In the song “New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra claims that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Theoretically, this might be true, but practically speaking, I think it should read “anywhere [reachable by public transportation],” since New York is one of the only places in the United States where it’s possible to be a fully- functional adult without having a driver’s license. Case in point my mother, who’s lived here since 1944 and only got her license in 1986. Or my housemate, for that matter, a 26-year old native Brooklyn-ite who uses his passport to get into bars (and, when he lost that, carried around his birth certificate).
Even at sixteen, I was determined to avoid this fate, so in eleventh grade, I signed up for an optional driver’s ed course being offered at my prep school.
On the morning of our first class, Mr. Politano shut the door, pulled his key ring out of his pocket, and turned dramatically to face us. It was seven am and my fellow classmates were half asleep, cups of McDonald’s coffee on their desks. I, completely un-caffeinated, was taking notes.
“So this,” he said, holding a single key vertically in the air, the other keys dangling below it. “This is the key to adulthood.” I looked closer. Apparently the key to adulthood was also the key to his Buick.
“Without this,” he continued, “you are at the mercy of the public transportation system. You can’t go anywhere without someone else’s help. You are not your own person. But this, this,” he wagged the key toward us. “This is what will make you into a full-fledged member of the adult world.”
By the end of his introductory speech, Mr. Politano had me so pumped up about getting my driver’s license that I felt like we should end the class with push-ups. Unfortunately, though, it was the only moment of passion in his eight-week driver’s ed course. Every Thursday morning from January to spring break, I dragged myself out of bed an hour early and trudged to school to be subjected to lectures on antifreeze and tire pressure. We watched movies of car wrecks and studied diagrams of the flight path babies make from the backseat through the windshield if they don’t have seatbelts on during a crash. Mr. Politano’s goal was to warn us about the dangers of drunk driving, but the end result was that I couldn’t get into a taxi to go crosstown without imagining our car in a smoking, burning heap on the side of Central Park West.
Sometime during our fourth class, Mr. Politano mentioned mandatory driving lessons. Previously, this had sounded exciting. Now it terrified me.
In Mr. Politano’s defense, his video of charred accident victims was not the only cause of my fear. I come from a proud line of neurotics, most notably my dad, who to this day is convinced that his 1991 bowel obstruction was caused by eating a pizza with too much mozzarella cheese. Many of my father’s stories remind me of those History Channel specials featuring Civil War reenactors—sepia-toned, with the caveat: “The following is a dramatization of actual events.” When I was in the car with my father—who still is one of the only people I fully trust behind the wheel—he told me statistics about how many of his childhood friends got killed in car wrecks, and went through detailed explanations of how tailgating was a one-way ticket to death. I became so obsessed with car safety that when my neighbors and I went to a New Jersey mall and they bought “Co-Ed Naked Football” T-shirts, I came home with a custom-designed license plate border that said, in small print, “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Close.”
On the day of my first driving lesson, I spent last period feeling like I was going to vomit. I had already heard tales about the two driving teachers who had been assigned to my school. Twin brothers, they had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines after short-lived careers as motorcycle racers. Their names were Ram and Ricky.
Rumor had it that Ricky was the wild brother, the one with a moustache, the one who smoked, and the one who congratulated his female students on their driver’s licenses with a kiss. Ram, on the other hand, was clean-shaven, with a demeanor so calm that he sometimes seemed lethargic. At first I thought this reflected a sense of inner peace; later, I realized it was probably because of his overconsumption of Hall’s cough drops.
On the afternoon of my first lesson, I walked outside to find a white, dual-controlled Toyota waiting for me, a small, Filipino man smiling slyly at me from the passenger seat.
“What’s your name?” he asked, when I reached the car.
“Nice to meet you, Pricey. I’m Ram.” I shook his hand through the open window and waited for him to move. He just sat there.
“Okay,” he said, once the moment had become awkward. “Now you can get in the car.” I instinctively reached for the handle to the back door, but he had reached across the seat to pop the lock on the driver’s side. I climbed in, sat down, buckled my seatbelt, and noticed that there was someone else in the car with us, a girl in the backseat who introduced herself as Lauren and said she went to Brearley, an elite all-girls school on the Upper East Side. It turned out that, in order to maximize profits, A-Plus Driving had a tradition of having each student drive the previous student home. This seemed nice enough, but my school was on the Upper West Side, and Lauren lived just off of Madison Avenue. I would have to drive across Central Park.
Ram showed me how to adjust the mirror and then offered me a cough drop.
“Okay, Pricey,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I had been driving before, in a field in New Jersey in my father’s powder blue 1976 Ford Granada. However, that had been out in the open with my Dad, listening to Oldies 99.9. Now I was in Manhattan with a five-foot-four motorcycle racer, listening to continuous dance hits on 103.1, which had just launched into a pounding rendition of “I Will Survive.” When Ram realized that I wasn’t going to do anything on my own, he hit his teacher’s side gas pedal and the car lurched forward, leaving me with no choice but to steer as we careened down 91st Street. Lauren looked up from her textbook.
“Nice work, Pricey,” said Ram, despite the fact that I had narrowly missed hitting a woman with a stroller. “Now, pinch da brakes. Red light ahead.”
It turned out that Ram had two pieces of advice for his driving students: “Pinch da brakes,” and “Gas to go.” He stretched these two expressions to fit nearly every conceivable driving situation, as if they were axioms in his own school of Eastern philosophical thought. When I crawled into Central Park at 10 miles an hour, he stomped on his instructor-side accelerator and crooned, “Gas to go!” When I zoomed past Lauren’s apartment building, still coasting off a burst of gasoline he had provided me with to speed through a yellow light, a little “Pinch da brakes” was all I got before he stomped on his own brake pedal and ground the car to a halt. Lauren, who had abandoned her textbook in favor of praying for her life, pulled herself out of the car, managing only a feeble wave before stumbling into her apartment building. Once she was out of the car, Ram turned to face me.
“So, Pricey,” he said, as I sat clutching the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles were turning white. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
And so began my relationship with Ram. Not as lovers, but as confidants. If Ram enjoyed one thing more than driving, it was gossip, and his constant stream of prep school driving students—many of whom knew each other—provided him with a nonstop source of drama. It was much better than a soap opera.
At first I didn’t tell Ram much. No, I didn’t have a boyfriend. Yes, I knew many of his other students. No, I didn’t have a crush on any of them. I held back for two reasons: first, a continued fear of death every time I sat down in his car. Second, I felt weird sharing my personal life with the man who was teaching me how to parallel park.
Eventually, though, I opened up. One afternoon, while Ram and I were practicing three-point turns on a dead-end street on the East Side, Ram asked me again if I were dating anyone.
“No,” I said, concentrating on reading the cheat sheet on parallel parking that Ram had posted on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. “Still nothing.”
“Oh, Pricey,” Ram clucked, “what to do, what to do?”
“You could set me up with one of your students,” I said, half-joking. Ram turned to face me. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, oh, Pricey. This is a good idea. Your next lesson, you dress nice.”
I felt a little weird about it, but did as I was told. At the end of my next lesson, Ram directed me to an apartment building on Riverside Drive where my date, a junior at Horace Mann named Michael, lived. We pulled up to his house, I hopped into the backseat, and sat nervously sucking on a Hall’s as we waited for him to come downstairs.
Unfortunately, it was quickly obvious that Michael and I would never work out. The conversation was fine, he was cute, but he kept making eye contact with me through the rearview mirror. This might have just been an indication that he was a good listener, but all I could think of was how, in the time it took for his eyes to flash back to the street in front of us, he could have run us into a parked car. My laughter became strained and I felt myself burning not with passion, but with a desire to reach 67th Street. I never drove him home again.
Ram concealed his disappointment well, but he didn’t set me up with another student. Instead, Ram and I decided to concentrate on our own relationship. Sometimes we drove down to Chinatown, where Ram knew a restaurant specializing in Filipino rice desserts, and we sat double-parked, sharing sticky pudding. Other weeks, we ran errands, usually involving picking his wife up from her office near the United Nations and dropping her off outside various apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. And then finally, one day it happened. Ram took me on the FDR Drive.
For the uninitiated, the FDR Drive is a highway that snakes along the East Side of Manhattan, narrow and riddled with potholes. Among Ram and Ricky’s students, driving on the FDR was a status symbol akin to losing your virginity—everyone knew who had and hadn’t, who was likely to be next, and who would have to sign up for the course again.
I had assumed that Ram and I were just going to go to another dead-end street to practice parking techniques, but Ram had decided to take our relationship to a new level without asking me for my consent. Before I knew what was happening, I ended up on an entrance ramp.
“Where are we going?” I asked, trying not to hit the guardrail and realizing that, in a matter of seconds, I would have to merge.
“Gas to go,” murmured Ram, soothingly.
“No, not gas to fucking go,” I said. “This is the FDR!”
But Ram simply unwrapped a cough drop and held it in front of my face, as if trying to feed an obstinate child. I swatted his hand away but he insisted, and soon I was speeding down the East Side of Manhattan sucking on a throat lozenge as if it were a pacifier, screaming obscenities as I dodged potholes and passing cars. After I nearly side-swiped a delivery truck, Ram decided that I had had enough and guided me toward the exit at 49th Street, where we emerged conveniently near his wife’s office. I sat white-faced in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead as we waited for her to come downstairs. Ram looked at me with a proud smile.
“Congratulations, Pricey,” he said. “You are ready.”
Ram scheduled my driving test in Yonkers, a half hour’s drive out of the city. He also timed it to fall on the grand launch of that ill-fated McDonald’s sandwich, the Arch Deluxe, and insisted that I warm up by taking him to a nearby drive-thru so that he could try their new special sauce. With Ram still munching on his burger, we drove up to the testing station. Before I knew what was happening, Ram disappeared and another man sat down next to me, holding a clipboard, and told me to start driving without so much as a “Gas to go.”
My memory of my actual driving test has been blurred by my memories of the movie Clueless, where Alicia Silverstone’s character runs through a stop sign and insists that she, like, totally paused. I didn’t run a light, but I do remember the tester commenting that if there had been a small child on a bike behind me during my parallel parking, I would have killed him. Still, he gave me my license.
When it arrived in the mail a few weeks later, I didn’t feel as happy as I’d expected to. Instead, I thought back to my near-death experience on the FDR and realized that, while I had always assumed that people who drove cars were highly trained professionals, they might be just as clueless as I was. If I had what it took to be a licensed driver, I never wanted to be on the road.