Week 5: I’m still in start-up mode, waiting for the contracts with my partners to go through. I look forward to cruising around looking at houses, but for now I spend my time researching cars, since it’s not clear to me whether I’ll be better off leasing or getting a Zipcar. And, of course, I have to learn to drive.
If you live anywhere but New York City, you may wonder how a person could possibly hit the age of 38 without driving. The answer is a sad memory: when I was 15, my dad contracted a rare paralytic disease (imagine a fast-acting multiple sclerosis). While other kids were sliding into the driver’s seat, I was propped in a stiff plastic chair outside the ICU, smelling disinfectant instead of burning rubber. I got my license a few years later, on the basis of about two hours in a parking lot with my sister, but I wasn’t much good for anything except going around the block to the right.
So now, every few days I make my way uptown for a driving lesson. Of all the obstacles I face – dishonest contractors, broken agreements, possible bankruptcy – I think the little red Nissan is the one that scares me most.
The actual road time is not that bad, really. It’s a dual-brake car (the instructor reaches over and takes the wheel when he has to) and I get a bit less jagged every time. The driving school’s philosophy is that if you learn in heavy city traffic, everything else will seem easy by comparison, so we cruise around Washington Heights and Harlem – areas with a lot of trucks, bikes, double-parked cars and jaywalking pedestrians (what my supportive husband refers to as “targets”).
I’m painfully aware that my moves aren’t automatic yet. Imagine walking and going, “OK, raise the right foot, now what comes down first, heel or toe?” Also, different teachers have different philosophies: one is happy to watch me ride my brake “just so long as you have control of the car” while another thinks it’s a bad habit that will make me the cause of road rage forever.
There’s a lot of cultural stuff going on too – if you’re not a New Yorker, let me explain that Washington Heights, with a large poor Dominican population, is starting to be gentrified by white yuppies. It’s at once a vibrant neighborhood full of commerce and the kind of scary place where a baby gets stabbed on the street. I read the “Bonfire of the Vanities” (OK, I know that was about The Bronx) and I don’t want to have an accident here.
My latest driving teacher, Carlos, is a Dominican kid who’s about 20, and as I get better at my left turns I spend more time trying to eavesdrop on his cell phone conversations en espanol. But there’s always culture shock: two little old ladies flagged us as we were parallel parking and asked us where they could cenar. “They want a restaurant,” I thought, and it was only when he referred them to an iglesia that I realized they wanted a soup kitchen. I’m worried about lining up with the curb; they don’t have enough to eat.
Last week was the freakiest, though. We were on Broadway – a big, multilane step forward – and these guys pulled up next to me and said, “Got any…?” Their accents were thick, and I looked over at Carlos to do a gringa translation. He shook his head at them, told me to keep going, and explained that they wanted to buy drugs. They’d said, “Got any ‘H’?…meaning, “got any heroin?” Of course, I thought, I look like Betty Crocker and they think I’m selling heroin. We laughed about that, Carlos and I, and then the damn guys pulled up next to us again (Broadway’s got a lot of stoplights.) They said something else – I didn’t catch it and I didn’t want to.
I was so exasperated I cut off a small truck changing lanes to shake them. Carlos smiled. “Your driving is getting better.”
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