Some immigrants assimilate more slowly than others. My best friend from childhood had parents from Abruzzi who lived in NYC for 40 years and never learned English—the need for it never arose. I guess I’m another sort of “unmeltable ethnic,” having been for long periods of my life an expat New Yorker who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) learn how to drive. And it has given me a very different perspective on America—the point of view shared by the legally blind, by poor folks who’ve had their Pontiacs re-pod, and backsliding alcoholics with DUIs. Call it the bum’s eye view.
In high school, my folks wouldn’t “waste” money on Driver’s Ed, to them an extravagance just shy of flying lessons. There was no point driving in college—the Gothic buildings were all within walking distance, and the rest of 1980s New Haven glowered at us across the moat like a primeval darkness full of wolves.
All of which explains why at 22 and in graduate school, I’d wander the streets of Baton Rouge with a vague but raging ache of longing and loss, on a quest for something undefined, unattainable, liberating…. What was I after? A glimpse of Plato’s Forms? A Christian epiphany? For weeks, I roamed those sun-baked, steamy roads until I stumbled upon the truth: I was looking for the subway.
When I realized this, I wasn’t even embarrassed; instead, I ranted to my friends about the absurdity of a town where the only public transit existed to ferry maids in from the ghetto in the morning, then whisk them back at dinner time. A few times I defiantly rode the bus—the only paleface on the rickety old vehicle, surrounded by tired-looking old cleaning ladies, with an occasional Indian physics grad student thrown in to spice the black-eyed peas. The ladies would look me up and down and roll their eyes, as if to say, “Well he ain’t gwine to last long ‘round here. Don’t have the good sense God gave an alley cat.”
Despite the wise advice of Cajun friends, I didn’t take driving lessons, but lingered most of the time in the dank and druggy dives surrounding campus, slogged through the ghetto to Latin Mass, and tagged along with any friend who was driving… pretty much anywhere. (“I’m fixin’ to go the landfill, wanna come?” Absolutely.) When dating opportunities rolled around, I would blithely break it to the girl that she’d need to pick me up. And I really didn’t get what a turn-off this was, why these first dates were also my last. It didn’t help that my notion of “tropical wear” was Bermuda shorts, argyle knee socks, and bankers’ shoes.
Native New Yorkers see cars not as attributes of masculine power or vehicles of freedom, but lumbering millstones that must be shifted first thing in the morning, twice a week. (One must imagine Sisyphus parking.) Finding a spot in the City is like playing Rubik’s Cube at gunpoint, and if you don’t solve the puzzle, the tickets you earn will soon exceed the value of your vehicle. At least one person I know was grateful when the tow truck finally dragged the damned thing away.
After seven years of sedentary sipping at slime-coated campus bars, I had to cave in and admit that my boycott wasn’t working: However long I held my breath, the city fathers weren’t going to dig a subway—especially since in Louisiana it would have promptly filled in with three feet of water. I found a friend intrepid enough to brave the roads alongside me and give me lessons, and took the driving test. At the time and in that town, this consisted of driving around a parking lot without knocking anyone over. I passed on the second try.
Now I was legal to pilot the crumbling ’79 Dodge Aspen station wagon that I’d bought for $250 and decorated with a Battle Flag bumper sticker, but it didn’t mean I was ready. As I’ve written here before, it took me over a year to rouse the nerve for the interstate—which meant that in my capacity as Press Secretary to a (successful) governor candidate, I drove what the campaign director fondly called “that G-ddamn Klan-mobile” on back roads that wound through bayous and burned-over cane fields, and crossed the Mississippi using ferries, since driving over bridges gave me panic attacks. But after enough long, leisurely trips along River Road, I started to get comfortable behind the wheel. I found a few entrances to I-10 that had really long intake ramps, and began to run the roads like a real American.
Which apparently contravened the Dialectic which governs the World Historical Process, because it wasn’t three months after I’d started driving on the interstate before the Holy City called me home. I learned in April 1996 that my poor, chain-smoking mother was finally finishing her 50 year-pact with Marlboro. The lungs-for-trinkets scheme that had netted her plenty of sweaters, blankets, and hats over the years now was paying its final dividend. I sold the car, packed up my stuff, and moved back to Queens—to the building next door, in fact—to help out the hospice nurses, to straighten out mom’s IV and watch the morphine drip, drip, drip….
So my mother’s death drew me back to New York, to the same block where I was baptized, in the same rent-stabilized building. For the next ten years, I worked at a series of journalism jobs, aware that affirmative action (“Whitey Need Not Apply”) and departmental politics had rendered my degree effectively honorary. When my father looked at my Ph.D. diploma, he smiled and said “You’re a certified Post-Hole Digger.” I’d never realized that he subscribed to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Then Dad died, too. His lifetime of manual labor, Little Debbies and Chef Boyardee ended in stomach cancer in summer 2005. Standing over his open coffin, dully reciting the Rosary, I felt the ties that bound me to the city slacken and slip. My family had relocated variously to Purgatory, or Long Island. My upstairs neighbors ran what sounded like a tap dancing school, from the number of feet which hammered on their bare wood floors all day as I tried to write—but whenever I put on classical music to drown it out, the enormous husband would storm down to hammer on my door. My sane friends were mostly wed and busy paying to keep their kids out of public school. More and more, it seemed that being unmarried at 40 in New York City meant simply that you were unmarriageable, a near-miss for the species which Darwin in his infinite wisdom had chosen to cull from the herd. I needed a fresh start, a new career, a chance to wear tweed jackets and pontificate. I needed to go.
Apparently God agreed, deciding to lift from New York its 90-year plague of Zmiraks, because he sent me the opportunity of a lifetime—to teach writing classes at a Catholic Great Books college, in a beautiful part of the country, in a state with plentiful seafood and no income tax. For the first time in my life, I could actually live in a house. My beagles would have their very own yard, and chipmunks to chase. No more need to run them after tattooed skateboard punks down crowded sidewalks—rewarding as that is.
There was just one leash that tied me still to a parking meter in Queens, and that was public transit. You see, on my birthday in 2000 I turned 36. And lost my driver’s license, thanks to what my good friend Marty the cop might call a DFR: Dumbass Forgot to Renew. I’d overlooked the four-year expiration date on my old Louisiana license—never used in the deadly, whizzing traffic warrens of New York—and now I was no longer legal. When I got to New Hampshire, it would be Baton Rouge all over again, only this time in six feet of snow.
I promised myself that I’d take the test and get my license back, but by now the old anxieties which had kept me off the roads had all come roaring back. (To give you an idea of how long it has been since I drove a car: the last time I filled up a tank, the gas was 79 cents a gallon, and Monica Lewinsky was still in high school.) I must have seen too many auto safety commercials in my formative years, because whenever I try to get behind the wheel again, my mind is flooded with images of wrecked cars, bloody windshield glass, schoolchildren I’ve run over, and the automated wheelchair in which I’ll end up for the next 40 years.
So I’ve spent a long year cadging rides from colleagues in return for various favors; I even let one parsimonious fellow prof subsist in a basement room for a nominal rent. In return, he’d ferry me to and from my classes in his aging Chevrolet. When he wasn’t around, I’d shell out $20 each way to ride in the dingiest cabs this side of Calcutta (oops, forgot the new and PC name for the place—aren’t we supposed to call it “Kaddishak?”):
• Broken down minivans with biological stains on the floor and doors that stick shut—and then fly open suddenly on the road.
• Converted cop cars where I sit in the back like a suspect, waiting for the driver to come let me out of the back door which has no handles.
• A rattletrap Cadillac steered by a garrulous, chain-smoking 80-year-old who miraculously manages to tailgate at 35 mph. (Women have been canonized for less.)
In New York, the cabs have video monitors that offer stock quotes and Bloomberg business news. Why are the taxis up here so broken down and depressing? One of the drivers clued me in: “Apart from DUIs and visiting businessmen, most of our customers are on public assistance. Once a month, we take them to cash their welfare checks and buy some groceries. Otherwise, we spend a lot of time picking up bottles of Smirnoff for alchies and delivering them—you know, for the guys who don’t like to leave the house.”
That made up my mind. I can’t spend one more year riding the food stamps and vodka express. My roommate/driver has moved away, leaving me his car in lieu of rent. It’s gathering pollen in the parking lot at the college, waiting for me to wangle a license, insurance, and plates. Every week now, I cab it downtown to a slightly seedy driving school and sit with the 16-year-olds waiting for driving lessons. A little humbling, but it beats sitting in the perp’s seat en route to giving a lecture about Chesterton. Hands down.
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