Driving Me Crazy

If you stay up late watching tennis, you will be tired the next day and not want to get out of bed or do any work or write anything clever. Fortunately, your 14 year old realizes this and lets out the dog, Charlie, a frisky guy who likes to go out early, even if I have stayed up late watching tennis. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t like tennis, at least not the way he did at first. But, your 14 year old, and even your 13 year old, though they can do assorted wondrous things for themselves, cannot drive the car. It sits out there, beckoning. Take me somewhere. Put them in it and take us all somewhere. C’mon, do it now. Put the key in. 

I’m sick of driving. We don’t have school buses in our little community. Instead, moms drive their own school buses, with nine seats and wheels that surpass my head height, even when standing. Even when we know the deal with the oil and the Mideast and the global warming. Anyway, that is something else. Today, we are talking about the quantity of driving, rather than the quality. My quantity is too big.

So, when I don’t have to drive to the tennis courts or the lake (for rowing, not to jump into), or the schools, or the supermarket, or to cover a story, I just sit at my desk and look at the car, out the window in our driveway. Not yet, I say, through the glass. Simmer down. 

Not too long ago, though, she got to go far….(Click here)

Eyes on the Road

He let me drive the car when I was nine. Well, I wasn’t alone behind the steering wheel when I was nine, but I certainly had my grip on it, in the ten-and-two position, turning left, then right, hand over hand, thump thump. Dad worked the pedals. It must have been a challenge with a miniature and enthusiastic body smashed up against your side, but he was highly coordinated and a picture of calm. We’d round the swerve onto Taymil Road on the way home from my piano lesson and if I were lucky, he’d lift his right arm off the wheel and give me the nod.

Each Monday at 4:25, my mother dropped me off in front of Mrs. Rubenstein’s house, a weighty 1920s stucco with a front path that shot to the door like a diving board. I ran inside, the vinyl music portfolio slapping against my leg. Sometimes, another student would be finishing. Sometimes, there was no one before me. Always, Sarah Rubenstein was waiting in a knee-length knit skirt and rubber-soled shoes. I was never early, even when I was early. Mrs. Rubenstein was a despot, an oppressor with barber-cut hair, gray with yellow edges. She yelled out commands and scrawled emphatic reminders in between the staffs, over the notes, off the margins, even, onto the actual wood of the piano’s stand. She broke nine pencil points a lesson. She ate dried ginger out of a paper bag. She said it helped her heartburn. Once, Mr.s Rubenstein became so vigorous in her translation of a particular musical phrase that sprays of the root flew from her mouth onto the keys in front of me. Tiny droplets of crystallized ginger rained down onto the baby grand. How was I to touch it, then? How was I not to touch it? Mrs. Rubenstein presented moral dilemmas for me, at nine, and onward, during the six hundred years that I studied piano in her living room. My mother told me that she was a tremendous teacher, that a girl in her second grade class performed like Shostakovich and that is why we went to Mrs. Rubenstein, even though she scared me a little and screamed up the dark staircase to Leo, her husband, who emerged only once in the six hundred years I went to the stucco house on Monday afternoons.

My dad’s Buick had a bench seat. When you are learning how to drive a car, even if you are still in elementary school, an uninterrupted sitting surface is conducive to mastering skills. If he could get out of the hospital in time, he would pick me up. It wasn’t too often, but for a surgeon, it was a lot. After my lesson, I found him in the next room, a den with beige carpeting and prints of seventeenth century quarter notes, angled where they should have been rounded, mean notes. I knew that my father wouldn’t permit me to drive the Buick Electra on North Avenue, the four-lane street that traversed the heart of New Rochelle, or Quaker Ridge Road, the less commercial but fast-flowing thoroughfare that dissected it. My opportunity came once we made the left into the residential neighborhood adjacent to ours, lush and hilly and lined with storybook tudors.  I do not think that I asked to steer, that I uttered words in the form of a question. But as we approached Taymil Road, I harnessed the anticipation and hope within me and flung it in my father’s direction, across the immense girth of the 1970s sedan, past the AM-FM push-button radio and through the leathered ether of the chassis’s interior into his brain, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, decision-making about children’s extracurricular activities, particularly driving.

You will. You can. Yes, come drive, I’d repeat in my head and paint on my face. Look, Dad. This is the face of a driving girl. A really fabulous driving girl who should be driving now, right this minute, before we pass Taymil Road and get too far, before we’re practically home in our own boring driveway, creaking on the emergency brake, halted, nipped, held back from a moment of glory and thrill.

When the arm rose, I slid across the seat and pushed myself up to the edge. Dad dropped his hands to the bottom, keeping contact with his thumb and forefingers. The dashboard could have been on the Apollo. I did not know how you could look at the road and the numbers and lights and measurers all at the same time. If you gave the equipment the attention it appeared to deserve, you would certainly crash into an oncoming bus, or at least scrape off the side of the door on the median. How did grown-up people control so many variables simultaneously, I wondered.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Dad told me.

That’s how.

“Only on the road.”

I focused on Taymil Road, intently, like an Air Force pilot. Like a really happy Air Force pilot. My hands clung in the requisite formation. I was a good driver, for the most part. I made smooth turns, I kept the straight-aways steady. I crept up on the yellow line a bit, but attributed that to height, or the lack of it. Anyway, the route home from the point of takeover involved three right turns, one left curve, a left into the driveway and up the hill into the garage. Years earlier, my brother sent me down the incline in a red metal fire engine. “Pick up your feet,” he yelled, as the truck gathered speed on the descent, crossed the street and careened into the far curb. We did not consider the possibility of traffic on Rollling Way. Maybe, we didn’t think I’d really make it to the other side, physics being what it is when you are six. Fortunately, we escaped any sort of vehicular accident, though I remember banging my kneecap on the fake glove compartment that did not open. I do not remember driving the fire engine again after my brother propelled me into the road.

Dad held the wheel more securely on the way up. I angled subtly, then straightened out, positioning the Electra’s enormous hood under the shelf that held the beach chairs. Finally, I removed the key, stretched out the emergency brake and went inside to do my homework. The entire trip took only three minutes. Sometimes, I lobbied for an extra whirl around our block, which doubled the duration and added two legitimate intersections, four stop signs and one pedestrian walkway.

My mother did not like that I drove. She did not permit such activity in the Chevy Monza. In retrospect, it would have made better sense to have learned steering techniques in her car, given its tiny construction. It might have been a more suitable first car, size-wise. I didn’t always tell her that I drove home from Mrs. Rubenstein’s house. I don’t think my father did, either. 

Hang On a Sec, I Have to Crash

Today, hundreds of pages of research on the dangers of cell phone use by drivers will be released. It seems that the studies, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, were completed in 2002-2003 but never made public.

Reports say the information, which shows enormous spikes in fatalities and accidents caused by people who talk on the phone when they drive, would have “angered Congress,” according to a piece in today’s New York Times. Not to mention the cell phone industry people. Chatting drivers are four times as likely to crash as responsible ones, whether they have two hands on the wheel or not, according to the study. They react as if they had a blood alcohol content of .08. In 2002, 955 people died and 240,000 accidents occurred because someone couldn’t wait until they got home, or pull over to the side of the road, to make a very important phone call.

Seven years ago, it was estimated that six percent of all drivers are occupied on the phone at a given time. I bet that figure is much higher today.

Where we live, you will be ticketed by a police officer if you use your phone in a designated area surrounding a school. That is something, but not nearly enough. When the law was first enacted, a car was stopped on every block.


That is all I have to say.