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Cruising With Suzanne

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Suzanne Vega learns to drive, lives to tell the tale, and writes about it in today’s NY Times:

    And I really wanted a driver’s license. I was 43, had my learner’s permit and had failed the test once already – but that was in Riverhead, on Long Island. I’m an urban girl. This time, I would learn how to drive in the city. My city.

    But my quest, like driving in New York (and like life), was full of stops and starts, unexpected dead ends and mysterious spirals (like the streets of Greenwich Village). In the end, my pursuit of the elusive New York State driver’s license became about much more than a divorced woman’s learning to drive for the first time.

    I recently moved back to my old neighborhood, near 102nd Street and Broadway, where I lived from 1967 to 1979, and I decided I would learn to drive there. It was strange, rolling down the very roads where I had taken my first small steps away from home. We moved to 102nd Street when I was 7, and I remember crossing Broadway for the first time. It was as big as an ocean. I remember learning to navigate the neighborhood in concentric circles – you can go around the corner to the grocery store to get Daddy’s cigarettes, but you can’t go across any streets. O.K., you can cross four streets to get to your friend’s house, but you can’t go down to 96th Street. Eventually, I could walk to school on 97th Street, several blocks from my house.

    How weird it was to drive streets I knew so well. What a different perspective. I could rumble down streets I would have been too afraid to walk on, especially as a kid. Now I zipped past everyone, and everyone was a pedestrian. There were lots of them. Big ones, too. I didn’t hit any, even the slow ones who took their time strolling though the intersection when I had to turn right.

    My first lesson last fall was given by Mr. R., an elderly, gentle Puerto Rican man. I got in the car, an old beat-up Toyota, and started it up. He smiled encouragingly.

    “Let’s just go forward,” he said. “Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous. Make a left here.”

    ….We work on parallel parking. For days that’s all we do: me, Nelson, the car and the curb. There is a formula, a parallel parking geometry, if you will:

    Pull up to the car you want to park behind. Indicate right. Line up the wheel of your car with the front tire of the car next to you. Try to be parallel and not sticking out. Rotate the steering wheel one full revolution to the right. Put the car in reverse. Look behind you and try not to depend on your mirrors while the car is in motion. When your right mirror has lined up with the left rear taillight of the car in front of you, cut the wheel the other way, turn it left as far as it will go. Slide into the space without hitting the curb, or the car in front of you, or the car in back of you, or the garbage on the sidewalk.

    Nelson doesn’t even open the door. He is cracking himself up laughing. “Well, you paralleled, but you didn’t park.”

    The formula has failed, or I have failed the formula. I am indeed parallel, but nowhere near the curb. I am about three feet away. For an hour I try. And fail.

    Then Nelson says: “You just touched that man’s BMW. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

    ….I explained to him that I wasn’t going to let those two ladies get ahead of me. Nelson throws his head back and laughs.

    “You’re competitive,” he says. “I like that.”

    The morning of the test arrives, bright, clear. I wonder if I will pass this time? I show up for my warm-up lesson. Nelson confides that the job is getting to him. He puts his life at risk every day, and he’s only getting $10 an hour. His dream is to be a truck driver. A truck driver? He has never been outside New York except to go to Puerto Rico and back. I imagine him on a highway, droning through the Midwest somewhere, and wonder what he would think of the huge flatlands, all that open space.

    “What’s horrible is how you’re driving today,” he says.

    Oh.

    “Your problem is you got to observate, and that’s not something I can teach you. If you keep your head on your head you should do O.K. But I can’t teach you to observate.”

    With that endorsement ringing in my ears, I’m ready for Yonkers, ready to face the test again.

It’s long, funny, clever and I have a much better sense of who Suzanne Vega is – I won’t give away her driving fate. I can particularly relate to her story because my son finishes up his driving insturction this week, then goes for his first license. Of course, he’s 16 and Vega is 44, but driving is driving.

We reviewed Vega’s very fine Retrospective collection here.

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About Eric Olsen