Posted on April 15, 2016
Walk on By
You can take the A train. I, however, prefer to drive. It’s part of the double helix of my DNA…the molecular structure based on growing up in California. That and the fact that except for the sporadic Saturday excursions to the miles-from-home shopping district via the local Greyhound Bus, I knew nothing first hand about public transit.
She’s About a Mover
What separated our suburban village from the great urban sprawl known as Oakland was a mountain, which was about two miles thick. Now this East Bay alp has 4 bores through the rock to hasten commuters from the hinterlands into the more-or-less metropolitan communities close to San Francisco. But back in my day, only two holes served up the traffic. One eastbound, the other toward the west. It was through these restricted passageways into domestic enclaves that fathers flew home in the evening or trundled off to work in the morning. The burrow was only just wide enough to allow the Greyhound Bus to move through it. This bus carried in it a full load of domestic workers who were coughed up on the village side of the tunnel each and every weekday morning. Housewives would be waiting in their cars to drive their employees to their place of work—one of any number of homes in my neighborhood. The bus was the only form of transportation that African Americans, as far as I knew, were allowed to take into my hometown. Once, in high school, a progressive American history teacher of mine had invited members of the Black Panther Party to address our afternoon class of 11th graders. The Panthers did not show, however. As it turns out, the car carrying them was stopped on the east side of the tunnel and told by the cops to turn back to Oakland. The borderline was clearly drawn and more deeply entrenched than that mountain. That history teacher was not invited back to teach either.
I Was in the Right Place, But It Must Have Been The Wrong Time
I’ll Take You There
What conveyance took me through the tunnel, of course, was quite different from the bus. It was my family’s car. My working parents commuted to Oakland, and they brought me with them each morning—depositing me in a private school miles away from home. Usually, it was in the car, with my father driving, that school lessons were reviewed as were accounts of my father’s exploits on the golf course. My mother’s ever enthusiastic review of the previous evening’s baseball game was hashed out. Later, when my mother’s health became more and more tenuous and she could no longer work (and I was still in elementary school), my father used these morning commutes to teach me, through parables, what he was certain would be of use for a lifetime of gentility and decorum. To wit: A spoken word is like an elephant’s tusk; once it is out, you cannot push it back in. Or, Everyone has a positive quality that sets him or her apart. You must find that quality in everyone. Or, always smile when you cross the path of someone. It is contagious.
Pulling up outside my formidable school grounds with its brown-shingled exterior and yawning expanses of lawn, I tumbled out of the car clutching my metal lunch box and a heap of anxiety swaddled in dread about how I was to apply these yarns into my daily life. Again today, I thought, I would be fending off the bully who relished pushing me into the water fountain as I slurped. Maybe this is the day I will try smiling when the teacher hits me on the knuckles with a ruler because I can’t quiet my nervous fingers long enough to draw straight lines. I preferred my mom’s musings about Willie Mays or Felipe Alou on our drives to school. I missed her and her lack of allegorical dialogue. She provided plenty of juicy distractions and no lessons about how to be a good girl in my challenging everyday world. A world that seemed galaxies away from the one my father believed I lived in.
You Make Me Wanna Shout
I spent so much time in cars that it was inevitable that more and more of my life lessons were first experienced within those 4 doors. It was while sitting in the back seat of a neighbor’s car that I first felt the bracing sting of anti-Semitism. By now, I was motherless, attending school near my house and at the mercy of a number of friends who graciously offered up their own moms to schlepp me around. On this particular journey, my young blonde friend seated next to me mentioned that Stuart, a kid in our class, made her mad for some reason. “He’s just a dirty little Jew,” she said looking at me as she bounced on the seat of the car. “Oh,” she continued, “Not you, though. You’re just fine—I really like you.” Bounce. Bounce. Although at that moment we shared a back seat in this car, we no longer would share anything else…ever again. I had no parable wisdom from my dad to draw upon, so I looked into the rearview mirror and straight into the eyes of my friend’s mother for a lifeline. She stared back into my reflection and offered up nothing. Her eyes conveyed a sorrow that seemed less directed toward me and more about her young daughter who had managed to absorb hate, distrust, and vehemence at such a tender age. Sadly, the mother missed a chance to teach a lesson in acceptance and tolerance by remaining silent. My father would never have kept his council. I know without a doubt what he would have said. It would not have been polite. And, she would have stopped bouncing.
What’s Going On?
Get Your Motor Running…Head Out On the Highway
My first car was a boxy, yellow Toyota Corona that was the toast of my high school. I don’t remember anyone else in my school getting a new car from their parents. My father said that because of the dearth of public transportation, he preferred I have my own wheels to drive myself around when he couldn’t. There was a momentary blush of embarrassment on my end, but the new-found popularity as a result of owning my own car was so worth it. I remember two things about this car: When I took delivery of the car, the entire inside was wrapped in plastic like a package of hamburger from Safeway’s meat department. There were sheets of plastic wrapping the door panels and the seats; the floor of the car was blanketed with this wrappage. I spent days pulling out strips of the stuff. At stop signs, where today one might check one’s texts, I was using the time and my nails to extract even more plastic I had found from crevices underneath the windows or around the glove box. The second thing I learned about having my own car was that boys and girls were treated very differently by the judicial system. In other words, I discovered that at the age of 16, I was not only a new and therefore inexperienced driver, I was also a burgeoning feminist.
Born To Be Wild
My first (and get this: to date, my ONLY) moving violation was for passing a school bus while its red lights were flashing. I had to appear in court only weeks after acquiring my driver’s license. In the courtroom were other delinquents: boys who drove while drunk, drove without a license, drove a STOLEN car, ran through a red light and one who drove about 100 miles per hour in a 15 mile-per-hour zone. Dismissed. Dismissed. Dismissed. Cautioned. My violation was read aloud, and I was asked to stand before the judge. His honor said that I was to have my license revoked for 6 weeks. Blatantly sexist but not having the right parable for an appropriate are-you-kidding-me response, I smiled and thanked the judge. By now, I was a helluva good smiler.
I Am Woman Hear Me Roar
As I got older, the life lessons while driving continued although they became more experiential and far less dogmatic. I learned how to smoke in a 1967 VW bug; I became reasonably good at kissing thanks to parking in some guy’s car on Donald Drive; I understood the value of sharing heartaches and breakups as tears were shed while driving with my best friends to Stinson Beach. Equally, I grasped the valuable knowledge that laughing with these same friends while we mimicked teachers, parents, and other friends on the way to see Santana at the Fillmore could be therapeutic—and crazy fun. Amazingly, we were able to keep our (often pupil-dilated) eyes on the road.
¿Oye Como Va?
Eventually, my car trunk was bulging with belongings as I drove myself to college. And, again, when I moved into apartments, and then moved out and into other apartments. It was in a car where I proposed to my husband as we waited for the light to change at the corner of Divisadero and California Streets. Yes, you read that right.
Besame Mucho was playing on the radio and became our song.
And, then, one day my car’s back seat held two children’s car seats, their adorable if messy and sticky occupants, and bundles of stuffed animals, puzzles, pacifiers, and other detritus of early childhood and desperate parents. The adjacent windows were dotted with stickers of superheroes and fish. Driving was often the only way to get those little boys to fall asleep. Some days, I would strap them in the car and drive around the block just to get some quiet time to myself before stealthily removing them from their straps and lugging them to their beds. Baby Beluga played while I repeated familiar parables from my father to my sons about how to deal with their own water-fountain bullies. For 3 years, no drive to preschool was attempted without the car’s cassette player pumping out the soundtrack to “Cocktail.”
Aruba, Jamaica…Girl I Wanna Take Ya
As the boys grew, the conversations intensified but were made possible because no direct eye contact was involved. Girlfriends, sex, grades, drugs…all discussed while I turned my head to look into the left ear of my son; or he toward my placid (dare I say non-judgmental) profile.
Son, You’re Gonna Drive me to Drinkin’ If You Don’t Stop Driving That Hod Rod Lincoln
Back in time I now motor. Back to my girlhood neighborhood. There, across the street from me, lived my little friend, Rita, who had an uncanny ability to hear a car’s engine and determine the make and model and often the year of that vehicle…without laying eyes on the car itself. She could tell from a throaty engine if the car was a Buick or a Cadillac; if the engine ran rich, she’d yell out, “Ford Fairlane.” “Wait! No, it’s an Oldsmobile Delta 88.” That was a talent that eluded me. But then, I could recite a parable without a second thought. Just the right one for a drive in a classic, purring Thunderbird, perhaps. A moral to be learned while driving in a Lincoln Continental? I’ve got it. And, probably I could think of the perfect song to accompany it. Sadly, though, I no longer have the cassette.
Why would anyone want a car that can drive itself?
I Can See For Miles and Miles and Miles and…