Friday, April 30, 2010

Baby, You Can Drive My Car


I may have yelled at Spuds a couple of times that his pants are too low or about not wearing a sweater but the center of my universe is the seventeen year old’s behind the wheel driving examination, which having been postponed once due to lack of readiness, is now scheduled. Over the weekend, ostensibly to see wild flowers, the seventeen year old drives us to the Antelope Valley. I sit in the back seat and Himself rides shot gun. I have been warned off, by both of the parties occupying the front seat, backseat driving.

Himself counsels driving behind a truck in order to prevent speeding and conserve gasoline. We choke on fumes, tailing a gravel truck for about thirty miles. We overshoot our destination and Himself instructs the seventeen year old to perform a U-Turn. I pipe up that he has never made a U-Turn. Himself reminds me to not interfere with the two males in the front seat and says, “He’s got to learn,” while giving the new driver no instruction. The intersection is undershot by about 200 feet which results in beached car, facing the curb and occupying two lanes of traffic for an uncomfortably long period of time.

I receive a letter from my penpal Alan, who is incarcerated nearby in the grim Tehachapi fortress, noting that he can see through the fence that the hills are brilliant with poppies and lupine, and it reminds him of the beauty of the world outside. I am not comparing my circumstances to Alan’s, as he serves a draconian sentence in a prison crowded to more than twice its capacity, except to say that there are mitigating circumstances that keep us both from fully appreciating this rainy year’s riotous explosion of flowers.

I watch all ten titles in the collection of videos entitled THE TOP TEN REASONS PEOPLE FAIL THE DRIVING TEST. I pour over the DMV’s Your Teenage Driver booklet. I sweet talk a colleague into taking the boy out to practice parking. Driving in reverse seems particularly confusing. My friend returns relatively unfreted and lays 50/50 odds on the kid passing the test. The seventeen year old drives us home and nimbly controls the car and gauges distance better than I ever have. Then he makes a left turn on a green light right into oncoming traffic, heedless to and confused by my screams of “STOP!” He shifts the car from drive into reverse or park without coming to a complete stop. He has trouble backing out of the home driveway without going off the curb.

He gets annoyed when I grip my seatbelt and pound the imaginary brake and I remind him again and again that I’d been in a bad accident. I point out repeatedly that he can kill someone or himself in the blink of an eye. He asks me when it’s safe to turn and I tell him he has to gauge for himself, perhaps not sounding sufficiently compassionate given how long it takes for that judgment to become automatic. I ask him what he thinks about driving by himself and he says he would only be comfortable going to places he has driven to already and will not feel up to the hillside homes of many of his friends for a while. Based on the ravage I wreaked on my mother’s behemoth Pontiac, I suspect I was less realistic about my own limitations when I was newly licensed.

I pick him up early from school and he drives via surface streets to the DMV. I remind him about all the cretins driving hither and yon and that the driving exam is not an assessment of intelligence or of anything else that’s of genuine value, but merely an instrument to determine if one has had sufficient practice driving. I tell him that he’ll be driving the rest of his life so a couple weeks isn’t going to matter that much. I remind him that I failed the test three times myself and then barely squeaked by on my fourth attempt.

The lot is jammed and the seventeen year old is still nervous about parking. He manages with great frustration to find a spot on the street and maneuver the car into a position that is at least at less than a right angle with relationship to the curb. We register and then he feels too overwhelmed to extricate the car and I maneuver it into the examination line for him.

The examiner arrives and seventeen year old is ashen and sweaty and I am stricken that my laziness about transporting him has literally driven him to the brink of freak out. She gets in the car and I watch him drive off. The DMV is jammed with people. There are no paper towels in the bathroom. There are no benches outside so I wait on the sidewalk. I pace, too distracted for novel or crossword puzzle I keep in my purse, mulling the significance of what the next twenty minutes may bring. My car returns. The examiner speaks and taps her pen on her clipboard and the seventeen year old slumps over. He misses a stop sign on a residential street and drives right through it, considered a critical error and resulting in immediate failure.

I can tell from her initial presentation that the examiner lacks the warmth of the other two testers we observe in action while waiting his turn. Apparently her accounting of the boy’s errors is harsh. He is angry. Too angry to drive. I suggest he might want to drive his dad to pick up Spuds in Altadena later so he can get back in the saddle. He does not want to get back in the saddle, not only disheartened by the licensing defeat but by the notion of having a mother who says things like “get back in the saddle.”

There is a door slammed. He disappears to his lair and then reappears at dinner, apologetic for having become overwrought and is genial for the rest of the evening. We sit on the couch Himself, the seventeen year old, new puppy Oprah and I. Three out of the four of us are relieved that he hasn’t passed the test. We finish the third season of The Wire, Himself and I very much benefiting from the seventeen year old’s far superior grasp of this astonishing and complex drama.

I endured humiliation while mastering the art of driving in Van Nuys, Hooterville compared to the traffic challenges the seventeen year old faces in 2010 L.A. I do not remember practicing with either of my parents but perhaps I did. I had an instructor named Mr. Lampke who picked me up in his un-air conditioned Datsun, emblazoned Valley Driving School. His baby blue polyester shirt clung to his chest with sweat, accentuating his nipples. He had a slight speech impediment and a pronounced short fuse. As far as he was concerned, I was hopeless. Three different DMV examiners arrived at the same conclusion. One tester asked if I were from England. I thought it was because I seemed sophisticated but it was just that I seemed to be driving on the left.

Driving for me, from the very first time I stripped the gears trying to turn the key in the ignition of Mr. Lampke’s car, has always been terrifying, and magic. Sepulveda Blvd. was daunting and I would drive a square mile of right turns to cross it. Now still, if someone I know is observing me, I am unable to parallel park. But even under the influence of sodium pentothal I would still aver that I am able to back into the tiniest of spaces perfectly well when I am by myself and the dog is lying down. I find it satisfying, in the right circumstances, to crank up The Replacements and exceed the speed limit, for which I’ve had run-ins with the law.

The seventeen year old drives us to school every morning now. We listen to the first Arcade Fire album, after not having heard it for a couple years. Now that all the hype has died down, we both decide that it stands up. I do not recount the story about playing as a child at the home of guitarist Alvino Rey, the grandfather of frontman Winn Butler. Rey was married to one of the King Sisters and my best friend’s father was their manager. The seventeen year old is unimpressed by my degrees of separation at the first telling so I don’t bother bending his ear.

I tell him that I am working on an essay about women in rock ‘n roll and why there are so few female musicians and that most of those seem to have arrived on the coattails of a boyfriend or sibling or spouse. He rattles off a list of rock women, most of whom I’ve never heard of. He promises to make me a CD. We talk about comedy. He is not impressed with my tenuous connection to Arcade Fire but he is envious that I saw the first season of Saturday Night Live, if not live, with only a three hour delay from the East Coast. He knows about John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase and then there’s the black guy who became a heroin addict (Garrett Morris), the blond who still works (Jane Curtain) and the skinny one (Laraine Newman) who sort of looks like the one who was in all those Altman films (Shelly Duvall).

He muses about what it would be like to describe “seeing” to someone who’s been blind since birth. I suggest he read Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. He reports that he just has and this has inspired the question. I notice that a copy of Fires, a posthumous collection of some unpublished Carver works that has been in the bathroom for as long as I can remember is turning up in other spots. He asks for my copy of Where I’m Calling From. He hears me wax on about Carver ad infinitum and doubtless I have recited the story about meeting Carver’s wife Tess Gallagher as many times as the Alvino Rey one or even the one about being fed canned soup by Gale Storm’s maid. I am pleased that for once perhaps my slavering has sunk in. Alas, he reports that he was led to the book in the bathroom by a reference to Carver on the show Californication.

As both of the boys have become more independent, I’ve had more time to pursue areas of personal satisfaction, as well as profligate time wasting and self examination on such topics as, “Am I a Good Mother?” In the neighborhood patter I hear accounts often that suggest other moms live their lives through their children and their accomplishments. Other tidings imply that sometimes moms blindly neglect their children’s needs in order to fulfill their own personal aspirations. I struggle with the needs to get a life loser/selfish bitch thing myself but it is easier to pass judgment on other people.

I guess I’ve read some articles and books about parenting but even after seventeen years in the trenches, I ‘m still clueless. I am thankful for my parents and I know that both often put my needs above their own. Perhaps the umbrage I cling to about the other times distorts their frequency. I asked my father to attend a school event with me once but his wife had made previous plans to dine with another couple that night. My school presentation was a once in a lifetime thing but he refused to attend, noting that a man’s wife always deserves precedence over his children. He also admitted to me once, and I do not remember the context, just the confession, that he should never have had children. In the seventies I ODed on sleeping pills but he was unable to meet my mother at the emergency room because the new Cadillac he’d been waiting for was scheduled for delivery. But he filled the house with glorious music and he ran movies for me and wept when my dog died and when he held my sons for bris.

My mother kept my report cards on the refrigerator. When I got my teaching credential she was very proud but when I had a personal essay published in a local paper she wrote a letter to the editor refuting it and then began vigorously sending off pieces for publication herself. Should any harm befall me she was there like a bullet. She almost always came through for me when I needed her but she’d make a big deal about it, and her tenacious ingratiation, ironically, sometimes compromised her karma.

It was a sign of my mother’s precipitous decline when recently she stopped asking me if I were driving yet and being delighted that yes, indeed, I have accomplished this. Then, later she’d admonish me, looking stricken, to drive safely. My son will drive the car by himself soon and there will be fewer opportunities for me to excoriate myself for being too needy or too selfish. Will I ever not think about this with pride and terror and wistfulness about my seventeen year chauffeuring stint? Soon both of us will drive mostly to our own soundtracks. I’m thankful for the few extra weeks of riding shotgun.
Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

While characteristically exaggerating both the time spent behind gravel truck and that of the aborted U-turn (which was out of chronology and in the middle of Lancaster now which resembled in its traffic Van Nuys then), I commend you for Toonces as a nice touch for the SNL tie-in to all the other anecdotes as familiar to me-- except Gale Storm's maid's-- as Son #1. Thank god for iPods & wife-cancelling headphones, but that was last week, right? xxx me