me into space (possibly landing onto a car headed “Down South”).
I thought about this as Desmond and I drove up to Strang Avenue in the Bronx, which was so far away from my Harlem home that I thought the road test location was in Cucamonga. He tried to pump me up.
“Are you ready?” Desmond said, awakening from his fifth nap of this trip. This was a small problem, since he was driving.
“Do you think I’m ready?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. You have to take the test.” What he really meant was ‘I get paid whether you pass or fail so I don’t care.’
“I guess we’ll find out soon.”
When we arrived, the road test victims were in their cars, with their instructors lined up outside waiting for their charges to return victorious. Strangely enough, they were all wearing blazers that did not match their pants. While they were excellent at navigating a U-turn in the green pea soup-thickness of New York City traffic, finding just the right blazer to match with their green pea-colored slacks presented a significant problem.
An hour after arriving at the site, I was at the front of the line. My belly started to turnover like it was filled with apples as my brain filled with questions: Am I ready for this? Should I have taken a fifth lesson last week? Will Desmond ever use a breath mint? The Road Test Instructor got in the car. While I assumed he was a human, I become convinced that the instructor was a gorilla. He appeared to be a huge, imposing simian who did not talk--it was more like grunting and grumbling. It reminded of a language I once heard on the National Geographic Channel.
“Pull out when you feel safe,” he grumbled. I think I can understand simian. Cool.
The Instructor wore a vinyl jacket that might have been from fashion designer Issac Mizrahi’s new collection for Target With his all blue uniform and yellow lettering, the Instructor looked like he was dressed up as a mall security guard for Halloween. Or maybe “mall security guard” was his night job since road test instructors were slightly above dishwashers on the salary scale.
“You did not check your blind spot when you pulled out. That’s a problem.” Last time I checked, no one signals during NASCAR races and they make out okay (despite the occasional crash, which the drivers always seem to walk away from, except for when they don’t). Mr. Kong began punching notes into his fake DMV-issued Palm Pilot and I kept driving.
“Make a left turn here,” he growled, and I successfully nailed that request. I could almost breathe again. Then I saw a stop sign at the end of the short street. The words of Desmond, my driving Yoda, filled my head.
“…Make sure you stop for four seconds…then proceed slowly…SNORE…”
The instructor snapped me back into focus. “Make a right turn here.”
I carefully approached the stop sign. One. Two. Three. Four. Score one for the good guys. Then I started my right turn.
Mighty Joe Young roared. “You have to edge forward after a stop sign. You’re turning like you know it’s clear. Do you know it’s clear?”
“No,” I replied. At least I got that correct.
“Then what are you doing?” He obviously thinks I am an idiot. He started slamming his pen into his fake Pilot again. I figured I was close to the high score, which in pinball is very good. Here, not so much.
“Pffft,” sighed the Instructor, expelling all the air in his body. “Parallel park, please.”
Subconsciously, I knew that passing this test was no longer an option and my brain responded to his latest request as if I had never driven before. Sweat poured off my bald head and a little urine escaped from my urethra, not wanting to be attached to a loser.
“Bumph”--Crap! I really did it now.
“You cannot drive on the curb! That’s a dangerous action!” Okay, now he’s just being a, well, gorilla. Sure, my rear wheel slightly kissed the curb. But how was driving on the curb a “dangerous action?” There were no people on the street to run over and, while I did not ask for a direct confirmation, I don’t think the curb was all that offended.
“Put the car in park. Your test is over.”
I assumed a road test was supposed to last longer than a Friskies commercial. I waited for the gorilla to hand me a receipt that was printing from his Magna-Doodle pilot, as if I needed written confirmation of my incompetence. I decided to appeal to the gorilla’s American spirit.
“You know, if you fail me, the terrorists will win.”
He just stared at me through his dollar store Ray-Bans and handed me a slip, while saying something that sounded like “GRRR AR AR AR!” - loosely translated as “You need to practice.”
I guess my road test instructor had more important things on his mind than national security. I failed.
When I got back to the so-called “Broadway” Driving School, the place was crowded with fellow students. The owner walked right up to me.
“So what’s the good word?”
“The word is I suck.”
“That’s weird. All of our students have failed their road tests this week.”
Was I supposed to take comfort in the fact that I was part of a collective of losers? Maybe the questionable fashion choices and lack of a sufficient dental plan for your instructors negatively influenced your teaching ability.
Not wanting to give in to my misery, I reschedule another road test for six weeks later. This will give me time to take a few more lessons, brush up on my simian and appropriately apologize to the curb for any inconvenience I may have caused. Sure, I could go back to relying on the subway, but the last time I checked, the D train still does not go to Disney World.