I grew up in New York City, where even then there wasn’t much point in having a car. The driving age was 18, and I remember being shocked when, at not quite 16, I visited my cousins in Denver and found out that their high school had a parking lot. For students. My high school in Brooklyn didn’t have a parking lot for teachers. Even the principal didn’t have a parking space. So I finished high school and went off to college without knowing how to drive.
How a deus ex machina saved me from driver ed.
That’s not quite true; we spent summers at my grandmother’s country house in Yorktown Heights, and my father taught me to drive our VW Beetle: clutch up, gas down, and on the few occasions when I didn’t stall, there I was, going…in first. I think I got up to second once. But I was scared of traffic and embarrassed to make mistakes. And in the city I could get anywhere I wanted on the subway. I was in no hurry to learn to drive.
Then I had a girlfriend in Albany. Yes, I could get there by bus, but it was a very long walk, with a lot of uphill, to her house. And she could drive. Now the embarrassment ran in the other direction. My parents found a driver ed class I could take in the summer, at the Brooklyn Academy. This was, if I remember correctly, a low-prestige private school occupying the attic of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That, of course, still exists in the same location, which is now the cultural center of a gloriously revived Brooklyn, but the private school seems to be gone. Still terrified of actually getting behind the wheel of a car on an actual street, I showed up in the poorly-lit hallways of the Academy on the first day and found my class.
It was awful. The teacher droned and recited lists and hectored and clearly would rather be somewhere else. The other students were rowdy and were probably there only because they were dead set on driving, which I was not. The curriculum was boring. I was not looking forward to the first session in a car. I walked out after class, wondering how I was going to survive this and if there was any way to get out of it. I needed a deus ex machina.
Did I mention that this was the sixties? And my parents were spending the summer in the south of France with my younger brothers. At almost 19, I was responsible enough (they thought) to stay home on my own, with the housekeeper coming in each day in case I made a mess that needed to be cleaned up. Which I don’t remember ever doing. Then again, I don’t remember buying food or cooking, so I’m not sure how I survived. What I do remember is that, since I was over 18 and wanted to look cool, and it was the sixties, I decided to let my mustache grow out.
I walked down the dim hallway of the Brooklyn Academy after class, and the deus ex machina called out to me. It was the principal. “I think you need a shave.” How could he tell, in that light? “I don’t think so,” I replied. It turned out there was a rule against facial hair. When I got home, I typed out a letter to the principal explaining that the rule hadn’t been disclosed in advance, and detailing the services I had used. They could claim the non-refundable registration fee and one class’s worth of tuition. I had paid the full fee. They owed me the difference, since I wasn’t coming back to class. A couple of weeks later, I got a check in the mail for the exact amount I had claimed.
Meanwhile, learner’s permit in hand, I was invited to accompany my girlfriend and her mother, brother, and sister on a long road trip from Albany to Door County, Wisconsin, to meet their cousins who were visiting from England. Until we entered Canada at Buffalo, I was legally able to drive their car. The upstate Thruway was a lot easier to drive on than the streets of Brooklyn. And my girlfriend’s mother, who later for nearly 40 years was my mother-in-law, proved a kind and patient teacher. When I returned to Brooklyn a couple of weeks later, I passed my road test. And that is how, because of a mustache, I learned to drive from my future mother-in-law. And I still drive stick.