Saturday, March 6, 2010

The road not taken

Here in America, we take certain driving conventions for granted—you know, that old stuff like keeping to the right of the road. It’s not a set of rules that cries out for individuality. Yet those of us who live in Westchester have been reading lots about that very thing, with several drivers over the past year going the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway.

I’m hardly one for driving the wrong way in traffic. (Okay, there was that rainy night in Brooklyn.) But in thinking about the stupid things those local drivers have been up to, a few of my own experiences are coming to mind.

Neither of my parents drove. So, like a true city kid, I got my first driving lessons from watching traffic from our tenth-floor window. Cars would come down Roosevelt Avenue from the direction of Shea Stadium. And because the 7-Line trains came out of the tunnel there, splitting Roosevelt’s two directions of traffic and blocking everybody’s view, drivers of those cars wouldn’t see others making lefts across their path from the other direction. We’d hear the screech and run to the window to see, typically, bumpers and glass lying in the street. It was our entertainment, and it came in better than the snowy, pre-cable TV signal.

At 15, I got my first chance behind the wheel. My sister Patty and I were completing a visit to our sister Regina’s house in Uncasville, Connecticut, and Regina’s husband, Rich, was about to take us to the train. But first he wanted to put their other car, which was almost out of gas, into the garage without starting it. He would push the car, he decided, and I would steer it into the driveway and down the slope into the garage. Great idea—except that my foot wasn’t quite on the brake. Poor Rich’s car went through the back of the garage, its nose sticking out into the air behind, several feet off the ground. Then we, oh, left for the station.

Fortified with this wealth of experience after years of empirical study, I was more than ready once I got my learner’s permit. My best friend Jack’s family had a car, and his dad kindly included me in driving lessons to Nassau County, just outside of the city, where the streets had less traffic on weekends. Up Shelter Rock Road, down Searingtown Road, then back the other way, Jack and I took turns along these long, straight stretches with few lights. We got lots of practice. I’ll always be grateful. But there was that one question Mr. Cotter asked: “Eddie, do you know what the sign ‘Speed Zone Ahead’ means?” That’s an easy one, I remember thinking. “It means you can go as fast as you want.”

Somehow, I passed my road test on the first try. The fools. And having my license would be a great help over the coming years in the Coast Guard, during which I got to drive cars, forklifts, and various trucks. Oh, and that motorcycle. It belonged to a friend, another Eddie, and he thought he was doing me a favor by insisting I try out his bike one sunny day on Guam. I kept shaking my head, recalling one experience—at my aunt and uncle’s house in Maryland—when I tried out a minibike because someone insisted. No sooner had I taken off than a rosebush jumped right in my way. But against my better judgment, I climbed on Eddie’s bike, and he gave me a quick lesson. Very quick.

Within seconds I was headed toward Apra Harbor. Doing a wheelie all the way down the street.

I told myself the water ahead wasn’t deep. But sometimes, just sometimes, we need to step back to see the point of reference. The harbor wasn’t deep only by comparison with the water miles off the other side of Guam: the Mariana Trench, which is deeper than Mount Everest is high. The water on this side? Hell, it was just deep enough for submarines.

A block from the water, I finally realized that since both wheels had been on the ground two blocks back when I started, the trouble probably stemmed from something I was doing with my hands. That, if undone, could perhaps help the situation. My right hand was gripping the throttle tightly—hmmm. I eased up. A few yards from the water, I slowed down the bike enough to turn it around.

I’ve been driving for decades now and like to believe such antics are behind me. But my daughter Katie has her license and likes to drive whenever she’s home from college. Andrew, in high school, wants his license the instant he turns 17.

And people ask why I don’t sleep.

1 comment :

  1. red means stop green means go fast yellow means go faster... thank you for something we can all relate to -- was just on searingtown road and shelter road recently