Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jimmy Gets His License

In the 1950s, just like today, every teen aged guy's dream (well, maybe in second place on the teen aged guy dream list) was to get a driver's license. It was embarrassing to pick up your date and head for the subway or the bus stop...not exactly guaranteed to move you up the cool scale in your date's eyes. Let's face it, all the really cool guys in the neighborhood drove great cars. Even a dweeb could get girls if he had a hot car. I remember an older guy named "Spike" who was baby-faced, chubby and crew cut, not exactly a James Dean lookalike, but he drove a sleek, yellow and black Mercury with skirt fenders, illuminated wheel wells, and of course the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. What red-blooded girl could resist.

When I turned 17, there was no such thing as "Drivers Ed" in high schools. My father never got his driver's license, so where was I going to learn? I decided to try a driving school, and found one on Pitkin Avenue. It was a small, storefront operation that was run by one guy. When he was out giving lessons, he locked the place up until he got back. I don't remember what he charged, but it couldn't be much. The driving school's "fleet" consisted of one car, a '57 light blue and white Dodge sedan the size of a 747; its tail fins were actually bigger than a 747's.

The lesson was supposed to last an hour, but the owner of the school was going through a nasty divorce from his wife, and the minute we pulled away from the curb, he started ranting about what a tramp she was and how he never should have married her. This was not a short gripe session, but a full-blown, psychotic rant. I really didn't need him to teach me how to drive, so I just kept going, with us often winding up in Long Island. We'd get back a couple of hours later, the driving instructor felt better after venting about his no-good wife, and I got in a couple of solid hours practice on the big Dodge.

When I was ready to take my driver's test, the instructor met me at the test site, which I think was at the deserted end of Pennsylvania Avenue where Starrett City is now located. The applicants lined up at the curb waiting for the test administrator to call their names and go out for their road test. There was a space at the curb of maybe 50 yards between the cars returning from their tests, and behind them, the cars still waiting to pull out for theirs. I was second in line to be called. The test administrator got into the car immediately in front of mine. The driver of the car floored the accelerator, covered that 50 yard gap in a flash, and rear-ended the car in front of him. The test administrator calmly got out, wrote something on the lunatic's test application form, and cooly waved me up. I guess those guys had seen it all.

I did better than the guy before me. I signalled for turns, kept both hands on the wheel at "10 and 2" executed a perfect U-turn and finished with a flawless parallel park. They weren't supposed to tell you if you passed or not, but the test administrator, relieved I guess that I didn't crash the car, said: "You did OK kid". I was beside myself with joy. The two weeks or so it took for that license to come in the mail seemed like forever. When it arrived, I was overjoyed; no more subway dates. Well except for one small detail...I now had a license, but no car. This was a mere technicality, as I soon talked my unsuspecting father into going halves with me on a new '61 Chevy Impala. 

Kids today start taking Driver's Ed at age 16 or earlier, and Daddy usually provides them with a car by the time they graduate high school. It's almost an entitlement in their minds. They could never understand what having a car meant to us back then. We washed it every Saturday, waxed it under the el where it was shady, and tricked it out with any accessories we could afford. The car became an extension of our personality, not just transportation, but a magic carpet that carried us to exotic places filled with wondrous things we never saw much in the neighborhood, like trees. If you don't believe me, go to a classic car show and ask any owner to tell you about his "baby". Be prepared to stay a while.

(Originally posted 9/6/09)


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

When "Joey" got his license, the first thing he did was get a long list from mom, and go to the supermarket!

Jim Pantaleno said...

You're a good boy Joey.

The Whiner said...

That sounds like "Matthew luck" to get a guy in front of you who crashes the car at the driver's test. Perhaps Matthew luck is really just inherited Jimmy luck. I love the driving teacher story!

p.s. What's first on a teenage guy's dream list?