After Steve’s lovely ode to John Lennon and the age of activism in music, I thought it only appropriate to take my post in a completely opposing direction. Quiet reflection? Sensitivity? Only when I drink. Instead I offer Part 7 of the seemingly endless “Things That Happened in the Past Five Six Weeks” saga, today the story of my baptism into the New York City driving community. No tissues or peace signs needed here, just a taste for the absurd. I promise* to keep it short.
7) I Learned to Drive in NYC
While currently counting food stamps on the unemployment line with my friends, there was a time not long ago when I did hold a job. Not a staggeringly fun job, or all that fulfilling, but something that kept me off the streets (and from referring to vendor hot dogs as “luxury items”). For three months, I was the Assistant to the Coach of Columbia Men’s Swimming. The job covered more ground than might be expected; from coaching (obviously) to filing, teaching, recruiting, and networking, I was asked to be a chlorinated Renaissance man. Me being me, of course, I tackled every request or assignment with trademark panache. Everything, that is, except driving.
On four separate weekends, I was given the honor of ferrying high school recruits from La Guardia Airport to Columbia University. In a van. In a city in which I had never driven before. And certainly not in a van. But baby steps are for losers (or babies); lending me the “Van Driving for Beginners” DVD and a pat on the back, the Athletics Department sent me on my merry way. (Looking back on this, it almost scares me how willing the University was to hand me the keys to what may have been a “7 Dead in Car Crash” headline… but I digress).
To clarify: I’m no Halle Berry behind the wheel. Barring one unfortunate fender-bender (caused by a spider landing in my lap, I swear) in 2004, my record is spotless. I signal. I turn with textbook efficiency. If you ask nicely, I’ll even parallel park. In any area that’s not NYC, LA included, I’m a competent and educated driver. But the Big Apple is filled with driving challenges outside the scope of a Jersey license.
Have you ever been on 125th Street? Every car is double-parked. Pedestrians hold business meetings in the middle of the street. The rules of driving no longer have any meaning as you clutch the wheel and pray, weaving in and out of traffic that seems to have dropped from the sky or worse, Jimmy Jazz. The whole experience is maybe two clicks from a Marakesh bazaar – crowded and dangerous and OMG WHERE DID THAT STROLLER COME FROM. Totally unprepared for any of this, I turned onto 125th and began my crash course in NYC driving.
To be fair, it really wasn’t that bad. More than anything, successful driving was a question of readjusting my attitude and letting perceived slights go. Rolling my eyes at every double-parked car or timidly cursing every jay-walking pedestrian was only going to give me a heart attack, so I stopped. I calmed down. Like Neo discovering his Matrix abilities, I fell into a comfortable, slow-motion groove. On the ride back from La Guardia, I even slid my elbow out the window.
Perhaps prompted by this false sense of security, I was pulled over at a security check point just before the Triborough Bridge. I guess it makes sense in hindsight – per any news report ever, white vans are ALWAYS filled with illegal immigrants or, well, terrorists. Not helping were the seven rather tall high schoolers sitting in the back or the fact that I was sporting my “beard” at the time. Thankfully the routine search on a high note with the revelation that I was driving with outdated insurance AND registration. Thanks, Columbia! Peggy, the cop, let me off with a warning. It was a sunny day.
Though I’d hardly call myself a “New Yorker” for my time here as an undergraduate student, I think I’m slowly settling into the label now as I explore the city from new vantage points. Shows on the Lower East Side. Stickball in the Bronx (not really). Have you heard of this great place called Brooklyn? I think I may go sometime, sounds fun. While initially terrifying, driving was exactly the kind of NYC experience I needed and need to do more. There’s a shit-ton of stuff to explore out there on foot or on wheels, and the next pseudo-adventure is only a “yes” away. Onward!